Topics & themes

Research on advertising’s larger topics and themes from audience attention to measuring effectiveness.

Advertising vs content marketing – which works best?

There are increasing amounts of branded content across a range of different media, as brands seek to have different, or deeper conversations with their target consumers, convey brand purpose in a more authentic way, or seek to talk to consumers about subjects too niche for most campaigns. However, there is still a lack of published data about the effects and effectiveness of content marketing and less clarity about what makes quality, engaging content. Whereas in advertising brands often operate with long-standing guidelines and shared expectations about both quality of output and consumer response, in branded content the question is more open to debate.

RAMetrics has tested hundreds of UK newsbrand ads over the last ten years and in 2016 started investigating reader response to content marketing in both print and digital formats. We now have sufficient case studies to look at the differences between reactions to recent ads and reactions to content – and to see some of the core strengths of each type of communication. We have had to add print studies from Ireland and online studies from Ireland, Norway and Sweden to ensure robust samples, but these are extremely consistent with results from the UK.

The most obvious finding is that advertising has greater impact and initial engagement than content marketing. For print newspaper ads, average recall is 68%, while for content just 41% read at all on average. This is despite the fact that the content pieces tested are much more likely to be full pages, spreads and multi-page – and bigger usually performs better than smaller. For digital newsbrand ads, average recall is 26%, whereas content marketing is read at all by just 17%. As we have previously found, print activity scores considerably higher than digital communications.

As a result of the lower initial impact and engagement, all other scores for content marketing, whether print or digital, are lower than for conventional ads when we look at scores among the total readership. With one exception – content marketing in print generates more talkability: on average, 13% of print readers say they have discussed the content, or will do, compared with 11% for the average ad. It’s a small difference, but important. It gives an indication of where content marketing is more relevant and successful than advertising. It may be more relevant and successful for a smaller group of readers than advertising, but it’s a key strength for both print and digital. Among the people who do engage with content marketing at all, around a third will discuss with friends. This is double the level for people who recall advertising.

So rather than just looking at the impact among the total readership, it’s important to look at the responses of those who actively choose to consume the content.

Clarifying early on the specific role for branded content in the overall communications mix will enhance the chances of content being effective. Typically, the marketing goals adopted for content have been to increase brand affinity and deepen the relationship with a core group of consumers. It may also be an objective to create “ambassadors” who will actively share and recommend.

When we look at responses of engaged readers of marketing content compared to those recalling advertising, we can see that, on average, content marketing is more effective at generating close attention and a sense of clear personal benefit. This applies to both print and digital content marketing – although the number of engaged readers is higher for print content, both platforms are similarly effective at generating these positive brand measures. For the engaged group, content marketing is more interesting, contains more new information and, in print, is more likely to generate a positive feeling towards the brand/organisation than straightforward advertising. Action scores are also higher among the engaged target, particularly “look for more information” and, as previously noted “discuss”.

The analysis shows that there is a wide variation in creative strength for content marketing and it is clearly possible for content partnerships to out-perform straight advertising. The best performing print content was read by 71% of the newspaper readers, the lowest by only 16%. The most read digital content marketing scored 36%, the lowest was read by only 9%.

Branding also needs to be considered – branding and brand familiarity measures are considerably lower for content marketing than for advertising among readers of the newspaper or digital newsbrand they appear in. There is therefore a case for being more overt about the content sponsor. There’s a lot of evidence from previous print studies that people like to know who wants to talk to them before they commit to getting involved. That doesn’t seem to be a lot to ask. There’s also evidence from organisations such as the Reuters Institute that people are suspicious of “native” masquerading as editorial.

In conclusion, the analysis shows that advertising is still the best way to get the highest number of readers to engage with your brand messaging. Content marketing, however, allows the brand to have deeper levels of engagement with a self-selecting smaller target who find the content personally relevant and appealing. Among these readers, across both print and digital platforms, there is a significant opportunity to increase brand affinity. In turn, this more targeted group appear to be twice as willing to discuss and share, thus magnifying the activity through word of mouth.

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