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.
Mini USA on BuzzFeed:
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 fledgling 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.
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.
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.