Branded content is a major revenue driver for publishers. The importance of branded content is demonstrated by the recent trend of publishers forming content studios, like The New York Times’ T Brand Studio and The Washington Post’s WP BrandStudio. These studios are like advertising agencies: They create content that connects brands with the publisher’s audience.

Branded content = creative pricing, creative traffic generation

In theory, branded content is a win-win for both publishers and advertisers. For brands, branded content is a very effective way to get their message out to targeted audiences in a non-intrusive way. For publishers, branded content helps them regain some of the advertising revenue they have lost to marketing platforms such as Google and Facebook.

Recently, publishers have been finding ways to creatively increase the revenue generated by branded content campaigns. One way has been to charge for a pre-determined number of pageviews for a campaign. It is generally appealing for brands to know how much reach they will get for their content. Sometimes this charge is baked into the overall cost of a campaign, and sometimes it is treated as an incremental line item.

However, delivering the expected pageviews is not always easy. Generating traffic to branded content is difficult because –

  • Branded content is not searched for often, because the topics associated with branded content are typically not news-y.
  • Publishers drive traffic internally to branded content from their homepage or other ad units, but the branded content has to compete with other types of content that may justify precious home page real estate, or lower ad rates.

The challenges of using Facebook to distribute promoted content

Social channels, Facebook in particular, are generally great for generating traffic to content. However, the distribution of branded content has proved tricky.

Until recently, posting branded content on a publisher’s Facebook page was against Facebook’s policy. This was due to the lack of transparency: A user who saw a post of a branded content story in their Facebook feed had no way of knowing that they were actually seeing an ad. This was in contrast to paid posts that are clearly marked in Facebook as “sponsored posts.”

To get around this issue and to achieve the pre-determined pageview commitment, some publishers opened a separate Facebook page clearly marked for branded content, and often specifically marked stories as “sponsored” in their headlines. They would then pay for posts to be “boosted” within Facebook. This approach was quite profitable for publishers, since they could charge advertisers more than what they were paying Facebook, which advertisers could not see.

Why Facebook’s policy change can harm publisher’s revenue

All of this changed in April when Facebook announced a change in policy towards branded content. Publishers are now allowed to post branded content to their Facebook page as long as the posts are clearly tagged as branded content, using a new branded content tool from Facebook. When such a branded content post is published, the advertiser will be notified of the post and can access high-level post insights, including engagement and reach metrics, along with total spend and CPM data. Advertisers also have the option of sharing and boosting the post themselves.

For publishers, this means they can now leverage their massive Facebook organic reach to drive traffic to branded content destinations. But… advertisers now have visibility into how their branded posts are performing and how much is being spent to drive traffic. So, publishers will no longer be able to charge a premium for pageviews, like they have been doing.

Ultimately, Facebook’s policy change and new tool is a good thing for branded content initiatives. Publishers, however, will now have to extend their value-add to the actual results of a campaign, rather than just focus on content creation and reach.