I come from the print side of the media business, where it can be notoriously difficult to gauge an ad's true impact. Quantifying marketing efforts and proving to clients that they were successful can be challenging because the available benchmarks and performance metrics are often susceptible to subjectivity.
This year, as I entered the digital advertising space, I did so with a mixture of trepidation and relief. Finally, our content marketing efforts would be measurable! Throughout my various roles in the print content marketing arena, I've consistently trumpeted that quality matters, that it is worth investing in strong storytelling, and that raising the caliber of content will positively affect marketing results. This notion, though, was sometimes hard to prove to my friends over in sales -- except, perhaps, by citing repeat business and touting client testimonials.
Now the quantifiable nature of the digital world allows us to measure just about anything, including three factors that help marketers gauge the success of their content: click-through rates, time spent on content, and shares via social media. When monitoring these factors, you'll quickly realize just how important it is to invest in talented writers, find credible sources, and implement an in-house editing process. These practices not only have a marked positive impact on your statistics, but failure to adopt them might also result in a content creation and distribution strategy that does more harm than good.
As the quality of sponsored content improves, it has the potential to change the way media outlets treat it -- and it will definitely affect the way readers perceive it. Marketing managers are weary of "banner blindness" (i.e., readers' failure to even notice display advertisements, a concept interestingly explained by Brandt Dainow on this very site. The industry has long justified low click-through rates with the logic that even if readers didn't click on your advertisement, at least they saw it. That's no less effective than running a display ad in a print publication, right? Well, if these ads are no longer registering on consumers' radar at all, what does that mean for digital advertising?
Websites will have to offer other advertising options, such as editorial sponsorships. But just because the articles are sponsored doesn't mean quality should suffer. If the content is not telling a story, teaching the reader something, or solving a problem, why is the creator investing in it anyway?
Content marketing 101
Let's back up. Content marketing is the creation of high-quality, informative content that is distributed in an effort to reach a company's target audience. The content can relate directly to a brand's value proposition, relevant industry issues, or broader topics that align with your branding. The aim is to offer readers information that will result in them viewing your company more favorably or having a better understanding your brand identity. Content marketing boosts your social media presence and search performance, as deftly described in Heidi Cohen's "13 Content Marketing Steps." It's perceived as more credible than advertising -- and remember, the fact that it was perceived at all is a step in the right direction. (Banner blindness, anyone?)
Most businesses have gotten wise to the notion that they, too, should formulate and adopt a content marketing strategy, but too often they fall short of a successful execution by failing to follow a few crucial steps.
Clearly define your goals
Without a clearly defined goal, how can you measure the success of your efforts? And if you don't know what you're working towards, why bother?
Before launching a content marketing program, decide on at least one short-term and one long-term goal. Is your aim to incite readers to learn more so they click on an exit link to your website? Are you trying to maximize the time spent with your content to foster brand loyalty? Or are you trying to grow your social media following?
After you've defined the goal, make sure you share it with your entire team -- even those you think might not need to know. Your designer, photographer, and, of course, journalist have a better chance of helping you succeed if success is clearly defined.
Invest in quality editorial
Your audience is smart. Your audience knows good writing when it sees it. Or, at the very least, readers recognize bad writing as they fumble their way through the article. They won't excuse shoddy work just because the content is sponsored. They won't even stay on the page!
Make sure there is a rigorous fact-checking and editing process in place, whether you're outsourcing or building an in-house content team. Hire professional writers. Sure, Malcolm down the hall might know your product inside and out, but if he's not a professional journalist, he's not your guy. Leave the writing to professionals. And remember: An outsider can often offer a fresh take on your story or angle -- one you might not have seen before.
A fantastic recent piece from the Content Marketing Institute on why quality matters notes that content lasts a long time. Due to distribution through email and social media networks, it is nearly impossible to eradicate a piece once you've introduced it to the digital sphere. You also can't fool search engines. Google's Penguin algorithm update last April apparently allows it to be even more successful in separating quality content from the not-so-good stuff. If your content was created with the purpose of actually teaching the reader something, Google wants it to come up in searches. It recognizes and penalizes flagrant attempts to just raise rankings, such as over-optimization of keywords and dodgy linking.
Find the right sources and angles
Remember that whole "your audience is smart" bit? Well, spinning quotes from your CEO about how fantastic your new product is might not make for the most convincing or compelling read.
Use the same litmus tests applied in traditional journalism to ensure your content marketing is top-notch. Vet your potential sources by asking yourself if this is truly the best person to convey this message. Align yourself with experts who can convey your message even better than you (or your CEO or marketing manager) could. Is this person credible? Would the reader trust his or her credentials? Is he or she saying something of interest and offering true value? (It's a bonus if they're addressing your core customers' pain points.)
When speaking about quality content marketing, it's hard not to think about American Express' Open Forum, which hit 1 million users back in 2010. It represents an impressive example of mixing in-house experts with guest bloggers and user-generated content. But be honest with yourself. If you're a big shot at American Express, readers probably want to hear what you think. But if that isn't the case for you, perhaps you need your writers to find a different source -- an expert who can convey your message more effectively.
Find your readers
Pulitzer Prize-worthy content marketing is for naught if no one knows it's there. Does your company blog live on your website? That means, with the exception of search traffic, no one is seeing it except people who were already interested enough to visit your website.
Find your audience and attract them with headlines and images -- something they will actually see. Outbrain.com is a fantastic way of sharing your content. You might have noticed its widget at the bottom of many sites' articles, including CNN. It directs the reader to other relevant pieces he or she might be interested in, based on a sophisticated algorithm.
Online newspapers and magazines that have embraced sponsored sections are also a fantastic option. BuzzFeed.com does a great job of presenting entertaining content, both unsponsored and sponsored, in a fun, reader-friendly manner that encourages sharing and doesn't make you feel "tricked." If your content is sponsored, it should be clearly marked as such, both to avoid losing readers' trust and to make sure you get credit for the piece you've invested in.
As the quality of sponsored content continues to rise, newspapers will be more open to presenting it -- and readers will not be averse to checking it out. "Sponsored" is not a dirty word when it comes to music festivals or awards shows. And I bet you've heard of the Mercedes-Benz Spring Fashion Week in New York City. The attendees appreciate the brand that helped make the event happen.
If you're investing in truly worthwhile content created by a team of professionals adhering to the same standards of journalism applied to news, tout the "sponsored" flag with pride. You are entertaining or educating your audience while simultaneously conveying your brand's message and identity in a uniquely useful way. If ever there were a true example of a "win-win" situation in marketing, content marketing is it.
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"The word content highlighted" image via Shutterstock.