Image by Ninian Reid via Flickr.

Image by Ninian Reid via Flickr.

“Does content deliver a better ROI than traditional advertising?”

I hear that question all the time at marketing conferences. Marketers who know to the penny the ROI of their programmatic banner buys or direct response mailings, are often told by content marketing enthusiasts to measure likes, shares, and comments.

Intuitively, it makes sense. People who “like” your brand are probably more likely to buy from you. “Shares” represent a sort of word of mouth advertising, and that’s the best kind, right? But what’s the value of a “like”? Can “shares” be linked to sales”?

I think the root cause of the confusion about how to measure the value of content is how we understand the term, “brand publishing.”  The term creates five misconceptions about branded content that impede the progress of otherwise inventive marketers.

Misconception #1: “Shares” matter most.

False. Shares are important for publishers because more awareness equals more ad revenues. But advertisers are concerned about much more than the top of a sales funnel, where awareness sits.

They’re also interested in building desire for their products, selling products, and creating loyal customers. An article on microsoft.com about the importance of secure passwords, for example, is very helpful to Microsoft’s customers and builds loyalty, but that doesn’t make it share-worthy.

Instead of asking, “Is this going to get shared?” marketers need to ask, “Will this content help an individual customer in their individual moment of need?”

For another example, check out the debate that took place on Sparksheet a few weeks ago between Ashley Brown of Coca-Cola, and Mark Higginson, the social media manager at the University of Brighton.

To summarize, Mark felt Coca-Cola made a mistake by hiring an editorial staff and filling its corporate website (which my company designed) with content, because most of that content doesn’t get shared very often. To paraphrase Ashley’s response, “number of shares” is not a metric that matters most to Coca-Cola.

Coca-Cola Journey is the brand's revamped corporate site.

Coca-Cola Journey is the brand’s revamped corporate site.

Misconception #2: People want news.

False. A publisher like The New York Times reports news because they have to stay fresh to remain relevant – not to mention it’s what their audience expects. But a video about ways to boost retirement savings on fidelity.com will never get old.

Unless your product is directly tied to trends and news, your brand might be better served by focusing on evergreen content that has enduring value for your customers or prospects.

Misconception #3: It’s all about articles.

False. Publishers focus, mostly, on articles. Branded content can and should take any form that helps weave a story. The entrance to our office is a secret bookshelf that makes visitors smile and shows them that we think differently from other design firms.

Smart brands will look at all customer-facing communications as content and as opportunities to tell positive, emotional stories: Business cards, office environments, registrations forms, comparison tools, job descriptions – everything can be content, and everything provides an opportunity for storytelling.

Misconception #4: Don’t sell.

Yes and no. You would be wise to create content with the same good intentions as the best publishers. Instead of asking, “What can we sell you?” ask, “How can we help you?”

Create your content to entertain, inform, enlighten, or help your audience – the way publishers do – and your audience will be much more likely to buy from you. As we like to say, “Content that helps, sells. Content that sells, doesn’t.”

Contently makes software that connects brands that need content to writers and journalists that create content. Its LinkedIn page is an indispensible source of helpful advice about how to create – and measure – the success of your content efforts. While I never feel sold by them, I do feel compelled to work with them.

Contently's LinkedIn page creates value for its audience and potential customers.

Contently’s LinkedIn page creates value for its audience and potential customers.

Misconception #5: Don’t brand.

False. This debate incites strong passion because advertisers have spent the past 100+ years being irrelevant.

People go to the bathroom when TV ads air, they channel surf when radio ads come on, they open mail over the trashcan to get rid of junk faster, and they completely ignore the right-hand rail of websites. It’s only natural to believe that if an advertiser’s name is associated with content, everyone will ignore it.

But if you are as entertaining or helpful or useful as possible, why would you not want your brand associated with your content? Anyone who tells you not to include your brand or product name in your content is delusional – or deceptive, in the case of native advertising. Ignore them.

GE’s “GE Fallonventions” segment on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon is a brilliant piece of branded content that leaves no doubt about the advertiser behind the effort.

So, if we don’t call it brand publishing, what should we call it?

I like “content marketing” for a couple of reasons. First, “content” is a broad term that encompasses much more than articles, photo galleries or videos.

“Content” can be anything that engages, educates, informs, entertains or helps your audience. With a little imagination, your business cards can be content. “Marketing” keeps us all aware of the fact that, unlike publishers, we need to sell something.

In truth, what we call it matters much less than how we do it. Just be helpful. Let the rest take care of itself.