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Branded content is back on the agenda – but can we measure its ROI?

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23rd Apr 2010
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Branded content is back on the agenda in a big way as businesses look to adapt their marketing strategies for a modern customer immune to regular advertising. But measuring its ROI has left some scratching their heads.

The rich history of branded content is unlikely to ever be forgotten – if only because it was responsible for one of the modern world’s most popular television institutions. As most know, the phrase ‘soap opera’ originates from the sponsorship and production of television programming by pharma firms decades ago.
But in recent years, television viewers have once again become accustomed to seeing their primetime programming delivered in association with brands. And as branded content strategies have moved back onto the agenda, so this has been expanded. Procter & Gamble, for instance, moved into the record label business 18 months ago with TAG Records. P&G and RnB? Strange bedfellows, surely.
Well, perhaps not. The modern customer has seemingly grown immune to – and aggravated by - traditional forms of interruptive advertising. Branded content, however, seems to offer an engagement between companies and customers.
Forrester Research’s Mary Beth Kemp has recently authored a paper on the topic of branded content, and is unsurprised by its return to prominence. "As consumers, technology has gotten us used to avoiding things that we don’t want to watch, so faced with that control how do businesses actually get people to want to see what it is that they’re doing?" says Kemp. "We’re also migrating to media which is more consumer driven. You go to the internet sites you want to go to and there are no commercial breaks when you’re on the net. All these things mean that we’re almost at a perfect confluence of a need to discover a different way to communicate with people."
"Until we’ve had a rethink about how we’re connecting to consumers we’ll be on the back foot as advertisers. So branded content is a little bit closer to the right way of thinking about things, and getting people to pay attention to us instead of just shouting louder and louder."
New connections
This realisation has seen the likes of Unilever using branded content to connect with new mothers with web videos. It has led to Coca-Cola affiliating itself with music. And also inspired Wal-Mart to develop channels and communications for specific segments to bring them branded content. These campaigns are raising brand awareness, but in some cases they are also playing on preference and affinity in a big way.
"As soon as you step beyond looking at yourself as the brand communicating what it is you do, you often find yourself to move into a content which is a bit more rich and a bit more targeted to your audience – and especially online," says Kemp. "In order to get people to pay attention, you need to speak with them about things which interest them and not just talk about yourself."
A perfect example of this is Kraft, which has developed the iFood Assistant app for the iPhone. "They’ve really understood that there is a problem for people when they are in the grocery store and faced with the choice of what to make for dinner," says Kemp. "This application allows the user to resolve that problem and it showcases the products of Kraft very well without necessarily going overboard. So there is a nice balance between the needs of the brand and the needs of the consumer."
Recent research by the King Fish Media Survey revealed that 70% of businesses questioned are spending more today to reach customers and prospects directly with branded content than they did three years ago. Furthermore, 86% of respondents’ companies are currently creating or plan to create original content for their customers and prospects in the coming year – and 74% feel that original content and media are most effective for generating marketing ROI.
However, there is an issue with this last point. While nearly three-quarters of organisations may feel that branded content can generate the most effective ROI, there is some question whether this can actually be proven. The Branded Content Management Association (BCMA) itself admits that branded content has traditionally struggled to find a way of evaluating return on investment. And with budgets under greater scrutiny, branded content initiatives will almost certainly be asked to prove their worth.
Such is the concern over this, that late last year the BCMA announced that it had secured cross-industry support to develop a service to measure the effectiveness of all forms of branded content. The system devised allows businesses to see how their branded content campaign is performing against key brand metrics and which elements of the campaign are performing most strongly in meeting the campaign objectives.
Integration and objectives
Irrespective of whether measurement is done via the BCMA or in-house, Kemp believes that the issue of objectives is absolutely key - and that most importantly the overall business goals of the company should drive the branded content strategy to ensure there is a measurable return on the effort and improve success. "The important thing to understand about branded content is that it is not a little thing that you do off to the side," says Kemp. "In general, it needs to be integrated into everything else that is being communicated about the brand, it needs to tie into that overall business picture, and then be measured as such."
The branded content objectives should therefore be tied to traditional marketing activities such as increasing awareness, building brand preference, driving loyalty and encouraging repeat purchases. As such, measurement efforts vary according to the objective – companies would track consumer perception of the brand as a result of the content if their objective is building brand preference, for instance; or companies can measure the correlation between customers’ involvement with the content and their tendency to spend more with the brand if the objective is driving loyalty.
"If we think about awareness measures, one of the questions will probably be about the reach – how many people have you actually managed to connect to and are they within your target audience, etc. So it is more of a quantitative measure. But you would probably also want to do a lot of the qualitative measurements that brands tend to do. For instance, brand awareness - and if that is what you’re looking for then it is important to understand awareness and unaided awareness. And you would also want to check certain points of your brand affinity – so are we able to move the buttons on one or two of the key characteristics that we’re interested in communicating about the brand?"
With business objectives varying from project to project, this means that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to measurement.  "There’s not a package of measurement that you would want to do specifically against branded content, apart perhaps from the notion of reach and pass along, those types of things which are more mechanical," she says. "But in general you should integrate them into your overall measurement strategy based on those objectives that you have highlighted."
In ‘Adding branded content to the mix’,  Kemp along with Kim Le Quoc, David M Cooperstein, David Card, Nick Thomas, Jean-Yves Lugo, make several additional recommendations regarding measurement. These include setting up a dashboard to keep track of actions; tracking engagement metrics like frequency of content forwarding and recommendations of the content to others; capturing where consumers come into contact with the brand across channels and media; using data mining tools such as Sense Networks or Extract that collect data across all customer touchpoints; and if you sell via distributors to invest in ad hoc panels from players such as comScore or Nielsen to prove the link between content activities and purchase.
As a demonstration of measurement in action, Kemp highlights the ‘In the Motherhood’ campaign by Unilever, which was based around a web series. As it was part of a campaign to raise awareness, there were a variety of measurements that could be taken to evaluate its success, including web episodes viewed, and how awareness of the brand changed as more consumers engaged with the content.
"Unilever measured things like reach and pass along and things like that," says Kemp. "But also it wanted to see whether it moved its sales numbers. And for many brands, of course, that is the ultimate objective. So you have to make sure that you tie it back into the business as well. It is part of the picture - but the question really is whether everything works in concert to get to your main objective."

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