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Note: This post contains screenshots of ads like the one below. Remember to take off your banner blinders so you don't miss examples of how brands are using content in their ads.

A Visa Commercial content ad showcases videos, articles and links, as seen on Bloomberg Businessweek.

Content marketing has matured and brands now are seeking to broaden the uses and impact of content into paid media. Sometimes called "content advertising," this trend has the potential to have a transformative impact on display advertising.

What is Content Advertising?

An IBM content ad featuring a video gallery as seen on AdAge.

Content advertising is a blend of the content marketing mindset and the advertising channel.

The result redefines the potential of an ad into a vehicle for brand storytelling through content. The most common types of content included in ads are videos, articles, and social or article feeds.

Throughout this post I've done my best to share a variety of content ads. Better than a few more paragraphs of text, these examples should help clarify what content ads are and how they are being used.

Why Use Content Advertising?

According to a 2013 study by IPG Media Lab, users who looked at pages with branded content were 41% more likely to express intent to buy and 29% more likely to have a favorable view of a brand. Using content advertising is a way to add scale to that kind of branded content experience into ads.

Combining content marketing with advertising also offers a way to increase engagement with ads by providing a more meaningful experience to the user than is typically available from an advertisement. See the case studies at the end of this post for the results of specific content ad campaigns.

So, if you're thinking about running a content advertising campaign, here are some principles to start with.

#1. It’s not all about you; it’s all about your audience.

Frames from a Caribbean Cruises filmstrip unit as seen on Newsweek.com. (Click to enlarge)

Just as in proper content marketing, content ads need to focus on providing value to the audience. This may seem obvious, but talking about only yourself in your ads can be a harder habit to break than it sounds.

This this Royal Caribbean ad I found on Newsweek.com last week is an example of a brand doing a good job with content ads. The tips and tutorials are a perfect thematic match to Royal Caribbean. Topics like “Get surfing tips” and “Create your own towel animal” evoke the feeling of being on a cruise, while still educating and entertaining viewers. The use of the Filmstrip IAB Rising Star format works incredibly well to provide an opportunity to explore in-depth content in a series of scrollable panels.

The same Caribbean Cruises ad in context on Newsweek.com, showing the result of clicking

#2. Cross the aisle and build a team.

One of the best practices with content marketing is to build relationships with your prospects and customers. Before you get there, you may need to build some relationships internally in your organization.

This is because for many organizations, the people responsible for advertising may be quite different from those responsible for content. Content marketing typically falls within a different group than advertising, such as social media, or is handled by a totally different agency (or team within the agency).

Whoever handles other forms of content is already going to have a lot of best practices that can influence everything from what kind of content to use, what CTAs make sense, or even what behavioral or demographic targeting is likely to produce the best results.

Before you kick off your content ads campaign, reach out to those who have been involved in content marketing projects in the past, and see what you can learn.

Also, if appropriate, talk to legal in advance to make sure they understand your timelines and what additional approvals may need to be made.

#3. Start early on figuring out where to get the content.

Corn Nuts used content from their partnership with UFC to reach the latino market. (Read the Corn Nuts Case Study)

Many brands and agencies actually have a difficult time getting licensed content approved for use in advertising. If you’re not lucky enough to already have a content repository, there are a few routes to quickly source content on the topics you need.

Two obvious sources are from your social media and your website. If content has already been created and approved for use in other channels, it could be be approved for content ads as well. Even a social feed can be a good starter "piece of content" to bring into an ad.

This CapitalOne ad, as seen on Forbes.com, used video, social media and article content. As shown here, a social feed can be the content.

Another option is to license content from publishers like Time, Bloomberg and Glam Media. Many publishers make content available for licensing or will produce original content for brands.

There are also platforms that allow brands to quickly locate and license content for a variety of uses. For instance, we helped Starcom MediaVest Group launch CONTENT@SCALE this year to help brands quickly locate and use premium publisher content in ads, such as the MarthaStewart.com content in the ad below.

The MarthaStewart.com content for this Kellogg's Frost Flakes ad was licensed on a CPM basis through Starcom MediaVest Group's CONTENT@SCALE platform. Disclaimer: Flite powers CONTENT@SCALE. (Learn More)

#4. Create synergy across paid, owned and earned media.

Kraft Zesty's content isn't only about eating, as shown here in an ad with homemade beauty product tips.

Content ads can create synergy across paid, owned and earned media, but only if the flow from ad to website makes sense. Set up your CTAs in a way that respects the psychology of a user who is in content consumption mode. That way you can extend impact of the content from paid media (the ad), to owned media (a website or social page with more content), to earned media (through shares, follows, comments, etc).

For a typical ad, the user flow may be for a user may be something like this:

  1. The user clicks on a banner.
  2. The user is directed to a landing page.
  3. The user converts by purchasing an item, creating a free account, or entering their information in a lead gen form.

This flow works for content ads too, but if you want to create more synergy with owned and earned media, consider a slightly different path:

  1. The user interacts with content within a rich media ad unit.

  2. The CTA allows them to share the content, go to a page with more content like they have already experienced, tweet using a #hashtag, or follow a brand on social media.

  3. If directed to a new page, the user may then engage with more content, follow the brand (if social media), subscribe to the blog newsletter, etc.

Envision the entire brand ecosystem your content ads exist in, and pair CTAs with the actions that make the most sense given your goals and what the user would expect to be linked to next.

This GE ad as seen on The Globe and Mail has a native ad feel because it uses The Globe and Mail content directly in the ad. GE is one of the most effective brands at curating content instead of creating everything themselves.

#5. Measure the right metrics.

The success of traditional ads is typically measured by clickthrough rate (CTR). With content advertising, you are delivering content within the ad, as opposed to behind a clickthrough. Rather than focus on clicks, engagement metrics such as interaction rate will yield a better picture to the success of your ad.

Here are some of our favorite content advertising metrics:

  • Interaction Rate
  • Time on Unit
  • Average Video Play Time
  • Total Video Play Time
  • and social metrics like: Shares, Follows, Retweets, Likes, & Favorites

We also recommend to our clients that they A/B test their initial content ad campaigns against standard rich media ads. These regular ads can provide a needed benchmark to fully understand the performance of the content ad.

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If you enjoyed this post, you may enjoy our free eBook, The Essential Guide to Paid Media Publishing, which includes case studies and example ad formats for scaling content marketing into display ads.

You may also enjoy these case studies of content ad campaigns: