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Nine Rules for Effective Online Content

Design improvements are usually implemented incrementally, even granularly. Over time, however, the look and feel of advertising can evolve significantly when based on data that fuel content optimization: test, learn, apply.
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Engagement ideas, always conceived to trigger behavioral change, are woven into the fabric of consumers' lives as they progress along a shopper's path to purchase. At each stage, both digital and analog media can be deployed to encourage desired behavior.

Digital advertising is sometimes called "liquid content" because it can appear practically anywhere. The number of digital platforms is multiplying yearly. But the fractionated nature of digital content can lead to disjointed messaging. Inconsistency across digital channels is a lost opportunity.

For example, since 2013, Singapore Airlines has been running a campaign, "The Lengths We Go To," featuring the iconic "Singapore Girl" originally introduced in the 1970s. On YouTube and other video platforms, beautiful films dramatize dedication to providing the best possible travel experience, a message consistent with the company's long-standing premium position.

However, linkage to the campaign is missing from content on the brand's website. Users are confronted with retail specials and destination offers as well as an undifferentiated online booking process. At several points, the chance to remind consumers of Singapore Airline's uniqueness is missed. Instead, customers are engaged on only a transactional level, the same as with any other airline.

Instead, each piece of content should be approached purposely and reinforce a consistent theme. Red Bull, the performance-enhancing energy drink that targets active youth, focuses all assets on extreme sports and a high-octane lifestyle including "mountain climbing bulletins," real-time video feeds of skydiver Felix Baumgartner's "Mission to the Edge of Space," and coverage of two Formula One racing teams, Red Bull and Toro Rosso. In 2013, Red Bull's YouTube channel was the most viewed of any brand, with more than 2.9 million viewers.

Digital creative is actively digested. New levels of consumer empowerment and the inherent "connectivity" of digital media require a clear call to action. . As such, all content must answer the question: What's in it for me? For example, Nike's online community of female fitness fans can perfect aerobic skills through a series of "signature moves" videos. Whatever the audience's needs, the creative must be rewarding enough to "opt into." Here are nine ways to do this:

1. Let "People Power" Enhance Authenticity

The litmus test of content effectiveness is whether it is interesting enough to be shared. Creative that smacks of too much commercialism tends not to spread.

In 2014, Banco Popular in Puerto Rico harnessed people power to maximize authenticity of its creative content. The bank orchestrated a social campaign featuring dozens of ordinary people that also spurred the island to "move forward." Small business owners were invited to promote their products and services. To ensure consistent executional standards, the bank built a full-fledged production studio.

From a dread-locked cycler who "sells the best bike brands" to a woman in clown garb who "puts on the best kiddie shows," people got their message out. More than 140 short films and a series of fifty print ads, each adopting the same visual style and storytelling format, were produced within a week. They were then placed on the bank's social media platforms and eventually on broadcast media.

2. Let Content Create Value Exchange

The question people bring to online content is "What's in it for me?" This begs a more basic question: What are people interested in? Consumers want information, and that is why they embrace sites that provide it. In China, for example,

Johnson & Johnson places content on its Baby Center portal, a natural destination for new mothers. L'Oréal Paris partnered with YouTube to create Destination Beauty, an online resource for teenage girls new to style and dating. The site "not only scopes out the hottest make-up and hair trends for you but also teaches you how to recreate them.

3. For Message Amplification, Wrap Value in Creative Execution

Digital media is exciting because it enables them to target their advertising precisely and measure advertising's effectiveness in real time. But sometimes they can forget about the potential of creative execution to maximize the impact of their message.

But digital is a fat word. It encompasses a broad range of disciplines, some detached from the craftsmanship of ideas that is associated with long-term brand equity - the emotional attachment to brands. The technical engineering skills required to build a platform, optimize users' experience, and design customer relationship management (CRM) are linear, analytic, and "left brain." On the other hand the creativity required for coming up with microsite campaigns, managing the online community, and developing content is lateral, conceptual, and "right brain."

Hard-core digital experts do not adapt well to the environment of an advertising agency. As a result their output often lacks creative ideation.

Oriental Princess, Thailand's leading mass-market cosmetics brand, produced an, an interactive murder mystery called "If Looks Could Kill." The campaign rested on the insight that, for Asian women, beauty is a weapon. In a four-part interactive online miniseries, six femmes fatale, each representing a different makeup set, were suspected of pushing an innocent man to his death. Within a week 250,000 users signed up on Facebook to solve the crime.

By watching the four-part miniseries, participants could connect clues to earn discounts. And when each suspect was interrogated, participants had the option of clicking on a how-to-get-the-look video tutorial providing skin-type analysis and application tips. Within two months sales were up more than 40 percent.

4. Develop Inherently Social Content

Content that people share helps build word of mouth and, it is hoped, brand advocates. The challenge is developing unexpected creative executions that also strengthen brand equity.

What-if scenarios are surprising. Burger King's "Whopper Freakout," asked, "What if we took away America's number one burger for a day?" The answer: both regret and anger. In another stunt, actors posing as reporters traveled to far-flung destinations to find "Whopper Virgins" and observe their reactions when tasting the sandwich for the first time. Coca-Cola's viral "Vending Machine" video also falls into the what-if category. Viewers became voyeurs by observing the disorientation of students who expected a Coke but received free goodies instead.

5. Produce "Snackable" Content to Entice Deeper Engagement

Snackable content is (typically cheap) bite-sized chunks of information that an audience can quickly consume and that hopefully will lead to extended immersion in richer content, General Mills' online recipe portal, leverages short-form content to tempt Internet users to spend more time on the main site. Users find 30-second videos with simple recipes, with titles ranging from "Brown, Sticky or Jasmine? Pick the Right Rice!" to "How to Roll a Spring Roll" using General Mills' products as ingredients.

In China the Ford Motor Company made 24 short talk show episodes hosted by Cheng Cheng, a fictional character. Each was filmed inside a Ford Focus, now China's best-selling car, with the car's features incorporated in the program. For example, Cheng used its SYNC voice control to change radio stations, set off on long drives to emphasize the car's fuel efficiency, and brought along three beefy guests to highlight its backseat legroom. Ford distributed the content on Chinese Twitter-like social networks. Invitations to visit the permanent Focus site appeared only at the close of each episode.

6. Align Content with the Path to Purchase

Throughout the buying cycle the distinction between digital and non-digital media is artificial. Both should be used at every stage, although the interactive nature of the online world means that digital creative execution has a more direct impact on behavior. So it bears repeating: Every piece of content should have a clearly defined purpose based on the shopper's journey. Every piece of content should lead to the next, creating a virtual cycle of "excite, demonstrate, and select."

Ikea boasts a content ecosystem that spans the entire shopper journey. To introduce its "Small Spaces" campaign, it distributed an online video on social media. Demonstrations of how to make "more out of less" sparked consideration of Ikea as the answer to cramped rooms. The film's voiceover led to a call for action: "Small ideas can transform a small space into a generous space. Do it today." The video, which more than four million people viewed, included links to an online catalogue of space-saving products. Virtual reality apps allowed people to see different decorating and furnishing options, and they could use Ikea's e-commerce site to buy the items they chose.

In another category, Johnson & Johnson, provides information to pregnant women and new mothers through social media at times when they are particularly receptive to baby care messages. The company also operates the high-traffic and subtly branded J&J Baby Center.

7. Reduce Waste by Targeting

One of the most powerful aspects of online marketing is the ability to target specific demographic or behavioral segments of the market. But marketers often celebrate high response without considering what type of consumer should actually engage a specific type of content.

For example, in 2012 Microsoft produced several entertaining videos that went viral and featured specific Windows 8 product benefits. Executions included a makeup application contest ("beautiful and fast"); a musician who plays piano while playing Ping-Pong ("work and play"); and an elaborate watermelon sculpture carved with a finger ("the magic of touch").

From a pull perspective these films were successful; one attracted more than five million unpaid views. From a targeting perspective, however, results were less impressive. The YouTube audience was skewed toward people older than 40 rather than early adopters of new technology.

Two problems usually drive misfires. First is the basic issue of content that does not appeal to the right demographic segment. Sofy, the Japanese feminine hygiene brand, used such incentives as a free Apple iPad to draw viewers to Weibo, a Chinese Twitter-like social network. However, 60 percent of the viewers were men. Second, content distribution plans are often poorly conceived. The aforementioned Windows 8 videos did not use Facebook, a platform that would have enhanced engagement with the under-30 set.

8. Ensure Content Is Discoverable

Obviously content will not be effective if consumers do not know it exists or are unable to find it, and broad awareness is difficult to achieve with free media. Although television commercials are often repurposed as online videos, only five Nike commercials have generated more than one million hits, and only two have had more than five million hits. Coca-Cola, a deft online marketer, has produced only four commercials with more than five million views.

Without a search engine optimization strategy, branded content will be a tree falling in a forest when no one is around.. Banners ads, the "print" of digital, are an expensive way to lead consumers to online destinations, but new technologies have impressive customization capabilities to ensure creative executions appear only on relevant web pages. For example, if KIT KAT wants to attract viewers to an "ideas for your coffee break" microsite, its banner ad could appear only on leisure and entertainment portals. By tracking users' Internet protocol addresses, marketers can also target specific geographic regions.

One final basic--but often overlooked--point about discoverability: content should appear where consumers are not receptive to any given message. For example, during 2010 Fisher Price, the manufacturer of educational toys for infants, placed only 47 percent of its content on online forums, with the remainder distributed through Twitter and Facebook. Despite the broad reach of these social media sites, they were ineffective platforms because mothers with kids rarely went to either one to talk about toys.

9. Use Data to Optimize Creative Executions

Every content manager needs a data dashboard to visually represent the effectiveness of content in triggering behavioral change. The content manager then can modify creative execution according to what is and is not working.

Content is typically assessed according to two variables: depth of engagement and effectiveness in eliciting desired behavior. The former is measured by such indexes as time spent on site and "bounce out" rates--that is, how many people click to a site but leave quickly. The latter is based on whether users move to the next phase of the buying cycle or, in the words of direct marketers, the "purchase funnel."

These indexes can be anything from test drive sign-up rates to microsite click-through rates. If engagement and behavior scores do not meet benchmarks, the creative execution is modified. Enhancements include product presentation, for example, side versus front shot; "call to action" copy, such as "try now" versus "discover more"; and "call to action" button presentation, for example, placement at the top or bottom of the screen. Design improvements are usually implemented incrementally, even granularly. Over time, however, the look and feel of advertising can evolve significantly when based on data that fuel content optimization: test, learn, apply.

The article was originally published in WARC's Market Leader magazine and extracted from my book, Twitter is Not a Strategy: Rediscovering the Art of Brand Marketing.

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