It is no secret that modern audiences are continuing to accelerate away from traditional outlets and toward web-based content. This ongoing evolution has forced brands to change the way in which they tell their stories, as well as continuously adjusting the platform they are attempting to engage with their target audience on. One answer to this dilemma has been to utilize “Native Content.” While there are several other names for this strategy and content, such as native ads, sponsored content, and other terms in an ever-changing pantheon of buzzwords that exists in the digital marketing space, the fact remains that for the foreseeable future this will be something to consider when planning content and strategy.
The “Experts” Were Wrong: Native Content Is Not Only Relevant, It Is Growing
It has been estimated that the native advertising spend in the U.S. alone will reach $22 billion in 2017. This would be a 36 percent increase over 2016; the trend shows no signs of slowing down, with the same survey predicting an annual spend of $28 billion in 2018.
The power of this type of content is also the leading cause of controversy that surrounds native content: consumers can react negatively to both the hosting platform and the brand if they feel that they are being “duped” into reading ad copy that they think is content created by the website. According to a study by Contently and the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, over half of consumers stated that they “felt deceived” when they realized that they had read sponsored content; 43 percent said a website that hosted sponsored content lost credibility as a legitimate news source. Given the ongoing issues with content described as “fake news,” this would seem to be a signal that native content was on the way out the door. However, native content is more important than ever to brands, due to another growing development in the digital space: ad blockers. In 2017, 615 million devices were already using ad blocking technology; 11 percent of the global internet population is blocking ads on the internet and 74 percent of American ad block users leave sites with ad block walls. More users than ever before are utilizing ad blocking on both their laptops and smart phones. Display ads, which some consumers say they prefer over native content, are no longer reaching consumers in the manner that they once did. Now brands are having to rely more on native approaches, like sponsored Tweets and hosted content.
Native content is expensive, because you are paying to gain access to the publisher’s audience and they know that now, more than ever, brands need these outlets. Native content is a big, critical part of what is happening in the communications space. If you are spending the money, then you had better be measuring it. Unless you are okay with dumping money into digital strategies without measuring your results, you need to bring a data smart approach to the entire process from the very start. This means you are going to have to move beyond impressions.
While there is no truly “one-size-fits-all” measurement plan, there are a few known performance indicators (KPIs) we can look to as a foundational approach for effective measurement. The first thing we can look at is the conversion rate from the content. Whatever the business objectives are for any given brand, there has to be an underlying goal for the money being invested in the sponsored content. While it may excite your brand to get your content in front of millions of viewers of a popular website, impressions do not translate into a direct impact on your business goals. However, website analytics can help a brand build a model of website traffic from the sponsored content to whatever an established goal is, whether it is website registration or a purchase. Exactly what this measurement model looks like would depend on a marketing funnel.
Your Click Through Rates Don’t Matter
When it comes to measuring the results of native advertising, many brands also tend to rely on their click through rates (CTR). However, the fact is that your CTR is essentially meaningless when to determining how effective your content is. If you want to spend money to feel good about numbers that may be large but mostly ineffective, feel free to rely on CTR. If you are interested in ensuring your brand is receiving actual benefits from the money you are investing, you have to do better. We, as an industry, have to do better. The first thing to consider, the first thing you must define, is what it is you are hoping to accomplish with your native content. Are you creating or re-purposing content to be published as native content to drive sales? Increase website registrations? Boost subscribers to an email distribution list? Or is it just increased brand awareness?
What You Need To Be Measuring
From a public relations perspective, native content can be implemented and therefore measured like any other type of content marketing. The content can be utilized by a brand to drive brand awareness, expand their customer base, increase credibility and reputation, or to drive engagement within an online community of users and potential consumers.
The publisher of the content will leverage page views as being the metric to focus on, whether we are discussing written content or video content. While page views do give us a measure of how many people were exposed to the content, it does not tell us anything deeper than how many eyeballs scrolled over the content (or even if the content registered with them when they saw it). What we can do is look at the average length of time for each one of these page views. The longer a visitor spends on a piece of content, the greater the likelihood that it has an impact on brand/message connection and the probability of them sharing the content increases exponentially. Which brings us to our next rung in the measurement ladder: social follows, shares and referrals. Many visitors arrive at webpages via a link shared on social media, rather than just direct traffic. When native content is shared on an individual’s social media platform, it has an automatic element of authenticity added to it.
Engagements, registrations, subscriptions, or purchase conversions are easy to measure. However, when it comes to brand lift, this is not always the case. When measuring things like brand perception and reputation, a measurement plan and the proper tools are both absolutely essential. Through social listening, one can determine the tone and sentiment around the entire volume of conversation, as well as conversation triggered directly from the native/sponsored content. Diving in deeper, before and after a native content push surveys and panels can be conducted to discuss the elements of brand health that the content is designed to impact. These can also identify proxy metrics that will enable brands to identify the quality of the users in relation to the content.
At the end of the day (or campaign, if you will), there has to be a return on investment (ROI) demonstrated. To take a truly data smart approach, the intent of any content must be clearly mapped out, just like any other content strategy. Based on these questions, the measurement plan can be created to accurately capture the pertinent data and create relevant and actionable insights to the brand. Unless you are in the business of just getting your pixels to flash momentarily into glazed-over eyes, you must do better than throwing impressions and clicks on a c-suite presentation. Demand insights that tells both a quantitative and qualitative story, collect the data that matters and turn that into action. Get what you paid for: clearly defined and qualified results.