The best branded content has this one thing in common

When it comes to high-quality content marketing, the common denominator is people, not product. Well, sometimes product. But that’s almost always second to people.

Need proof? Digiday recently announced their picks for 2015’s best native advertising and many of the nominees have a decidedly human bent. Here are some of the more notable efforts:

Black Diamond, The Human Factor
It’s not every piece of branded content that begins with the detailed death of a young skier. But this gripping Powder magazine piece pulls readers in with an avalanche, and then explores how the lives of Olivia Buchanan and others could’ve been saved from the perils of backcountry skiing. The well-written, well-designed story is literally the Snowfall of snowfall (and was rightly nominated for national magazine awards). The smart, but subtle brand connection: Black Diamond manufactures avalanche airbags that help keep people from being buried in the snow.

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Target, Target Loves Every Body
As you’ve probably heard by now, Sports Illustrated put a plus-size woman on the cover of this month’s swimsuit issue. But Target Style’s collaboration with The Every Girl — a swimsuit feature that led off with a full-figured model — beat them to the punch. Even with over 100-million plus-size women in the U.S., it’s rare for fashion stories to focus on the challenges of finding a suit over a certain size. Instead of fat shaming, The Every Girl’s editorial team encouraged L.A. blogger Rachel Richardson to help women like her realize “it’s not about covering up, it’s about uncovering what’s best.” This message resonated with its audience so much, the article was pinned over 4,000 times on Pinterest.

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United States Postal Service, Holiday MVPs
Using influencers in content marketing is nothing new, but tugging on the heartstrings is. The USPS’ campaign — produced in conjunction with sports culture site The Post Game — took influencer marketing in an emotional direction in its first season by getting professional athletes to send a gift to someone in their life who went above-and-beyond. Season two is the reverse, where special someones send a gift to pro players who are on the road. While I prefer the stories in the first season more, the Make-A-Wish connection in Harrison Barnes’ story makes for a pretty compelling watch.

The Principal, See Your Retirement
To get people thinking about retirement, The Principal Financial Group didn’t ask people to picture their retirement — the brand did that for them. Over 5,400 people used the hashtag #SeeYourRetirement to share their goals and about a third were brought to life with the help of The Principal’s team of on-call artists. While most people-centric campaigns put the focus on someone else, this campaign found a way to incorporate those who interacted with the brand. The result: a higher level of engagement at an overall lower cost when compared to The Principal’s more traditional marketing campaigns.

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So what makes branded content campaigns built around people so winning? They give us something to relate to. What backcountry skier wouldn’t say “that could’ve been me” when reading about Olivia Buchanan? What Mom wouldn’t tear up when listening to Michelle Vitiritto talk about her son’s cancer? While these stories may not speak to you, they certainly speak to somebody. My recommendation: if you want your content to get clicked, make sure that you have a story that clicks — one that people can see themselves in.