The Onion is known for its razor-sharp spoof news articles, such as Breaking News: Some Bullsh*t Happening Somewhere and, more recently, Trump Tells Iowa Dairy Farmers He Has Cows 500 Times Bigger Than Theirs.

However, its in-house branded content agency is no laughing matter, drawing in big-name names from Coca-Cola to Lenovo.

Onion Labs, which launched two years ago, now generates 80 per cent of revenue for the Wisconsin-based publisher, according to the Content Marketing Institute.

Speaking at Digital Media Strategies USA last week, Mike McAvoy, chief executive officer of The Onion, defined Onion Labs’ strategy as “playing to an audience in a way that they love”.

While McAvoy’s claim that The Onion “invented” branded content in 1900 is dubious, other publishers might do well to take a leaf out of Onion Labs guidebook for communicating ad messages while also creating engaging content.

Play to your strengths

Though advertisers are the ones stumping up the cash, with native advertising it’s best to leave the business of content creation to the professionals – people who understand what makes the publication’s audience tick.

The Onion has 50 “creatives” who produce all the content featured on its three sites – The Onion, Clickhole and pop culture site The A.V. Club – and who also work with Onion Labs.

“We look upon the best ideas that people love, and get them funded by advertisers,” explained McAvoy.

Sponsored posts, although clearly labelled, are written “in voice” to match the tone of The Onion’s editorial content, something McAvoy said “ensures that the marketing and social distribution is maximised, because the audience knows exactly what they’re getting: they’re getting Onion content on behalf of a brand”.

Take risks

According to McAvoy, “you can’t be afraid, and crapping your pants is actually a good thing”.

The Onion’s spoof entertainment news channel, StarFix, features a video promoting a new TV show hosted by Seth Myers, which McAvoy described as a good example of a brand being willing to “put [itself] out there”

The episode shows fans saying goodbye to former Saturday Night Live presenter Myers, who the video tells us has been “killed off “in a dramatic episode of SNL

“He exposes himself in a way that actually worked tremendously well, all because they were willing to be in on the joke but not be afraid of that that joke was.”

Don’t make a commercial

“Create the kind of content your audience wants but, make something that people aren’t actively trying to avoid – actually make something entertaining.

For example, the Tough Season series – a mockumentary about one man’s mission to become champion of his office fantasy football league – was sponsored by Lenovo. It intended to let the brand “show a sense of humour” and offer a contrast to its existing marketing, tended to be more “intense and self-aware”.

The series first season reached more than 13 million viewers, according to Ad Age, and a second season featuring 13 more episodes ran last year.

Of course, having connections in the right places helps to create successful content as well.

McAvoy admitted that one of the reasons the Tough Season performed so well, is because The Onion was able to get NFL players such as Chicago Bears’ Matt Forte, Indianapolis Colts’ Andrew Luck and Denver Broncos’ Wes Welker in on the joke as well.

No, seriously, don’t make a commercial

This point is so important it warrants being mentioned twice, according to McAvoy.

“The biggest decision you’ll make with branded content is [whether] to push people into a 15-second commercial, and we just do not believe in that,” he explained.

Keep it simple

Brands and agencies often get so caught up in “enforcing integration [and] brand messaging,” said McAvoy, that they “forget about the simplicity of creating content people want”. 

Forget fancy slogans and catchy one-liners. In the world of branded content, McAvoy insists the greatest words in the English content are sometimes just “brought to you by…”

It’s a phrase which appears in the Seth Myers StarFix video above, and in many other instances across The Onion’s branded content.

“In writing content people want,” he explained, “the nature of [reader’s] affinity to that brand is naturally transferred to the advertiser”.


Image courtesy of Roberto Nieves via Flickr used under a creative commons license.