Facebook set to foster popularity of branded content

Branded content was already becoming more attractive to many marketers and publishers trying to navigate the shoals of the online media ecosystem. Now, thanks to Facebook, it’s set to really take off. I think this sector will grow quickly, and in some interesting new directions.

At its annual conference, Facebook said it would allow publishers to include branded content in their Instant Articles posts, using a new tag and ad unit as part of broader efforts to encourage more high-quality content of all kinds, especially live video.

The changes provide a path for publishers to both tap the huge Facebook audience and, for the first time, make money doing it.

Done right, branded content can be hugely popular, especially when it leverages big brands alongside big TV personalities in smart and customized ways. Late-night shows have done a good job repurposing bits of their programs for sharing on YouTube and beyond, and that will continue.

But I think the next step for brands and smart humor shops such as the late-night shows will be to create more original content. Soon enough, at least some of these creative TV talents will begin working with brands to create entertaining programming that doesn’t have to run on their traditional TV show to have an impact.

Spanish-language Azteca is one example of a network building creative teams for branded content and exploring with brands the potential for such programming.

They’re not the only ones, either. Conan O’Brien had a huge online hit with his  “Clueless Gamer” video segment in February.

It posted on YouTube four days before this year’s NFL Super Bowl, and featured two of the game’s biggest stars, Denver’s Von Miller and Carolina’s Josh Norman. Part-way through, the trio added Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch, a star of the previous two Super Bowls who lives nearby.

Together, the four played a new release of Doom — a massively updated version of the pioneering 1990s game that debuted in mid-May. They also joked around, drank wine and wore silly fur hats. Gory game play and Conan’s comically incredulous responses were shown. Production values were modest: a hotel conference room, an Xbox One and big-screen TV, a bottle of wine and a wacky “Clueless Gamer” trophy.

The result: nearly 3.7 million views of the 7-minute video, with nearly 44,000 likes and 4,000 comments. For current Doom publisher Bethesda Softworks, it was a very good play three months ahead of the game’s release. And the exposure was further magnified when game vloggers weighed in with their own approving takes on the segment.

The segment came across as authentic, relaxed and hugely entertaining. It can stand on its own as a piece of content, pushing Doom for months to fans of first-person-shooter games, the NFL stars and Conan’s show.

Doom is woven throughout the piece. The only sales push comes at the end of the video, when O’Brien holds up the game’s box and says when it’s coming out. The end of the video also has a simple chyron acknowledging Bethesda paid “promotional considerations.”

That approach should work with Facebook too, which has signaled that it does not support “interruptive” advertising — pre-roll and mid-roll ads — in the video. Smart, funny branded content can keep fans watching for extended periods, as well as sharing it and talking about it.

Now imagine what happens when shareable branded video like this is also posted on a newly hospitable Facebook, where the Doom page already has 589,000 Likes. The results could be huge for brands, and for their creator/publisher partners.

As an industry, we’re just beginning to put all these pieces together. But as we do, branded content will become a powerful combination of creative messaging, smart partners and deep knowledge of our audiences. And that holds great promise for us all.