There was a time when branded content was the realm of advertising. It was clearly delineated from news and entertainment content, and boasted a distinctly commercial feel. In the modern age of information immersion, however, brands are finding new, better ways to engage with consumers.

For branded content to succeed today, it has to be more than an advertisement. Consumers are so inundated with ad content that their eyes glaze over at the first sight of anything that feels like an advertisement. How are marketers responding to this? By finding ways to meaningfully engage audiences and attract attention in ways that aren't explicit sales pitches, marketers are developing clever, intriguing, or entertaining branded content to build a connection that leads to the conversion pipeline.

Interruptive advertising is a dying breed

Traditional advertising is now widely being panned as "interruptive advertising," because it takes audiences out of whatever it is they were focusing on, be it their social media feeds, video streams, musical enjoyment, and so on. People find these advertisements annoying, for obvious reasons. The brand will be associated with regular interruptions of content that audiences actually enjoy. When entertaining or informative content is everywhere and available at the click of a button, the last thing consumers want to see is a commercial.

Today's consumer is information savvy and knows how to do their own research. So, let them do it. You know the old expression from Field of Dreams, "if you build it, they will come?" That is precisely the philosophy with a strategy driven by branded storytelling. Explicit calls to action that shove products and services into consumers face are no longer the primary tactic by which companies promote themselves. Today's smart money is on developing content that is educational and actionable, or truly entertaining.

Playing the long game with branded storytelling

You might think at first glance that spending resources on developing branded content that doesn't even really make a cursory mention of products and services is a waste from a marketing standpoint, but the real waste is creating content that people ignore or skip over. Entertaining or engaging educational content, on the contrary, draws audiences in and introduces them to a brand in a way that starts the conversion process early. It's a high-funnel tactic, but one that lends authority and familiarity to your brand.  

As branded content evolves and relationships between brands and audiences shift from soap-boxing to storytelling, companies are finding more meaningful engagement with their customers. Take for example the art of content marketing. If you read a brand's blog, you might not find any direct plugs for their products, services, or even their own company. What you will often find is smartly written and well-produced educational content that offers quality information about the relevant industry or current trends.

"Companies, both large and small, are starting to realize that the traditional mediums for reaching their target audience are no longer as effective as they once were and the marketplace is getting that much more crowded," said Gila Stern, communications director of Worldwide Business and Modern Living, two television series hosted by model-turned-entrepreneur Kathy Ireland that exemplify a branded storytelling strategy. "To stand out, they need to do something different, something impactful and something that will allow their message to come through loud and clear, in a credible way."

There's also the entertainment route, by which brands create fun content that targets the interest of a specific audience. One of the most memorable and early forays into this kind of branded content was led by McDonald's, with its cartoon "The Wacky Adventures of Ronald McDonald." Another classic example of branded storytelling that ultimately drives sales is the Disney universe, which has developed into a multi-billion dollar empire.

At its core this strategy is about forging a connection with audiences first, and giving them a reason to return to the brand's content. It's not about making a sale then and there, but earning the attention of the consumers you ultimately want to convert. Once an emotional relationship is forged with the brand, either through the use of humor or quality educational material, it's far easier to cultivate brand loyalty and drive repeat conversions. Compared to the old school method of "sell, sell, sell," branded storytelling offers a nuanced, effective strategy for generating leads, converting them, and cultivating repeat customers.