Predictions 2023: The year ahead for branded content – by CNN’s John Malone

Audio is part of the branded content mix for 2023, writes CNN International Commercial’s John Malone

By John Malone, chief creative officer, CNN International Commercial

Branded content has taken many forms since we set up CNN’s first branded content studio 16 years ago. Back in 2007, it was undefined, and most publisher and brand co-created content drifted from traditionally produced advertorial to something akin to traditional advertising. This was in part influenced by the platforms, as most of our campaigns were made for our linear channel and the style inevitably felt more like something an ad agency would make than a publisher. The other influencing factor, or lack thereof, was measurement. We had limited ways of measuring audience engagement so our creative decision-making was based on intuition and general knowledge of what was performing well in sectors and markets.

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That has all changed dramatically. The explosion of platforms and the resulting evolution of audience measurement has provided us with tools that we use to connect with people and tell stories that they can relate to. Ultimately this has allowed us to tailor our offering to be inspiring and informative and, most importantly, make a lasting connection with audiences. CNN International Commercial’s brand studio, Create, devises campaigns that are fully multi-platform, spanning our own properties as well as client-owned platforms and both clients’ and our own social handles.

Recently we have put a considerable amount of resource into audio as a growth area for branded content. Podcasts have been around for two decades, but their appeal has grown exponentially in recent years. Since 2020, podcasts have become a daily source of inspiration and information that I personally consume while working. I now spend about an hour a day listening to audio content – from Kerning Cultures to Prof G, with a bit of music and a lot of Zoom calls in between. While I cannot say I am representative of the entire CNN audience, the global market data around audio, and specifically podcasts, paints a rosy picture of engagement. The Middle East is no exception – data tells us about seven out of 10 people in the region are consuming podcasts of some kind. More than half of those audiences spend at least 30 minutes a day exclusively listening to podcast content. In fact, the average is 1 hour and 43 minutes. That is a lot of time for people to spend when they have unlimited choice in a crowded media space.

The CNN Audio unit caters for this audience demand by producing bespoke audio content and podcasts. It creates listening experiences that deliver the three most important qualities our audience demands – relevance, informativeness and relatability – allowing them to dig deeper into topical news and original enterprise storytelling. The CNN audio slate includes seven ‘always-on’ daily or weekly podcasts plus a range of specials, which bring our programming slate to 50 podcasts. Audiences can engage with content from Sanjay Gupta to Anderson Cooper, whose podcast hit #1 on the Apple Podcast Charts this year. Our content is popular here in the Middle East on Anghami.

As a publisher that embraces an audience-first strategy to reach consumers, it’s important for CNN to play in this space with our branded content as well. When we break ‘audience-first’ down to its tenets, it first and foremost means viewing our audience as people. People with values and interests that inform their decisions. Audience-first also means bringing brands and people together through shared values. Branded content has evolved to take into account not only people’s interests but the way people consume content and even at what time of day. Audio offers new opportunities for brands to reach people when and where they are not consuming visual content.

Consequently, there is the opportunity to do some very exciting things with brands and audio. We recently produced ‘Forward, Better’, an audio-led campaign for Fujitsu Uvance, an initiative connecting thought leaders, tech and brands to address global challenges. We paired the host – Dr. Hannah Fry – with thought and business leaders in different sectors to address some of the most pressing and relevant sustainability challenges and to offer real achievable solutions. Other brands are also doing great stuff in the audio space. In the branded podcast space, F1 is educating and connecting fans to its biggest names with ‘Beyond the Grid’, and Basecamp is telling the secrets of longevity in business with ‘The Distance’ – both examples of brands embracing the format and proof positive that audiences are engaging with well-told stories in the audio space.

Are we pivoting away from written and moving-image-led content? Not so fast. However, the combination of audience demand, the scale of distribution and commercial interest makes audio key for 2023, but as part of a wider strategy and media mix along with TV, digital and social.

In my role as a storyteller and as someone who connects brands with audiences, I expect audio to be a core part of our product offering for the foreseeable future, offering brands a way to connect with audiences when they want, in a meaningful and memorable way.