Connecting content to revenue remains elusive, but leveraging effective and compelling storytelling is a clear winner for brands.
It is no secret that content creation has become increasingly popular among brands of all sizes and industries, but what communications professionals and marketers are still trying to uncover is how effective the practice is in terms of hard business results.
"PR people's heritage is in storytelling," explains Jackie Cooper, global chair of creative strategy at Edelman. "We are the experts at using content to power communications and it is constantly a challenge for us to commercially show how this speaks to the bottom line."
Edelman Berland, the agency's research and analytics subsidiary, is working to figure out how content feeds into a company's sales and lead generation. One way the firm is evaluating impact is through a system it created called Intelligent Engagement, which allows staffers to monitor and measure media impressions, consumer engagement, and online dialogue.
Cooper says consumers are more likely to be loyal to a brand if they are engaged with content across multiple channels, whether experiential, digital, or traditional.
"We know it has to go beyond mentions and popularity," she adds. "We have to show that it's a business deliverable. That is still something the PR sector has myriad ways of doing."
When it comes to b-to-b and b-to-c companies, Cooper believes consumer brands may appear better at content marketing, since it is often expected of them, but may not do as well in terms of results because of the high competition and crowded environment. All in all, she says, "sales and bottom-line impact are always going to be determined by the power of the idea."
Creating specific content
Quill.com, a division of Staples, has been active in content creation for several years, especially with its Dunder Mifflin paper brand.
The brand name, which was the paper company in the television show The Office, was licensed by Staples under NBC and "defictionalized," explains Paul Bessinger, director of innovation for Quill.com.
To increase brand awareness and show companies and consumers that Dunder Mifflin office supplies really can be purchased for their businesses, Quill.com worked with PR agency partner Olson Engage and crowdsourcing platform Tongal to create an advertisement for the 2013 Super Bowl [above].
Bessinger says the company created "very specific content around the Dunder Mifflin brand," and engaged consumers by asking them to help make the commercial.
While the ad only cost $12,000 to air in Scranton, PA, which is the hometown of Dunder Mifflin in The Office, it garnered more than 600 million media impressions.
It was also the primary driver behind a high single-digit percent sales increase for Dunder Mifflin copy paper and a double-digit sales increase for the entire Dunder Mifflin line of products from January to May 2013.
Quill.com measures all its results internally, and Bessinger bases the success of content creation on a hybrid of accelerating product sales and raising brand recognition.The biggest challenge, he adds, is figuring out where to connect with consumers in an ever-changing digital world, and then making sure the brand has the best tools in place to measure the impact of the engagement.
Jeremy Mullman, VP at Olson Engage, says content creation is about effective storytelling. Olson is Quill.com's PR agency partner on the Dunder Mifflin brand.
"Content creation in and of itself does not give a bottom line," he explains. "If you do it right and you are telling a relevant story, people will respond to that and it will hopefully move the bottom line for you, but you start from the storytelling perspective."
In terms of brand size, Mullman says it is very hard for a piece of content to move sales for a large brand since it already has so much going on in the marketplace, but for a young brand, a piece of content can significantly affect the bottom line if it is executed correctly.
For Dunder Mifflin, a brand established in 2011, Olson decided the best way to engage its b-to-b audience was through consumer outreach because it would help make the brand top of mind and ensure people know it is not just a name from a TV show.
Organic food brand Earthbound Farm has been heavily reliant on content marketing and digital and social media engagement to increase brand awareness and product sales since it does not have "a huge marketing budget," explains Samantha Cabaluna, VP of marketing and communications at the company.
The brand launched a digital platform called Organic Bound in November 2013 to engage and create conversation with consumers through photos and content created by Earthbound's experts and food and lifestyle bloggers. The company's PR agency partner Haberman also helps to strategize and brainstorm ideas and editorial themes for the website.
Every year, Earthbound conducts a study to track its brand vitals, such as loyalty and recognition, and breaks consumer targets into two segments, which include "organic believers" and people who are open to organic products but do not know a lot about them, explains Cabaluna.
The percentage of loyal brand followers who buy Earthbound products more than once a month has stayed about the same from fall 2012 to 2013, but the second segmentation has gone from 44% to 64%. Cabaluna attributes much of the increase to the type of content the brand is serving consumers, which has gone from mainly promotional to acting as a resource to show different ways to use the products.
In terms of brand awareness, the company has seen a jump among consumers who are not familiar with the brand, from 13% to 33%, according to the study. The company has also seen a 40% redemption rate on its printable electronic coupons.
Although Earthbound can see that it is experiencing sales gains, Cabaluna says "the direct impact of content to sales is really hard to connect," but "everyone in marketing is working toward that," she adds. Olson's Mullman says the objective behind content marketing may vary per brand, and sometimes it can focus on changing a consumer's perception of a company, which may ultimately lead to sales increases.
In August 2013, the country Belize was mentioned as a synonym for murder in the popular AMC television show Breaking Bad. With the Belize Tourism Board as a client, Olson quickly and cleverly created content to manage any potential negative backlash about the country.
The agency helped the tourism board write a message on Twitter to the show's cast members, inviting them to visit the country at some stage. Positive to negative online mentions of Belize went from 1:1 before the episode to 8:1 during the week after the episode aired and the fun tweets were sent.
Joe Pulizzi, founder of the Content Marketing Institute, says some well-established brands have been measuring content creation in terms of sales and lead generation for a while, but "the majority do not have any kind of strategy along with it."He adds that the practice must be taken seriously in order for it to be integrated into marketing.
"This is experimentation at its finest," he says. "It's going to take a while to get there because we're seeing the evolution of the marketing unit into a publishing enterprise, which is exciting."
CMOs are focused on driving revenue, saving costs, and creating happier customers, so Pulizzi advises content marketers to look at those three elements when nailing down their objectives.
Content marketing, he says, is competitive across both b-to-b and b-to-c brands, but b-to-b marketers have it easier because they often have a defined customer base.
Going forward, Pulizzi believes b-to-b organizations will make the most progress and biggest waves with content marketing, because most of the time consumers outside their target audiences will also end up seeing this content.
In 2009, Gold's Gym launched a customer-relationship program that was content focused with the goal of increasing member retention by engaging gym-goers with relevant and useful content via email.
"You can't have a ‘one size fits all' when it comes to content," explains David Reiseman, VP of communications at the fitness brand.
To ensure it was pushing the right content to the appropriate audiences, Gold's asked gym members to fill out a quick survey about goals and current fitness levels.
After receiving the data, the company developed a content series for different member segments, such as fitness beginners or those looking to build muscle.
Gold's partnered with the custom-publishing division of Time Inc. to bring to life the content it storyboarded in-house, which includes imagery, articles, videos, quizzes, and more.
Based on research, if a member is not engaged within seven weeks, they are very likely to stop coming to the gym, so Gold's launched a seven-week Gold's Gym Extra e-newsletter initiative for new members.
The company, which still enacts this program, sends members custom content each week, and after the seven weeks are up the brand sends updates every three months, as well as promotions on members' birthdays.
Every year since the effort launched, Gold's has seen an increase of more than 5% in people using the gym who receive the emails, compared to those who don't. The gym has also seen a 1% reduction in member attrition due to the content program each year, which saves the company $21,200 annually per gym or about $10 million overall each year.
With the first phase of the program focusing on current members, Gold's will concentrate the next evolution on former members, sending them relevant content and workouts to keep the brand top of mind.
Gold's also created a 12-month marketing calendar for 2014 in collaboration with PR agency partner MWW, Time Inc., advertising partner McKinney, and some team franchisees. The content is derived from the insights of partners, monthly events, and data the brand collected on what types of content were most popular based on past newsletters.