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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Can brand content help solve a murder?

March 30, 2016 | By Michelle Manafy, Editorial Director – DCN @michellemanafy

Sponsored content is not a new thing; paid advertorials have been around for more than a century. But there’s no denying that branded content has become a significant part of the marketing mix and media revenue generation in recent years. Certainly, the deftness with which deep contextual connections can be made in digital has been a driver of demand. Even more interesting is that this desire for context is also driving experimentation and creativity when it comes to branded content storytelling.

Guardian Labs US, the branded content studio of Guardian News and Media, recently launched a brand journalism campaign for Amazon’s Bosch series that colors way outside the lines of the traditional advertorial template. With a nod to the popular cold-case crime genre (notably the stunningly successful podcast series, Serial), the branded content team at Guardian Labs created the series How to Solve a Murder.

Branded content strategist Jill Hilbrenner says that—sponsored or not—this is the type of story The Guardian likes to tell. She cites its coverage of The Grim Sleeper case—which also examined a cold case from the 1980s. “Something we often hear at Guardian Labs is that consumers are looking for authenticity of content and storytelling.” So, when she created How to Solve a Murder (with the financial support of Amazon), she sought to deliver compelling journalism that aligns with The Guardian’s editorial standards.

According to Rachael Post, director of branded content at Guardian Labs, Amazon came to them with clear conceptual guidelines that relate to the premise of its Bosch series, which is about an LAPD homicide detective: They wanted the story to be based upon a cold case that involved Los Angeles or Las Vegas and included a detective. Then they set the Guardian Labs team loose to uncover and deliver a compelling tale.

The series—clearly labeled “Paid for by Bosch-Amazon”—explores the murder of teenaged Kari Lenander through the lens of a LAPD detective who spent years searching for her killer. According to Veronika Cernadas, who handles media and public affairs, The Guardian “is very serious about wanting to be transparent because we stand for open, transparent journalism.” This applies to all aspects of the company’s endeavors. So while How to Solve a Murder was written with a high degree of editorial autonomy, clear labeling was essential.

Hilbrenner points out there are likely to be those who are skeptical of any content that is sponsored, though she is confident that, given the quality of reporting and storytelling, readers will come away satisfied. In fact, she says that reaction to the series thus far has been highly positive, with significant discussion on social media around the forensic techniques used in the investigation, crowdsourcing of clues and tweets by author Michael Connelly, who wrote the books on which the Bosch series is based.

“We were pleased that we were trusted to do what we do best: Tell stories worth telling,” says Hilbrenner. She also says that it is possible that this model of sponsorship could afford coverage opportunities for stories that might not otherwise receive attention.” As Post points out, “we live in a very reactive news climate and investigative doesn’t always get the attention it needs even on the news side.”

While The Guardian Labs may be testing out a means of sponsoring stories worth telling, Post says that they are definitely focused on helping brands tell good stories that align with their marketing objectives “but push the envelope a little bit.”

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