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Feeling contented: Where now for content marketing?

Content marketing has injected life into a flagging publishing economy and allowed brands to engage more closely with audiences. But instead of resting on its laurels, where should content marketing go from here?

Some three years ago the Association of Publishing Agencies (APA) changed its name to the Content Marketing Association. A sign of the times, it was an acknowledgement that ‘content’ was climbing the marketing agenda, and a commitment from the association to further promote it as such.

And it isn’t the only body pushing such an agenda: the Branded Content Marketing Association is a global industry body for branded content practitioners (mostly broadcasting and publishing companies) that aims to promote best practice and share knowledge, while the UK’s Institute of Direct and Digital Marketing (IDM) has seen interest in its courses and diplomas in this area rise sharply.

Creative Review: 

From its historic routes as ‘advertorial’ – paid-for quasi-editorial features placed in a newspaper – branded content (also known as native content, sponsored editorial or branded entertainment depending on context) has come a long way.

“Branded content is becoming increasingly popular among brands and publishers alike,” says Anna Watkins, managing director of Guardian Labs and chair of The Drum Content Awards 2015. “For brands, it’s one of the most powerful ways for them to authentically engage an audience, providing relevant content that can create deeper understanding, engagement and resonance with readers. For publishers it plays to our strengths and offers opportunities to cover more topics and projects we know our readers are interested in, as well as generating more ad revenue.”

It is now a sophisticated way of reaching consumers to inform, educate or entertain beyond a pure brand or sales-led approach and one in step with the growing trend of people creating and sharing their own content.

Certainly, the rise of social has, according to IDM leader trainer and advisory council member Joe Edwards, shaped content marketing today. “Social and content have always gone hand in hand. Social helps drive content marketing because you have to ‘feed the beast’,” he says.

Edwards has been delivering content marketing courses for the IDM for five years and says that during that time the landscape has changed considerably. Now, it is not just about creating the best content, but also how to deliver it effectively – hence the rise of specialist agencies, together with traditional publishers and broadcasters who hope to leverage their editorial savvy in a brand-led environment.

However, it is not enough, he says, to produce best-in-class content if a consumer cannot find or access it – and it is here, in both content creation and delivery where traditional publishers and broadcasters hope to make a mark.

Almost every major publisher or broadcaster in the UK today has a branded content division, from Guardian Media Group’s Guardian Labs to Bauer, The Times, Economist and ITN Productions with specialist buyers/negotiators in every media agency. Next generation publishers such as Vice and Mashable have staked some considerable future success on their ability to deliver must-read branded content on behalf of their clients in a format that mimics their brands’ appeal.

In fact, earlier this year Vice Media’s head of innovation Mark Adams warned in The Drum that advertisers should not confuse content marketing as simply an ad with more media buy behind it.

Simon Baker, head of branded content at ITN Productions, concurs. He believes the broadcaster’s own appeal to brands lies within its heritage and expertise. “The production approach within a publisher relies on agility, fast turnaround and the use of technology to drive cost efficiencies,” says Baker. The creative is driven not only by production quality but by editorial – specifically topicality and authenticity, he adds.

ITN Productions launched its branded content team in 2010 for exactly this reason – to give access to ITN’s production infrastructure. Five years ago its target was the corporate production industry but quickly developed into TV commercials and branded content production for brands including Samsung, Cadbury and Barclays, culminating in two golds at the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity this year.

“All of these attributes are hugely valuable to brands and businesses who want to create ever more content, so there is a natural fit between publishers offering their capabilities to brands who want to get cut-through,” continues Baker.

According to research published in July, more than three-quarters (76 per cent) of UK marketers are producing more content than they did a year ago. The survey, conducted by Starcom Mediavest on behalf of Credos, also showed that 56 per cent planned to increase their content marketing budget through this year.

For the marketers wanting to make an impact moving forward, however, all eyes are on real-time, or always-on content, driven by the strategic use of data.

“While traditional production still has its place for hero campaigns, brands are increasingly interested in an ‘always-on’ approach that maintains and grows audience engagement between core campaigns,” says Baker. This, he says, places publishers with content arms in a great place to grow their commercial offerings.

Being able to target campaigns in the most effective way possible is a challenge for both brands and publishers. Guardian Labs is launching ‘Audience Explorer’, a tool that allows its commercial partners to take a step beyond mere demographics. Watkins says: “This insight will inform and enhance every aspect of our content proposals – from the creation of the idea itself and the phasing and deployment of activity to informing SEO consideration for the headline and naming of each campaign.”

However, for many, the biggest challenge remains measuring success and ROI in what is a relatively new discipline. “With branded content, there is still a question from many clients and agencies of how it stacks up against traditional display or even TV,” says Watkins. There is no catch-all solution, and the Guardian instead commissions more bespoke qualitative analysis with its research and insights team.

Great content marketing, driven by insights, delivered by expert practitioners and supported by sophisticated discovery mechanisms, will likely increasingly be a key pillar of an overall marketing communications platform.

The Drum Content Awards, which celebrates the top talent in content marketing, took place last week. The full list of winners, which includes Somethin’ Else and AnalogFolk, can be found at thedrumcontentawards.com.

This feature was first published in The Drum's 25 November issue.