Pitching Branded Content Ideas That Get Brands Excited



If you’re a publisher just entering the branded content space, you probably understand how difficult it can be to come up with a really great idea that will excite the brand and your audience, without feeling like it’s already been done before. Maybe you look at the major publishers—The New York Times and Washington Posts of the world—and wonder how their branded content studios seem to keep cranking out such stunning concepts.

You’re in luck, because we’ve got answers. We chatted with some of the editors, strategists, and leaders of those studios to find out how they do it. Whether you’ve got an RFP sitting on your desk or you’re just having a more general conversation with a brand you love around how you could collaborate, here are a few things to keep in mind to come up with an idea that will make everyone excited.


Understand the Audience First

At its core, branded content is all about speaking to a target audience and then getting them to do something (like buy a product) or think about something differently (like associate a brand with a new idea). So, when you’re trying to come up with great content ideas, this is the place to start.

“The most important thing to understand—and this is true for doing this work in branded content, as well as for writing content in any form—is the audience,” agrees Adrian J. Hopkins, a former Business Development Strategist for the T Brand Studio at The New York Times. “Who are you trying to reach? Why should they care about this work? And how will this content add value to their lives?”

A brand may come to you with a super robust persona of exactly who they want to talk to—from millennials who live in a major city and like to stay up on the latest tech to moms who are returning to the workforce—but if they don’t paint a clear picture of who they’re trying to target, it’s up to you to do some digging. “Are they trying to reach influencers or everyday people? Are they trying to reach men or women? Are they trying to reach younger people or older people?” Wendy Hubbert, Creative Strategist for the WP BrandStudio at The Washington Post, shares just a few of the questions you probably want to ask the brand to better understand who they’re trying to talk to.

In a partnership with Nest, the T Brand Studio worked to attract an audience who cared about the safety of their homes and families by doing an investigative report of the fire hazards present in most modern homes. This provided valuable information to readers, while also attracting the type of audience likely to be interested in learning more about Nest fire alarms.

Branded content is all about speaking to a target audience and then getting them to do something

Then, you have to figure out how you can best reach that audience through the content you create, which means you have to know that audience incredibly well. That’s why, Hopkins shares, “we pay a lot of attention to who our audience is and what matters to them. We know every single data point imaginable about their demographics or their spend level or their geography.”

No matter how excited you are about a content partnership, it won’t be successful unless the target audience is also excited about it. So make sure you understand them deeply first.


Go With What You Know

When you’re pitching a big, exciting brand with an even bigger budget, it can be tempting to go to them with a sexy idea of something you’ve never done before. That’s what brands want, right?

Maybe. Sometimes, brands may approach you and want to take a risk and do something new and exciting. But the point there is, that’s a risk. You’ve never done it before, so you don’t know how it’s going to perform, or how well it’s going to engage that target audience. More often, brands want to know for sure that their marketing dollars are going to work before agreeing to give them to you, which is why it’s actually better to start your brainstorming with the work you’ve done before that has succeeded. “It’s harder to sell executions that you haven’t done before because you don’t have anything to show as an example,” agrees Annie Granatstein, the Head of WP BrandStudio at The Washington Post.

Knowing that election-related coverage is already well read amongst its readers, The Washington Post Brand Studio decided to work with that topic when developing content with Allstate.

Brands want to know for sure that their marketing dollars are going to work before agreeing to give them to you

So instead of sitting down with a blank whiteboard, Branded Content Consultant and Educator Melanie Deziel says, “You have to take a step back and ask yourself: What subset of our audience hits the target audience? What does that audience typically engage with on our site editorially? What kind of content are they used to seeing, sharing, and liking?”

Once you know what has excited that audience in the past, you can compare that to the message the brand is trying to get across and look for what Deziel fondly calls “the overlap.” Or, as Hubbert puts it, you have to figure out “how to bridge the gap between what they want to say and what our readers want to hear.”

That said, “you have hit a balance,” reminds Granatstein. “You don’t want to keep doing the same thing over and over.” Instead, start with what you know will work and then use that to inspire your next big idea.


Don’t Work in a Void

That said, you don’t want to totally ignore what’s going on in the industry around you. “You have to understand what the brand wants and what the audience wants, but then you have to kind of have an awareness of your world: like what’s going on in pop culture or technology or business? What are the things that people are talking about?” says Denise Burrell-Stinson, Content Director for the WP BrandStudio at The Washington Post.

Hubbert agrees that, to come up with a winning idea, it’s critical to understand the larger story that your partnership with them would fit into. “So if it’s an energy brand for example, what’s what’s going on in the world of energy?” she says. “What’s the context their message is going to be received in? What’s new? What’s interesting? What hasn’t been said or talked about? What’s a provocative area to explore? Then you can figure out how to put those puzzle pieces together into a concept.”

When working with research and development company Battelle, The Washington Post Brand Studio made sure to take into account the rising concern about national security, and chose to do a media-rich deep dive into the topic using Battelle’s unique expertise.

Not all winning ideas will work for you

This also applies to letting yourself get inspired by what other publishers and brands are doing in the content space. Not all of their winning ideas will work for you—again, you want this content to be something that fits with the rest of the work on your site—but you can look for new ways to approach your work with their help. “I definitely spend time looking at what’s being created in the market, and not just what other agencies and publishers are doing—some of the greatest stories are being told in Twitter threads from people you’ve never heard of,” agrees Hopkins. “I’m always looking for the thing that’s going to surprise me today.”


Sell What Makes You Special

Finally, in any idea you bring back to a brand, make sure it’s clear why you’re the one they have to do it with. “[Brands] want to know, if we come to you with these marketing dollars, what makes you different?” explains Burrell-Stinson. “You have to really constantly remind them about how you are able to distinguish yourself in what is becoming an increasingly crowded marketplace. What makes you special or unique? Can you not only make something compelling, but also make sure people see it? You have to really assure them that you are the full package deal.”

Identifying why you’re the one a brand should work with can feel intimidating, especially in a market where you could be competing with the likes of The New York Times and The Washington Post, but really think about why you can help this brand achieve its goal better than anyone else. “I talked to a friend who who publishes a magazine that’s specifically targeting queer men,” shares Hopkins. “Even though he may not have the 160 years of history that The Times does, he can make the case that he has deeper knowledge than anyone else on the planet about his audience, and that they trust him to give them good content.”

In the branded story that really put them on the map, the T Brand Studio relied on the New York Times’ deep history of investigative journalism and human storytelling to come up with an idea that nobody else could have pulled off quite as well.

Think about why you can help this brand achieve its goal better than anyone else

Figure out what your unique value proposition is, and make sure brands you’re pitching understand that every step of the way. “When I’m brainstorming a piece, I often remind my team that we’re not the only ones who got this RFP,” says Deziel. “We need to really tap into what’s unique about our audience, about about the format that we use on our site, about the way that we tell stories, about our perspective, and we need to come back with something that they really can’t do without us.”