The Quest for the Holy Grail of Sponsored Content Measurement

With 90 percent of marketers doubting their ability to measure branded content, something is clearly amiss in the land of ROI.

That uncertainty spreads to the brand-sponsored content that runs on the sites of publishers like BuzzFeed and The New York Times, where there’s plenty of debate over the best way to sell sponsored content and measure its success. Is it social engagement? Is it pageviews? Is it clicks? Some brands are even looking at the quantity of posts as a measure of worth. Sponsored content is a relatively new phenomenon, and the industry has yet to agree on a standard.

Currently, many brands are buying sponsored content based on metrics that are likely very faulty, much in the same way that they bought display ads based on faulty click-metrics in the early days of the web. However, several publishers have developed new models for measuring sponsored stories. Forbes, for example, is looking at engaged time as well as social influencers. BuzzFeed is looking at social sentiment and brand lift. Upworthy is experimenting with attention minutes and shares. Medium is setting a guaranteed number of engaged minutes. These measurements are paving the way to a clearer view of how sponsored content impacts readers.

(Full disclosure: Forbes is a Contently client.)

The current, standard publisher offering

According to Andrew Lipsman, VP of marketing and insights at ComScore, some of the confusion around measuring the success of sponsored content may come from many publishers selling sponsored content the same way they sell display ads: based on potential impressions with a specific audience.

“My sense is that many publishers are selling potential exposure based on their audiences, rather than an accurate measurement [of how that exposure performs],” says Lipsman.

This is why some publishers, like Say Media, are starting to charge for cost per engaged view instead. Say Media’s senior director of product management Greg Williams defines cost per engaged view as “an entire article page fully-rendered and presenting the chance to engage,” and is the main metric for Say’s accountable content payment program. To qualify as an engaged view, the entire page has to load and the user has a few seconds before he or she decides maybe they don’t want to see an ad. Say Media sells both its rich media ad units and sponsored content using this metric; display ads are measured by impressions.

BuzzFeed, an early adopter of the sponsored content craze, focuses on social sharing and sentiment to measure engagement between readers and BuzzFeed sponsored content. In its Taco Bell case study from 2013, the publisher notes that, “sponsored content through social channels were 195 percent more likely to try, couldn’t wait to try, or had already tried the product.” BuzzFeed administers one-question surveysto readers in a control group and then measures against another control group that has seen 5–9 pieces of Virgin Mobile content. From there, the publisher can demonstrate increases in brand affinity, or brand lift, from repeat exposure. For BuzzFeed, which heavily relies on social referral traffic, this makes sense as a way to sell sponsored content. In many of its case studies, BuzzFeed has reported brand lifts of more than 300 percent.

When a publisher simply measures and reports pageviews or social shares, it doesn’t always mean that people are actually reading the content; Chartbeat has reported that users only scroll on 24 percent of sponsored content. Nor does it mean that the target has delivered a positive increase in brand sentiment or even reached the correct audience.

Jason Kint, CEO of the Online Publishers Association, agrees that examining the page view number per piece of content is important for learning and shaping future posts, though he believes it doesn’t work as an overall measurement of a campaign’s success. “When you’re running a broader campaign, the good and the bad is that you can find yourself swamped with metrics,” Kint says. “Time spent is really the best metric for content engagement. Not necessarily the spent time per piece, but the total attention time.”

Measuring attention time

For Forbes CRO Mark Howard, attention time is the “average length of time with the user with the window of the story in focus.” Forbes works with ad tech provider Moat to gather data on how long users are staying engaged with a page. “When measuring attention time, there has to be a sign of the use,” Howard says, such as the reader scrolling or highlighting text.

Forbes also offers brands an analytics dashboard that shows which stories are receiving the most engagement. “With content, there are different audiences and different values and multiple device types,” says Howard. “There is no single unit that is a common denominator between publisher programs.”

Through its BrandVoice dashboard, Forbes is also sharing top posts, pageviews, and relevant social influencers, which helps guide how the story gets distributed through the social web.

Upworthy is another publisher looking for signals that users are still engaged on a page, but will sell it as part of a larger sponsored package including Twitter chats, consultation services, and aggregated content. As Upworthy develops its four-month-old sponsored content offering, the viral pubisher is also looking at how each package performs to inform how they’ll measure future sponsored content. Impressively, Upworthy has reported that their sponsored content receives three times the attention minutes as their regular editorial, something that holds up after further examination.

Other publications, like the Financial Timesare now using attention time to sell display ads. And in the near future, Chartbeat’s Tony Haile, who has worked with the FTthinks that brands will be purchasing based on the length of time a targeted audience needs to receive an overall brand message.

Of course, there’s no metric to rule them all. Though Kint says that attention time, also known as engaged time, is a great stat, he also mentions that it doesn’t always provide the full picture. “Ten seconds with a really captivating brand piece is more important than a minute clicking through something that doesn’t matter.”

Combining attention time with desired audience

To reach a targeted audience and generate engagement,the publishing partner and type of content matters; after all, a piece of sponsored content on Upworthy likely wouldn’t reach as many CEOs as a piece in The New York Times.

However, sponsored content doesn’t exist in a bubble. Howard explains that when sponsored content hits the social web, it becomes a meritocracy—it will be shared by those the piece is most relevant to. Claire Robinson, Forbes’ senior director of brand media production, explains that the publisher can use Twitter’s API to show the individual influencers that the brand is reaching, and how their influence is in turn driving others back to the piece.

Upworthy optimizes and packages its sponsored content so that once it’s shared and seeded, it will attract the optimal audience. BuzzFeed uses “SuperSharers” to push out published posts and then fuels the content with paid distribution across social platforms—such as Facebook Sponsored posts—in order to reach targeted communities.

“Brands are looking to us to explain and judge the scale they’re getting. There’s opportunity for multiple approaches,” says Williams. “There’s a space for BuzzFeed, there’s a space for us, and there’s a space for Medium. Everyone will have a different approach.”


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