339: Leveraging Branded Content, with Jared Merves

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There is a lot of confusion about the difference between branded content and native content. Wundervue defines branded content as any sales or marketing initiative that uses content to engage a user, and that is paid for by a client.

Jared Merves, Founder of Wundervue, explains how to succeed through storytelling. He believes that branded content is the silver bullet that provides publisher partners a path to revenue and profit growth and the sustainment of quality local journalism. Jared explains how branded content is a full customer journey program that lives in the top-to-middle of the marketing funnel to measure awareness and engagement. A successful branded content initiative is connecting the client to their target audience to demonstrate the value of what they have to offer.

Jared Merves is a digital marketer, local advertising expert, and entrepreneur. Jared has more than 13 years of experience driving digital innovation for many of the nation’s largest local media companies. At Wundervue, Jared and his team develop turnkey branded content solutions designed to connect local brands and local audiences. Prior to founding Wundervue, Jared was Chief Digital Officer at Belo+Company, an 80-person digital agency in Dallas, TX. Jared has also held digital leadership roles at The Dallas Morning News, TEGNA and Cars.com. Jared is a featured speaker and panelist on local advertising topics and has served on the Local Media Consortium’s steering committee and Cars.com’s Affiliate Board. He lives in Colorado with his wife, Lisa, and their children, Jack and Birdie – and Crosby, their 135lb Great Pyrenees.

Join the Conquer Local Community to take part in the conversation and ask your questions directly to Jared Merves.


George: It’s the latest edition of the Conquer Local podcast. How would you like to learn all about branded content? I know, first time I heard it, I was like, “what the hell is it?”, “Why do I care?”, “Why is it important?” I’ve heard of content marketing. I’ve heard of native, native advertising, advertorial if you’re old enough, but now in the world of digitally transformed organizations, we should be thinking about branded content. It’s something that I keep reading about. There’s these programmatic ad units that just beg for branded content. So how do we master this and how do we learn more about it? Well, there’s one guy that I’ve met over the last couple of years. That is an expert in branded content. And it comes from about a 15 year career in digital marketing with some of the biggest media companies in North America. In a few moments you’ll meet Jared Merves from Wundervue out of Denver, Colorado. Jared’s career spans Dallas Morning News, TEGNA, Cars.com. He is a digital marketing expert, and we’re gonna bring him in. We’re gonna grill them. We’re gonna ask them all the hard questions, we’re gonna become experts in branded content in the coming moments of the Conquer Local podcast. 

George: Jared Merves is joining me, and Jared and I have known each other for a number of years. He is the founder and partner Success Officer of Wundervue, and Jared in two words or less. No, okay, I’ll give you 10 words, 10 words or less, explain to us branded content, please.

Jared: Sure, hey George, and thanks for having me on. A lot of confusion around what branded content is, or what native is. I’ll tell you our definition, branded content is defined as any sales or marketing initiative that uses content to engage a user and is paid for by a client.

George: How is it different than content marketing? I wanna get these items out of the way so we can really dig into it. But how is branded content different than content marketing?

Jared: I look at content marketing really as it is it the parent bucket content marketing in some forecast by 2021 is gonna be a $412 billion business. Native or branded content is projected to be about a $14 billion business at the same time period. So it’s a growth area underneath the larger content marketing budget. I will tell you a lot of times when people think of marketing, they think of that as separate from paid and branded really kind of sits in between and could be that connection between content marketing and paid media.

George: So, now let’s get into a little bit around your background and thank you for giving us that overview of branded content. But, let’s talk about a little bit around what makes you tick. So you’ve had about a year and 1/2 at this new startup that you’ve developed, but before that you were holding digital leadership roles at a number of large organizations.

Jared: Sure, absolutely. Yeah, I have an advertising and marketing background all on the digital side. I’ve been client side with big brands like Cars.com and Nissan North America. And then I’ve spent the last 12 years in particular on agency and then really working with local media companies where I was responsible for driving digital innovation and digital revenue growth across local media properties.

George: That’s when you and I met was a years ago, you were leading digital, you decided to move to start your own thing. And obviously you’re very passionate about branded content. There’s a big hole here that needed to be filled. Isn’t there?

Jared: Absolutely, it’s a really unique growth opportunity for agencies and for marketers out there right now.

George: Where would we put it, when we look at the marketing funnel, where would you put branded content is, the tactic and then what are we gonna measure it against? And, let’s talk about where it sits in the funnel.


Where Does Branded Content Sit in the Funnel? 

Jared: Sure, I’ll tell you when I talked to a client, I always tell them, that branded content truly is a full customer journey program. However, the value is gonna be measured at awareness and engagement. Awareness in the ability to really leverage branded content to drive incredible exposure for a brand with their target audience, and then move into engagement as that consumer or reader consumes that content. They’re basically raising their hand and saying, “yep, I am the target audience for this brand or for the sponsor.” So starting to move through the customer journey. And then I will tell you, there’s additional ways that people can take further action and move into consideration or trial, but the main value for branded content, as I see it is awareness and then into engagement,

George: Right, so top of the funnel to mid funnel and let’s, I just wanna understand a little bit around, it’s hard to do, like that’s my first piece, I’m thinking content marketing and I’m like, oh, it’s only as good as the content, you’re gonna have to have graphic designer. You’re gonna have to have an amazing writer, like here’s the one thing I’d like to get out of the way. Could I go to Fiverr or Upwork, and find a killer content writer?

Jared: You can do that. You can go to Fiverr or Upwork and find a killer writer. The content is only a component, and you were kinda highlighting how it’s hard to do. The content is a small component of the successful branded content program. And I think that that’s one of the challenges that we’ve seen agencies run into. And frankly their brand partners, is that you see brands that have incredible content and they don’t have a way to distribute it. And branded content becomes that vehicle for distributing really great content.

George: I think branded content and content marketing is a struggle, and you have come up with a way to make it less of a struggle and to make it deliver for the customer. So that’s the piece I’d really like to understand? What is different about your idea around branded content?


Jared’s Idea on Branded Content

Jared: Absolutely, I tell everyone that we talk to that first and foremost, Wundervue isn’t a content marketing agency and that even though we focus heavily on branded content, I don’t sell content. I sell audiences. And I think that should resonate for a lot of the agency partners that are listening or the marketers that are listening to this. At the end of the day, success of a branded content program is connecting your brand or your client with their target audience. And you’re going to do that through a combination of creating really great engaging content, but then also I call it weaponizing it. Weaponizing it or distributing it via paid channels to engage that target audience.

George: So when you talk about that, when I think content marketing and, I think we’re gonna do white paper or a case study, We’re gonna put it out there in the wild, maybe run some ads to drive people to it. This is the same type of an idea is you’re going to use some programmatic ad units to be able to get distribution for the content, and to start to drive that customer journey. Is that the way that this occurs?

Jared: Absolutely, so I mean, to oversimplify it you have to come up with your content strategy that involves a whole slew of things. But the real goal is that as consumers in a target market come across that content, they decide they wanna engage to it. And as I said earlier, therefore raise their hand and say, yep, I’m the target audience of that brand or that sponsor, but where they’re coming across it, is across all of these programmatic native placements that can be accessed via probably, the ad tech companies that agencies are already working with. Or if not, they can go partner with other DSPs or ad networks to access all that inventory.

George: For some of our listeners that are not familiar with DSP or ad networks, or I guess, can you, is there a very tight little description that you could give us as to what we’re talking about here?

Jared: Sure, I mean, these are advertising technology companies. They’re not publishers and they’re not agencies. They’re sitting as technology in between the publisher and the agency. And they basically have access to networks of hundreds or thousands and thousands of sites, and then down to the placement level. So if you’re an agency, they allow you to go in and essentially run programs in this case, branded content programs against, a targeted audience, target, meaning geographic targeting, demo targeting, or even, category and section targeting.

George: So Jared in your time, you worked for some of the leading media companies in the United States on the digital advertising sales piece. And I think it’s important for our listeners to understand that are not familiar with this, the local publisher, whether it be TV broadcaster, radio broadcast, or newspaper company, have these inventory units inside their content. And all of that’s living online now, and they try to sell it locally. And that’s when they try to sell that ad unit locally, they charge a premium for it. And if they’re not able to sell those ad units locally, then they offer them up to the exchanges. Am I getting that right?

Jared: You nailed it. And the one other thing I’d add to that, George, is that, part of the concept for founding Wundervue is that he native display inventory, those are in feed, in editorial stream. So, if you’re thinking about your local newspaper, and you’re on the sports section, you’ll see in between articles about your local teams, you’ll see a sponsored article. Those placements are heavily, heavily clearing programmatically, meaning, national advertisers and their national agencies are buying those and they’re basically sucking up or bringing out those local publisher audiences, the local media companies, newspaper TV, really don’t have a robust focus on selling out that inventory direct. And there’s a huge opportunity for agencies to go in and create local programs and leverage that available inventory that they can purchase programmatically and then promote their branded content and/or their client through those placements in their local or regional markets.

George: Well, thank you for giving us that very concise view of what this is, because I think it starts to bring it home for our sellers that are on the podcast today listening, is, I have this happen when you’re dealing with a local advertiser and you say, okay, I’m gonna get you inventory on the local sites where the eyeballs are. I’m sorry, not on the sites where the eyeballs are. So they’re like, well, what do you mean by that? Well, if your viewer, the audience that you want is on ESPN, let’s say, we can buy that inventory to have that piece of content appear there. And they’re blown away by that.

Jared: Mm-hmm.

George: And, they always wanna know, what sites is it going to be on? Have you noticed that too?


Working With Branded Content

Jared: Oh, absolutely. One of the things we focus on with branded content and, I often say, a lot of marketers and agencies have essentially dabbled with native or branded content these last five or six years. And it’s sometimes almost a dirty word because at some point they tried to do something and they threw up like a client’s press release onto a site or sites and it got no engagement. And the client said, “What was the value?” And the agency said, “Well, I’m not sure what the value was.” And they all decided not to do it again. And I think what we’re seeing now is that you are able to access all of this premium inventory on local sites, and local doesn’t necessarily have to be your local newspaper. To your point, George, it could be the local audience that is going on to ESPN, or is going on to Fox News in your market. And you just geo-target that campaign to only deliver your branded content to in-market consumers, which is incredibly valuable to the advertiser. And then I think the last other piece I’d add on that is that when you focus on running across high quality premium publisher sites, you avoid so much of what plagues the programmatic display industry, which is a whole bunch of, fraud and like issues with where those ads are appearing. And you focus on premium publisher news sites. You’re getting an engaged target audience in your market or whatever region you run your campaign in.

George: Well, I was looking forward to having you on the show to give us the 101, not just of a branded content because, it’s very compelling to me and it, but also to really understand the programmatic space, because I think that it’s not, the content is very important. It has to be well written. And we’re gonna get into that in a moment, but, it’s also how you manipulate that, and how you get it into the hands of the audience. So you can get the right eyeballs and understand, you don’t need to understand it all, but you do need to be able to speak to it. If you’re gonna position it to the customer, the customer is going, well, how is this different than what I’ve been offered before? So, how do you address that?


How to Address Branded Content to Your Customers?

Jared: Yeah, I mean, I think that that’s a really good question. The main difference that we see is that when we present programs, and this is one of my feedback in terms of best practices, we’re creating unique and exclusive programs. Even if it’s for an existing client of ours, a brand or client of ours, we’re not looking to just run programmatic native display ads across the network. Although that can work. What we’ll typically do is we’ll actually create a unique content series that’s designed to target that audience, and then we’ll run those branded content articles across premium-premium local sites to create this unique experience and engagement between the brand and the local consumers. The big difference here, though, as we’re talking about kind of the broader display is that all of those kinda interrupted on the side rail of a page or pop up banner ads. Those are keeping people from their content, right? Someone went to a sports site or went to a new site to get content to inform their life, to make plans for what they’re gonna do with their family for the weekend, or to learn about what’s going on with their schools or their taxes. And they’re looking for informative engaging content. And where we slot in is we’ve tried to deliver on what they’re looking for on these new sites, but deliver informative relevant content that aligns with what our brand’s goal is in terms of introducing or talking about a product or service.

George: One of the things that I find to be fascinating is the type of advertiser or client that is interested in using this type of a tactic. And you’ve been dealing with a brand that will be very familiar to our North American listeners, in the grocery space. How is a grocery chain using branded content?


Grocery Chains Using Branded Content

Jared: Yeah, I mean, I think to bigger point you made, which is like, who’s this a good fit for? And this is gonna sound really 101 but, when we look at brands that already are investing in awareness type programs, right? Traditional media they’re running, they’re all over the country radio station, or they’re running on TV or cable, or they’re buying billboards or bus backs. They already have an investment in creating awareness in their market. And we look at these branded content programs as a way to go in and grow share, by creating awareness programs that they can do online and then have much, much greater trackability and performance measurement with us than anything they’re ever getting from that billboard rep. And then, sorry, George, you asked me about grocery, a good example of like why a grocery chain would do this. It’s really tough to stand out with an ad message around why you should buy avocados for me, and not the guy across the street. And one of the ways we found with partnering with big brands that are focused on awareness, that are in highly competitive spaces is by creating these unique branded content programs. So this big grocery chain, we developed a healthy living series, and it delivered weekly recipes, event ideas and tips for the homemaker. We only delivered the branded content in the market that this grocery chain was focused on. And then as readers consume that content, there were exposed to nothing but the brands ad messages and CTS, and they see these articles week in, week out. And now they’re looking at this brand is as being additive, as being a value to them. And it’s certainly helping with awareness and engagement.

George: Well, I’m glad that you were able to give us that example because I think it really brings it home for the sellers and the agency groups that are on the call today, listening to the podcast, because, there’s ad dollars being spent. We all know that those ad dollars, a lot of times are under pressure for margin based upon who you are competing with. Are you able to preserve a good margin for organizations that wanna sell this solution?


Good Margins for Selling Solutions

Jared: Absolutely. This can be very high margin program at the end of the day, you need to control your content production costs. If you have that in house, that’s a huge benefit. If you have to go outside, there’s gonna be some costs there, but I will tell you, and I’m not talking about Fiverr and Upwork. There are incredible creators out there and getting really great content produced is something that really anyone on the call should be able to do. And then in separately, you have to go buy the media, but in context of, everything else that the brands are investing in, this can be a very affordable way for brands to reach the target audience and the agencies that are running it are able to preserve really high margins and running it. I mean, I guess the best thing I could’ve told you, George, is that we focus on only having 50 plus percent margin on these programs.

George: Well, I think that’s going to perk a lot of interest from our audience because, selling SCM it’s tough to get those kind of numbers. And but yet, clients want to get awareness, and they want to be able to track it. Now, when it comes to the ROI, you’ve alluded to this earlier. I just wanna make sure that our listeners understand you’re able to show some attribution here.

Jared: Oh, absolutely. Because we run these programs like an ad campaign, versus just placing content somewhere. We’re running them through a native ads, or native ad network like we talked about earlier, and in both cases, we’re able to have full performance tracking. So we track how many branded content impressions, how many placements did we deliver during that time period? Let’s say it’s a month. Then we look at what rate did readers engage, or what rate did a reader raise their hand and say, yep, I’m interested in getting those recipe ideas. Or, yep, I’m interested in understanding a better use for a home equity loan. And then at what rate did they click on those placements, those impressions, and then go to an article page. And then we look at, okay, did they find what they were looking for? Did we kind of duped them, when we gave them a sexy headline? And then they’re like, wait a second, I’m not interested in on bail. Or they actually consuming and engaging that content while being exposed to the brand and their ad messages the whole time. We look at having over a minute time on content as being a big win, because it’s like a 62nd plus exclusive ad just for the brand that’s sponsoring it. The consumer spending over a minute consuming those articles and the whole time they’re being exposed to the brands exclusive ad messages and CTS.

George: Well, Jared, I really appreciate you coming on the show this week to teach us all about branded content and how it is a definitely a step up from native. It’s not just content marketing. It really is this all encompassing strategy to help advertisers stand out during that awareness phase and start to move the potential customer into the engagement phase. As always, I learned so much when I have a chance to talk to you, so thank you. We’re gonna give our listeners all the contact information to your organization inside the notes. It’s called Wundervue, and, look forward to speaking to you again at some point, Jared, thanks for bringing all this information to us here on the Conquer Local podcast.

Jared: Absolutely, thanks for having me on George.



George: Some great takeaways. Branded content is not just writing the content, taking a great photo, building out a piece of content. It’s more around, what are we gonna do with it? Whose eyeballs are we gonna put on to this? And the idea of being able to buy that inventory on the local site that is being viewed in your market, geo-fence it, make sure that it’s a local set of eyeballs that the local business cares about is very intriguing to me. I still believe, and I’ve known this, I’ve noticed this in my own behavior. When I’m reading through the various news channels that I read or, the videos that I’m watching online, or wherever I’m consuming my news and information, which has all transitioned online. I find these ad units because I’m an ad guy and I’m like, how the hell could I get access to that for my customer? Or how can I get access to that ad unit for me, to promote whatever I’m trying to drive to my audience? So it’s something that we’ve been thinking about. We’ve had a lot of comments of people saying, I really like to understand what native is today and, Jared has done a great job of taking the best components of content marketing, programmatic ad units, getting the right audience and then native, and bringing it together into this world called branded content. And as he mentioned, he was talking billions of dollars are moving in this direction. So it definitely is something that we should be having a look at in our awareness phase of the strategies that we’re building out for our clients. And we hope that this was valuable for you today. 

George: Producer, Colleen’s gonna put all of the contact information for Jared and Wundervue into the notes. And we’d love to get some feedback in the Conquer Local Community around this episode or any episode. And we’ll get Jared to be a part of the community to respond to any questions that you might have. So maybe you were sitting there going, why doesn’t George ask this question? Well, you can ask Jared the question yourself, just subscribed to the Conquer Local Community and start to weigh in on the conversation. It’s exciting what’s happening there. I spend a lot of time in there responding to listeners and readers and people who are coming in and asking questions. And it’s really becoming a conduit where we can talk back and forth and share best practices and learnings. And it’s great to be meeting more and more people through the community. So we’d love to hear from you, but Conquer Local Community is available at conquerlocal.com. Thanks for joining us this week. My name is George Leith. I will see you when I see you.

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