Sponsorship Goes Back to School

As Aristotle said, the roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet. Well, what if the fruit is paid for by a large company that wants you to eat from their produce section? We like to think of our education as neutral, but it’s not. Sometimes, religious, political, and corporate influences seep into our textbooks.

Are these influences acceptable if students are aware of what’s going on? Brands may be able to teach consumers about topics related to their products without coming off as partisan hustlers. Below, we dissect two recent case studies highlighting the pros and cons of educational brand sponsorships.

Banking advice from a commercial bank

Khan Academy partnered with Bank of America to create “Better Money Habits,” a series of animated video lessons on personal finance topics such as credit, personal saving, and home buying. When published correctly, financial advice can be a great way to generate positive brand awareness. Everyone wants to make — or keep — more money, but plenty of people were never taught about complex economic concepts.

In terms of storytelling design, Bank of America created a simple and accessible center for financial education. The cartoons have catchy animations, flow at a steady pace, and break down the esoteric concepts into digestible nuggets.

However, even though the lessons are presented in a pretty package, they also fall into the common branded-content trap of being too self-serving. As University of Massachusetts, Amherst economics professor Nancy Folbre points out in The New York Times, the lessons promote financial practices that would benefit Bank of America more than its consumers. The videos don’t have authors, and instead seem to be narrated by an anonymous voice somehow attached to Bank of America. This prompts confusion and discourages follow-up dialogue because consumers have no way of responding or engaging with the content.

“In general, it’s a good idea to turn to a source that doesn’t stand to gain from its own advice,” Folbre writes. But brands who have valuable advice to offer can sidestep these issues by putting all their chips, dollars, and cents right on the table. Transparency is a must, especially when it comes to money, since consumers are always skeptical of deals or information coming from biased sources.

As this example shows, corporate sponsors need to be wary when producing content that might be too much of a hard sell.

Harvard, brought to you by …

EdX, an MOOC founded by MIT and Harvard University, recently teamed with Harvard to offer CS50, an introductory programming course open to anyone with Internet access. The course yields a worthwhile user experience — excellent instruction, a flawless website, and even class swag available in the Harvard bookstore.

Where the class ultimately gets tricky is in the sponsorship. How does one sponsor a Harvard class, you ask? Terms are not made public, but a university spokesperson said the companies might donate equipment, provide direct financial support, or offer internships. In return, many are given a position to recruit at a computer science career fair on campus. These types of arrangements have a long history in university STEM departments (such as this Autodesk collaboration), where companies trade resources in return for access to talent.

The downside to academic sponsorship comes from companies competing against each other for visibility. The CS50 class has about a dozen sponsoring companies — including Amazon, Microsoft, Google, and Facebook — all eager to draft Harvard’s brightest computer science geeks onto their respective teams. Compare that to Bank of America’s partnership with Khan Academy, where the educational information comes from one clear source.

Judging by recent trends in online education, smart content creators will have to balance personalization and open engagement to make their courseware shine. We all want to learn, brands just have to make sure their classrooms stay transparent.

What’s the deal with the Content Strategist? At Contently, storytelling is the only marketing we do, and it works wonders. It could for you, too. Learn more.

Image by Don Harder

Get better at your job right now.

Read our weekly newsletter to master content marketing. It’s made for marketers, creators, and everyone in between.

Trending stories