Where the rewards of content lie

As corporates feel the pressure to make their next online bet one on content they should not get into a numbers game to measure the return, David Bowen says.

We have just asked online managers what they want to learn about at our conference in June (‘earlybird’ rates still available!). The answer has come back loud and clear: content and stories.

We will oblige, but we have also have been asking a question: why?

Whisper on the street

Coca-Cola’s digital manager, Ashley Brown, told us at last year’s conference how he had relaunched the group site as a vibrant online magazine called Coca-Cola Journey, complete with a proper editorial staff and serious freelance budget. The Coca-Cola Company, he said, intended to become a major media organisation.

Everyone was fascinated – I suspect Mr Brown is personally responsible for a good chunk of this year’s interest in stories. It’s all going swimmingly well, he says, and he is now rolling out international ‘editions’. And, like all successes, his is now attracting reaction – most recently a piece by a British social media manager in media and marketing magazine Sparksheet triggered a lively discussion, to which I will return.

What Mr Brown did not explicitly answer at the conference was why Coca-Cola wanted to become a publisher. A colleague has since unearthed a fascinating video explaining the group’s Content 2020 strategy. As long as you can plough through a dense thicket of marketing-speak – ‘immersion safari’, ‘data whisperers’, ‘Big Fat Fertile Space’ and even a brief appearance by Jesus – you will get to the core: “We need liquid ideas that take a disproportionate share of popular culture.” If liquid ideas are stories that can be placed anywhere (which is what I understand from the video), the logic of Journey becomes much clearer. The Coca-Cola Company, which is more than any other an edifice built on sophisticated marketing, wants to use content combined with its massive clout to establish itself as part of many people’s lives.

What’s good for Coca-Cola…

So that is Coca-Cola… but what about other companies? They won’t try to take Coke on at its own game, yet they are still fascinated by the whole content marketing thing. Should they be?

To cut to the chase, the answer is yes but for different reasons from Coke. The first point to make is that Coca-Cola is unusual in giving so much prominence to stories, but it is far from unique in its concentration on content. Siemens has been commissioning and showing short films since 2011, General Electric has a mass of fascinating (if scattered) material across many channels, Shell’s Inside Energy iPad app is as slick a magazine as you will find, Google.org is gripping… and so on.

All these companies combine their stories with traditional corporate content – often dismissed as ‘filing cabinet’ material – for jobseekers, investors, journalists and the like. Coca-Cola does this too – our FT Bowen Craggs Index suggests it is better than any other US company at providing it (making one of Mr Brown’s battle cries, ‘the corporate website is dead’, hard to fathom).

An investment to generate interest

But what are these others getting out of their publishing activities? It is, after all, quite easy to justify the filing cabinet approach. A good careers section will get you better recruits at lower cost, spoon-feeding journalists helps them get their facts right, while anything at all that a financial analyst values must be worthwhile.

The story side has no such obvious return on investment. So why not stick to the filing cabinet?

Colin Foster, then the head of Novartis’s web operation, gave me the answer several years ago. “Novartis.com is by far our biggest publication,” he said, pointing out that many more people read it than anything else the company produced. It’s an obvious but easily missed point that is truer now if you add the other platforms and social channels a company owns.

It is, furthermore, a publication people will read whether you want them to or not, which means the question about why you should bother to make it interesting can be turned on its head. ‘Why not?’ is a more obvious one. It’s surely an easy way to make people view your company in a better light. You should not need immersion safaris or data whisperers to see the benefit.

Low share value

But these days there is no benefit unless it can be measured (I don’t believe that, but I can’t change it). This leads me back to the piece by Mark Higginson in Sparksheet. His criticism is based on his attempts to measure Coca-Cola Journey’s success, and the headline ‘Should Coca-Cola quit its content marketing journey?’ points to his conclusion.

He analysed 87 posts on Journey ‘to see whether people really are engaging with stories’ and counted the number of shares to Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn from each post. “I discovered the level of interaction was negligible,” he writes. “The average number of shares from a post to Facebook was 238, to LinkedIn 103, and to Twitter 42.” As an aside he notes that “each post averaged eight comments and two-thirds received no comments at all”. The implication is that “one of the biggest brands in the world generates next to no interaction through its primary window to the world”.

Terms of engagement

Mr Brown came down on the Higginson methodology like a ton of bricks: “As any publisher will tell you, the surest measure of ‘engagement’ isn’t a social share – it’s time spent on the page consuming the content”. He has access to many measures denied to Mr Higginson and says that the company is most happy with the results these provide.

Isn’t this interesting? Mr Brown is telling us to prefer old-fashioned publishing measures, as used by everyone since Homer, rather than the new and fancy measures. He is right, of course – a ‘share’ is no more than a way of telling other people you quite like something, and it’s clear from looking at social media pages that many people click ‘share’ or like’ buttons with barely a thought.

It also implies that to Mr Brown the word ‘engage’ means ‘engage with the content’, not ‘engage with the company’ – which I seem to remember was pretty much the appeal of the whole Web 2.0 and social media revolution.

Interaction is not amplified by volume

Mr Higginson’s most interesting statistic is not about shares but about the low number of comments. Mr Brown dismisses this by saying that “on most content sites there are comparatively few comments. That’s just a reality of the web”. It’s true – but have a look at the Sparksheet article, which is undoubtedly content on the web. It has 12 comments from six people, including the author. Yet those comments add greatly to the piece, and more would just be cumbersome. Quality not quantity, this surely is the real measure (not a popular thing to say in the social media world, because it can’t handle it).

Transfer that to a company (whether on a website or other channel – with ‘liquid content’ it really doesn’t matter), and we get back to engagement between the group and its public, Web 2.0 style. I used to be sniffy about this because it never seemed to work. But some companies are starting to get there. Some are discovering how to talk back usefully on Facebook (BASF and GSK are examples) and I would say – pace Mr Higginson – that the Coca-Cola Journey gets close to having decent conversations. That they include elements of hostility makes them the more interesting.

I am slightly surprising myself by saying that corporates should not give up on the Web 2.0 conversation thing – I’ve always been fairly cynical about it. But as a complement to ‘engage with the content’, ‘engage with the company’ makes increasing sense to me. Combine these with a good old-fashioned filing cabinet and you may yet have yourself a Big Fat Fertile Space.

First published 12 February, 2014
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