At the intersection of public policy, advertising and streaming video, Netflix created a branded story worth our attention

Image source: The New York Times

Last summer, The New York TimesBrand Studio published a story called Women Inmates: Why the Male Model Doesn’t Work. The piece takes a critical look at the women’s prison system in the United States, arguing that changes are required to better meet the unique needs of incarcerated women.

This was a sponsored story, paid for by Netflix to promote its new season of Orange is the New Black (OITNB).

In some circles, sponsored content has gotten a bad rap for blurring the lines between editorial and advertising, without necessarily adding value to the broader narrative.

But what this story showed us is that not all branded or sponsored content is created equal. There is good content, and there is bad content; this holds true no matter who authors it.

I read and re-read this piece of journalism, listening to every sound clip and watching every video. When content is produced with that sort of depth, thoughtfulness and rigor, and is not overtly selling me anything, I can to pay attention to what matters: the content itself.

Yes, I’ll take note of whether it was sponsored, or placed, or branded, or whatever. But its authorship becomes less important than the words and ideas themselves.

The story, which focused on the unique challenges facing incarcerated women in the United States, is thematically connected to some of the experiences unpacked in the Netflix series OITNB. Netflix has license to talk about the issue because of the program. And wielding that license, it tells a narrative consistent—arguably—with the pedigree of reporting you would expect from the The New York Times.

The story includes the voices of actual inmates describing their experiences. The copy is broken up by a series of short, documentary-style video vignettes, infographics, dynamic images and audio clips that offer depth and texture to the rest of the narrative and underscores the points the body copy makes.

Here’s the point: it doesn’t feel like self-serving marketing content. It’s good, informative reading that argues a point of view, adding context to a broader conversation.

Where Netflix got it right:

Relevant content: The topic is timely, compelling and relevant to The New York Times’ audience. The post itself has been crafted to look and feel like something that would be right at home in its editorial stream; it doesn’t read like a brand promotion.

Emotional storytelling: The narrative is centred around real people, who tell their stories and share their experiences. Shown through audio, video and image, these stories help elicit empathy and provide context and information that is rooted in human-ness, not tropes.

Brand connection: Featured in the videos are interviews with Piper Kerman, author/producer of OITNB. She describes how, after her time in prison, her friends and family wanted to know more about what it was like. She describes how she wrote the book to share her experiences with others. Herein lies the connection between the brand and the story.

Image source: The New York Times

If you build it, they will (maybe) come. There is no shortage of stuff to consume on the web. But there’s a lot of clutter. And so the opportunity is to break through with a steady stream of top-notch content. The stuff that people want to read. The stuff that people want to share. The stuff that people discuss over after-work drinks.