Marketing the Message: Putting Your Own Spin on Branded Content

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By Mike Winkleman


Editor’s Note: Mike Winkleman, president and chief creative officer of Leverage Media, will present and moderate three Lunch & Learn sessions on “How Your Association Can Profit from a Content Marketing Strategy.” The sessions will be in Washington, D.C.on March 14; Chicago on March 21; and New York city on March 27.


When I wrote about branded content for Signature a year or so ago, I found that the objections were slowly starting to fade, the industry’s appetite was increasing, and it appeared that a number of associations were visibly making the leap.


There was enough momentum for me to ask: “Has branded content come of age?” This year, I believe it’s moved far enough along that it’s fair to say the association world is actually embracing branded content.


AM&P’s 2017 Publishing Benchmark Study showed that nearly half of respondents were already selling native advertising or sponsored content for their flagship publication in print or online — and that a third of those who had not yet sold sponsored content anticipated selling it in the year ahead.


In the meantime, an increasing number of association publications across a wide range of disciplines seem to be either already realizing success with their sponsored content programs or investigating ways in which they might expand their offerings.


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At the Association for Corporate Growth, 25 percent of the pages in the group’s magazine, Middle Market Growth, is now comprised of branded content.


Karen Craven, ACG’s vice president of communications, says advertisers initially saw the value in print advertising for branding purposes. More recently, however, that focus has been eclipsed by an interest in thought leadership.


“They’re looking for an opportunity to opine on relevant subject matter,” Craven says.


ACG offers potential content sponsors a guidelines document and makes its staff available to discuss readers’ interests with advertisers and help them find the best ways to connect their messages. In an effort to make sure the branded content is a cohesive part of the publication while reflecting the editorial integrity ACG feels is its hallmark and keeping the voice consistent with the rest of the magazine, MMG provides advertisers with access to its own writers. Similarly, MMG works to find a balance in the design of the branded content.


“We want it to be clear,” say MMG Editor-in-Chief Katie Mulligan. “We need to delineate what’s paid and what’s not. We know sponsors want to be part of the magazine, so we look for a middle ground where it’s integrated with — but distinguished from — the rest of the content.”


While many branded content studios at consumer publications, such as The New York Times’s T Brand Studio, pride themselves on finding new and different content presentation approaches for their various clients, ACG has found it best to present most of its branded content under a handful of recurring rubrics: a multipage feature treatment called In Focus and a series of one-page columns, all of which are part of a section called The Portfolio.


The trick in discovering how to make branded content work for you, suggests Craven, is to see sponsored content, however it’s executed, as something inherently connected to the organization’s mission.


“Relationships and work product are iterative,” she says, “building upon previously smaller deliverables, helping advertisers understand products that maintain the integrity of the publication, supporting the ACG brand, and still meeting the sponsor’s need to connect with our membership. This feeds back into everything we do, provides opportunities to grow business, and furthers our mission.”


For more of this article, check out the February-March issue of Signature magazine.


Mike Winkleman ( is president of Leverage Media and a former AM&P board member. He writes and speaks frequently on topics related to content marketing.





Lunch & Learn: How Your Association Can Profit from a Content Marketing Strategy

March 14 – Washington, D.C. | March 21 – Chicago | March 27 – New York


When considering sources of non-dues revenue, associations often think about branded content. But sometimes that’s as far as they get: thinking about it. This session will explore how to move branded content beyond the theoretical by looking at:

  • How to help your advertisers adopt—and ask for—branded content executions

  • How to help your ad salespeople pitch branded content to their clients

  • How to make branded content a key strategic offering—in your magazine, online, and at your events

  • How to execute branded content: do you need an internal Brand Lab?

  • What does research tell us about branded content: Who’s using it? How well is it working? How can you measure it? How does it play cross-channel?

Sponsored by Leverage Media