Looking through the storytelling lens: how to create effective promotional content.

Can advertising be as interesting to readers as an editorial piece? Can they engage with it in the same way they would with a news article? Raquel Bubar, director of T-Brand Studio, marketing arm of the New York Times, is convinced they can, but only if the story and the quality content come first.

“A lot of times people look at content that either we have made or other teams have made as a menu, and they say: “I want infographics from that execution, I want virtual reality film from that campaign, I want an article from my competitor.” So they look at it in pieces, because they want to create the right formula that’s going to win awards and get really high levels of engagement. But at the same time, what often gets lost is the story that the brand is trying to tell,” says the director of T-Brand studio.

Bubar stresses that it’s important to think of the story first, because otherwise there is a danger of being lost in multimedia which means no one learns or shares anything.

“A banner add is a quick image and text, which doesn’t always tell a story and people engage with it for about 3 seconds, tops, if you are lucky,” says Bubar. “With the kind of context that we are coming up with, where we create a story, whether through infographics, or video, people are engaging with it, from 1-6 minutes and sometimes more, depending on the type of story, and that’s really incredible.”

The key to success, as Bubar suggests, is trying to approach a brand as a journalist and finding a story about a brand or product that the company is trying to promote: “We are trying to understand from the beginning what the story the brand is trying to tell is and we try to tell it in a more interesting, almost newsworthy way“. A whole team, which mostly consists of journalists would then brainstorm and try to find that unique story.  If deeper digging is needed a journalist would then be sent on a ‘story mining assignment’.

“Story mining, it’s when we send a T-Brand studio journalist to spend time inside a company, whether it’s meeting with executives or manufacturers or other relevant people, trying to uncover what that story might be. And it’s very often the story that the brands is trying to tell but they don’t realise that it will be interesting for the reader to hear,” says Raquel Bubar.

She firmly believes that the time spent on finding the right angle pays off: some of T-Brand’s campaigns have generated as much traffic as New York Times editorial content.

“Originally, Netflix came to us asking us to do a piece about their upcoming show “Orange is the New Black” about women in prison,” says Raquel Bubar. “They wanted us to do some teasers or talk about the show in some way in a paid post, so we easily could have done that, but instead we took the story mining approach and we thought how would the newsroom do this story? They would probably send a journalist into prison and talk to women behind bars, so that’s exactly what we did. We had a camera crew, we brought two journalists, we went to female prison and we talked to them about the challenges that they had. For example, when a woman is behind bars it’s different than when a man is behind bars, because if they had kids or family, it’s a different kind of impact. We also found that women in prison wear male jumpsuits, because there are no prison jumpsuits that are especially made for women. It became the whole kind of story that we didn’t expect would come out of this and we launched it on the New York Times website, wrote an article with imbedded short video, pictures and by the end of the year it was ranked as one of the top read articles on the New York times website.”

However, Raquel Bubar warns, one of the most important principles, is that you have to be transparent that it’s sponsored material: “We are just trying to be very transparent that this is an ad and it is paid sponsorship and you can decide not to engage with it at all if you don’t like that idea, or you can give it a shot and I think once people see a headline that they are interested in, they get past the fact that it’s sponsored. But the worst thing you can do is mislead a reader, because you destroy that relationship.”

See Raquel Bubar speak alongside other industry experts at the Digital Content Summit, taking place in London on the 23d of May.


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