Taking The Plunge with Brand Journalism

The most credible voice is an objective voice. And in advertising, the most credible share of voice you can garner is by having people speak on your behalf, otherwise known as earned media. This is particularly true online where every brand is vying for premium spots on user screens and social media feeds.

If you put out the right message, however, it won’t be long before others will help you spread it. And if you can create the right environment to facilitate that word of mouth, you’re golden.

Branded Content for Brand Storytelling

This year, I’ve had the pleasure of working on an integrated campaign for the Sauder School of Business with authentic storytelling at its core. Rather than taking the approach of bluntly shining the spotlight on the school with “brand speak,” this year we decided to shine the spotlight on people. It was a journalistic endeavor to uncover real business insights through a lens of the three pillars that Sauder stands behind and strives to engender: the power to do good, bold ideas, and global perspectives.


The first of its kind in higher education marketing (Applied Arts magazine wrote about the microsite, calling it  ”branded content unlike any we’ve seen for a university”), The Spirit of Discovery microsite launches users into an interactive documentary-style storytelling experience filled with original video footage, beautiful photography, and infographics. Users navigate their way through the mobile-responsive site through modularized content blocks that speak to major factors influencing business through the stories of inspiring thought leaders who are contributing to shaping that change.

The beauty of the build of the microsite is a sum of many parts working seamlessly together. Dozens of diverse content pieces are independently shareable off the site to be consumed in “bite-sized” nuggets tagged with #discoverwithSauder. The site was even featured on CSSdesignawards.com.

Taking The Plunge into Brand Journalism

Beyond the visual design and the web experience, of course, is the heart of the campaign: strong content. While our marketing team’s primary objective with the campaign is increasing awareness for the Sauder School of Business in our key geographical target markets, we know the increased use of social media and mobile is challenging us to aim higher.

We had already identified the power of using authentic, dynamic storytelling methods in our own communications strategy for our owned channels (sauder.ubc.ca news editorial, organic social media), and wanted to take it further with our brand campaign. When briefing our agency of record, Cossette Communications (based in Vancouver), for this year’s campaign, we sought to deliver deeper engagement beyond just impressions using meaningful content because we know users are smart.

The idea for going down the route of brand journalism came from ongoing conversations in-house where we saw an opportunity to shed marketing skins off of our promotional tactics and be real. This is what Brad Gamble, our Assistant Dean of Marketing and Communications had to say on the vision:

“By embracing a branded journalism approach we lead with our best assets – our people and thought leadership – and frame them in a context that brings them to life in a powerful way. By employing this strategy, we are building our brand on the very fabric of who we are and what we do. The Sauder School of Business is a leader for new business thinking, innovation, and entrepreneurship; to represent the innovation of Sauder in our marketing we have to articulate it not only through the messages we craft but also in the way we present them.”

And so we did.



Working very closely with our agency, an integrated, largely digital, media campaign was built out to drive users to the microsite, which was developed in five months. Those months were intense because we were developing a microsite –design and build – in tandem with the creation of all the assets for the site (all copy, infographics as well as original video and photography shot in four different locations by Barbershop Films, also based in Vancouver). Media planning and social media engagement strategy, too, followed suit to support the launch.

When asked about the concern that we’re driving a brand awareness campaign with “unbranded” content (a subtle “presented by Sauder School of Business” on the home page disappears with a scroll), I say this: I’m less concerned about how “unbranded” these pieces are, as ultimately, it’s about value and the impression our work leaves on our audiences.

In fact, the removal of branding and logos likely facilitates the user experience and is ultimately aligned with the goal of branded content – and our campaign. That is, rather than rely on heavy visual branding to one day ensure simple brand recall, let your content be responsible for creating deep, lasting affiliations to your brand and your brand values and strengths.

Branded Content Blows Benchmarks Out of the Water

As I peer into the analytics and ad reports every week, I’m continually thrilled to see that the campaign is resonating with our target audiences – and much more than previous campaigns we’ve done. Both organic and paid social media posts are outperforming benchmarks across the board – and in some instances by as much as 40 times the industry average for paid.


On the advertising front, we’re seeing CTRs as high as 3 percent for Facebook sponsored posts and 1.2 percent for promoted tweets (average for both is 0.08 percent); the click-through rate for LinkedIn sponsored updates is also higher than expected at 0.43 percent  (versus 0.3 percent, industry average). Display ads are seeing 0.97 percent of users clicking through, where historically 0.18 percent was a rate to celebrate.

And we know the campaign’s content strategy is at the heart of this success because these clicks mean qualified referrals: The microsite is seeing an average time spent on site of one minute and 40 seconds with a 34 percent bounce rate for all visits coming in off of advertising. These metrics are almost identically even between paid and organic referrals, so we know our money is being well-spent on qualified visitors.

Furthermore, users are finding what’s most valuable to them and sharing it with their networks, whether it’s an interactive infographic on the three waves of innovation or a video of a young entrepreneur who’s transforming mobile advertising. We know this because 1,200 total shares of our content in social and off the site thus far – which may seem modest – has contributed to a total of 39,000 unique organic referrals, meaning 44 percent of all visits are not coming via a paid campaign. Plus, social media fan bases are rising – and staying put.

So far, we’ve seen an incredible response with lots of positive feedback from our community and beyond. If you have thoughts on the campaign or other great branded content examples to share, please share in the comments below.