Posted by SimonPenson
“How do I know if my content campaign is going to work?”
This question is the one I get asked more than any other at present, and for good reason; creating hit content, consistently, is one of the biggest challenges in marketing.
I’m certainly not going to pretend that every piece of content I’ve ever been involved in has been a hit. In fact, the opposite is probably closer to the truth — but failure teaches you much more, and allows you to iterate faster.
The result of that heartache and frustration is a process I want to share with you today, one that's designed to maximize the possibility of success with content campaigns.
It is also important to point out here that I'm not talking about content strategy or the wider picture, but specifically those bigger campaigns that should punctuate your wider marketing plan.
The difference between good and bad ideas
So, why did we fail so many times? Why were truly exceptional campaign ideas not hitting the mark?
The answer to these questions lay both in our ability to answer a handful of very simple questions, and understanding how to align the various marketing disciplines required to ensure you deliver.
Let’s look now at the process that has made the difference between us delivering content that, while good on the face of it, didn’t deliver the objective, and the pieces that absolutely flew.
Put another way, the process that makes the difference between a campaign asset like the one below — which smashed every one of its key objectives — and one of the many that seemed like a good idea, but just failed to "fly."
I’m sharing this example, not because it was our best-performing piece, but simply because it was the first time we saw the benefits of getting the process right from the start.
The objective for the piece was a sampling exercise: to get a challenger brand’s condoms into hands of 5,000 targeted men with a relatively small budget.
The resulting piece was an interactive quiz designed to capitalize on the "Fifty Shades of Grey" noise, as it coincided with the film’s launch. It worked by asking the site visitor a number of questions about their sex life before presenting them with a result between 0–50. The "Greyer" you were, the higher the score.
There were then calls-to-action around social sharing, further learning, and the main "sample request" option.
The piece was so popular that all 5,000 sample requests were taken up in just two days. The Buzzfeed post on it received 2,100 views in the first week, and ten major national websites covered the concept, in addition to numerous smaller blogs.
Facebook traction was also very impressive, with more than 4,500 post "Likes," 560 comments, and an average engagement rate of 7.4%.
So how was this made possible? Let’s walk through the same process that spawned it now…
Setting expectation and objectives
Ground Zero for any successful campaign is objective setting. The process is still overlooked by many, but before you start, you must define what success looks like.
And that MUST come topped off with a healthy serving of realism.
If your budget is a couple of thousand pounds (or dollars) for the entire piece, then you must be honest about what this may achieve — both as a standalone piece and as part of the wider content strategy it sits within.
You must also be clear about where the value is coming from. Is the piece a brand play or a performance marketing effort? Metrics that may suit each of these can be seen below:
Brand content metrics
- Dwell time
- Social sharing
- Eyeballs reached
Performance marketing content metrics
- Leads generated
- Effect on organic search visibility
- Citations and links earned
There are many others, of course, but for a campaign to be measurable, you should set clear and realistic KPIs against any of these relevant to the campaign.
For instance, in the earlier example we talked through, the KPIs were simple and we captured them in a format similar to the one below:
Main Objective: Obtain 5,000 product sample requests and reach 100,000 new "eyeballs."
Secondary Objectives: Improve social engagement, gain coverage on high-profile sites, and increase traffic to the site during the campaign period.
PR Placements: 6+ high-profile site placements (notional Hitwise Traffic target of 100,000 for those pieces).
Social: Organic – Reach: 75,000; Engagement: 5,000 | Paid – Reach: 250,000; Clicks: 20,000.
Visits and actions: Doubling of traffic to the site during campaign period and 5,000 sample requests.
Once these KPIs are set and agreed upon, the next phase is to center your thinking on the audience with whom you want to engage, in order to achieve those objectives.
For the example campaign, the target market was relatively broad, but ended up being focused on females in the 18–34 range. The insight from the brand was that the trialling needed to understand that, and required a process for collating all known customer information — allowing us to create Campaign Personas.
I have written previously about how you can extract data from social to inform audience understanding, and while Facebook has changed Graph Search a lot since penning the piece, there is still value in following some of that process.
Also worth a read on the wider persona process is this excellent guide by Mike King. It contains a huge amount of information on how to leverage data to build an accurate picture of your customer or clients.
Creating campaign- or distribution-specific personas allows you to focus very clearly on creating the right content, angles, and distribution plan to hit those key objectives.
To do that, however, you must first dive into the data.
The starting points for this are existing marketing insight, social data, and/or output from Global Web Index, a SAAS offering (and paid-for tool) that allows you to mine a vast swathe of Internet usage data. Many of the ad platforms you use buy this data to power their own targeting.
From social, you can extract data that helps add richness to the picture and how much time people spend on any particular platform. However, GWI aggregates that information and allows you to produce insights such as in the example below.
From this kind of data, you can plan a detailed, focused, and informed social distribution plan as part of the wider seeding strategy.
What's also interesting to know is both the type of content this audience currently engages with and also how they believe your brand fits within that picture.
Mistakes are often made when businesses understand what the people they want to attract consume, without taking into account if the brand has the right to play in that specific space.
The good news is you can easily gain insight into both of these areas.
The starting point for this insight piece is a dive into Google Display Planner. This free tool is designed to help media planners with display ad targeting, but its data can also be used to understand which sites a select demographic may frequent.
In the example below, you can see we have entered a couple of keyword interests and a topic interest to form a target demographic.
By clicking that "Get placement ideas" button, you're entered into the main dashboard where you can further refine everything, from age and gender to device use and back again.
A section I use quite a lot both for paid and PR targeting (as well as for initial audience insight) is the Individual Targeting Ideas > Placements > Sites drill down. This gives you a list of sites visited by your "audience," which can be downloaded into a CSV file and sorted based on a number of metrics, including traffic, popularity, and more.
This then allows you to select a small number of sites that will most likely be visited by those thinking about your product or service for the next level of analysis.
Taking a random site from the list we created, we can now look at the most-shared content on the site.
For this specific task, we'll use the former, selecting the "Top Content" option within the main Site Explorer:
Here, we can see the most shared and linked-to assets, and start to understand the sort of content our audience wants to engage with.
We can also make this picture even richer by then looking at a "whole-of-market" view and typing in associated topics into Buzzsumo. This then gives us a full list of the most shared content pieces in a broader sense.
As already discussed, however, not every brand can cover every subject, or has the right to do so — understanding this is key to success.
To get a fuller picture here, qualitative survey data is needed. To paint this picture, we will again turn to Global Web Index data. In the absence of such a tool, a quick survey of existing visitors will give you this critical insight.
Below, you can see the answer to what this target audience expects to see from the brand. This doesn’t mean specific content ideas, but rather the type of content it has the authority to produce in the eyes of the audience.
As we can see here, the brand is looked to predominantly as a source of information and knowledge sharing (great brand-as-publisher strategy opportunities!).
It is also clear, however, that they want to engage with the brand and expect relevant, timely content — an important point we will come back to later.
So, we now understand a little more about our audience’s needs and we can use this alongside existing research data and customer knowledge to create personas specific to the campaign.
In the example we're walking through, those personas were as follows:
The image above is a simplified version and we always use our persona template, which you can download here, to ensure we paint a thorough picture.
The point here is to humanize the data. The mind processes all that information in a much more structured way if you do this, and that means you end up making more precise decisions in how and where you target the campaign.
Personas also make it much easier to scale data understanding outside the group that created them. By having a shared "face" to each segment and trying to align each one to a famous person, it makes it much easier to ensure there's a shared understanding across the whole working group.
Once this stage is set in stone, the next phase is to move into the campaign idea itself.
Ideation – informing ideas with data
The principle is that you create left-brain structure around the creative process to ensure you can consistently output great ideas based on the objective.
We follow a 13-step process for doing this, which starts with an underpinning of the ideas against the objective — ensuring that they will achieve it — and defining the content types (as in infographics, video, articles, etc.) relevant to the audience we want to reach.
This process will always unearth great ideas, but not always ideas that fly from a campaign perspective — and for a long time we really struggled to understand why.
It was an anomaly that perplexed us for several months and it took a session of digging into feedback from journalists at real scale, as well as work on the entire distribution process, to really figure it out.
The answer boiled down to not asking the right questions of each concept at an early enough stage, and it required a reversal in how we plan the campaign as a whole.
The result was a new process that included a session at the end to ask questions of each and every idea recorded to ensure it is "fit for purpose."
1. Why now?
The first and most important question is, "Why are we doing this now?" We learned the hard way that an idea can be the best idea in the history of content marketing, but if it hasn’t got a "news hook," you may well be fighting a losing battle.
Such an angle can be manufactured with a little forethought, of course, so this doesn’t mean that only "newsy" content will work.
For instance, if we take a look at a piece on a subject such as finance, there's always a way to weave a new study, political opinion, or law change into the campaign to give it that critical "run it now" message.
Without it, a journalist or blogger — almost all of whom are motivated by news and trends — will have something more important to run before your piece, and it may just get lost in the noise.
2. What’s the angle?
If your idea passes the first stage of questioning, then the next phase is to look at how you may break that news angle down into a series of angles, or exclusives.
While having one really strong "story" can be enough, it is much better to be able to present a number of different flavors on the same thing. That way, when pitching it, your PR team will be able to approach a larger number of sites with that exclusive they all hunger for.
Below you’ll see an example of how this may work. In this case, we designed a series of exclusive angles for the idea we ended up opting for (an interactive quiz based on the "Fifty Shades of Grey" hype). The data-informed rationale behind it was as follows:
- Why now? – "Because the film is launching."
- Why this? – "There's a huge existing conversation in this area and we can tap into it. The audience is also perfect."
As you’ll see, there are a number of clearly different angles here supported by supplementary content.
This process then actually shapes the way you build the assets themselves, ensuring that you maximize potential reach.
3. Who is it for?
Once you have established it has legs as a trending opportunity campaign, the next stage is to work hard on understanding who would be interested in it, and where you may find them online.
As we now have several exclusive angles, we can go back to our personas and add an extra layer of detail to define which ones would be interested in each angle/story.
For instance, we know that the free condoms giveaway is most likely to resonate with our male persona, and so we want to push that through relevant websites and social channels more attuned to that audience.
4. Where will we find them?
There are myriad tools and ways in which to do this, enough for a post in its own right, but while I can’t share every one, it's worth discussing the key tools we use daily to do this.
You find these distinct groups in different places on the web, so grouping those people together helps you to then understand which sites they frequent.
At this stage we often use upstream and downstream traffic data from Hitwise to inform our decision making in a more data-driven way. The platform allows you to see where visitors go before and after visiting specific sites, widening your prospecting list.
Before we get into the influencer outreach piece, you must first create a site framework for your PR team to work from.
This means creating a handful of example sites for each distribution persona, giving clear examples of where we may find them.
For example, we may find "Steve" on the main social platforms, Buzzfeed, and so on. From this, you can then build a list of similar sites.
The final list of agreed upon and approved prospects is then added into our Content Campaign Planner, which you can download for your own campaigns either via the link here, or later on at the bottom of the article.
Building campaign plans
Below you can see a screen shot of the top sheet of the plan, which captures the overall timeline of each element. The tabs below it then contain all the info on:
- The paid social plan – Targeting, spend, target CPC, etc.
- The PR plan – Exclusive angles, the sell, content being used, etc.
- Prospect list – List of publications to be targeted
- Other – A tab to capture any other activity, such as above-the-line activity, if appropriate for the campaign.
Before we get into the plan details, however, one important point we always cover is budget breakdown.
Regardless of how much budget you have to play with for the overall campaign, it is important to look at wider media planning benchmarking to ensure you split it in a way that will maximize the chance of success.
We used a famous ad campaign in the UK as the basis for this decision-making process, and learn from one of the most successful going: the John Lewis Christmas campaign. It is a wildly successful TV-first creative with a tasty £7 million budget.
Critically, however, only one million of that is spent on creative; the rest is all distribution. While it wins award after award for being an undeniable hit, that budget split ensured it was always going to be successful.
"6 in every 7 campaign dollars should be spent on distribution."
All too often we get carried away with making the creative stand out, when we should be much more focused on distribution planning.
Exact breakdown will vary, but as a guide, aim for a 70/30 split towards distribution.
Find the right prospects
Distribution is key, and in the majority of cases your PR plan should deliver the biggest impact, if executed correctly. And that makes your approach to prospecting key to the overall success of the project.
As you've already carried out a lot of work around target sites, the next phase is to understand who the right journalists or influencers are inside those businesses.
At this stage, there will also be further work on blogger influencer identification, to ensure that the PR plan has the breadth of targets to cover as many eyeballs as possible.
To do that, you need to look at who is already sharing your content, using a tool like Ahref’s Top Referring Content. Reaching out to those already predisposed to linking to you is a surefire way of kickstarting your PR efforts with warm conversations.
Outside of this, there are myriad ways to reach the right bloggers, and this certainly isn’t a guide on influencer outreach. If you did want to know more, I suggest checking out these resources:
- Link Prospecting on Steroids – A Streamlined Process by Matthew Barby
- The Definitive Guide to Guest Blogging by Brian Dean
- The Ultimate Guide to Advanced Guest Blogging by Pratik Dholakiya
From a PR perspective, we only use two tools to simplify the process as much as possible. After trawling through every process and option possible, we've settled on a combination of Gorkana and Linkedin. That may be a process that disappoints some of the more technically-minded, but this is based on tens of thousands of hours of experience.
And the process couldn’t be easier, because it is simply about people:
- Take your list of sites selected as part of the audience-understanding project.
- Enter them into Gorkana and/or Linkedin to establish the best section editor, journalist, or influencer to reach out to.
- Note name, email address, phone number, and any previous communication notes into your planner.
Outside of this, we have been trialling JournoRequest to bolster those efforts and take the legwork out of social monitoring (an effective but labor-intensive process for finding trending opportunities from the journalists themselves).
This simple tool delivers targeted journalist content requests to your inbox and can help when it is part of an "always on" monitoring process that feeds in at the ideas stage.
A major mistake often made at this stage is to pick up the phone too early. It’s all too tempting to do that when so much work has led to this point, but before you do, it's important to pre-plan what you're going to say and to whom. This ensures that you maximize take-up and don’t confuse who you pitch which angles to.
This is where the prospecting list from our planner comes into its own. As you can see in the example below, it segments that process and makes it possible to scale the communication across multiple PR team members.
It can often help PRs to write a script before making the call, to ensure the sell is as strong as planned. We ALWAYS tell the journalist that we'll follow up with all the details on email.
This not only creates an excuse to get their email address if we don’t already have it, but also ensures that it stays front-of-mind and that we make it as easy as possible for them.
PR is, of course, only part of the story. It's important to plan around every other available channel opportunity to maximize reach.
Social is the next consideration, as it will support PR activity. We know from the initial audience piece how much time our target market spends on key platforms.
Supporting the content by creating a regular organic sharing plan across social and other owned channels is the first logical step, but there is obviously much more you can do. The chart below is a great starting point when considering how wide you can, or could, spread the net.
Which option you choose is dependent upon a) the topic of the campaign and b) what insights tell you about the audience you are targeting.
In our example, the interactive quiz was hosted on the site and was pushed organically via all key social channels, as well as being the subject of a significant PR campaign.
Organically, we ensure we can get the most out of the channel by, again, creating a number of editorial angles. In the case of the Skyn piece, this meant creating a number of quotes obtained from the survey results, memes, and so on, both to vary the messaging around the campaign and to ensure we kept it front-of-mind.
It was the paid media side that we focused on most, however, as we saw the targeting in the space as the best way to capture the attention of our audience.
That meant focusing on Instagram and Facebook with the majority of spend, but also drip-feeding it through Twitter to a really tightly-controlled custom audience created from existing customer email data.
Speaking more generally, when there is a paid social budget, our split would start looking like this, to be refined based on insight and the content subject matter:
- Facebook 70%
- Instagram 20%
- Twitter 10%
For the majority of markets, with the possible exclusion of B2B, Facebook will almost always trump the rest simply due to the size of the potential audience and the quality of the targeting its ads platform offers.
And while targeting simply by interest sets will work, we almost always find that the best option here is to add the Facebook Website Custom Audience Pixel to your site, and to then use that data to create a custom audience based on those already visiting. It can also be useful to test this against a custom audience created from "lookalikes" based on uploading your email database (if you have one).
However, if the campaign were designed to attract a completely different audience, then we would look more towards modeling the targeting on interests and/or competitors.
For example, if our campaign is designed to attract men to a survey about marriage but the piece is for a wedding and engagement ring specialist, the likelihood may be that the majority of the site's audience will be female. In this scenario, we would choose interest targeting to make sure we were reaching the right eyeballs.
The same is true of Twitter, too, although clicks here will be more expensive. Instagram is still at a very early stage in its paid lifecycle, which means that CPCs here are relatively affordable but are undoubtedly heading north as more advertisers jump on the platform.
LinkedIn is the most expensive, and hardest to target, of all options — but where there is a high average lifetime value of a customer and your product is in the B2B space, it can work.
There are, of course, several other considerations. You may also want to add other levels, such as native ad opportunities (think Taboola and Outbrain), and even paid search and/or display.
Display or retargeting can work very well as part of a wider, longer-term strategy to nurture the new visitor in the weeks after they land on your content.
The idea here is to either provide a really targeted piece of content or offer to follow up, thus feeding the whole inbound marketing strategy.
Let’s say your content was the quiz we've discussed throughout this piece. We've captured their details as part of that activity, but we want to stay front-of-mind. Here we can use retargeting to do just that. Rather than simply using it generically, you can segment to show something like a "10% Off Your Next Purchase" offer, or a follow-up piece of content on the results of the quiz, for instance.
This is where email can come in also. As well as simply promoting the campaign through an editorial newsletter, we can choose to personalize that message further, as we did with our retargeting. This only serves to strengthen the relationship you have with that individual.
Fitting it within a wider strategy
There are many, many thousands more words to write around the topic of lifecycle marketing, but that is the subject of a post for another day.
Before we finish, however, it is definitely worth touching on how that standalone campaign should sit within a wider content strategy.
This is something I have always been incredibly passionate about, as we see time and time again how larger organizations throw money at campaigns without really thinking about how they fit within the whole picture.
Getting that right is about understanding a concept I call "Content Flow," and measuring it is a subject I have written about previously here. We even built a simple tool to enable marketers to do just that and map the output of their content strategies easily.
The point is that a "big" idea is only as good as the other content that surrounds it. Great ROI does not often flow from a singular piece, but from the overall approach to content strategy. Being able to consistently deliver is the difference between success and failure.
Free downloadable campaign planner!
Content campaigns are a hugely important part of getting that right, and if you're not already creating them, there should now be fewer barriers in the way of your success.
If you'd like to have a go at it, you can download the campaign planner I use day-to-day by clicking on the image below.
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