Branded Content Is Boring: How The Onion Does It Right

Satirical news site The Onion has nailed its branded content strategy


In terms of self-aware digital publishing, The Onion’s video ’Sponsored Content Pretty F***ing Awesome’ is a masterpiece. The heavily laden satire across the minute-long video is cutting, and will resonate with anyone that’s sick of seeing poorly put together branded content on otherwise reputable publishing sites. The video goes as far as to imply that sponsored content is an insult to an audience’s intelligence, and makes them lose respect for the brand paying for their time.

It’s made all the more funny, though, by the Onion’s own commitment to branded posts as a monetization strategy. The Onion’s way of handling sponsored content is to be very open about the fact that it’s sponsored. It ridicules itself for posting it, it clearly feels contempt for its necessity as a business model, and it derides the brands paying for it with just enough tongue-in-cheek to ultimately promote them, albeit in a roundabout way.

It’s clear from Rick’s presentation that comedy runs through everything The Onion does. His presentation opens with a farcical story about The Onion’s would-be founding in 1765, a nod to the company’s self-aware lack of journalistic integrity under the guise of traditional media. ‘We have 80 billion readers every day across 800 countries,’ Rick boasts, ‘and last year I believe we made 13 trillion dollars.’ The Onion’s brand is built on irony, farce, and deliberate misinformation - on paper, it’s not exactly the ideal candidate for branded content.

Underneath the humor, it’s clear that monetized content is something The Onion takes very seriously. Its in-house content agency, Onion Labs, has serviced the likes of Audi, Bacardi, Groupon, Ford, and Bud Light. It creates everything from satirical news items to video content and social media campaigns.

It doesn’t only deal with native content, either; Onion Labs has expanded and become a fully fledged content agency in its own right. In 2014, the company created comedy cocktails for Bacardi - with names like The Mother’s Stare, Colada For One, and The Visiting Cousin - which were shared on the spirit-maker’s social channels. They were the brand’s most successful social posts of that year, racking up 2.64MM social impressions and 60,000+ expanded views. It’s the comedy that makes them sharable, and no one does comedy like The Onion.

The first of Rick’s tips is to ‘let the funny people be funny.’ So much branded content is terrible, and the main question Rick and his team are asked when they go to conferences or meet clients is ‘how can I avoid making sh**** [sic] branded content.’ The answer is about respecting the medium. If your content is intended to be funny, employ funny people to write it. If it’s expert opinion, employ an expert. The Onion has a selection process for its writers that’s so rigorous it ensures the content being put out is quality. Rick demonstrates this point by comparing a piece of branded content put together by The Onion and one written by a sponsor - the latter’s engagement figures don’t compare.

Building on this, Rick tells the audience that boldness is key. ‘You have to embrace the fear of doing something that might make your boss angry at you to cut through the clutter,’ he says, ‘because the sea of advertising is so huge that you have to do something that is going to get noticed, and you have to be able to do something that’s a little bit scary.’ This can be a particularly daunting proposition for more established, traditional companies but, without some creatives pushing the boundaries, your content will fall onto the pile with the other unimaginative branded editorial.

‘Our audiences are some of the most advertised to people in the history of the world,’ Rick says. ‘They are being bombarded by advertising constantly, every minute of every hour of every day.’ What this means is that to make engaging branded content it absolutely needs to set itself apart from commercials. Consumer fatigue has changed the aim of advertising significantly; engagement has taken the place of reach. In this sense, offering a valuable, funny, interesting, or inspirational piece of content is beneficial to both parties. In fact, a brand’s detachment from the content itself by no means invalidates the content as a marketing tool. As Rick notes, ‘know the power of the ‘brought to you by’’ - sponsoring content is enough to get the brand name out there, without it necessarily needing to be related to the brand itself.

What it all comes down to, ultimately, is not taking yourself and your brand too seriously. Aside from those where its inappropriate, no brand should be above ridiculing itself or producing comedy content. The content doesn’t necessarily have to be relevant to the brand itself, either; some of the most successful marketing campaigns are funny or inspirational in their own right. ‘When you can take a step back and allow yourself to have a sense of humor about your brand, our audience in particular gives that brand a lot more credit.’ 

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