Why brands should stop making banner ads and start joining the content flow

Most brands’ websites aren’t part of the natural flow of the internet. Most of them sit in the middle of the web and don’t live where most of the web traffic happens (usually on publishers’ websites). As a result brands have spent billions of dollars to move internet traffic from the flow to their sites. Since the average click through rate is 0.10 percent, moving people out of the flow clearly doesn’t work. In fact that strategy has failed miserably. Our approach is different.

Instead of trying to push water upstream, we believe brands should join the flow. Brands should move their content to where audiences are already going: the sites of big publishers like The Economist, the New York Times and ESPN.

Brands should do this by working with publishers to create content hubs where the brand’s content can live. You’ve heard a lot of about native advertising (eg, sponsored tweets, stories and pins). Think of this approach as creating native content.

While it’s much easier to buy lots of cheap display inventory we’ve found we create far more engagement by creating content hubs. We begin by working with the client to identify the best publishers to reach their audience—usually using comScore to help us analyze a publisher’s audience. Then we send the publisher a brief explaining the hub idea and asking them to work with us to create programs that are unique to their environment and content that will be meaningful to their audience. After all they know their audience best. As part of the process we would have already done an audit of the client’s owned content, which we’d make available to the publisher. Sometimes there’s enough content for the publisher to package with their content and other times there are gaps that can be filled by the publisher creating new content or by the client creating new content.

Joining the flow as we’ve described usually isn’t cheap but it is very effective at driving engagement. It’s amazing what happens when you give audiences meaningful experiences in environments that matter to them. They interact. Since many of our clients can’t afford to create multiple content hubs, nor do they have enough human resources to create all the necessary content, we’ve worked with publishers to create ”content widgets” (rich media units). They’re scaled down versions of the hubs.  Many publishers are still not set up to work with marketers to create hubs so they find content widgets more manageable.

As part of our content distribution strategy we advise clients to buy programs such as Outbrain which help drive traffic to the hubs. When clients first hear this they ask if it really makes sense to drive traffic to a publisher’s site. We remind them that we need to promote our content where it’s most likely to be viewed, which is not on their site. It’s on the hubs. It’s fantastic when you see the light bulb go off when they get it. It’s a whole new way to think about distributing content.

The last piece is measurement. Many clients still think that click through (CT) is important. But when your primary objective is to drive engagement with brand content wherever it lives, driving CT is no longer a meaningful metric. Instead brands have to develop engagement metrics, which measure the interaction with their content wherever it’s found.

Over the last year we’ve seen a lot more of our clients join the flow and we’ve heard stories in the press about other brands joining the flow. Creating content that belongs in the flow isn’t easy, but it’s the best way to drive engagement. And engagement matters.