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Content Bubble: Does Anyone Know Whether Content Marketing Works?

  |  July 22, 2014   |  Comments

Brands are jumping into content marketing with hope, but without the proper metrics to gauge results. Can brand content lead to sales or conversions?

The content marketing craze has put a lot of marketers back into the bad old John Wanamaker days, where they can't tell what part of their content marketing spend is working - or if content marketing works at all.

According to the B2C Content Marketing: 2014 Benchmarks, Budgets, and Trends — North America report, produced by the Content Marketing Institute and MarketingProfs, 90 percent of B2C companies are using content marketing. (The study includes most kinds of content, including blog posts, social media, and articles on company websites.)

At the dawn of digital media, its big promise was that it was measurable – unlike traditional media. But with response rates for banners and display in the toilet, brands have circled back to sponsoring content in the hopes that it will move their sales, although many lack the metrics to know if that's the case.

Says Stuart McLean, president of Content & Co, a production company specializing in creating Web series for brands including Subway and Schick Hydro, "When you’re looking at a fairly skittish consumer who's multitasking and grabbing content from multiple channels, it's difficult to line up unless you start [with content]." Brand-generated content, he adds, is perfect for the brand because it was built for the brand. "It reverses the traditional TV and digital model where a series is built for someone else, whether it's a portal or network, and then the network goes out and sells it to the brand."

Eric Johnson, president of Ignited, thinks the best content marketing serves as a demo of the product. He points to the wildly popular GoPro videos that are entertaining in themselves while also sparking ideas about what else you could do with the tiny, semi-indestructible cameras. In a content campaign by Ignited for high-end consumer audio maker DTS, YouTube celebrities Rhett and Link demonstrate DTS headphones' surround-sound capabilities by fooling people into thinking they're being attacked by a real dog.

Interestingly, measurement is a lot easier in the B2B world, Johnson says, where you can link a piece of content to a sales lead or website visit. In the B2C world, "They're using metrics, but softer metrics. It's hard to say a retweet converted to you buying a car."

Does Engagement Matter?

Most content marketers use engagement stats as a proxy for effectiveness: how many shares, how many clicks, how many tweets? But there's no clear correlation. "Everyone is wrestling with this. A lot of work that's going on right now is experimental," Johnson says. "In the near term, they aren't worrying about conversion."

Engagement is easy to measure but difficult to match to business key performance indicators (KPIs), says David Brown, executive vice president at Meredith Xcelerated Marketing (MXM). "The gold standard is to connect content marketing to a business measure - not an engagement measure – such as a sale, a repeat sale, or loyalty. If you can only get to engagement, you have to create a bridge or proxy to a business measure. That's possible, but takes significant analytics to create those correlations."

You also need a lot of eyeballs, aka a distribution strategy.

Content discovery services certainly deliver when it comes to traffic and, for Web publishers, the value proposition is simple: Because their business model revolves around getting people to consume their content, a page visit is a clear win. The picture is murkier when it comes to brand content, those thought-leadership articles, how-to pieces, or funny videos that deliberately soft-sell or altogether ignore the brand and its products.

Says Adam Singolda, chief executive (CEO) of content discovery service Taboola, "If you're a marketer giving us content, we ask, 'What would success look like?'" For some Taboola clients, success means getting a site visitor to read at least three articles. Others want newsletter signups or sharing and earned media value.

Taboola and other content discovery services typically provide tracking pixels so that publishers and advertisers can follow customers past the initial content engagement. Singolda says that lets clients determine the lifetime value of a user.

But while it's not impossible to correlate engagement with content to traditional brand metrics such as brand lift, awareness, or intent to purchase, it is very expensive and time-consuming, often involving consumer panels.

IPG Media Lab did two studies on native ads, one commissioned by native advertising platform Sharethrough and one by Forbes. The Sharethrough study, completed in May 2013, surveyed 4,770 consumers, adding an eye-tracking study of 200 consumers. The native ad units registered an 18 percent higher lift for purchase intent and 9 percent higher lift for brand affinity. Consumers looked at native ads 53 percent more frequently than banners, and 25 percent more consumers looked at in-feed native ads, compared to banner ad units.

In October 2013, Forbes, operator of the highly lucrative BrandVoice platform, released its own study with IPG involving 2,259 consumers. It exposed consumers to brand-generated articles on, among other places, Forbes.com and found that branded content provided better unaided and aided brand recall (26 versus 21 percent and 51 versus 33 percent, respectively). However, across the board, typical brand metrics – favorability, purchase intent/consideration, or "is it a brand I trust" – were higher when articles appeared on the brand website than on Forbes.com.

More recently, inPowered did a study of 1,000 consumers in Nielsen's MediaLab measuring the role of content in the consumer purchasing process. The study compared brand content, user-generated content like reviews, and expert content, because inPowered lets brands identify third-party content relating to their products and distribute it via native ads that link back to the original content.

It found a huge shift in the influence of content on consumer purchase decisions: "We found that the reliance of people on content in making decisions had increased by five times in five years across the board, from social media to brands' own websites," says Peyman Nilforoush, CEO of inPowered. InPowered focuses on expert reviews, so this study confirms its own value proposition.

Indeed, what metrics matter seems to depend a lot of what metrics a vendor can offer. Says Nilforoush, "We focus on what people pay attention to as opposed to driving traffic to content. The challenge with content marketing right now is that, whether they looking at clicks or engagement, business metrics are far away from both of those metrics."

Can Brand Content Compete?

There's evidence that branded content doesn't do as well as straight editorial content. When website analytics provider Chartbeat looked at Web user behavior across 2 billion visits over the course of a month, it found that 55 percent of page views lasted less than 15 seconds – not enough time for a human to actually read the content. When it came to native ads – of all kinds, it should be noted – only one-third of page viewers hung around for more than 15 seconds.

Lisa LaCour, Outbrain's vice president of global marketing, cannot provide any statistics on bounce or engagement rates for Outbrain clients because there are so many variables, she says. While Outbrain's platform doesn't distinguish between publishers and brands, she says that overall, "We're seeing two to three times more engagement coming from Outbrain than from search and social."

Content recommendation service Taboola tells ClickZ that time spent on sponsored content after users click through Taboola's recommendations changes all the time, so the company measures page views per session. Generally, this amounts to approximately two to four video page views, four to six article page views, and seven to 12 gallery page views.

In general, across nine product categories, the inPowered study found that content written by unbiased third parties like journalists improved purchase intent, familiarity, and brand affinity the most, with brand content performing better than user content.

So, in general, it looks like brand content can lead to sales or conversions. The question remains, though, how does a brand know whether its own content marketing is doing the job, or, even better, which content gets the job done best? We'll explore these questions in the second article in this series.

Content Bubble or Baby Step?

Ignited's Johnson says he's a true believer. He points out that, while consumer brands are spending a lot of money in aggregate, most of them are devoting just a small portion of total marketing dollars.

As banner blindness and ad avoidance become nearly universal, Johnson says, "Content marketing is a way to go and get your product in front of people without doing it in so blatantly commercial a manner."

That doesn't mean there won't be winners and losers in the content marketing game. Says Brown of MXM, "We're in a honeymoon period right now. There's been a huge amount of attention and investment toward content marketing in the last 18 months. Investment has increased as much for the buzz [as for business value], and I think there will be a cooling off. Companies that did it without the business measurements in place will be disappointed, and they will go back to their channels that are measured. The ones that stay will be the ones that have measurement reinforcing the reasons why they are investing."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Susan Kuchinskas

Susan Kuchinskas has covered interactive advertising since its invention. The former staff writer for Adweek, Business 2.0, and M-Business covers technology, business and culture from Berkeley, CA.

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