Content marketing is in vogue. According to Contently, approximately 85% of marketing professionals in the UK use some form of content marketing with around two thirds planning to increase content spending this year.
Yet most consumers often can’t distinguish between branded content and advertising. Even some of my colleagues will give instances of 'branded content' which are really sponsorship, endorsements and other misidentifications.
At the same time, ensuring all types of communications generate a sufficient ROI is more important and more difficult than ever. Brands need to connect with consumers, and content is increasingly being chosen by brands as a way to forge this connection.
We wanted to understand what distinguishes content that achieves this sought-after connection.
Quantitative enabled us to measure the effects of exposure to selected pieces of branded content such as the Lexus Hoverboard and Always ‘Like a Girl’ films amongst a demographically matched sample using test and control groups to observe uplifts in brand associations. We also used qualitative to help us understand people’s worlds and where content fits into these.
We identified four major considerations which we feel are key to the success of branded content, though inevitably other factors willl also shape the performance of individual pieces.
1. Will the content work like content?
We do not have to like advertising to be influenced by it. But we generally consume content because we perceive that there is something engaging, informing or surprising that we will receive in return.
From our sample, it was also clear that users did not need to watch a content video in its entirety to respond to it.
For intance, less than half of participants viewed Lexus Hoverboard and Always ‘Like a Girl’ to the end. Nevertheless, these clips performed best with consumers, both in terms of people’s response to creative, and the impact that the videos fostered on perceptions of the brands in question.
It is important to see such ‘snacking’ as an established way of consuming content. Our study allowed people to abandon video content if and when they wanted to. We found that almost all ‘skips’ came as soon as the option became available. In content, what matters to the consumer is satiation, namely 'Has this content met my needs?'
In almost all cases, the most successful content we tested was also the most ‘liked’. This isn’t to be confused with offering unthinking/unchallenging entertainment – after all, some people taking pleasure from watching bleak films or listening to downbeat music.
‘Like a Girl’, for example, recorded only average entertainment value, but exceptionally strong relevance and retransmission value. As such it was ‘liked’ by around 4 in 5 of female viewers – the highest score of any of our tested content.
2. Have you agreed the content objectives?
To be successful, content needs to deliver benefits for the brand as well as the audience.
In our sample, we found examples of content used to achieve objectives as distinct as reaffirming consumers’ brand perceptions or encouraging reappraisal of such perceptions.
The Always brand registered significant improvements solely based on the audience’s exposure to the 'Like a Girl' film. This is impressive given that the brand already had a high status among its target audience. Always even improved its scores amongst male viewers (who presumably had little or no intention to buy the brand).
In its Hoverboard film, Lexus was attempting to appeal to a young audience that would traditionally be unfamiliar with, or indifferent to, the brand’s personality and products. Its film did a terrific job of provoking consumers to reappraise its brand. We found that over half of younger participants found the film unexpected for Lexus, and almost all viewers liked it.
3. Is the content platform appropriate...?
…for the target audience?
Our research indicates that people generally use just 18 apps and 15 websites a month. This fact underlines the challenge for brands in breaking into this limited repertoire.
In this context, it is vital that content is placed in an environment which increases the likelihood it can be discovered by appropriate individuals. In the same way that betting ads tend to air during sports programmes, you need to go where your audience is. This perhaps explains why brands targeting Generation Z are embracing Snapchat, a platform particularly popular with teens.
…for the brand?
Paddy Power’s Twitter handle is prolific and timely, responding to news stories with characteristic irreverence, humour and speed. The platform and the brand's social media personality are in sync.
In a similar vein, the long-form video content that defines sports camera brand GoPro on YouTube is perfect for distribution on video sharing sites. GoPro has over a thousand videos and almost 4 million subscribers on YouTube (not counting user-generated GoPro content on other media outlets).
…for the content?
Consumers have to find content and decide to consume and or/share it rather than passively allowing it to disrupt their content choices, as traditional advertising does. This makes it even more important that consumers can find relevant content in relevant places.
Twitter is ideal for Paddy Power’s content because irreverent Tweets from the brand can be discovered and shared easily. My football team’s WhatsApp group is full of risqué content – much of it generated by Paddy Power Tweets – which is ideal for group messaging.
4. Does the content feel right for the brand?
Felix Catdaq (above) should have been a hit with our test audiences. Felix is a well-known brand bringing cat videos to YouTube, a platform renowned for this genre. However, this was the worst received of all our tested content.
Central to this poor performance was the perceived incongruence between the content and the brand. The Felix brand icon is a cheeky mascot. By contrast, CatDaq was bombastic, vlogger-centric and relatively short of cats. The content was not only underwhelming creatively (it was the least liked overall by our viewers) but at odds with what they expected from the brand. The majority of cat owners (and Felix buyers) found the execution unexpected for Felix and just as many actively disliked it. As such, brand scores among our sample audiences were either unchanged or significantly down for key brand attributes, such as (Felix) ‘is for people like me’.
Even with guiding principles such as those cited above, it bears repeating that nailing content is tough. ‘Like a Girl’ is a rare cultural phenomenon that brilliantly harnesses and leverages a powerful message of empowerment of young girls.
For all the film’s worthy intent, it cannot be forgotten that the creative execution is superb – taking viewers on a rollercoaster of emotions that provokes and inspires. There’s no formula for that – just as there is no formula for creating a ‘perfect’ song or film.
This is what makes content marketing a daunting, but ultimately exciting development for marketers.
Eleanor Thornton-Firkin is Head of Content & Creative Development at Ipsos Connect, a sponsor of the IPA Effectiveness Awards 2016.
Last updated 16/05/2016