There’s no exact formula for publishing the perfect piece of branded content.

As is the case with any creative work, you’re going to go through a period of trial and error before you find the process that works best for you, and there are going to be some hits and misses along the way.

Even now, five years into my career as a professional writer, I am still tinkering with how I do things, learning from my peers, and searching for ways to get better.

With that said, I’ve looked at thousands of branded content items over the past two years — first as an advertising reporter and later as a content marketing writer — and I’ve noticed that the best stories always have a few things in common.

Here are the four elements I’ve found to make up an amazing piece of branded content.

An enticing headline that lives up to its promise

As I’ve written before, I don’t start working on a piece until I have first given serious consideration to what the headline will be.

Ideally, your headline should be not only the thing that explains to readers why they should click on your content, but also the organizing principle around which your story takes shape. By putting the headline first, you start the content creation process by answering an important question that prioritizes your readers’ best interests: “What will make the target audience pick my story out of the crowd?” From there, it’s just a matter of delivering on the expectations you’ve set with your headline.

Another way to think about headline creation is that the best headlines contain two things: a sales pitch and a promise. You want to give your readers something to be excited about, but you also need to present a clear idea of at least one specific thing they will get out of clicking on your link. By making firm promises to the reader, listicles and “how to” style headlines have stood the test of time and continue to be effective, even as the You Won’t Believe What Happened Nexts of the world have started to fade.

In this piece, the headline’s sales pitch is that clicking on it will help you create better branded content, while the promise is that the story will include four specific things that make up a great story.

Of course, the headline only works if we can deliver on the promise we’ve made. Otherwise, we’ll face the consequences when readers refuse to share the story on social media and decide not to return to our blog.

An intriguing thumbnail image

Oftentimes, the thumbnail image that accompanies a story goes overlooked, but it’s part of the same package with the headline that readers see when they consider whether they will click a link to your story on social media, on your homepage, or in content recommendations.

While it’s crucial that you fulfill the promise made in your headline, thumbnail images are all about catching people’s attention in the social media stream, and you’re allowed to be a little more abstract when it comes to tying them to the content of your story. For instance, I really enjoyed the illustration for Contently’s recent guide to Facebook video.

In general, you want to be looking for the image that will stand out most and that will make readers want to know more about what’s inside your content. For this reason, photos of people can be extremely effective, especially if part of the image is somehow obscured.

Two more tips: If you’re sharing a video, you can use a screenshot from its most interesting moment, and if you have celebrities involved in your story, you should definitely include a photo of one of them (but make sure that you have the legal rights to do so).

Something that is either highly informative or extremely entertaining

There are two ways content marketers can provide value to their consumers: either they can inform their audience or entertain them.

For B2B brands, the best route is usually to provide industry-specific insights that help the members of your target audience perform better at their jobs. For instance, this LinkedIn post from the Content Marketing Institute has generated more than 17,000 pageviews by showing content marketers the issues that are preventing them from reaching their full potential.

On the other hand, consumer-facing brands may have less to gain by proving themselves to be a trusted source of information about a given field. For them, it might be more important to form an emotional connection with a broader segment of prospective customers by giving them something entertaining to share with their friends.

Generally speaking, people like to share entertainment content that allows them to stay in touch with the people they care about, promotes a cause that’s important to them, or gives them the opportunity to express their individual identity.

As an example, American Greetings scored a viral hit last year with a clever video that allowed viewers who shared it on social media to connect with their mothers and identify themselves as people who care about their parents.

An offer for further engagement

Every single piece of content you produce should provide a way for people to interact with your brand again in the near future. This could be a link to your blog, an offer to receive an e-mail newsletter or a request that the viewer subscribe to your YouTube channel.

Either way, one of the marks of a great piece of branded content is that it leads the reader or viewer to your brand’s next story.

Now that you have a template for what a successful piece of content looks like, it’s time for you to start creating.

Remember, once you’ve found a hit, you can get even more bang for your buck by producing follow-up pieces that attack the same topic from different angles.

Discovery channels like Taboola can be a great way to further promote pieces that resonate with your audiences. Interested in learning more about how your team can engage audiences around the web through content?  Contact one of Taboola’s strategists today.

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