The Onion Shares The Secret To Creating Content That Doesn’t Suck

Three years ago, The Onion published this satirical piece “Sponsored Content Pretty Fucking Awesome,” ridiculing the absurdity of native advertising. If you’re pressed for time, here are two short snippets to give you a taste of the post:

“I love, love, fucking love sponsored content,” said news and entertainment reader Erica Olson, adding that when she can tell a corporation is financially behind a piece of writing, she is even more inclined to click on it. “First off, it’s cool. That’s not debatable. Second, I don’t find it in any way insulting to my intelligence. In fact, it makes me feel smarter. And third, did I mention that sponsored content is just really fucking cool?”

“I would say that I’m happiest when I’m being taken advantage of and duped into reading what is essentially a company’s propaganda disguised as actual editorial content,” said Colorado resident Colin Portman, adding that he wanted to personally thank media publications for regularly including sponsored content in their production schedules.

What’s probably funnier and more ironic is that, after the article was published, The Onion became one of the most successful native ad creators in the industry. 90% of The Onion’s advertising package now includes custom native ad content. The growth of its in-house content agency Onion Labs exploded, landing them big clients like Bacardi, Audi, Groupon and Lenovo.

What makes Onion-branded content so much more effective than others? And why is there so much branded content out there that just, well, sucks? What does it take to build a funny brand? Check out what Rick Hamann, the Chief Creative Officer of The Onion, has to say in his latest interview with Contently’s editor-in-chief Joe Lazauskas.

Great Content Takes Smart Risks

Hamann credits The Onion’s native ad success to smart risk-taking. While they never do anything that will make their clients uncomfortable or angry, they do find out where that line is and get as close as they can to that line. This is what makes Onion-branded content so fresh and effective.

For clients who wish to play a more active role in the creative and content creation process, The Onion offers ad products that aren’t Onion-branded. This flexibility would allow brands to still develop content that are within The Onion’s “comedic sensibilities,” but incorporate their products and messaging in the ways they want.

Ultimately, content success is about finding a balance between taking creative risks and serving the company’s business needs, to effectively reach and engage your target audience while giving your content a unique voice and identity.

Why So Much Branded Content Sucks

This is easier said than done though. As Hamann admits, creating great comedy and content is really difficult, and sometimes it just doesn’t work. It’s the same reason why so much advertising out there sucks because it’s really hard to do.

It takes real passion and dedication, Hamann says. People in your organization have to genuinely want to create great content and make it work, no matter how difficult it can be. If they don’t have the passion, care and knowledge to know what they are doing, Hamann says the final work is guaranteed to be terrible.

Think Beyond The 30-Second Increments

When asked what advice he would give to companies who want to make their brand funnier, Hamann says they shouldn’t make commercials.

Just like AOL’s head of video sales and strategy Noah Fenn, Hamann thinks brands shouldn’t limit themselves to thinking in 30-second increments and trying to run an ad as a piece of content. You need to create as many different ways as you can to solve the marketing challenge your brand has, whether that’s brand awareness, reach, engagement and so on.

Now more than ever, there are different devices and platforms brands can leverage to reach and engage their target audience. So you need to create a good mixture of content, including written, video and social, then find ways to distribute it to as many people as you can, and measure your performance so you can readjust your strategy accordingly.

Collaboration and communication is critical throughout this process. That’s why Hamann gathers everyone who touches the content creation work for a daily meeting every morning, to collectively work through their client challenges.

The Secret Sauce To Creating Great Content

While native advertising is not the same as content marketing, we can all agree that Hamann has shared some valuable insights that all marketers can apply to improve their work.

Great content surprises and delights your audience. I would take it a step further and add that effective content needs to provide real value and helps your audience in some way, to truly be able to resonate, reach and engage them.

It requires real passion, hard work and craft, combined with a thirst for constant learning, experimentation and innovation, and true teamwork with everyone in your organization to create the content and brand your customers will love.

What other tips do you have for marketers to create effective content and to build an amazing brand? Please share your ideas below!

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Michael Brenner is a globally-recognized keynote speaker, author of The Content Formula and the CEO of Marketing Insider Group. He has worked in leadership positions in sales and marketing for global brands like SAP and Nielsen, as well as for thriving startups. Today, Michael shares his passion on leadership and marketing strategies that deliver customer value and business impact. He is recognized by the Huffington Post as a Top Business Keynote Speaker and a top CMO influencer by Forbes. Please follow him on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Facebook and Subscribe here for regular updates.

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