The question of what constitutes successful brand advertising is as old as brand advertising itself. But over the last few years, the online advertising industry — especially display — has been criticised for everything from ‘banner blindness’ and fraud right through to the pathetically low click-through rates (CTRs). And often rightly so.
The solution, many argued, was branded content. We were told that ad-weary audiences wanted to be reached in a more respectful and less interruptive way. On the face of it, this seems to make a certain amount of sense, at least if you’re willing to put aside the ridiculous idea that branded content could replace the scale and reach that advertisers get through paid advertising. If you boil it down to the question of ‘would you rather watch an entertaining piece of content about a brand you’re interested in, or would you prefer to watch an ad for the same product?’, then it seems reasonable to conclude that many of us would be more receptive to the content. And that we’d be more likely to engage.
However, a new report produced by Tubular Labs, a video marketing platform, and VideoInk, an online publication about video content, found that engagement levels on YouTube are relatively poor. Before going any further it’s important to clarify how the researchers defined ‘engagement’. All we’re talking about here is YouTube likes and comments, so things like website visits were counted separately.
The engagement levels on YouTube tended to generate the kind of numbers that would be numerically comparable with the much-maligned display click-through rates (CTRs). For example, last year, Porsche has the highest owned-media engagement rate (0.61 percent) and the third-highest earned-media engagement rate (0.71 percent). Then while Louis Vuitton achieved an impressive 46.8M views on it’s owned channel, their engagements stacked up to barely 18K across their 56 videos (0.03%). Similarly, Budweiser has invested in high quality content for its channels, but their engagement rate was a depressing 0.1 percent on both its owned and earned media.
The report concludes that the lack of engagement isn’t only about the distribution strategy or the nature of the content — it tells us much more than that:
“To do an accurate assessment, one must look closely at the disparity between views and engagement. If a channel has massive view count paired with marginal engagement, it’s a direct sign that the views were bought, rather than organically generated.”
And therein lies the problem with vast swathes of the content marketing world. Ever since the earliest days of viral video, a handful of content-friendly brands have been put on pedestals, while an industry has sprung up to tell them that other brands can achieve similar results with just the right investment. However, content — especially branded content — is more nuanced than that, and so some time and time again some poor brand manager somewhere finds themselves paying people to watch Toilet Duck TV.
That said, there’s no doubt that content has a role to play. And it really can be powerful– perhaps even unrivalled — when it works well. But at this stage the industry needs more independent data that properly looks at the relationship between paid advertising and content marketing, while also factoring in the costs of each, so brands can get the balance right.