Although native advertising and content marketing are not new concepts, growth in both areas has been impressive in recent years—and that growth shows no signs of waning. In 2018, BI Intelligence estimates that native advertising revenue in the US will hit $21 billion, up from $17.3 billion in 2017. But despite growth, the development and distribution of branded content has never been as confusing and complicated as it is today. Content distribution options, both paid and otherwise, have proliferated, and yet firm definitions and best practices in the space remain elusive.
A few key concepts struck me as being far too frequently overlooked by marketers today.
Key Steps Neglected
As with most marketing disciplines, branded content and native advertising work best when approached in a coordinated fashion. However, many marketers tend to jump right into the middle of the process, with little strategic oversight. Content is created and placed in a one-off manner, and marketers might see some success in these placements. However, the lack of a core framework beneath these efforts means the company’s investment in its content isn’t going nearly as far as it could, and such a scattershot approach is usually unsustainable.
Even if an organization has already waded into branded content and native advertising mid-stream, it’s never too late to back up and ensure these three key bases are covered:
Step 1: Strategy and KPIs
In my experience, this first step is the one most often skipped by marketers, particularly the KPI part. And it’s also the one that most often comes back to bite them later. It is absolutely vital that marketers understand their strategy (for both creative and distribution, and both branded content and native advertising) as well as their goals before diving in. The clearer these elements are in an RFP for partners, the more likely your partners will deliver for your brand.
Step 2: Content Inventory and Creation Plan
In assessing the ever-important content part of branded content, marketers should focus on two questions: What do you already have? What do you need? Often marketers downplay the first question, writing off existing content as “old news.” But often certain pieces of content have never left a company’s own walls and, while it might be old news internally, it can represent valuable external assets. Once the already-have inventory is done, marketers should then assess new needs and decide whether those needs can be fulfilled internally or turned over to a publisher’s content studio, an independent content agency, or possibly even influencers or other UGC methods.
Step 3: Distribution and Activation Plan
If you build it, they won’t necessarily come—not on their own, that is. So distribution is where the rubber meets the road. Of course, your distribution and activation plan will depend heavily on the types of content assets you create, and it’s useful to be eyeing your distribution plan during the initial strategy phase to ensure your creation plan covers all of its bases.
The Measurement Question
Let’s state the obvious: Measuring success on branded content is complicated. That’s always been the case when it comes to tactics designed to influence the upper funnel. But that doesn’t mean marketers should just shrug their shoulders and pass it off as an impossibility. Ultimately, if marketers can’t measure the effectiveness of their content and native ad investments, budget in these areas will dry up over time.
Brands should consider how they want to evaluate their branded content and native advertising success across three key areas: awareness, engagement and consideration. Within each of these three categories, myriad measurable cognitive, emotional and behavioral sub-metrics exist. For example, surveys can be employed to gauge everything from campaign awareness to change in purchase intent. Meanwhile, biometrics and eye-tracking can measure physiological response and metrics like gaze time and rate. But for many marketers, the most reasonable and easily executed measurement strategy employs web analytics and social analytics to track interactions such as clicks, views, searches, and word-of-mouth.
The Importance of Disclosure
I’d wager most publishers and marketers know that the FTC has provided guidelines for identifying native advertising content, and yet adherence to these guidelines is still often reported as low. That’s not terribly surprising given how quickly the branded content landscape is evolving along with consumer perceptions of such content. What is important, however, is that marketers demand adherence to the basic principle that, regardless of context, a reasonable consumer should understand when they are viewing branded content vs. editorial content. While disclosure language is up to the publishers, advertisers need to understand where their content is appearing and how it is being disclosed. Improper disclosure reflects poorly on the brand as well as the publisher.