Wattpad launches branded content unit

Digital storytelling platform Wattpad has introduced a new branded entertainment offering called Wattpad Brand Originals, which will partner with brands to develop TV series, films, podcasts and digital media projects from popular stories on its platform.

The Toronto-based company, which was sold to the South Korean internet conglomerate Naver for US$600 million earlier this year, is home to more than five million amateur writers, as well as a growing community of 90 million monthly readers around the world. Wattpad calls itself the world’s largest destination for the Gen Z cohort to write novels and long-form stories, with a new user joining every second. To date, nearly 1,500 Wattpad stories have either been published as books or adapted for TV or film.

Wattpad’s head of brand partnerships Chris Stefanyk called Wattpad Brand Originals “the future of branded entertainment,” slotting alongside other areas of its business to create an end-to-end ecosystem beginning with writing and ending with distribution.

The branded content sector as a whole is poised for explosive growth as Gen Z audiences increasingly adopt ad-free platforms such as Netflix and Disney+, he said. “Brands really need to be thinking creatively to reach this audience, and that’s not going to be [through traditional advertising] anymore—it’s going to be about creating original, rich, truly entertaining content that aligns with their brand values.”

Recent eMarketer data said that traditional TV ad spending in the U.S. was poised to drop by 15% last year to US$60 billion, its lowest level since 2011, as consumers continue to ditch cable TV and move to subscription services. The research company said that TV spending will remain below pre-pandemic levels through at least 2024.

“That money has to go somewhere,” said Stefanyk. “A lot of it will move to digital, but I think a lot of it will move to content as well.”

Wattpad Brand Originals will be supported by the company’s TV, film and publishing division Wattpad Studios, which Stefanyk said has delivered several strong examples of its capabilities since launching in 2016.

Wattpad Studios has scored several non-branded content hits since its inception, most notably the After franchise (right, main picture) based on Harry Styles fan fiction first published on its platform. Released in 2019, the first film had more than $70 million in box office receipts, winning three Teen Choice Awards and Drama Movie of the Year at the  E! People’s Choice Awards in 2019.

“It was a really clear validation that we could activate the existing fandom on Wattpad and turn it into mainstream success,” said Stefanyk. A second film in the series, released in the fall, was a box office hit across Europe, while two more films have been green lit.

Asked what distinguishes Wattpad Brand Originals from the myriad other branded content offerings launched in recent years, Stefanyk said that the company provides the integral building block: stories. “Everything starts with the unit of a story, and that’s what Wattpad is,” he said.

“Naturally the thought process internally was let’s bring brands into the producer’s seat with us, and really apply the studio’s model with them,” said Stefanyk. “We’ll work really closely with them to find stories that align with their brand values, and look to produce true original programming. This isn’t just about slapping a brand on a show and calling it a day. This is about a true partnership.”

While not created under the auspices of Wattpad Brand Originals, Wattpad notched a successful branded feature for Unilever’s Cornetto ice cream brand in the Philippines. The resulting movie, The One Summer, is credited with a 20% increase in sales for Cornetto and a seven-point increase in “brand love,” and won gold in the Best Branded Content category at the Festival of Media Asia Pacific Awards.

The natural question, then, is if Wattpad could already do that with its existing expertise, why launch Wattpad Brand Originals? “A much stronger studio’s capabilities helps us blow it up even bigger,” he said, adding that the new unit will also enable it to tap into existing content to a greater degree than it was previously.

“We have stories that have been read tens, if not hundreds of millions of times, that we know should be out there in the world, and we want brands to get involved in those and not be just responding to a brief, per se.”

Stefanyk said that Wattpad has many unique properties that could be a theoretical fit for brand partners. Its property Saving Everest, for example, tackles the current hot-button issue of teen mental health, which could lend itself to brand integration opportunities.

“You could imagine a world in which a number of brands could support content like that,” he said. “This conversation isn’t happening, but you could imagine a Bell [whose annual Bell Let’s Talk Day has become a cornerstone of the brand] wanting to get involved with that. That’s the perfect analogy.”

The focus for year one, he said, will be on the number of projects that are green lit rather than on revenue. “We know the revenue will come, but it’s most important to have strong, top-tier brand partners that want to produce top-tier entertainment with us.”

After that, perhaps they’ll all live happily ever after.

Chris Powell