How 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 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.