3 Marketing Lessons From Early Adopters of Sponsored Content

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There is a common misconception about social media: once a new channel or app becomes big enough to get discovered by businesses, it is therefore “ruined” for other users. It’s understandable why some people may feel this way; after all, “too much self-promotion” was the most common answer we got when we asked what behavior annoys you the most in brands on social media.

However, the pioneer brands—those that discover the next big social network before their competitors—are usually not the culprits, since these businesses often tread carefully on the new territory. Whenever a new channel for digital marketing gets discovered, we should actually look to brands and pay attention to the early wave of sponsored content. The first brands to advertise on any social network will inevitably set the tone for the nature of future promoted posts, and even dictate whether these posts will make the network less attractive for personal use.

Learning from the pioneer’s successes (and failures) will help businesses identify best practices and avoid past mistakes. With that in mind, here are three recent channels that have been getting love from brands and what you can learn from their examples.

Imgur and eBay

You may already know Imgur as a free resource for image uploading and sharing, or the host service for most pictures on reddit. The startup’s simplicity of use, picture ranking system, and popularity among redditors has earned it over 150 million monthly active users, three-quarters of whom are young and male. It seems natural for networks that boast such numbers to start looking into sponsored content to finance proper support for bigger user bases.

But Imgur’s primary audience is both a blessing and a challenge. The Millennial generation is targeted the most by marketers; as a result, most Millennials experience advertising fatigue and a high level of skepticism towards branded content. Like Instagram, Imgur developers had to ensure that promoted galleries followed the familiar format of user-generated content. In their work with eBay, which was recently highlighted in Adweek, Imgur head of communications Michelle Masek explained that their aim was to help brands become citizens of Internet culture. Indeed, eBay was one of the first business partners to post promoted photos and GIFs to Imgur, but these galleries were preceded by months of researching trends among top Imgur posts.

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Image adopted from Best Reviews video

The results are posts such as “Tech transformations that happened within your lifetime” – which, in addition to sharing a cool GIF and revisiting clunky tech of the years past,  also got a lot of positive feedback from the community. “I was pleasantly surprised when I saw this post was promoted. It just looked like average front page fare. All I wanna know: what’s for sale,” writes one user. “This post makes me want to buy stuff on ebay. You hear that ebay? Shut up and take my money!” another comment states.

The lesson

Imgur’s commenting and voting system makes it easy to get immediate (and sometimes, brutally honest) feedback from the audience. In eBay’s case, most users expressed delight at two things: first, that the post was very similar to other content that tends to perform well on Imgur; and second, that there was not a single mention of eBay in the body of the post, aside from a minor comment in the introduction. This example supports a rule that’s becoming vital to social media marketing: if you want your content to perform well, tell a story instead of talking about yourself.

Medium and BMW

We already know Medium as a valuable resource for bloggers and writers who want a new online platform to publish their work. We rarely talk about marketing strategies without mentioning content creation or curation, and, considering its rising popularity, it comes as no surprise that Medium has been a platform of choice for many businesses. But Medium can’t just be a blog hosting service like WordPress or Blogspot; the platform has its own community and a system to recommend high-quality content to other users. In order to be a successful Medium publisher, a business has to know what kind of content gets read and shared. (If you don’t want to do your own research on the subject, we saved you some time and explored the secret sauce behind the top Medium posts of the past year).

That’s exactly what automotive retailer BMW did when they sponsored a Medium collection re:form, which discusses everything related to design and aesthetics. BMW was one of the first companies to partner with Medium. Their sponsorship run lasted six months, during which a banner “Presented by BMW” was displayed at the top of the re:form homepage. The Medium sponsorship was part of a larger campaign to promote a new BMW model. Tom Penich, media communications manager at BMW of North America, said that it was Medium’s success as a long-form storytelling platform that made it an attractive marketing channel for BMW.

BMW took advantage of Medium’s success by incorporating articles on design specifications of past and present BMW vehicles into a larger collection on a related subject.

The lesson

Don’t treat a new social platform or marketing channel as if they are exactly the same as others in their field, even if they seem to be performing similar functions for your business. Using Medium as just another blogging platform can cause you to miss out on the unique formats and audience engagement opportunities that makes it work so well for other advertisers. Take time to explore every new channel as if you are seeing such capabilities for the first time.

Flipboard and Jack Daniel’s

A few months ago, Flipboard rolled out some new advertising formats, with full-page video among them. These new promotion opportunities were only available to a select group of advertisers—and Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey was one of the lucky few. You may be wondering why a whiskey distillery made the list of beta-testing video ads—and if you are, you probably haven’t heard of Jack Daniel’s The Few and Far Between media campaign.

This campaign featured real stories told by real bartenders have been collected across the entire country, and then filmed, recorded and transcribed by a creative agency and media production company who partnered with Jack Daniel’s.

Just like the campaign, Jack Daniel’s Flipboard magazine, “Few and Far Between,” isn’t just about whiskey; it’s a celebration of the art of bartending, community surrounding neighborhood watering holes, inventive tools of the trade, and mixology tips. Content of the magazine is a balanced mix of owned and third-party media coverage of bartending culture and all things whiskey. And, of course, a large portion of the “flipped” content originates from Bar Stories.

The lesson

Creatives behind The Few and Far Between campaign looked beyond the brand itself: with Bar Stories, they touched upon a ritual that people have shared long before Jack Daniel’s whiskey became a bar staple. This opened up an opportunity to utilize new media channels, such as audio, that an alcohol brand doesn’t employ very often. Jack Daniel’s willingness to play into the medium has earned them the privilege of being featured in a new ad format on Flipboard. Finally, their Flipboard magazine also shows off the positive aspects of bar culture without putting too much emphasis on self-promotion.

Have you checked us out on Flipboard? Read and follow our magazine, Social Media Matters, to find out the latest news in the world of social media and digital marketing.