Content vs. Con-tent: Three Strategies Marketers Must Know


The future of digital content-led advertising is ever-evolving. Just a few years ago, prior to the rise of Facebook and online video, display ads and pre-roll ads were considered cutting edge. But the explosion of mobile devices, live video, ad-blockers and the emergence of interactive content have reshaped the industry. Ad blocking alone is estimated to have cost publishers $22 billion in 2015. Now is the time for brands and publishers to “up their game.” Consumers expect more from publishers’ ad funded content – it needs to be mobile-first, more interactive, and yet, less obtrusive, than ever before. Here are three ways for publishers to meet these goals.

Sponsored Content

For brands and publishers, it’s necessary to explore sponsored content. You’ve probably seen sponsored content before, likely when commercial items have appeared as part of a publication or site’s regular content in a seamless manner visually similar to the outlet’s typical editorial pieces. Sponsored content is an avenue that, when done right, can provide value to consumers – not to mention, it also sidesteps ad-blockers. In fact, 72% of marketers consider it more effective than a traditional magazine ad and at times it outperforms editorial content! But remember, it’s critical to respect the “church and state” divide between
editorial and sponsored content. Here are a few rules of the road from James Hayr, Head of Branded Content at AOL, with whom I co-presented recently:

  1. Your sponsored content should be sufficiently different from the site itself, such that visitors know that what they are looking at is commercial content. Don’t hoodwink them.
  2. You must provide value to the consumer. Don’t just drop advertising on a website’s homepage. Make your content informative or entertaining.
  3. Understand that you are renting space on the host’s property and thus you must respect their mission, context and visual language.

Consider The Atlantic’s 2013 gaffe, which violated the church and state divide – literally. It briefly ran a sponsored story regarding the Church of Scientology, highlighting the group’s success in 2012. Other than a small yellow “Sponsor Content” box at the top of the page, the article looked remarkably similar to anything else The Atlantic would run. But the article’s title and content were overwhelmingly pro-Scientology, in a way that felt discordant with the The Atlantic’s usual tone. The article wasn’t so much informational as it was laudatory. The piece was pulled the same day, highlighting the importance of the above rules. The piece simply didn’t provide value to the reader and it felt out-of-step with the site’s usual editorial tone.

Embrace Interactive Content and Data-Driven Decision-Making

As I mentioned earlier, we need to transcend display or video-ad thinking and move more into the realm of interactive content, while embracing data-driven decision making along the way. By definition, consumers engage more with interactive media than they would with a blog post. Interactive content actually produces twice as many conversions as typical, passive content. With interactive content, there are more opportunities to learn readers’ preferences, tailor content based on reactions and ultimately convert visitors into customers for a publishers’ end client, the brand. Here are a few things to remember about interactive content:

  1. You are creating a dialog with your consumer in a way static content cannot. Make your product enjoyable.
  2. Measure data based on engagement, not impressions.
  3. Use data on historical content consumption to shape future decisions on how to delight and entertain audiences.

The shift from static to interactive content means that the way we judge the success of our content must be different. Namely, it’s no longer about how many people have seen your banner ad or watched your pre-roll video. Now, it’s about how a consumer interacts with your content. Impressions are stepping aside and being replaced by engagement.

Your Interactive Content Has to Be Great

It’s critical for a brand or publisher to recognize that content must stand on its own two feet. Consider Ford Europe, a brand that executed a sponsored content campaign asking readers, “Can we guess what colour car you drive?” Their content, when placed on sites such as the UK’s Auto Express, was prominently placed, but made abundantly clear that it was sponsored. Moreover, the substance of the interactive content wasn’t so much about Ford as it was about providing entertainment and value to the consumer in the form of a personality quiz.

From a consumer’s perspective, they know that this is advertising, but it’s also fun, engaging, and consistent with Auto Express’s brand. And the investment paid off. Ford saw 3x organic engagement vs. paid advertising, a 94% engagement rate, a 7% organic sharing rate and over 6,000 comments.

Whether you’re an accounting firm, global FMCG brand or coffee shop, you have a place in the interactive content ecosystem because there is such a wealth of formats with which consumers can interact.

Wrap Up

The rise of ad blocking can be seen by digital advertisers as a curse or opportunity. Ad blockers force you to think about a solid sponsored content strategy. Consumer boredom with static content means that you can embrace interactive content, which yields better data. And higher expectations of publishers and brands means that you now have the opportunity for true creative excellence in digital advertising (an area still dominated by TV-first spots), which yields higher audience engagement. Publishers need to embrace that landscape – not just to thrive – but also to survive the continued seismic shifts to the digital advertising landscape.

About the author

Daniel Fisher

Daniel Fisher is the Managing Director of Playbuzz UK. He can be contacted at

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