Branded Content in the Social Realm with BuzzFeed and General Electric

Here’s the good news: your content-marketing strategy is based on a wealth of positive precedents. And venerable companies are moving into branded content with vigor and finding success.

Among the folks saying this, Jonathan Perelman of Buzzfeed and Katrina Craigwell of General Electric sat down with Contently co-founder Shane Snow for a discussion of what’s happening in the content world.

Shane Snow, Jonathan Perelman, Katrina Craigwell and Brandon Carter at the meetup.

Perelman is Buzzfeed’s vice president of Agency Strategy and Industry Development. Craigwell is the lead for digital content at GE. The Content Conversations Meetup session was held at Outbrain‘s Manhattan headquarters on Jan. 23.

The panel examined how GE is making the journey from old-school advertising into a branded-content world.

Taking the Content ‘Train’ to the Audience

What moves the needle, when it comes to consumers, an audience, and content marketing? Responsiveness and real-world interaction, said GE’s Craigwell.

GE is striving to tell stories that emphasize to consumers that its products and services are tangible everyday things — not just jet engines and huge pieces of hardware. Take, for example, its popular recent train campaign.

“At the end of last year we powered the CSX train that takes Tropicana orange juice from Florida to New Jersey,” Craigwell said. “And it’s a gorgeous route …  we shot a beautiful time-lapse video of the Eastern seaboard, some awesome music, and we were really amazed. We reached out to rail fans and they were really engaged.

“We found this community,” she said. “They love locomotives. They spot trains. And we had them come out and be a part of the shoot, and be a part of of the route. That was a big one for us.”

GE took a risk and added the rail tale to YouTube, where commenters can be notoriously tough on just about anything they watch.

“We were really excited to see that people were actually commenting on the route itself,” said Craigwell. “And saying things like: you cut out this six hours of track and we know there’s an extended cut! For us that’s really, really important. It means, through the content strategy and the optimization strategy — thinking about distribution on YouTube — we’re actually reaching the right audience.”

Craigwell also said that Tumblr is becoming more and more indispensable to optimizing the way that GE’s content reaches new communities of potential sharers. And crucial to the way these online content moves are happening in a progressive way, said Craigwell, is that branded content gets support on the inside.

“I think we’re very lucky because we have support from the top,” Craigwell said. “It’s very hard to do this without it. Beth Comstock, our CMO, has always been kind of five steps in front of us … her support says that GE is a large company going in this direction that is really important.”

The Scientology Factor

Of course, the way one publisher promoted branded content got a bit ugly earlier this month — when The Atlantic‘s sponsored Scientology advertorial created a dust-up with online readers.

Atlantic editors took the piece down on Jan. 14, and offered an apology for it. The question of fallout still percolated late in the session at Outbrain.

Buzzfeed’s Perelmen questioned whether the decision-makers involved in pulling the trigger on publishing the piece in the first place “had an understanding of who is the reader of The Atlantic, and is that [sponsored article] something that was native? The unit [sponsored content] was native, but is the content native to The Atlantic? I think — my personal opinion — that’s where they missed.”

Contently’s Snow wrote about the event for the Nieman Journalism Lab on Jan. 17.

“I think one the factors is advertiser-publication fit,” Snow said, speaking about it further, at the Jan. 23 forum. “That was kind of a weird fit for that audience. And, well, Scientology has a tough time … but a critical editorial distance was missing from that story. They could have sponsored a story about happiness — which is something Scientology believes in — but instead they sponsored a story about how Scientology is awesome. And that upset some readers.”

Brandon Carter, marketing manager at Outbrain, also weighed in. His point encapsulated an underlying concept about branded content and what readers are willing to encounter — regardless of who’s making it on the brand’s end.

“It didn’t really add value to The Atlantic‘s audience, either by way of entertainment or by way of education,” Carter said. “It was clearly only a press release for Scientology. Audiences are already aware that sponsored posts are coming from advertisers, but if the content itself is essentially an advertisement … that’s where I think advertisers need to be careful, for their own good … the advertiser stands to lose by not creating a good content experience.”

Top image courtesy of Erica Swallow.

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