How Do We Measure the Value of Content? A Look at Coca-Cola

RichardStacy
Richard Stacy Owner/Partner, Stacy Consulting

Posted on May 16th 2014

How Do We Measure the Value of Content? A Look at Coca-Cola

Coca-cola content strategyHow do we measure the value of content?  Given the amount of money many brands are currently sinking into content, this would seem to be a pretty important question to answer – especially since the conventional ways for measuring the value of content are not really designed to work in this new world where the brand positions itself as a publisher or media organisation – producing forms of online magazine.

To date we have generally measured brand content in two ways: either its effectiveness as a piece of advertising (usually via a direct link through to increases in sales) or we have measured it in the context of how it sits within a website (often through its place in a journey designed to lead through to online action or transaction).  In both of these instances the amount of content we produced was relatively restricted – either because it was expensive to produce or because producing too much of it lead to confusion.  However, the new approach dictates that brands produce a continuous, high volume stream of output – much like a conventional publisher.  No doubt this is why the publisher model is one that many brands like to reference.

Coca-Cola: leading the pack, but in the right direction?

Coca-Cola is one of the most high profile examples of a brand that has embraced the content and publication model.  In its, now famous Content 2020 video, chief creative type, Jonathan Mildenhall outlines how Coca-Cola is shifting from “creative excellence to content excellence”.  The corporate website has been declared dead and instead been transformed into a digital magazine and its stated ambition is to “make a Coke story part of your daily habit – whether it’s on Google+, Facebook, or Flipboard.”  Now that is some form of ambition.  I can’t even identify a traditional publisher whose content (at least in the online space) I consume as part of a daily habit.  The closest for me is the BBC – but even then I tend to come across their stories rather than making any conscious effort to visit their site (or use their app).

Set against this background, there has been a fascinating blogversation taking place between Ashley Brown – the prime mover at Coca-Cola behind the brand as publisher push, and Mark Higginson – from the University of Brighton.  Back in February Mark published an article on Sparksheet that questioned the value of Coke’s “content marketing journey”.  Mark looked at content shares for a range of Coke’s posts and found that these were very low – suggesting that people were not really interested in the content.  He also found that there was a long-tail situation going on here – in that most of the actual interest revolved around only a very small numbers of posts, from which he questioned whether anyone was actually relating to the site as they would a conventional content destination and that even those people visiting could not be considered in any sense ‘an audience’.    Ashley countered (in a series of comments and with a post of his own) by saying that Marks analysis was flawed because he was measuring the wrong thing – i.e. content shares (albeit this was the only publicly available measure Mark could have used).  In fact in his initial comment on the post Ashley stated “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.”

As any publisher will tell you…

And here in lies the problem.  Coca-Cola may look like a publisher, but it doesn’t have a publisher's business model and therefore publishing measures or metrics cannot assumed to be relevant.  Or as Einstein ( I think) once said, “Just because you can measure something doesn’t mean that you should.”

Within publishing, there is a well established and relatively direct relationship between the content your create, the audience that reads it and the advertising revenue you can attract as a result (or levels of subscription if that is also part of the model).  A publisher is a machine designed to maximise the efficiency of turning content into cash.  Coca-Cola (or any other brand) is no such machine.  It doesn’t generate revenue through advertising, it does it through selling servings of Coca-Cola.  This would suggest that if it wants to use publishing type measurement it needs to be able to work out the connection between creation of content and sales.  Apparently Coca-Cola has done this, although it hasn’t revealed the numbers.  Irrespective of what these numbers might be, I think it is fair to assume that the journey between content and sales is quite a long and winding road (especially since, unlike an ad, this is content not explicitly designed to create sales).

It is highly unlikely that content on a Coke site is going to translate itself into into anywhere near as much revenue as content that sits on a media organisation’s site.  Even if Coca-Cola can prove that it can turn content into cash, it is never going to be able to do it with anything like the efficiency of a traditional publisher.  For it to achieve this it would have to do one of two things: either produce content at dramatically lower costs than that of traditional publishers, or create a dramatically larger audience for it (quite possibly both).  So, in order to make a worthwhile return on its content (ROC, anyone?) Coca-Cola does not just have to compete with traditional media organisations for audiences to consume its content – it has to kick them out of the ball-park.

If you can’t compete, don’t compete (Warren Buffet)

Rather than compete with publishers, brands like Coca-Cola need to re-think the approach and abandon the idea of “making a Coke story part of your daily habit.”  Back in 2013, Ashley Brown explained that Coke’s decision to move more aggresively into the publication and story space, with re-designs to its Coca-Cola Unbottled blog and Coca-Cola Journey corporate site, was driven by data and feedback from consumers as to what stories they really liked.  According to Ashley “Coca-Cola Unbottled got a whole new look, resulting in a 106% increase in page views driven by a jaw-dropping 1,247% increase in Unbottled home page visits”.  These are impressive stats – but they are impressive only in the context of making improvements to a corporate blog or website.  But they mean very little in the wider world of the consumer unless you believe that such rates of increase will continue unabated until such time as these destinations come to form a significant part in the daily digital habits of close to all of your consumers.  I don’t think this is going to happen.  It is important to have an effective blog and corporate website – but no matter how effective these become, they are never going to make a significant impact on the consumers’ world.  In fact, you could argue that in chasing the publication dream, Coca-Cola are actually compromising some of the basic, less sexy, things that a corporate website needs to do.  Really all that Coca-Cola are proving here is that this story driven, digital magazine approach works in attracting more people to your website.  But so what?  Who are these people anyway?  Whilst there are more of them, are there enough of them?  And is this really worthwhile given the greatly increased investment you are having to make?

Or, to quote Vincent Balusseau, assistant professor of marketing, Audencia Nantes School of Management in his contribution to the discussion thread “in a low-involvement category like Coke’s, I have a hard time believing that this kind of costly initiative does a great job at building brand saliency on a large enough population (compared to other options that Coke might invest in). For a brand such as Coke, massive reach (and mental availability) are what matter down the road, way more than the engagement (psychological and behavioral) of even tens of thousands of ‘fans’.”  Well said, Professor.

Interestingly, the discussion between Ashley and Mark sort of peters out at the point where Ashley says that Mark is using the wrong form of measurement, Mark says that this is the only form of measurement he can use given the data he can access and Ashley says he has the necessary data, but won’t show it.  Ashley then signs-off with the (supposed) clincher of “we are a business, if it didn’t work we wouldn’t do it”.   For me that really is a red flag.  I have been in PR for 25 years and I have seen a hell of a lot of businesses do the wrong thing – and persist in doing the wrong even when it ‘wrongness’ becomes apparent.  That sort of assertion is usually the first step on the road to delusion.

Be a story, don’t just tell stories

Now I remain a fan of the idea of brands and stories – in the sense that brands need to understand, and encode themselves, as a story.  But being a story is very different from simply telling lots of stories.  If I look at ‘the Coca-Cola story’ as distinct from the many stories that Coca-Cola tells (many of which have very little to do with Coca-Cola) – what I see is a marked lack of genuine social engagement.  It is very difficult to find anywhere where you can talk to the organisation, ask questions, even make suggestions.  Coca-Cola is not really creating the sort of relationships that individual consumers want to have with organisations within the social digital space.  In effect it is saying, “sit down, listen to and share our stories – or go away”.   And in its quest for stories it is being drawn into an ever more extreme series of staged “happiness stunts” that, interesting, are represented in ways that are becoming ever closer to advertising.

Perhaps this is no surprise – we all of us have a tendency to revert to our comfort zone.  Coca-Cola does, after all, have a highly effective machine for turning content into cash.  It is called advertising.  And over the years Coca-Cola has become very good at it indeed.  Creative excellence is the bedrock upon which the Coca-Cola brand rests, yet it is surrendering it in favour of content excellence.  Personally I would say “don’t give up the day job” and if you want to make anything a daily habit, perhaps it should be listening and responding to individual consumers.

The value of brand content lies in its wider role within consumer relationships

In terms of establishing the value of content, it seems to me that the lesson is that you can’t look at content as though you are a content producer.  The value has to be part of a much broader picture of the relationships a brand has, or wishes to establish, with its consumers.  And within this relationship, consumers rarely want content, they want information.  They want answers to questions.  They want response to complaints or suggestions.  You deal with this not by having an editorial approach to content, but by seeing information as a management process.  And critically, for a brand like Coca-Cola, you don’t give up on the creative performance in front of the audience of your consumers – you just don’t waste money trying to create the audience in the first place (because the audience will never be big enough), you rent a stage in the place where both the audience already is and is prepared to accept what it is you have to say.

RichardStacy

Richard Stacy

Owner/Partner, Stacy Consulting

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Comments

This is a great post - not much I can add beyond pointing out that these percentage figures Coca-Cola give as indicative of 'success' are meaningless. A thousand percent increase where we don't know the figures could mean anything from a few hundred to several hundred thousand 'visits'. All depends where you started from.

Case in point is how in the comments to my original post Ashley Brown was happy to claim: "in 2013 we exceeded our visits target by more 2 million visits." In a separate post on Journey they gave a figure of 674 article pages on-site. If you break this down that is only 247 extra 'visits' per month per post. From a company that serves 1.8 billion beverages per day.

As you say this is all moot in any event as *Coca-Cola is not in the publishing business*.

Given Eric Scimdt of Coca-Cola said "we didn't see any statistically significant relationship between our buzz and our short-term sales" I look forward to the posts Ashley has promised us on measuring the ROI of content marketing on his blog.

Richard,

Ashley Brown here.  

First, Mark's original thesis simply does not stand up to scrutiny. I provided data that shows quite clearly that social shares of Coca-Cola Journey articles are not abnormally low. Actually, compared to other focused publications, they are actually quite good. Mark can continue to believe he is right, but the data says otherwise. That data can be found here.

Now, I want to address some of your other points:

1. Journey is not intended to compete with the New York Times. We are a brand-focused destination, and we do have metrics that reflect that. We share, every day, thousands of pieces of content that a few years ago would never have seen the light of day. We are a publication with Coca-Cola as our beat, and as such we are a marketing and PR instrument.

2. In that endeavor, we are seeing net-positive ROI. Our cost per reader compares extremely favorably to other types of media spend online. While there is a very limited amount of paid media going to Journey, this amounts to probably less than 1% of our budget. Most of our budget is an investment in storytelling, and we're seeing that spend work just as hard as other online spend. Every brand will find its own truth in this space, but it's working for Coke. 

3. Your passing assertion that Journey doesn't work well as a corporate website is also not true. Bowen & Craggs, which analyzes corporate websites for effectiveness, ranks Journey as one of the best corporate websites in the world, and we improved our ranking +8 places since the launch of Journey. Their ranking can be found here.

 

4. We were going to invest in a corporate website anyway, why not make it work harder? Replacing the corporate website with a storytelling platform was no accident. We found this site had a huge audience of unrealized potential. That experiment has paid off handsomely, with +30% YOY traffic growth that shows no sign of abating.

5. It also allows to capitalize on the long tail of search. We are seeing +50% increases in search traffic. Added traffic has also had the knock on effect of deepening engagement with our brands, both on page and on social. Since the launch of Journey, our social media channels have grown +100% YOY every year.

6. From a PR perspective, Journey enables us to make richer, and faster, announcements than ever before in our company's history - itself a huge achievement and worth the investment in modern, real storytelling.

7. It's not either/or on advertising. As an online marketing tool, as I said, Journey compares favorably to other types of spend. We are not drawing money away from other types of marketing to fund this work. It's an added investment that is working. 

8. Finally, Eric Schmidt presentation has been quoted often online out of context, largely because writers (and I am going to assume this is true of you but will happily eat my words if it's not) quote it based on media coverage without having read his actual work. Wendy Clark's response to Ad Age - which was published on Journey and re-published in its entirety on Ad Age - can be found here.

 

I hope this brings some clarity to what we are trying to do. Happy to talk further. 

Ashley,

I haven't read the Eric Schmidt piece - so I haven't factored his comments into my criticism.

You say that Journey shares thousands of pieces of content that a few years ago would never have seen the light of day. Fine - but perhaps they never justified seeing the light of day in the first place.

You also say that Journey is a brand focused destination.  You are also a brand that is focused on almost everyone on the planet.  Frankly I don't really know what a brand focused destination is, other than a buzz word.  However, given the size of your consumer audience it seems to me that whatever it is, it either has to reach a huge number of people (more than the New York Times), or it does indeed have to be focused on very specific needs, where the value of the contact you create is hugely greater than that which is created through almost any form of conventional, impression-based, publication.  Social media, after-all, is a high engagement / low reach space.

Which brings us to another important point.  Social media is a space, not a place (destination).  The most popular post on my blog is not found on my blog, no-one comes to my blog to read it.  They find it in Google (or as a link in other blog posts).  My blog is simply a launch pad and this particular post has visibility because it has become socialised. Rather than focus on producing lots of content, brands should focus on producing a much more restricted amount of very specific content (information) based on what it is their consumers want to know, and invest the time in socialising that information so that becomes visible and accessible.  Social media is not a channel and message game (mostly because there is no audience associated with the channel anymore), it is a behaviour identification and response game.  That is my mantra anyway!

Finally - to Mark's point, I find that many companies justify their social media activities on the basis of large percentage increases in things like 'engagement' or other measures of channel usage, but as Mark points out, percentage increases in themselves mean nothing.  A 100% increase in something that has little effect on the bottom line doesn't mean much - whereas a 0.5% increase in margin or  market share (for a brand the size of Coca-Cola) can be hugely significant.  And even if you are dramatically increasing visits to the corporate website - does this actually mean anything?  I thought we had got beyond the point of seeing corporate websites as simply being there to attract the largest number of visits - especially for a brand whose audience is almost everyone on the planet.

Anyway - you say that these initiatives are hitting the numbers.  Fair enough, but my question (and point of the article) is - prove to me that are these the right numbers to be hitting.

 

 

 

Richard, 

In some ways, this debate is going in circles, since I have addressed many of these points in my replies to Mark. And your reply to my comment fails to account for why many brands invest in content.

To wit:

1. These are clearly stories people are interested in, because more than 300,000 more people a month visit Journey today last year. They spend longer on the site, share those stories more often, and stay on the site to consume another piece of content. Our bounce rate for Journey is just 22% (vs. 40-60% that is average for content sites per Google). The bounce rate for the blog, at 12%, is nothing short of extraordinary for a blog. These signals tell us that we are producing great content that Coke fans (at least) want to read. Is it perfect? No. Is it better than ever? Yes.

2. Our job as communicators is to tell Coke stories. Sometimes those are brand building stories (like FIFA), sometimes they are targeted at investors (our business stories), at jobseekers (our career-focused content), and even simply informational (our health and well-being content). That's our job, and our digital owned properties should simply work as hard as possible for us. 

3. Journey's content strategy is implicitly designed to capitalize on the long tail of search. More than 50% of our traffic is from search, and nearly 500,000 terms drive traffic to our sites. We explicitly invest in content areas - Food, Coke's history and heritage, careers-focused content - that our readers find popular and that we have an above average likelihood of earning first page results. As anyone in the content game will tell you, this is a long-term investment that's not for the easily distracted or faint of heart.

4. You and Mark both assume that we create every piece of content from scratch. In fact, much of our content is created anyway at no cost to the editorial team. It is made up of assets that are created by other teams for other purposes, and Journey serves as the coordinating hub that syndicates that content to the market. We also have numerous content parters, as well as The Opener, our influencer program. 

Ultimately, you and Mark have collectively missed the point. We are not investing in real content to win short term social media impressions or push virality. We are interesting in surfacing content with staying power that will positively enhance our brand. For example, the recipe for Coca-Cola Cake is one of the oldest pieces of content on the site, and it is a consistent top-5 performer. Why? Because there's no better authority on how to make Coca-Cola Cake than Coca-Cola. This is the type of content we invest in.

Is all of our content a winner? Nope. As I said, we have some misses, some hits, and some mega-hits. But someone who lands on the site to find a recipe for Coca-Cola Cake stays on the site (on average) to read *another* Coke story. 

Coca-Cola Journey and Coca-Cola Unbottled underpin our content strategy. Social plays a part in that. But that's distinct from a social media strategy. You're confusing the two.

Finally, in your post you say that Mark's and my conversation "petered out". This is factually untrue. Mark posted his piece in February. I posted my blog in May. Along the way I think there have been more than 30 thoughtful comments, many posted by me, Mark, other practitioners, and yourself. That's hardly a fizzling conversation. Instead, I have found the discussion to robust, lengthy and fun.

One theme that has remained constant is that Mark's original thesis is unsupported by facts, and filled with holes, sheer conjecture, and tangents. He's moved the goalpost of the argument several times.

I hope that this, finally, sets the issue to rest.

 

Ashley,

I guess the issue for me is that, impressive as these numbers are (bounce rate etc) - are they impressive enough?  Creating audiences in the social digital (or even traditional digital space) is very hard - mostly because when people are in this space they don't want to be treated as part of an audience.  I just haven't seen any evidence that the attempts to create audiences within this space are creating groups big enough to be considered 'an audience' and thus justify the maintenance of an audience-based approach.

Marketing as we know it is really audience-based marketing - because audience-based channels have been the only ones available.  Marketing therefore was a channel (reach) and message (content) game.  In the social space people are behaving as individuals, not as members of an audience.  The name of the game is therefore behaviour identification and response.  It is all about an approach that is based on the assumption that you only ever deal with small numbers of people at any one time (based on responding to their behaviours or initiatives) - and therefore have to create a relationship with these people hugely more valuable than that which you can ever hope to achieve through receipt of generic pieces of content.  And it is not about targeting, because an individual is not just a very small audience. (If you want more on this read my book!  http://www.amazon.com/Social-Media-Three-Cent-Rule-ebook/product-reviews/B00DI4H440)

If an organisation is wedded to the idea of the creation of content - my advice would be to focus much more on what you do with the content after you have produced it, rather than on volume of production.  Think of content as a process, not a thing.  Content becomes valuable (visible, useful) only once it has become socialised - in effect once it has become information.  And if you spend more effort socialising your content this will help you become more focused on what content to produce (as well as forcing you to make less of it).  You basically have an information management strategy, rather than a content strategy.  This is why of all the points you raise - point 3 is the one which interest me the most.  Value is created through the process you apply before and after production, not in the production process itself.  This is where a brand approach would differ dramaitically from that of a traditonal media operation.  http://richardstacy.com/2013/12/05/need-talk-content-marketing/

In many ways I love Journey.  As a corporate website it is bold, innovative and attractive and you have to give credit to the organisation for the courage to head in this direction.  I just fear it is the wrong direction.

 

Nothing you have said in this reply really changes what's being dicussed. Can we tie a piece of content directly through to a sale? No. But then we can't generally do that for a billboard or a subway ad either (promotional spots aside). Marketing and PR in all forms is really about brand building and awareness.

One of the great promises of content marketing is that "information" can be eminently more useful than straight up advertising. I agree, and our data supports that too. Our careers-focused and food/recipes content are some of our most popular, and our content mix continues to evolve to curate, coordinate, and in some cases produce more of that content. We were, by and large, the first brand to undertake an experience like Journey, and it's been a steep learning curve. We've never claimed to have cracked the nut.

But, none of this takes away from the fact that Journey is a very efficicent spend of dollars online. And the exceptional growth of our owned media properties, and the stronger ties that these consumers have to our brand, signal to us that the investment is not only worth it, but getting more worth it every month.

It's why Coke is doubling down on content, and extending these experiences to more markets and languages in 2015.

None of this will probably change your mind about our work. And what we are doing might not be the right thing for everyone. You might fear for us on this one, but we are more certain than ever this is the right track for our Company.

But the bit missing for me is any sort of proof that "exceptional growth of owned media properties", or "stronger ties with consumers" of itself isn't sufficient to justify the investment.  It is very easy to strengthen a relationship with a consumer, or a group of consumers - but strengthening relationships with all of your consumers, in a cost-efficient way, is another matter. If you are only going to reach small numbers of people at any one time (which, by and large is all that you can do in the social / digital space) these relationshiops have to be hugely more valuable than the relationships we created in traditional audience-based (content-based) marketing.

It is very hard, in my experience, to create such relationships on the back of content.  The only reason that marketing has focused on content to date (and thus wishes to continue focusing on it) has been because there were not scalable alternatives available and the channels we used meant that we could get this content in front of millions of people.  Content requires an audience - but in the social digital space the audience isn't there.  Or rather, the people that are there don't want to be treated as a member of an audience.

But if you have the data that shows you are creating big enough audiences to make a content-driven approach work - fair enough.

Anyway - happy for you to respond, but I think this is going to be my last comment. There is probably not a big enough audience at this point to justify maintenance of this particular stream of 'content'!

Has been a good discussion - thanks for taking the time to respond.

I resent this characterisation. My argument has remained entirely consistent as anyone who has followed this can read for themselves. I've simply had to do a lot of explaining. You can read the original post that led to the Sparksheet post here. Understanding how attention works on the web takes study.

Today's post, False Goals Kill, from Bob Hoffman seems apposite:

"Among the many ills that afflict the advertising industry, there's currently one that is epidemic-- the pursuit of false goals. There are plenty of delusional people all around you... Do not get mislead by these people. Your objective is not engagement (whatever the hell that means) or branding (ditto) or gathering friends or likes, or raising awareness... Your one and only goal is to sell shit. Sooner or later, someone smart is going ask what happened to sales."

Mark,

In total frankness, you can resent the characterization but the fact remains that your original thesis has been proven wrong, and your post was filled with conjecture and assumptions about facts that were, so to speak, not in evidence (and that you would have no way of knowing). 

Adding in another quote from someone who supports what you believe doesn't make your assertions true.

Ashley

P.S. Sorry I have to blame myself for not addressing one of your points!

You mention that we sell 1.8 billion beverages a day (which we do), and infer that we should get all of those people to read a Journey story. That's a red herring. On any given day, only a tiny fraction of anyone on the planet sees a marketing message from any brand. I am not sure that anyone would seriously expect every single person who drinks a Coke to then immediately engage with the brand. It's good enough for me that they are refreshed by their drink.

But the ambition is to get the message in front of as many people as possible and the message is designed with this ambition in mind.  The only reason you can't get in front of all your potential audience at once is that it is not economically efficient to do this - hence segmentaion and targeting.