In Branded Content Initiative, Squarespace And The Guardian Work Toward Authenticity And Better Distribution

SquareSpace GuardianFor branded content to be a success, it must hurdle two key challenges. First, it must be authentic, entertaining and relevant, and second, it must be distributed effectively.

Via a partnership with Guardian Labs, website design company Squarespace is attempting to do just that. The 39-part series “Side Hustle,” unfolding over Q4 2015 and Q1 of next year, features videos and stories about small-time entrepreneurs.

“When Red Bull pushed that guy out of the spaceship a few years ago, that set the bar high for everyone else,” said Chris Paul, VP of media and acquisition for Squarespace. “The biggest challenge to doing branded content well is authenticity and credibility.”

Distribution has also gotten easier in recent years because of platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Taboola, Outbrain and Flipboard.

“We’ve been using ad distribution technology and flipping it on its head and using it for content distribution,” Paul said. Being able to amplify reach and awareness with these platforms is making it easier for brands to run effective content programs with publishers.

On site, The Guardian Labs team maximizes reach and engagement by using the same content analytics as the editorial team to track engagement and performance. It constantly experiments to figure out where to place branded content on site in order to drive the most engagement, said Rachel Israel, EVP of Guardian Labs.

Offsite, The Guardian uses its own social media followings to promote the campaign. Beyond the usual suspects like Facebook, the news aggregation app Flipboard has generated good results.

A contest going along with the program will add user-generated content to the equation, asking people to add the hashtag #mysidehustle to Instagram photos to win coaching sessions from a fellow entrepreneur.

The social reactions and engagement generated by the branded content campaign gets fed back into the attribution models at Squarespace, which have grown in sophistication as the company has evolved from a targeting-focused, direct response marketer to one focused on driving broader awareness. In the past two years, it’s expanded from running in two channels to running in 22 channels, including hard-to-track channels like TV, radio and out-of-home.

“We definitely take a portfolio approach to the different marketing channels,” Paul said. “Some we expect to be very efficient and have a high ROI because they’re close to making a decision, but in many other cases [like this branded content initiative], we’re doing more to raise awareness – not only of who we are as a brand, but what people are doing with us.”

That’s where creating authentic content comes in. Finding the right stories for brands to tell is a passion point for Israel, who left the agency world searching for a more creative role. As the lead of Guardian Labs, she’s grown the branded content team from seven to 26 in seven months.

“It was a labor of love and very Guardian-ish,” Israel said of Squarespace’s “Side Hustle” campaign, meaning that the sponsored content was very similar to the type of stories the editorial team would write about.

“We knew from content we’ve done before that readers would really be engaged with this content,” she said, “and it fit with Squarespace’s strategy to engage new entrepreneurs who are millennials.”

Paul first heard of the idea for “Side Hustle” before he even joined Squarespace. During a pitch to the agency where he worked at the time, the Guardian mentioned the idea and thought it would be a good fit for a brand like Squarespace. It just so happened that Paul was about to make the jump to Squarespace, so he reached back out when he joined.

The evolution of that idea – reader first, and brands second – speaks to how the Guardian thinks about branded content.

The Guardian has a strict policy toward its branded content that helps guarantee that authenticity. The left-leaning newspaper, which posted many stories using Edward Snowden-leaked documents, won’t do branded content in certain categories.

“We had a big client that wanted to do a post around the energy efficiencies of fracking,” Israel said. “That’s not something the Guardian stands for, and it’s not something we think our readers will respond to, which is always the first thing we look at.”

Paul stands behind that mindset. He wants authentic content, which only works when both sides are thoughtful and mindful of how to reach consumers.

“As a marketer, it’s just as important to align your brand with the right topic area as it is to align with the publisher’s voice,” Paul advised.

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