Dear kitten … this is not an ad

In the latest in our series of blog posts by CommsDirect speakers, Ayal Steiner of Outbrain shares his thoughts on why branded content works.

There is a silly video going viral these days called ‘Dear Kitten’ that tells a story of an older cat passing on his pearls of wisdom to a younger kitten new to the house he lives in. It’s cute, funny and engaging … and I liked it.

Now, I don’t for a second lose sight of the fact that this is actually an advertisement for a specific brand of cat food. But I don’t mind.

It is a story being told in a funny, engaging manner and with very subtle and clever branding.

The funny thing is that while I am not a cat owner, and while I never bought cat food, I now like this specific brand.

That’s the power of storytelling (and by the way, full disclosure, they are not an Outbrain client).

There is so much hype and excitement accompanied by angst and uncertainty over the rise of branded content and native advertising. Many articles like this one warn about the demise of “real journalism” and the commercialisation of content.

I certainly share the view that blurring the lines between commercial and editorial content can have negative effects. This is why we feel there is a strong need to set clear boundaries and industry standards for publishers, brands and agencies.

Historically, the separation of editorial and commercial was as strict as the separation of church and state; a very black and white world. I’d like to argue that the real world has many shades of grey.

With the rise of content marketing and branded content, just how grey does it get? When do things become too grey?

At Outbrain we try and answer the same question ourselves. As a content discovery platform, we aim to have readers discover high quality, trustworthy content on the site you are on and from around the web. We work with many brands and agencies on getting branded content and native articles discovered.

Every day we look at branded content and need to decide if we can accept it or not. It’s a very nubilous space and it’s very hard to define.

We continuously review and update our content guidelines to provide tight definitions around what is “trustworthy content”.

There was a US based legal case where the judges had to decide whether a certain image in a magazine was obscenity. Both sides of the case circled around on the specific features of the image and tried to argue the true definition of porn.

United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart eventually ruled by saying “I am not sure what the exact definition of porn is, but I know it when I see it”. Branded content is exactly the same.

I can’t say exactly what makes the Dear Kitten video ok or why native articles like this one cause a backlash so strong that the Atlantic had to issue an apology. I just know it when I see it.

As the marketing industry shifts budgets from traditional advertising to creation and distribution of branded content, it is important for everyone to keep the focus on the production of content that is designed to engage rather than sell.

Entertain and inform, rather than promote. Add value rather than interrupt.

Brands can and do produce great content. They are showcasing their expertise, personality and vision by telling stories rather than interrupting with promotional, self-serving advertising. Some great examples in Australia can be found across Redbull, GE Reports, ANZ Blue Notes, CPA, NRMA, Destination NSW and many others.

And I believe we will see more and more moving into that space. As an audience, we don’t care if the content is coming from a brand. We only care if it is interesting and authentic.

This is where there is a white space in the marketplace. That’s the opportunity for the creative and editorial minds out there who can master the art of storytelling by blending in the brand spirit and personality into content that is truly engaging and trustworthy.

As the cat said in the video: Dear kitten, just keep it real: you’ll do just fine.

Ayal Steiner
Ayal Steiner is the general manager of Australia and New Zealand for Outbrain. Prior to joining Outbrain, Ayal held different marketing, strategy, and product management positions in B2B software and internet companies.
Ayal will be speaking at CommsDirect on the “Going Direct” panel.
Tickets are just $395 for those working in media or the not-for-profit sector and $495 for corporate: $100 off the regular price!