Does content marketing pay?

Better data tools and distribution partnerships are quashing marketers’ doubts about the effectiveness of content.

Despite content marketing being one of the biggest buzzwords in the industry, there is still much debate about just where it sits in the marketing strategy and whether it is even new, according to a study by the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM).

While the majority (74 per cent) of the 660 members surveyed say content marketing represents a fundamental shift in how companies and customers interact, 39 per cent reckon it is just marketing with a new label. Though most agree that it requires a change in thinking, 65 per cent don’t believe that marketers have fully adapted to it yet – and 52 per cent think most brands that claim to be doing content marketing are just rehashing old broadcast ideas for digital media.

Waitrose head of marketing communications Rupert Ellwood says to avoid this problem, brands need to be more sophisticated in how they plan and execute their content strategy.

“You can’t create a piece of content and carve it up for different channels any more,” he says. “Content has to be made for each channel specifically, which is something we will definitely be investing more in.”

The supermarket recently branched out into brand-funded TV by developing a series of 12 live programmes – called Weekend Kitchen with Waitrose – in collaboration with production company Spun Gold, which helped to secure a commission with Channel 4.

Marketing Tactics Waitrose 2
Waitrose has launched an hour-long TV show called Weekend Kitchen, believing its success with Waitrose Weekend newspaper signalled a demand for such content

In each of the hour-long shows, designed to replicate the style of its free weekly newspaper Waitrose Weekend, chefs such as Heston Blumenthal and Michel Roux Jnr cook up seasonal recipes using Waitrose ingredients. Other entertainment and lifestyle content completes the package. 

“It’s very different from TV advertising,” says Ellwood. “For us, it’s about depth of engagement rather than just numbers of people watching. You will get lots of views for a 30-second TV ad during The X-Factor, but an audience watching a 60-minute, content-led programme will be far more engaged.” Both types of activity, he says, will now play an important role in the brand’s overall strategy in order to meet different objectives.

According to Clare Hill, managing director of the Content Marketing Association, the industry – which she values at more than £4bn – is disrupting traditional marketing.

“Owned media is now the most important channel within the media landscape, with marketing spend migrating to it from channels such as print advertising,” she says. “This is a significant change for the industry and affects both how brands plan and carry out their campaigns and how they engage with consumers.”

Luxury watch exchange Watchfinder believes its frequent newsletters are what drives custom to its store and website

While engagement is clearly important, there must also be a clear business case for any content marketing activity or it simply isn’t worth it, says Nick Dutch, head of digital at Domino’s, which allocates about 10 per cent of its budget to content. 

“We wouldn’t do any of it if we didn’t think it would help us get from an interested party to someone who is going to buy a pizza immediately, or in the near future,” he adds. “We don’t do it just for engagement’s sake.”

He doesn’t think the shift towards content-led marketing should represent a cataclysmic change in how brands operate, however. Essentially, he says, it is still about “creating content in any way, shape or form that is appropriate for your brand, and distributing it through platforms and networks that resonate with your audience”.

If it is to resonate with people, content must be executed with a greater level of “integrity and authenticity,” says Dutch. Last year, for instance, the pizza chain created The Support Group, a series of 11 football-themed ‘webisodes’ designed to engage Domino’s core ‘social snacker’ audience. Each five-minute show, made in conjunction with marketing agency Arena, was written on a Monday, based on the weekend’s football results. Two days later, the webisodes were distributed across paid, earned and owned media channels. In the course of the campaign, which accounted for 3 per cent of Domino’s overall marketing budget, The Support Group racked up 1.5 million views. For those who interacted, frequency of purchase increased by 30 per cent, according to Dutch.

If we didn’t communicate with our customers using great content, I’d be very surprised if we had a business at all

Domino’s also learned some valuable lessons. “It can be quite hard to distribute your own content, even if you’re a big brand, so you have to work with partners [such as YouTube] that already have a large audience and can help rack up your reach quicker,” says Dutch. 

“There’s no point creating content that 1m people see if 10m people should have seen it.”

His advice for businesses is to create the kind of content customers would expect to see if a brand wasn’t producing it. “We could have pushed it a bit harder, because the humour might have been a bit vanilla,” he admits. 

“If someone produces a parody of The Sopranos but no one gets shot because it’s sponsored by Kellogg’s, it won’t sit right.”

The CIM study shows that 18 per cent of marketers don’t believe content marketing can deliver a meaningful commercial return. But Joanne Webb, marketing director at cinema group Vue – which dedicates a “significant portion” of its budget to content marketing – begs to differ. “If we didn’t communicate with our customers using great content, I’d be very surprised if we had a business at all,” she says. Vue launched a magazine last year and recently began offering a tablet edition, both of which are contributing to ticket sales (see case study, below ).

It can be hard to distribute your own content, even if you’re a big brand, so you have to work with partners

According to the research, the biggest concern for marketers is improving the measurability of content marketing (30 per cent). They also have reservations about integrating it with wider initiatives (20 per cent) and driving traffic to content (9 per cent). Currently, the metric they most frequently use is website visitors (75 per cent). A large proportion (65 per cent) also look at social engagement and more than half monitor followers, page views, downloads and email sign-ups to gauge whether campaigns are meeting their objectives.

Watchfinder magazine
Watchfinder’s digital magazine is designed to build advocacy and trust rather than push sales

Fewer than half (46 per cent) base success on lead generation and just 44 per cent look at sales. At the same time, 38 per cent take search rankings into account. Waitrose measures success several different ways, says Ellwood. “But it is difficult,” he admits, “as metrics don’t exist in the same way they do for TV and there’s no doubt that return on investment data is hard to analyse for this. 

“But we do track metrics around sales, number of views, reach of content, brand engagement and circulation for print on a weekly basis.”

Email newsletters remain the most common method of content-based communication, the research shows, with 72 per cent of marketers investing in them. A fifth of marketers, and by far the largest proportion, also agree that e-newsletters have the biggest impact on driving engagement with existing customers. Next come case studies (10 per cent), how-to guides (6 per cent) and Twitter Q&As (5 per cent).

On top of that, 12 per cent of those surveyed say that email newsletters and case studies are the two most effective means of generating leads for prospective customers.

“Out of all of our assets, the newsletters are what drive our business,” says Rob Blake, marketing manager at luxury watch exchange Watchfinder. “Whether it’s visits to the website or visits to the store, it is by far the most effective tool we have.” The company sends out three newsletters a week, which reach more than 2.5 million people a month. It also produces a quarterly digital magazine – which evolved from a blog – that racks up about 50,000 readers an issue and is designed to build advocacy and trust rather than push sales.

No matter which route brands take, budgets for content marketing look likely to increase. The onus is on marketers to prove its value and show real return on investment.

Case study: Vue 

Vue cinemas

“Content is central to our marketing strategy,” says Joanne Webb, marketing director at Vue cinemas. Realising the appetite for content among its customers, it launched a free magazine in March 2013 to complement its other content-led activity and more traditional advertising channels. The bi-monthly title, created by Publicis Blueprint, features a calendar of film releases and reviews plus exclusive interviews and behind-the-scenes information. Owing to popular demand, Vue increased its circulation by 20 per cent in March, to 250,000. 

It recently launched a monthly tablet edition, with weekly updates, and achieved 20,000 downloads in the first three months. Because customers can buy tickets through the app, it also measures sales. “The tablet edition is 100 per cent attributable, so even though it may be the fifth touchpoint that consumers have with us, there is a commercial return there,” says Webb. 

Vue’s research suggests that people who engage with the digital edition are five times more likely to see a film. It is harder to measure the print edition’s impact on sales as there isn’t a direct call to action, but a survey of readers reveals that 74 per cent booked tickets as a result of reading the magazine, and that 67 per cent went online to learn more about a film or watch a trailer. “Driving sales is pretty much why we do everything we do, otherwise it’s just noise,” says Webb.

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Lucy Tesseras says : ‘Native advertising’ is one of the newest buzzwords in content marketing but there is still some confusion about what it actually means. We explored the concept in this feature from October:

Is going native a marketer’s dream?

As this feature highlights, measuring the value of content marketing can be hard but this article by supplements editor Michael Barnett gives examples of how brands can generate a real return on investment:

How to create content that truly adds value


Marketing Director, Outbrain Europe

74 per cent of marketers think content marketing represents a fundamental shift in how businesses engage with customers, but 39 per cent think it is just ‘marketing’ with a new name – what’s your view?

Content marketing is not a new concept but the way it’s being used now, particularly in digital, means it is a huge opportunity.

Looking back, Michelin is one of the best examples of content marketing; it began creating travel guides based on the insight that the more people drive, the more tyres they will need.

We’re now seeing this translate to the digital arena, which is why content is becoming such an important element of modern marketing.

52 per cent of marketers think most content marketing is actually just old broadcast thinking in a new digital world – to what extent do you think that is true?

It goes back to the idea of putting customers first. If you try to simply broadcast a brand message, content marketing won’t work. If you develop interesting content that inspires, excites or adds to people’s lives, it will.

Consumers have trained themselves to ignore ads, so if we want to engage them we have to create something valuable for our audiences, not push products. If you have this, plus trust in the brand and the source, content marketing really works.

How do you think content marketing tends to sit within the marketing strategy?

Content marketing is increasingly linked with almost every other strand of marketing across earned and owned media.

The land grab of followers in the early days of social meant that many brands built audiences but often had nothing to say to them. To get people to listen they had to give them something to engage with and this in part is why content marketing has evolved so strongly. Distribution is now a focus to ensure that quality content is found and consumed by the right people.

How can content’s success be measured?

Because content spans so many disciplines, measurement metrics are coming from teams across social, search, CRM and distribution – whether that’s tracking specific clickthrough rates, or tracking a user’s journey through to conversion. Better intelligence and a strategic approach to measurement is allowing businesses to grow their content strategy by using data and insight rather than relying on guess work.


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