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The Art and Science of Great Branded Content

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To build important companies, the best people live in the future and then fix its problems.

-Paul Graham, founder of Y Combinator

Content marketing, branded content, native advertising...whatever you choose to call it, it has become one of the fastest growing parts of the advertising ecosystem. When created with a little art and sophistication it can surprise and delight readers, transcending traditional advertorials and becoming authentic, engaging editorial. Across the media industry, old-school publishers and digital natives are getting into the act.

So now that you've accepted 'native advertising' is hotter to advertisers than cronuts to Manhattan's hippest, let's see if we can shed some light on how to make it engaging - and still keep it classy.

Rule #1: Branded content is a spectrum - know where you fit. Advertisers, agencies and publishers aspire to create tasteful content, but making a fundamental choice upfront in the creative process will help content stay tasteful and also be effective. Decide if your brand needs to be featured outright in the content or if you can truly integrate seamlessly.

Rule #2: Each community has an established vernacular - so walk their talk. The word native reflects a shared goal by advertiser and publisher to give readers something that feels natural, not invasive. Language is a common framework to engage in dialogue, share ideas and discuss opinions. When creating content, format is language. Learn it, respect it and use it.

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Rule #3: Transparency is social currency. Transparency is your most valuable choice when engaging digital communities. It costs you nothing upfront and it's returns can be monumental. Transparency equals trust. And trust is reciprocated in the comments.

Rule #4: Let consumer data guide your content topic but allow passionate editors determine the point-of-view. Great content is a blend of data and creativity. As marketers and advertisers, lean on what you know - consumer trends, audience insights and customer feedback. Those can help you decide what you want your brand content to cover, it has to add value to the reader. But, the creativity...leave that to the editors. Their readers respect and trust their point-of-view, and you should too. It's your ticket to a captive audience.

Rule #5: People don't remember what you tell them, they remember how you make them feel (thanks Maya Angelou). Even when branded content is overt, if the message is clear and evokes emotion, readers will remember.

Rule #6: Don't overwork the idea, usually it's right with the readers. Don't think you need something that's never been done or is first to market. Read the digital magazines with audiences you want to reach - and see what engages the community. Then, be the one to give them more of what they love. It's a sure-fire win.

Rule #7: Don't starve a good idea. Beef it up with some paid media. One of the most common mistakes made by marketers is starving a good idea. That usually means tightening budgets so they are 'hyper-efficient' or pouring all your money into production hoping it will go viral (it won't). A better idea? Create accessible and affordable content that allows you to scale it to the right audience.

Aziz Hasan is director of creative development at Say Media. You can follow him on Twitter @ahzzzz .

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