This article originally appeared on Digiday April 30, 2013
Native advertising has been the online marketing world’s shiny new object for the better part of a year. Sponsored posts, branded video and search ads could all be fairly characterized as native advertising, as could a full-page denim ad in a fashion magazine or a Coca Cola-sponsored pre-movie quiz if we stretch the definition a bit.
The problem is this: So much of the discussion around native advertising is narrowly focused on placement and less on the value of a brand’s presence for consumers. The real opportunity in native is less about sexy new placements and more about a chance to move away from the old-school model of extracting value from readers in favor of starting a conversation with them through great content.
Certainly, native units help brands address one of their major issues on publisher platforms: complementing the user experience rather than interrupting it. But that’s just one half of the equation. What about the other half – the valuable content? Technically, you don’t need a “native” unit for that. If you’re truly delivering something that is useful and interesting to consumers, the vehicle is only as important as the material.You can read the rest of the article here on Digiday.
In a recent AdAge article, Chartbeat presented interesting data about which parts of a content page receive the highest user engagement. A key take-away from their study was that the area of the page below the fold has higher engagement than many realize, higher in fact than areas of the page typically considered premium by advertisers (like top center). As a result, they conclude, marketers have been “placing value in the wrong place” by buying ad inventory where people are less engaged.
While the data Chartbeat showcases is incredibly useful, the conclusion they are drawing from it is misplaced. User engagement is not a fixed asset that designers and marketers can plan around. In fact it’s the reverse: the design and structure of the page, and especially the decision of where to feature content versus where to feature ads, dictates user engagement and has the potential to change the heatmap Chartbeat has created
I’ll provide an anecdote to help illustrate this point. When we started working with publishers at Outbrain about five years ago, the article footer area beneath the fold was basically a superfund site. Publishers were using that real estate to dump as many sponsored links and direct response offers as they could (“Lose 30 lbs with Acai Berry Diet!”, “Billionaire Predicts Financial Ruin!”, etc.) to monetize below the fold.
We came to them with a different proposition; the end of an article was the perfect place to feature additional content and help users “turn the page” to another great story. When we first launched in 2008, the click-through rate we recorded on links to additional content was about 1 percent. But over time, we saw this engagement metric rise dramatically, on some sites over 5-10 x its initial baseline.
While much of this progress was due to algorithmic advances we made in selecting what content to feature, another more subtle shift was also apparent: we were retraining users to look at that part of the page, to trust it again as an area to discover something worthwhile and interesting. We were reclaiming the land for users and making it vibrant again.
We saw evidence of this in our data. We saw that 30-40 percent of people who clicked on our content recommendations would scroll to the end of the subsequent article and then click another one, building trust in the experience and using this part of the page repeatedly for serendipitous navigation.
The lesson we learned was that the tie between user engagement and page position is not fixed – it can be molded and changed by the publisher. Publishers can breathe life into any area of their page by consistently using it for the one reason people come to their site in the first place – for reading, watching and finding great content. The opposite is of course also true. Cordoning off parts of a page for material that users find irrelevant—or worse, false and untrustworthy—is a sure way to create a barren desert that will take time to resuscitate down the road.
There is a very positive message in this learning for advertisers, too, in that they can actively participate in the ecosystem that drives and molds user behavior. The rise of digital content marketing, including brands’ growing sophistication in creating, curating and aggregating world class content, allows them to work side by side with publishers to produce value for both parties in the right way– by producing value for the end user. At the end of the day, the opportunity for marketers is much larger than simply locating user engagement on a heatmap and placing a banner there – it’s the ability to create that user engagement themselves, through the production and amplification of content those users will love.
We are living in a time of constant change. And the pace of change is constantly increasing. Trying to reach consumers in this environment is becoming more and more difficult. As marketers, you face channel fragmentation, micro segmentation of audiences and the decline of attention spans. With so many changes on the horizon, how are you supposed to create yearly marketing plans? How do you plan in an environment that is so hard to predict? As it turns out, you can be both dynamic and agile while having a sustainable, long-term strategy. You just need to change your approach to planning from the core. Increasingly, the key to this is to focusing on themes that can be expressed through content.
Content Over Campaigns
My experience working with some of the largest and most successful brands in the world has taught me that they all have something in common. They’re not thinking about the next campaign, which often means working hard leading up to a launch and subsequently throwing it all away once the launch is over. They make sure that they have a center of gravity that pulls everything together – and it’s usually all about content.
Let’s take Redbull for example. Their theme is “Redbull gives you wings.” If they were focused purely on campaigns, they would never have spent four years planning to send a man to jump from space. They look at their lighthouse – their theme – and if an activation makes sense in its light, they do it. They also plan carefully how an activation, in the “online” or “offline” world, will generate content – owned as well as earned. That jump resulted in over eight million people watching the live online broadcast for nearly four hours. It also generated a whole lot of earned media like this piece in “Forbes”.
For Redbull, marketing is all about great content driven by their overarching theme. The vast majority of the content on their site has nothing to do with their products. It’s all about the events they produce and news that’s relevant to their audience. The content is delivered through their website and online syndication partners, on TV and in print.
Their print magazine theRedBulletin is one of the largest distribution paid magazines in the world with over 3 million subscribers. Redbull’s content is so good that they launched a media division, RedBull Media House, that is selling (!!) its content to media houses. Getting paid for product placement? Think of that as an ROI goal of the marketing budget.
American Express OPEN is another great example of a brand that’s theme driven. Theirs is “Powering Small Business Success.” In that light, it makes sense for them to do initiatives like “Small Business Saturday” every year. It also explains why they invest so much in OpenForum.com – a place where SMB owners can get great advice from the likes of Guy Kawasaki and Richard Branson and become part of a vibrant community. They’re not trying to hit you over the head with their message. They’re focused on providing great value in line with their theme.
And what about Kraft? For them, content isn’t just a tactic. It’s the strategy that powers all of their marketing – online and offline. Did you know they own one of the most popular subscription cooking magazines, “Food & Family”? And what about one of the most successful food apps, iFood? Owned by Kraft as well. So it’s no big surprise they also have one of the most successful recipe sites in the world in KraftRecipes.com. The site features more than 30,000 recipes, 20,000 of which were submitted by the vibrant community that surrounds it.
Optimizing and Measuring Engagement
When your marketing strategy is driven by a theme, you’re more likely to create great content and ultimately, provide true value to consumers. Then you’ll discover something profound. All of your marketing initiatives across all channels will seamlessly plug into it. Former strategies like SEO, paid search, earned social, paid social, content amplification, CRM and even display will suddenly become just tactics – working together to drive discoverability and engagement with your content. You can now take all of these tactics, no matter what the buying mechanism – CPC, CPM, CPV or CPA – and create a common measurement unit that’s focused on engagement.
Each engagement indicator (a page view, a download of a white paper, a print of a recipe, time on site, downloads, CRM subscription, bounce rate) will have its own dollar value or simply a relative value in comparison with other KPIs. Let’s say you assign a whitepaper a value of 100 points. Now you can take all other engagement options and reference them relative to this number. For example, how much is engagement with your thought leadership video worth? 20? Great. Now what about a page view of an article? Let’s say 5. Now you can take all your different engagement indicators and evaluate the total value of engagement, and optimize any engagement acquisition tactics with a goal to increase your total engagement worth.
At the end of the day, good marketers will always be pushing the envelope and experimenting with new trends and strategies. But keeping everything tied to a theme that’s core to your brand and drives everything you do will help keep your marketing strategy cohesive and focused – just like the big guys do.
See the original post on Business2Community.
Image courtesy via Flickr/Creative Commons .
It’s been nearly impossible to consume any kind of media in the last few weeks without hearing about Netflix’s new original series “House of Cards.” With a massive budget and 13 episodes that were released simultaneously to enable binge viewing, the David Fincher-directed series has everyone talking about what it means for the future of the TV industry.
What hasn’t been discussed is what this move means for content marketers. Yes, you read that correctly. Netflix’s strategy has some important lessons for the content marketing industry. As a company with plenty to lose and an all-too-recent history of spoiling its goodwill with a once fiercely loyal subscriber base, Netflix has plenty on the line. And it all begins with how successful they are at engaging their customers.
Hulu, Amazon, Vudu and iTunes may be streaming rivals to Netflix, but television titans HBO and Showtime are the established leaders in subscription-based premium content and Netflix’s ultimate targets. In order to compete, Netflix has to develop and sustain the kind of experience worthy of “the golden age of television,” which the aforementioned networks are leading in. Judging by theoverwhelmingly positive response to “House of Cards,” Netflix aced the exam.
If you produce content, either as a brand or publisher, you’re not just competing with similarly positioned players for eyeballs. You are competing with the biggest platforms in digital — the Facebooks and Twitters of the world.
Look to the companies consistently producing great content and use that as inspiration. Use your unique voice and expertise to tell great stories in appealing packages — whether you produce videos, photos, editorial, blogs or long form content. It’s tempting to cut corners and skimp on quality in the chase for eyeballs, especially if you’re new to content marketing, but sabotaging yourself early with less-than-stellar content can reduce internal buy-in and stamp out support for your content-marketing plan.
Netflix is acutely aware of its subscribers’ binge-viewing behavior and elected to honor it with the release of all 13 episodes of “House of Cards” at once. Engaging your audience in the manner they like to be engaged is a smart long-term strategy, even at the expense of short-term gains.
As you consider new ways of distributing your content — the oft-overlooked “marketing” side of the content marketing equation — make sure it’s native to consumer habits. There are a number of working examples to consider, from native advertising to content discovery platforms. If your target audience is reading articles on a publisher site, engage them with your own articles. If they’re looking at a Facebook feed, engage them with a sponsored post. In each instance the audience is interacting with your content in the context of their normal habits.
Netflix could easily have created a great show and then followed the linear programming model of releasing one episode each week. Surely this would have incentivized longer subscriptions (for those signing up for the one-month trial just to check out the show) and inspired week-to-week buzz.
Instead, Netflix made it extremely easy for users to watch more “House of Cards” while they were already in content-consumption mode. Making all 13 chapters available is one thing, enabling auto-play after each one is another (if you’re like me, the next chapter started automatically while you debated whether to stop for the evening). If Netflix is only marginally interested in the short-term gains “House of Cards” could provide – namely, a lift in new subscriptions — it’s because they’re cultivating a far more valuable asset: a hyper-engaged audience.
Such an audience is less likely to relinquish their subscription after having a great experience, even if they intended to quit at the end of a one-month trial. They’re also more likely to evangelize and rave to their friends.
Marketers pay heed: audiences hyper-engaged with your content can provide ample opportunity to convert them to loyal customers and, ultimately, brand ambassadors further down the sales funnel.
In many ways, “House of Cards” may be a test to see just how engaged the Netflix audience is. As their content offering grows and more subscribers come to their platform, their insight will deepen and they may yet find an optimal solution to deliver their content.
It’s taken shows like “Breaking Bad” and “Friday Night Lights” years of linear programming, great reviews and word-of-mouth to reach wider audiences. It wasn’t until they were made available on streaming providers like Netflix that audiences really started flocking to them. Waiting for “House of Cards” to become another legacy show on Netflix might very well have robbed Netflix of the deeper insight they were after. Is the binge-viewing phenomenon the result of months and years of hype, or can a quality new show made to order enjoy equally great results? Netflix’s reluctance to release the numbers on how many people watch “House of Cards” indicates a willingness to wait and find out.
Tracking audience engagement is crucial to figuring out what’s working and what isn’t so you can optimize your strategy. Set benchmarks that cohere with your goals. Is your goal to increase brand awareness? Deliver a bigger audience for advertisers? Get people to use your app? To use a baseball metaphor, you don’t have to hit a home run every time if you can string together some singles.
The new model that Netflix has introduced to the market is not unlike content marketing in its infancy. The same debate over engagement, revenue and ROI should all sound familiar. The fact is, it takes time and learning to develop successful new strategies for growing digital media, but if you’re going to start, put your best foot forward. With “House of Cards,” Netflix has done just that.Photo credit: Melinda Sue Gordon for Netflix. This post originally appeared on TechCrunch, you can read and comment on the original story here.
Native advertising and content marketing have become so widespread that governing bodies like the IAB are starting to contemplate issuing standards and best practices for the industry. In a recent IAB town hall meeting, attendees reached a collective agreement that core values like preserving reader trust are paramount to the continued success and scalability of this movement. I’ve outlined this and nine other themes to consider when shaping a content or native ad strategy. Whether you are a marketer, publisher or agency, considering these themes will increase your chances of executing a content-driven strategy with success.
1. Establish Content Guidelines
Before beginning any content campaign, you should sit down and write your own guidelines to establish a value system that will guide your strategy and ensure a consistent level of quality across your organization. Evolving Outbrain’s content guidelines has been one of the most significant challenges in scaling the company, but we feel it’s important in order to maintain the trust of readers who are clicking on our links.
For those just starting out with this process, I’d highly recommend looking at the guidelines of other companies for inspiration. The Atlantic and StumbleUpon provide a great starting point. Time Out Chicago Editor-in-Chief Frank Sennett also recently penned some suggested guidelines for sponsored content that are useful for both advertisers and publishers. Above all else, think like a consumer. Would you share the content you are publishing with your own friends? If you discovered the content on your favorite premium news site, would you be delighted or feel duped? Would you share it with your Mom?
2. Always Insist on Full Disclosure
You can create the most “native,” authentic, or interesting content but if audiences sense that an advertiser is operating covertly on the page, any goodwill the content might have created is likely to evaporate, or worse, turn into public scorn. Both publishers and advertisers need to operate overtly with respect to content that appears within the context of a site’s editorial. Promoted stories, sponsored posts and content recommendations must be clearly identified as such. We’ve learned at Outbrain that quality and trust reign when it comes to content and disclosure. Don’t worry about labeling the content as sponsored; it won’t hinder the audience response if it’s relevant, trusted and authentic.
Here are a few examples:
Mini USA on BuzzFeed:
PayPal on Mashable:
Sponsored Links on AllThingsD:
3. Consider Your Sales Funnel
A surefire way to waste valuable time and resources is to pair top-of-funnel content against direct response goals at the outset. It’s best to get some data on how your content is being received and by whom before working further down the marketing funnel. Consider where in your sales funnel content engagement is likely to happen and will address your goals. For example, trusted content can be an ideal way to draw the favorable attention of consumers when they are primarily interested in discovering quality content as opposed to actively seeking more specific information on what you sell. Consider how different content assets like owned media or earned media will fit into your plan.
For example, are you distributing earned media to drive awareness or to drive a conversion like more app downloads? Generally speaking, starting with brand awareness and working down the funnel will give you more data and learnings. Too many first efforts disappoint because the initial content was delivering brand awareness and the goals were direct response focused. That said, if conversions are the only metric, there are advanced techniques that involve adding tracking pixels to owned content and using re-targeting to move content consumers toward a call to action. Get your potential customers through that funnel with Outbrain. Keep in mind that connecting the consumption of content to direct sales is a fledging practice, therefore a conversion strategy must also come with the expectation that the content assets will likely need to be revised many times over to identify what works in terms of driving folks to action.
4. Maintain Your Content’s Front Door
The front door attracts (or repels) audiences to your content. There is no greater tragedy in content marketing than a brilliant piece of content trapped behind an uninviting door, whether it’s a badly written headline, email subject line, low-quality thumbnail or video still, or a overtly self-serving tweet or Facebook update. Whatever the case, if you find that your content isn’t performing as you’d expected, consider looking at the front door. With owned content, one pitfall to avoid is changing the front door in a way that no longer represents the content. It’s not the first click you’re after, but rather the post-click engagement. Resist the temptation to publish sensational headlines that might elicit a first click and then cause disappointment.
5. And Keep Users Clicking Once They’re In
The most engaged visitors are those who make it to the end of the content experience, and these are the people who represent the most potential for your brand. The best time to engage your audience is when they’re already in content consumption mode, which is why every page on your site should offer plenty of avenues for them to enjoy further content. The marketers at L’Oreal, who are behind the site Makeup.com, are experts at this. A recent article featuring hairstyle tips boasted recommended video links, trending stories along the left-hand navigation, as well as suggestions for further reading at the bottom. Further, all content assets should be optimized fully to allow audiences to share.
Get the most out of your content right away!
6. Want content but don’t want to become a publisher? Curate.
You understand the power of using content but do not want to take on the costs of becoming a mini newsroom. You are not alone. If content creation is an obstacle, consider using newly formed content curation services such as Newscred, Ricochet or Scribit (Outbrain acquired Scribit). These platforms allow any site owner to license content from other high quality publishers for use on their site.
Curated content from Forbes on SAP
7. Focus on Conversations, Not Campaigns
The natural inclination for those just starting out in content marketing is to take a campaign-driven approach. While there are occasions – like new product launches — when this works well, the reality is that creating and distributing content is less about “activations” and more about igniting or participating in a conversation with different audiences.
When creating content, it’s important to think about what will resonate with different audience clusters such as 1) Those who don’t know you 2) Those who might know you but have not come forward yet 3) Current customers 4) Evangelists and 5) Detractors.
Each audience cluster is likely to want a different kind of content conversation. Further, have a plan for following your audience as they progress in your lifetime value chain. Similar to the way display ads re-target consumers in sequence, content can be used in the same way. The difference with content is that when you have someone’s attention, they tend to want more on a somewhat regular basis, which is a great relationship to have. We see many content campaigns that launch with a start and end date. Thousands of consumers have their interest piqued, then the campaign ends, as does the content flow and the audience is left wanting. Although an “always on” strategy may be too much heavy lifting at first, it’s prudent to think about how you can achieve a continuous long-term conversation.
8. Budget Upfront for Content Amplification
Failing to budget upfront for driving eyeballs to content and relying too much on organic sharing is one of the most common mistakes we see in content marketing. Consult amplification platforms like Facebook, Twitter, StumbleUpon and Outbrain regarding pricing and best practices on how to buy traffic before you complete your sell-in strategy and budget. This practice also helps set internal expectations at the outset that a sound content strategy needs three main pieces: strategy, creation and amplification.
9. Optimize for Mobile
No content marketing strategy is complete without taking into account audiences that access your content via mobile. Start with the basics: be sure your site is optimized for viewing on a mobile device and keep length in mind. Most audiences do not want a 5,000 word commitment on their smartphone. Second, your mobile strategy should address the mobile web as one piece and apps as another. As you read this piece there are people trying to access your site via their smartphone through a mobile browser. Be ready to analyze the different traffic patterns coming into your content from desktop and mobile devices. If you’re finding that traffic to your desktop site dips over the weekend while mobile traffic spikes, you should be focused on pushing your mobile content on Saturdays and Sundays when readers are away from their computers. Armed with the right data, savvy content marketers target their customer segments with different kinds of content, on different days of the week based on content consumption habits.
10. Content Velocity
Measuring how content performs is a tricky business as performance takes on many meanings. Actually arriving at a standard way to measure content performance is one of the biggest challenges our industry faces today. At the IAB Content Marketing Town Hall, most agreed that just looking at CTR is not nearly enough. Other key elements such as shareability, post-click engagement, conversion attribution and shelf life all factor significantly. Taking this a step further, it’s important to compare the organic vs. paid velocity. Does a piece of content get strong organic lift via sharing? Does the content need a paid model to keep it on the surface of enough people to matter? This subject goes deep, so I am not attempting to solve this here, however it’s prudent to consider what kind of engagement metric serves your goals to quantitatively evaluate the value of content velocity.
Finally, prepare to stub your toe. Build in enough buffers into your strategy and budget to allow for quick pivots based on learnings and data. Some of the most amazing success stories we see look very different than when they started out.
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