Can you feel it? The brains behind content effectiveness

In Trends by Peter Gearin

How the steady, traditional BBC is rewriting the rules by putting engagement metrics in clients’ hands.

BBC made marketing history when it announced the findings of its first Science of Engagement survey in 2016. For the first time, a publisher could not only provide evidence of content reach and how much readers (or watchers) consumed, it was able to show how each piece made those consumers feel.

Using facial-coding technology, the Science of Engagement research measured the emotional impact of content. Did it evoke fear, sadness or puzzlement? Or happiness and surprise? Researchers from the BBC and study partner Crowd Emotion were able to measure how people engaged with content at a subconscious level.

The second round of research in 2017 confirmed the data’s value. It showed that well-made content triggered certain emotions, and these helped deepen viewers’ subliminal relationships with brands. It showed how important it is to clearly label branded content, because this adds credibility and ends up being more persuasive. It showed how evoking the right emotions encouraged social sharing.

To publishers, this research was valuable – and enlightening – because it proved the value of branded content. To clients, it showed the impact content produced in their name might have on potential buyers.

Now BBC Global News’ content arm – BBC StoryWorks – has put the technology in its clients’ hands. Rather than testing a panel of readers using a series of selected campaigns and releasing the results en masse, it offers clients a browser-based, online toolkit with some content-led marketing campaigns. This allows brands to measure quickly the impact its content is having on BBC readers and viewers.

Jelena Li

Jelena Li

“We just don’t think traditional advertising effectiveness and digital analytics get to the bottom of true engagement and effectiveness,” says Jelena Li, BBC Global News’ senior content producer for Australia and New Zealand. “The core job of the Science of Engagement toolkit is to be able to understand the full story on a campaign-by-campaign basis.”

Content-led marketing is now big business for traditional news organisations. This includes the BBC, which is a commercial operation outside the UK. Last financial year, content ad sales accounted for 65 per cent of APAC’s revenue.

“We saw a 75 per cent uplift in familiarity, and positive sentiment towards Cunard more than doubled.”Cunard’s Nicole Tomasella

British cruise line Cunard recently ran a sponsored content series on the Australian BBC website. The series highlighted the company’s storied 175-year history, including what it’s like on board one of its fleet of “queens” – Victoria, Mary and Elizabeth.

“Our brand awareness is quite high already, however we have struggled with familiarity,” Cunard marketing executive Nicole Tomasella told Brand Tales. “For us, the best way to work on this piece of the puzzle was to bring the experience of cruising with Cunard to life with branded content.”

Tomasella said Cunard chose to work with BBC StoryWorks because it was a good culture fit. “We focus on working with premium publishers in the digital space, and after a successful test run last year we were ready to commit to a larger partnership.”

Cunard amplified the content by using it as part of an eDM campaign sent to its database of former passengers. Compared with other eDMs sent out over the same period, the BBC content promotion lifted the average booking value by 20 per cent. Thanks to the Science of Engagement research, Cunard could also see a rising tide in brand sentiment.

“The results of [the research was] overwhelmingly positive,” Tomasella said. “We saw a 75 per cent uplift in familiarity, and positive sentiment towards Cunard more than doubled for those who saw the display advertising included as part of the package.”

Weight of responsibility

The BBC knows its reputation is on the line in every market, on every channel, every day. To many readers and viewers across the world, the publicly owned publisher and broadcaster founded in 1922 is the exemplar of news integrity and authority.

Despite branded content giving the global operation clear revenue opportunities, the BBC needs to protect its hard-fought reputation for fairness and editorial freedom, independent of commercial pressures. It also needs to produce work that is uniformly outstanding.

“I think we’ve always recognised the responsibility that we have towards maintaining that integrity and high quality across our branded content as well,” Li says. “Our audience always comes first.

“Since we launched BBC StoryWorks three years ago, we have maintained rigorous quality control over all content. We have made sure our distribution is effective and properly targeted, and that the topics we cover are in line with our editorial proposition rather than driven by commercial agendas.”

BBC editors don’t create branded content but they do act as “advisers” on audience strategies, trends, hot topics and innovations. Section editors have the power of veto over specific story angles and approaches, and occasionally exercise this right, Li says. Subeditors ensure branded copy is clean, accurate and written sharply.

“Editors act as our editorial guardians when it comes to quality and output,” Li says. “They can be quite involved in pre-sale strategy and post-sale production, processes and pre-publishing. [Producing branded content] has been a hugely exciting and incredibly rewarding experience for the whole business – including the editors. They can see the uplift in content revenues allows for further investment in the overall platform.”

Li says brands wishing to work with the BBC on native advertising campaigns soon understand they may not have the ultimate say in what goes in, and what doesn’t. “Our brand-funded content is driven by the editorial integrity of the BBC. That’s very, very important. Most brands absolutely respect that. That’s why they’re coming to us. That’s what they’re buying.”

“[Publishers] thought that if we’re truly transparent then audience engagement will drop off once they see the content is brand funded. It’s actually the opposite.”BBC’s Jelena Li

In line with this, a key learning the Science of Engagement research is the need for brand transparency, especially when it comes to informing readers (and viewers) about the nature of any commercial content deal. This, Li says, isn’t just important for the BBC – it applies to anyone publishing branded content.

“Audiences are just too smart these days to be tricked into engaging with a brand-funded piece of content without clearly labelling it,” she says. “I think a lot of publishers struggled with that for a long time. They thought that if we’re 100 per cent transparent then audience engagement will drop off once they see the content is brand funded. It’s actually the opposite. Thankfully we seem to be past this as an industry.”

The BBC has found integrating brands into the content narrative increases engagement, as well as its effect on “implicit and explicit positivity” towards a brand. This confirms the result of a recent Native Advertising Institute survey that showed one brand mention part of the way through an article (at the 300- to 600-word mark) boosts overall reader engagement. “But it needs to be credible,” Li says. “The brand mention needs to have a place in that piece of content.”

Of course, many publishers would be reluctant to hand clients a toolkit that measures content engagement. What if it pushes the “wrong” emotion? What if it pushes no buttons at all? Li says this doesn’t faze the BBC team. “As long as the objectives are very clear, we can have an honest and solution-oriented conversation with brands,” she says.

“Last year, we worked on a big, long-running campaign with a client. There were many different content pieces in the overall strategy. Some performed really well; others performed a little less well. That’s just the nature of content.

“We ran a bespoke Science of Engagement study off the back of that campaign that demonstrated the content drove exactly those emotions the client wanted to see among its consumers. They just couldn’t see that through their standard success metrics and by simply looking at social engagements overall. It needed a deep dive into understanding the emotions the content was supposed to evoke, among them ‘surprise’ and ‘fear’ – a ‘thumbs down’ or ‘angry face’ on Facebook was considered a positive engagement.”

On the back of these results, Li says, the client signed up for another content-led project. “Not all success is reflected in clicks and dwell time,” she says. “It’s often about personal sentiment and shifting brand perceptions.”

Li says BBC Global News will continue developing the Science of Engagement research and encourage an industry-wide shift from pageviews to thinking about the emotional impact of content. “We need to make sure we’re actively contributing to allowing the [content] industry to develop,” Li says. “We also need to make sure the campaigns we run are effective.”

Links & references

BBC story on results from the most recent Science of Engagement research

Article from Cunard’s campaign on the BBC website

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