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  • Writer's pictureLiz Hayes

How to position branded content as a civic engagement opportunity

Once you've determined a client is a good fit for branded content (they want to educate, inform and engage with your trusted audience as a brand awareness play), a great way to connect with the client is by tapping into their corporate social responsibility goals and values, leading to an engaging partnership the can help support a cause they believe in, while helping the local community and your outlet's bottom line.

This was the topic of the Branded Content Project's Big Branded Call this month with speaker Megan Finnerty, who has worked with major brands on branded content campaigns during her time as founder of the Storytellers Brand Studio at Gannett/The USA TODAY Network and the Editor-in-Chief and Creative Director of Vox Media's Epic Stories. Megan created branded content and experiential marketing for clients including: Verizon, Humana, Sequoia Capital, Victoria's Secret, Spark Therapeutics and Southwest Airlines.

Discover client passions

Way before you schedule that first sales call, a good place to do some recon is a brand's 'about us' page to understand what their focus and priorities are. Here you can also ascertain if they have any partnerships with nonprofit or community organizations that would be important to them.

"Once you're pretty sure they have civic engagement or they have nonprofit organizations they parter with, figure out who they are," Finnerty said. "Do they partner with Boys and Girls Club of America? Are they really invested in your city startup week? That's a clear value that you could sell against for branded content."

Discovering an advertiser's company values is a big opportunity to create branded content that leads to new and recurring revenue for your local media organization. At the same time, you need to understand what your role is as a local media organization in your region. Knowing your outlet's values and your client's values means you can merge the two to create a partnership that benefits you both, as well as the cause they're interested in.

"If it's an organization that's totally invested in sustainability for the environment in your community, that's a very clear value that you could sell against for branded content. What is the cultural change this organization seeks to create beyond selling their widget or providing their service," Megan asked.

Make a big list

To assure she was always prepared to present to a client what her media organization's values were, she made an extensive list that she could pull from and customize to align with client needs. When she was selling content for a features section, she was sure to include in her sales deck that her organization "celebrates the best sports teams, natural beauty, great food, and inspiring individuals," since there are topics you'd find in a features section. That aligned with what the client wanted to achieve through reaching that audience demographic.

"I just made a list so that every time we had to reply to an RFP, I wasn't starting from scratch about what made us special or interesting. I just wrote a giant, huge list and was like, which of these things do we need today," Finnerty said.

The fact that your newspaper champions change through investigative reporting may be very attractive to a client who says they care about protecting the vulnerable in their community. Pay attention to how you can align your values with the client's values. That way you are collaborating to effective positive change in your community.. a win-win.

Lay down ground rules

While taking all of this into consideration, you must also examine what kind of clients you are willing to work with. Not all brands will align with your organization's values, and it's okay to turn them away.

"My big caution with branded content is whenever someone's paying you money to do branded content, you have to remember what they're actually buying is your credibility," she said.

Unfortunately there have been plenty of examples of a news organization taking someone's money only to have their credibility undermined based on the content that was produced. With branded content, it's important to maintain integrity so you don't lose your audience.

"Mission alignment really, really matters. They're not buying audience numbers; they're buying the quality of your audience and the quality of your credibility with that audience," Finnerty emphasized.

Leverage your aligned values

Finnerty recommends starting your sales deck with a shared value statement, then following with how you will leverage these values to create change for the client by inspiring audiences and positively affecting the community together.

You must look at a branded content presentation differently than a traditional advertising buy. Traditional sales are more transactional. A buyer is looking at your numbers and your trusted audience. With branded content, you're offering an opportunity for an advertiser to powerfully tell their story with a call to action that is close to their heart.

Every single business started as someone's dream, and they all have a story to tell. Local advertisers also have things they are passionate about and may be willing to invest in with your local media organization as a partnership to spark positive change in your community.

To give an example, Megan spoke of working with a utility company that wanted to create a campaign to drive awareness of the child protective services crisis happening in their state. The publisher and utility co-created a robust ad campaign, including a live event that connected consumers to volunteer opportunities, donation needs and offered tangible solutions to the problem.

"They wanted to spend money to draw people's attention to the foster care crisis in our state, and they knew they couldn't just adopt a bunch of kids. So they were like, what if we ran a bunch of ads and empowered a lot of journalism to help connect people in our community to get these kids out of foster care. It was civic leadership." she said.

When looking at industries spending money on branded content, Finnerty points to car dealerships, healthcare, educational institutions, utility companies, and state lotteries as great areas to start.

Is your media organization currently using cause marketing to approach branded content clients? If so, we want to hear about it! Do you want to create a cause marketing branded content strategy? Let us know how we can help! Reach out at or


The Meta Branded Content Project is designed through a strategic partnership between the Meta Journalism Project, Local Media Association and the Local Media Consortium to help facilitate additional growth, engagement, and revenue success for more publishers of all shapes and sizes.

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