Most of us today can recall a time before the internet, or even the widespread availability of personal computers. Ads embedded in videos and banners sprawling across web pages — holdovers from the print and television era — are familiar, if somewhat obtrusive, accompaniments to content. Aside from the occasional grumbling, we accept these as natural fixtures of content — be it print, video or web-based.
We are witnessing the maturation of a generation born with the world at their fingertips — one that is far more demanding of publishers and marketers alike.
If today’s internet users are increasingly picky about the content they consume, and the form it takes, tomorrow’s users will be positively demanding. They have come to expect an ever more cohesive and connected virtual world, and marketers have responded with new ways of integrating advertising more thoroughly into the user’s content experience.
The new forms of brand content delivery are often haphazardly lumped together under the term “native advertising,” which is now used to describe any digital marketing content that is not clearly distinct from its environment.
This was a convenient solution for marketers seeking a categorization that would describe the new forms in their infancy, but today it threatens to flatten the robust set of marketing tools that have been developed since.
Native advertising is now just one component of a holistic marketing experience spanning a range from sponsored “Top 10” lists to custom videos and mini-games.
These new tools act at all stages of the marketing funnel, with upper-funnel display advertising and light sponsorship setting the stage by improving brand or product awareness, while video-heavy lower-funnel tools add a richness and energy that converts that awareness into purchase interest.
It’s easy to get lost in the flurry of new tools and metrics, and marketers are often left asking, “What is branded content, and does it work?” The short, and encouraging, answer is yes.
To get to the bottom of this question, Ipsos Connect (my employer) teamed up with Polar to conduct a study aimed at measuring branded content performance.
While the results themselves are illuminating, the study structure also brings order to the field of branded content, making the new forms more approachable for brands and marketers alike.
For the study, a set of actual branded content representative of the broad range of content forms and styles was selected. Participants were brought to a live website where their interactions and responses to content were considered in terms of four dimensions: content form, accompanying ads, level of brand integration and delivery device. Text, video and image-based content were equally represented, both accompanied and unaccompanied by companion ads.
Perhaps most importantly, brand integration into content was categorized as light, medium or heavy — ranging from pure sponsored editorial (light) to publisher-produced content with the brand included (medium) to marketer-controlled custom content (heavy.)
Branded content works
Overall, branded content had a clearly positive impact on brand awareness and purchase intent, regardless of form or delivery. After engaging with branded content, users’ average unaided awareness was 69 percent, and purchase intent was 51 percent.
Notably, branded content outperformed averages in key descriptors including believability, uniqueness and entertainment. Internet users responded more strongly to these ads, which enhance, rather than disrupt, the consumer’s experience of digital content.
The freedom to choose what content to read, view or watch — based on the users’ own interest in the brand or product — is in line with the values of a new generation of internet users, providing marketers with an elegant solution to the challenges of ad blocking and banner blindness.
Through better integration and a more targeted approach, publishers provide marketers the freedom to offer relevant and engaging content, and respond more directly to user needs and interests, while offering brands a more effective way of delivering their message.
Users’ demands for a more cohesive content environment have made many marketers reluctant to include companion advertisements alongside branded content. They fear that the companion ads may be confusing to users or, worse yet, may dampen the consumers’ enjoyment of their experience.
Interestingly, the study revealed that while users favor less disruptive content, companion advertisements are not only consistent with this mission, but also improve audience response to branded content. When interacting with content accompanied by companion display ads, users demonstrated 17 percent more purchase intent than those exposed to the content alone. They also found content with companion ads to be no more confusing, putting to rest any fears marketers might have on that front.
The results also challenged the conventional wisdom on the triumph of video. While high-budget video and interactive content are indisputably effective, infographics and galleries were 7 percent more successful than video content in improving user interest, and 9 percent more effective in improving opinion.
It takes an elevated degree of focus for the audience to apprehend the immediate meaning of the moving image, while simultaneously relating it to the story they are crafting in their minds.
Images, in contrast, are simple but potent means of content delivery, particularly in an era of ever-shrinking attention spans and screen sizes. Marketers should see this as an opportunity to develop ever more precise ways of encoding and delivering content.
Mobile vs. desktop
Study participants were exposed to content either on mobile or desktop devices, in an effort to isolate the impact of screen size and style of interaction. After all, while a user might dedicate hours to a casual jaunt through the internet, use of mobile devices is much more fragmented and demands a more precise and impactful content delivery.
These factors proved to be more important than the overall time spent with and on mobile devices, and, while Polar’s most recent (Q1-2017) benchmarks (registration required) attributed 43 percent of branded content interaction to mobile devices, this study showed purchase intent to be over 17 percent stronger on desktops.
To me, this simply suggests that there is plenty of room for the maturation of mobile branded content, and marketers that curate content with mobile in mind will find themselves successful in an increasingly mobile age.
The effect of brand integration on content performance is perhaps most surprising. It’s commonly accepted that the brand’s presence in content is a driving factor in improving consumer response to the brand.
Our data suggests that users may not need that reinforcement, as editorial content was over 10 percent more effective than custom content at generating user interest.
When it comes to branded content, less is indeed more, with increases in user opinion and interest inversely correlated to level of integration.
This is not to say that custom content is ineffective, just as the power of still images does not upend the value of video. Branded content had a significant impact on brand lift at all levels of integration, with heavily integrated custom content driving purchase intent at over 51 percent.
The results of this study should be encouraging to marketers and will hopefully provide an effective means of weighing the relative values of the tools they now have at their disposal. It’s clear that branded content is an extremely effective way of driving brand lift. The question, then, is not whether to use branded content, but what kind to use, and how.