If ever there was a buzzword in marketing, “branded content” tops the charts. Experts argue about what exactly branded content is, and, as people like to say on Facebook: “it’s complicated.”

As part of the Defining Branded Content for the Digital Age’ research project, the Branded Content Marketing Association (BCMA) commissioned the following definition from Oxford Brookes University and Ipsos MORI:

“Branded content is any content that can be associated with a brand in the eye of the beholder.”

I think we can all agree that branded content — whether that be a blog post, video, commercial, or social media update — is designed to encourage an audience to trust a brand.

Now, branded content is nothing new. Print magazines (remember those?) included what they called “advertorials:” glossy, informative articles urging readers to book a vacation in Bermuda, buy a weight loss supplement, or indulge in a particular wine. Now in the digital world, we’ve expanded beyond just articles to fine-tune what our audience wants through great content in many forms.

Whereas the former iteration of branded content was little more than shameless product placement, today’s version takes the modern customer into mind, and strives (when done right) to not only introduce a consumer to a brand, but also inform her as to why it’s worth her time and money.

But Why Does it Matter?

Isn’t branded content just one more channel to use in the never-ending slog of reaching new customers? Not exactly. There’s an unbelievable amount of content out there, and much of it is poorly written or unreliable. When brands invest the time and money to create authentic branded content, they’re establishing themselves as trusted authorities in their verticals. If they do it well, people will share it, helping them reach an even larger audience.

We know advertising typically doesn’t work. There’s simply no reason for consumers to trust in your brand simply because you bought a banner ad on a website. So how do you build that trust? By providing useful, contextual content.

In Carlton Doty’s Advertising Age article linked above, he talks about the importance of context:

“Enter the contextual marketing engine: a brand-specific platform that exploits customer context to deliver utility and guides the customer into the next best interaction.”

So not only is this content relevant, but it’s also exactly what the customer needs for a given problem.

The Difference Between Branded Content and Advertising

Ads focus on the features of a product. They use emotion to play with people’s minds and make them think they’ve got to have that $2,000 watch, new sports coupe, or hottest fashion trend. But people aren’t stupid,and they’re onto the ploy.

What consumers really want is to see the benefits of a brand. What will it do for them? How will it improve their lives? Understanding that brands care about features, where customers care about benefits is essential to succeed with branded content.

Branded content engages an audience so that they care about your brand, want to learn more about it, and are more likely to make a purchase. It can do that through education or entertainment.

Here’s a lighthearted example of entertaining content: Friskies partnered with Buzzfeed to launch its “Dear Kitten” video series. While the videos aren’t blatantly advertising cat food, they are establishing their brand in the minds of the millions of people who watch and share the videos.

How to Succeed with Branded Content

There’s a fine line between creating branded content that is aspirational as well as attainable. Yes, you want your audience to feel, after consuming your content, that buying into your brand will somehow improve their lives. But you also don’t want to set it so high that they feel it’s impossible, or that it’s for another demographic other than them.

You want your audience to think, “I can do this. I can take this trip. I can buy this product.”

So how do you balance between attainability and aspiration? It’s all about knowing your audience and what triggers they respond to. Emotion is always a good one, as well as storytelling where people can place themselves into your story.

Trends in Branded Content

Written articles are valuable, but the more immersive the branded content experience, the more likely your audience is to return. Mobile apps, while slightly less red hot in popularity as they were a few years ago, are still a way to deliver a branded, contextual experience.

Look at Starbucks’ new Coffee Passport mobile page. With it, Starbucks customers can take notes on brews, save favorites, and learn about the beans that the brand uses. There’s value, and they’re not selling anything (though you do have to buy a cup of coffee to benefit).

But before you jump on the mobile wave, make sure your audience is there. It’s important to match the platform with your demographic. If they’re on social media, which sites (not all of them)? How do they like to consume information? The more you know about your customer, the better the branded content experience you can deliver.

Social media is a wonderful delivery channel for your branded content. Consider using Twitter chats to brand your own hashtag and drive people to an online event around a particular topic.

If you know your audience responds to videos, create an informative series and post them both to your website and to YouTube to maximize views.

Create in-person events that entertain and engage your audience. For example, you can hold a customer appreciation event with a wine tasting experience or sneak peek at upcoming products.

If you do branded content correctly, you can just stand back and let the magic happen once you create it. But remember: it takes constant effort to stay relevant and provide value that your audience can’t find anywhere else.