Advertisers are taking a more rigorous approach to creating and distributing content. Alex Brownsell reports.
Heard the joke about the ‘year of mobile’? The repeated annual prediction that mobile is set to dominate global media budgets has become a risible claim in the industry. So it took a certain amount of bravery on the part of Havas Media Group global managing director Dominique Delport to proclaim 2015 as the “year of content”.
Nonetheless, content clearly matters in today’s marketing and media ecosystem. Advertisers have watched in envy as pioneers such as Red Bull built an audience around their content, driving up brand metrics and sales. And 2014’s The Lego Movie has redefined the possibilities for how well-branded content can perform on an international stage.
Marcus Stoll, head of marketing EMEA at NewsCred, one of a number of rapidly growing content marketing businesses, believes content has transitioned from a hollow “buzzword” to become an “integral” part of brands’ marketing strategies.
At the heart of this rise is a desire among advertisers to enjoy continuous engagement with consumers, rather than the customary peaks and troughs when employing traditional advertising methods. And this means a greater focus on ‘storytelling’, argues Kaylee King-Balentine, director of The International New York Times’ T Brand Studio unit.
“Some brands are still just dipping their toes into content creation and doing their first campaigns,” says King-Balentine. “But for those brands that have already tried it, they are thinking about the deeper story. Rather than direct messaging, many brands are moving forward with richer content experiences that tell a story.”
Who is a publisher?
Another key change to have taken place over the past 12 months, claims Quartz EMEA executive director Simon Davies, is an admission that the concept of ‘brands as publishers’ is easier said than done: “It’s certainly true that more brands are wanting to talk about content as part of their campaign strategy.
“[There has been] a realisation that they’re creating content that isn’t getting seen on their own channels [and] an acknowledgement that most brands don’t have the resources or knowledge to be effective publishers by themselves.
“In our sector, where brands are often trying to affect perception of the brand rather than directly shift product, content – when done right – offers a potentially more engaging way of communicating with a sophisticated media consumer.”
Publishers en masse have set up in-house branded content studios to create native advertising articles, infographics and videos that match the quality of editorial output. And those commercial content operations are becoming international, too: in July, The International New York Times announced plans to open its T Brand Studio agency in London.
King-Balentine comments on the “sheer amount of interest” the publisher is seeing from advertisers. “It’s an incredibly important part of our business at the Times. It is proving to be something we should continue to do,” she says.
Jeremy Makin, vice-president of sales at IBT Media UK, publisher of Newsweek and International Business Times, says content fits neatly into the ‘premium direct’ strand of its two-pronged commercial approach, the other being more “high-volume, low-yield” programmatic sales. “Content is an important play for any publisher in 2016 and beyond,” he says.
Makin adds that it is vital to keep “over-watch” on the quality of brand content, to ensure it meets editorial standards: “The brand is using us to piggyback our relationship with the audience, so it’s common sense for them to be as closely aligned in quality and look and feel as possible.”
Year of content
As part of Havas Media Group’s aforementioned ‘year of content’ play, the agency recruited Emmy Award-winning executive Damien Marchi to the position of global head of content to help its agencies accelerate this transition.
According to Marchi, brands must begin seeing content in new terms, namely as vital pieces of intellectual property.
“With more than three billion pieces of content being created and shared every day online, with ad blockers following steep adoption curves, and no-ad, fee-based premium offers being launched by key players like YouTube, brands will really need to invest in the creation of their own unique content,” he says.
“Many advertisers falsely believe that investing in the ownership of content is more expensive and complicated than the usual media fare. I think this will change. As more brands create intellectual property in order to cut through the noise in 2016, others will see it is an effective means of building longer-lasting consumer loyalty,” he adds.
“As content has received more visibility around the organisation, it is under increased pressure to be able to prove bottom-line value to a brand”
Despite the added ease with which advertisers and media owners can directly collaborate, agencies will continue to play a prominent role in the content revolution, says Initiative’s global head of innovation, Lee Ramsay.
Ramsay claims that content will slowly shift away from ‘news-jacking’ techniques employed in recent years, and towards being “genuinely relevant” to consumers all year round. “Social listening, search and analytics will have to be seamlessly plugged into content production, which is why media agencies are positioned well to deliver on more live content for brands,” he says.
Impact of technology
So what comes next? Technology will certainly have an impact. King-Balentine points out the rising potential of virtual reality (see our special feature on the rise of VR), while IBT Media UK’s Makin argues that brands and publishers are beginning to better understand and embrace the “complexity and opportunity” of mobile branded content.
Another important factor is the drive to fully understand the ROI offered by content. With measurement and metrics becoming ever-more advanced for other areas of digital marketing, it is high time that content caught up.
“As content has received more visibility around the organisation, it is under increased pressure to be able to prove bottom-line value to a brand,” says Stoll. “Better understanding of metrics and analytics comes top here.”
Davies, meanwhile, hopes that “a greater understanding” of the balance between telling stories and selling products will lead to “better content campaigns”.
For Marchi, content will evolve into a longer-term, strategic form of marketing, and away from its roots in more tactical and bite-size formats. “In 2016, we’ll see more brands building content designed for a longer life-cycle. The immediate, yet short-term, impact of social and video will be replaced by series, experiences and storytelling on a much grander scale,” he says.
2015 may not have been the ‘year of content’ when considering ad dollars, but it was certainly the year when advertisers, agencies and publishers put in place the structures to create and distribute content with the same rigour as they do with advertising.