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BLOG: The Engagement Game – how to balance editorial and brand content on social

The attraction of a sports property’s social media offering is becoming an increasingly important element in partnerships with brands – but maximising this relationship in editorial terms to the satisfaction of both parties requires a delicate balance, with engagement at its heart.

The eternal balance: editorial v commercial

There is nothing new in the tension that exists between editorially led and commercially focused information. Newspaper and TV adverts were the primary revenue driver of media houses for decades, demanding column inches space and airtime in an acknowledged trade-off between editorial needs and financial necessity.

The evolution of the public relations industry ensured these lines began to blur somewhat as advertorial-style content became more prevalent in journalistic output – some of it in more subtle guises than others.

The birth of the internet then put its foot on the accelerator of change, hitting overdrive with the onset of social media.

The tension in the age of social media still exists, but the difference is that it’s more nuanced, and the battle for attention is so much fiercer as there are so many players out there. As a content producer, you are not just competing against established media houses anymore. Anyone can produce content and pretty much everyone with a social account does.

The newspapers and TV stations that went out of business in the 1980s and 1990s may argue that competition was just as cut-throat then, but in today’s hugely fragmented market, it’s hard to rise above the rest even in a niche area. And whereas the traditional indicators of success were circulation and ratings, the key metric now is engagement.

Engagement: from which everything follows

Vanity numbers dominated the early years of social media. Perhaps taking their cue from traditional analogue benchmarks, followers and impressions were presented to advertisers as the markers of where to assign their media spend. The landscape evolved quickly as brands sought optimal value – and soon realised the potential of social media to offer more tailored investment strategies.

Engagement thus became a vital measurement of content success.

For advertisers, it showed exactly where audiences were spending time and actually interacting – and therefore obviously being of more value than a piece of content which may or may not have been noticed. The platforms themselves reacted to this with algorithms tweaked to ensure engagement was rewarded.

The benefits of well-engaged posts are multifold and self-perpetuating. It’s not just having the clear advantage of an engaged vs. a passive audience; the better a post is interacted with, the more it elevates an account’s other posts. Even a reach play is driven, fundamentally, by engagement because a post will be served higher up feeds the more interaction it receives.

So, even though the issue for content producers on social media is similar to that faced historically by all publishers – how do you increase interest in your editorial while satisfying the needs of your commercial partners, needs which are usually not the reason your channels are followed – the rewards are far more tangible. And as the key metric has changed, so have the tactics in how to increase it.

The pull of sports properties

In the world of sport, it’s natural for popular properties to be attractive propositions to brands. Sports rights owners such as competitions, clubs and – increasingly – players will stand for certain values which the brand sees as similar to its own, or certainly values the brand would like to be associated with. It can be the continuation of a brand’s ethos that has been in place for years, or mark a shift in how it wants itself to be perceived. It can be a very powerful agent of change.

Moving this to social media is not necessarily straightforward. Maybe nowadays we are at the stage where one of the attractions of a sports property to a brand is its social media presence.

Either way, it is now de rigueur for contracts to flesh out how partners can utilise these channels for the promotion of their brand.

The example of Cristiano Ronaldo may be an extreme one, but well illustrates what is happening at the top end of the market: the footballer took home $47.8 million from paid Instagram posts alone in 2019. It’s not just the fact he has a huge following – it’s that he has a huge and engaged one. It’s the type of direct, quality access you could not even consider achieving through, say, television advertising.

Returning to how brands work with sports properties, often the promotion of a brand takes the form of a piece of content that the partner has created themselves or via one of their agencies which they may use on their own social channels, or on another medium such as television.

These ‘brand slap’ posts more often than not perform poorly on sports properties’ platforms. They are out of keeping with the usual editorial content feed and are an immediate turn-off for that property’s following. A piece of content that receives relatively poor engagement doesn’t just affect that particular post but drags down the visibility of that channel’s other content – including other sponsor posts.

The trick in gaining engagement lies in presenting partner promotion in such a way that it doesn’t turn off an audience whose expectation is to see a sport’s organisation’s ‘usual’ offering – this is branded content.

Branded content

What that usual offering might be depends on the goals set by the organisation and editorial team – and it has a direct impact on what sponsor content can be produced. Branded content is not a new phenomenon, but doing it well requires getting the balance just right. Associating a brand with an element of your property that has a distinction with the rest of your editorial output – but is still in keeping with it – is a tried and tested approach, and has the power to do the following:

  1. Give the brand a direct, seemingly exclusive relationship with part of the property
  2. Tap into a value or set of values that is represented by the property or that part of it
  3. Create content that achieves high engagement and more exposure for the brand

The numbers tell the story: content produced for a brand by the editorial team will almost always perform better than content pre-delivered by the brand for unedited posting on the property’s channels.

The key to this is knowledge of a property’s audience based on analytics and demographics, and the people with the best insight into this is the editorial team, be it the posters themselves or the analytics unit, depending on team size and their priorities. The ‘battle’ is to persuade the brand of the above approach – to convince partners to move away from more traditional forms of advertising and to make content specifically for social media and, to be more precise, a particular social media audience. That is how to get engagement and the proof is in the numbers.

Manchester City took this a step further, running a branded content series on Facebook to show the wider value on offer: their Freestyle World Tour featured top freestyle footballers showcasing their talents in different Etihad destinations. A brand lift study conducted at the end of the campaign demonstrated significant increases in three key metrics: purchase intent, ad recall and awareness.

Worthy investment

Achieving best in class branded content takes time. It requires many actors and sign-offs at various levels but once an activation is established, it can be run by the editorial team with little need for the brand to be involved. There is an onus not just on brands, but on rights owners to choose their partners carefully and find ‘value synergies’ that allow for optimum public perception – and not just in the content sphere.

Nevertheless, there is inevitably a lot of compromise involved in the creation of these branded content products, but the goals of both parties really remain the same, or certainly should: achieving the best possible engagement for the posts themselves.

Ensuring this gives the brand as high exposure as possible, while not adversely affecting the performance of the channels that make them such an attractive proposition in the first place.