Posted by andrewmeyer
This post was co-written by: @AndrewMeyer8 & @AudreyBloemer at Seer Interactive.
Back in 2013, Seer began testing the use of content distribution networks to help promote assets and valuable content across the web. Our goal was to test a variety of distribution networks to determine the best ways to pay for promotion on client content and assets. Overall, we wanted to test the impact paid content promotion had on assets that we had previously launched and to measure the impact of this traffic on the high-level goals of each client.
For those of you unfamiliar with this form of content marketing, content distribution networks are quickly becoming powerful tools for engaging new audiences and expanding the reach of creative content. This method for online advertising provides content within the context of a user’s experience, making the native advertising feel less intrusive and more like part of a discovery process, all while increasing the odds that users will click-through.
The native ads appear at the bottom of well-known content sources like Time, CNN, USA Today, ESPN & the Huffington Post, and are served to users based on a variety of algorithms. This reduces the feeling of actually seeing an ad, as users are captured when they finish digesting other content and feel they have discovered the promoted content naturally.
What started out as a $10k intern-led test for Seer has expanded into a full-blown service offering for current clients that we’re working hard to improve every day. Wil Reynolds also presented on this during SearchLove London. With a growing amount of data across multiple networks, we’d like to:
- Compare overall stats for a few content distribution platforms
- Share the results from some of our most recent campaigns
- Offer tips to help you maximize the ROI on your campaigns
- Provide feedback on some of the content platforms we’ve used, researched or tested
- Share a few tests we’ll be running in 2015!
Content distribution networks to test
Below are the metrics we have across multiple clients and niches for networks with significant data to report on. This includes a mix of mobile, tablet and desktop advertising, but we’ve also broken it out individually. Since conversions vary across all our clients, we’ll report on specific conversion metrics in a later section. Across almost 1 billion impressions, here are the metrics we’ve seen.
Overall metrics by network
* Seer used nRelate throughout 2014 to promote content that was niche-specific to tech, computers/gaming, and gadgets. In December 2014, nRelate announced they would be shutting down after five years in the industry.
While we did use separate platforms for different verticals, clients and niches, visitors coming from Outbrain tended to be more engaged. Typically these visitors from Outbrain were also more familiar with those brands and were not new visitors. We typically used Taboola to promote newer clients with less marketing reach and therefore the higher new visitor percentage and bounce rates are to be expected.
Comparing mobile vs. desktop
We’ve seen higher engagement rates for lower costs on mobile devices across both networks. When a client has a responsive, mobile-friendly site and a positive user experience on mobile we always recommend testing mobile campaigns.
We usually start by separating the audiences into two campaigns, one targeting mobile/tablet users and one targeting desktop users so we can monitor performance, CPCs and spend on an individual level. This allows us to get the best bang for our buck.
Tracking conversions & ROI on goal-specific campaigns
Building a holistic campaign for conversions
Goal Set: Promote one landing page for a large client in the B2B product industry targeted at small business owners using a holistic campaign across native advertising, Google Display Network (GDN), Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and outreach. The goal was to help generate 10 total conversions, with a goal CPA of $1,200 or less.
Results & ROI: Below is a breakdown of our results from this campaign, outlined by source, total percent of our spend, the sessions this spend drove and the percent of conversions for our campaign. Overall, we were able to reduce our CPA to $64.22 from the paid promotion efforts.
We spent the most with Taboola and it also drove the highest number of sessions. While Twitter spend was lower than three of the other channels, we were able to achieve a 10.53% conversion rate for the users we were able to drive to the site.
Despite Taboola having the lowest conversion rate, it was able to generate the largest percentage of conversions because of its ability to drive large quantities of traffic.
Improvements for Next Time: Next time, we’d like to better optimize our titles from paid distribution to target the demographics of our audience. We were looking for brand awareness and exposure, but could have altered our titles sooner to better target the niche market we were targeting which was small business owners.
Brand awareness & link building
Goal Set: Use Taboola to promote six content blogs from a recognized food brand to generate 5,000 visits for brand awareness & get 10 sites to link back to our content.
Results & ROI:
We ended up spending about $2,000 including setup time & spend, and drove over 11,000 clicks at a CTR of 0.055% to these posts. Over 6 posts, we saw an additional 1,000+ social shares and 82 new referring domains, or about $24.39/link. We also saw 31% higher pages/visit and a 28% lower bounce rate than our average campaign metrics.
Since the blog posts were all new and no outreach had begun, we were able to attribute the linking domains to paid distribution. Combined with the social shares, blog post comments and other goal completions throughout the site, we were very happy with the ROI for this campaign.
Important Note: Directly correlating links to content distribution networks can be difficult, so we recommend testing this with brand new blog posts, prior to any outreach, and using tracked URLs to differentiate traffic/conversions from the distribution networks. This also works best when you’re promoting relevant and sharable assets in the right industries.
Improvements for Next Time: If we had redone this campaign, we would have made the embed links and social sharing buttons on the landing page more accessible and easier to use. The content we were promoting was timely, so the pickup was much better than if had we promoted during a down time.
Goal completions and lead completions
Goal Set: Promote asset from a prominent B2B company to increase lead generation.
Results & ROI:
Through Taboola, we were able to promote the content on high quality sites like Entrepreneur and CNN Money. In less than one month, we drove 8,348 new visits at an average CPC of $0.32 and saw a 2.31% conversion rate, leading to 205 overall goal completions.
Improvements for Next Time: In the future, we’d recommend tracking additional assisted conversion goals to more accurately report ROI to the client. The page we promoted only had one clear CTA, so we also recommended including more prominent secondary CTAs such as social shares and PDF downloads to further increase the ROI and get visitors to complete additional actions on the page.
10 steps to better maximize your ROI
- Use Custom Tracking URLs & Parameters – Setting up parameters for your landing page URLs can help you track ROI all the way down to specific images or titles. Platforms typically offer the ability to include parameters on campaigns, but we’d recommend testing down to the image & title level as this can also help you determine which titles brought in more qualified traffic. By placing custom tracking on your embed links, you can also better track the link building results of your content promotion.
- Set Goals Prior to Launching a Campaign – Setting goals is a great way to both measure the success of your promotion and make improvements for the following campaigns. This will also help you to manage expectations for yourself and your clients.
- Include Micro Conversions on Landing Pages – Micro conversions help to track additional ROI from your content distribution. Maybe email signups or following your brand on social are valuable micro conversions for your business. These can also lead to additional reporting values once the campaign closes.
- Use Event Tracking on Landing Pages – Event tracking is by far the most useful method we have for tracking micro conversions. These can be assigned a variety of fields for a more granular analysis. We expand further on this process here.
- A/B TEST! – We can’t mention this enough, but regardless of the goals behind your campaign, always set up some sort of A/B test. At a minimum test a few different titles and images on each piece of content you decided to promote. You can also test landing pages performance and optimize your pages for conversions! Setting a daily cap on your campaigns allows you to decipher the data and make changes before spending your entire budget in a day!
- Set a Daily Cap & Don’t Be Afraid to Cut It Off – Setting a daily cap on your campaigns allows you to decipher the data and make changes before spending your entire budget in less than a day. Also, don’t be afraid to cut off a campaign if the results are underwhelming. Usually two or three days of data is enough to tell if it’s worth your time and investment. Cut it off and regroup with better titles, images or new content all together.
- Add a Static Content Widget Below Your Own Content – When we tested paid promotion vs. PPC, we found that on average, content distribution networks had an 8% higher bounce rate. In order to combat high bounce rates, perhaps include a custom widget at the bottom of your posts to keep users on your site. How did people end up finding your articles? Through the “read more” or “you may like” sections below content pieces! You can either hardcode additional blog posts at the bottom or rotate your most popular articles to help keep users on your site and engaged with your brand’s content.
- Use Your Data to Inform Future Decisions – Once you A/B test titles, images and landing pages, measure the success of each campaign and use that data to inform future content and marketing decisions. If certain titles or images resonated well with your audience, update the posts you promoted and use this knowledge to help make future decisions. You can even use the data to inform your PPC decisions as well!
- Write Titles to Better Target Demographics – With most content distribution networks, you can’t target by demographic or interest. One way to better utilize your spend is to speak directly to your audience with your campaign titles and images. In one campaign, we were looking to target 35-45 year old mothers for a contest and used CTAs in our titles that were focused directly at moms.
- Implement Social Sharing Numbers and Prep for the Residual – We’ve found that making your social sharing buttons more prominent and including social sharing counters led to an exponential increase in shares. Also, prepare for residual traffic after you pause a promotion. Looking at the cumulative traffic to five landing pages of a recent campaign, we saw an additional 15,540 visits to these pages over six weeks, from social and new backlink referrals, after the promotion ended. If you’ve found the right audiences that share via social, the reach for the campaign continues to grow even after the promotion ends.
Features for each distribution network
Seer POV: Overall, we’ve found that this platform is highly scalable as you can send a higher quantity of traffic more quickly than others at a lower cost. In terms of quality of traffic, bounce rates compared to Outbrain are slightly higher and on average users spend less time on site than Outbrain visitors. However, depending on niche, Taboola can outperform Outbrain.
Pros: Generally less-expensive CPCs than other platforms, easier to upload content, images and titles, well-respected news and content publishers.
Cons: Can’t edit multiple campaigns or multiple titles/images at once, somewhat outdated admin/backend platform, and inability to pull native ad examples appearing in the wild.
Seer POV: Along with Taboola, this is one of Seer’s favorite distribution networks. One intriguing development for Outbrain is they recently became the sole provider of content distribution for Time.com, which makes their platform more appealing to advertisers like ourselves in 2015.
In terms of quality of traffic, Outbrain generally sends fewer visitors to the site for the same cost as Taboola, but users are more engaged and tend to have a higher conversion rate.
Pros: Better post-click results in our tested campaigns and easy uploading system.
Cons: The self-service admin is also a little difficult to use. Can’t pull large data sets from the admin, so when comparing to a Twitter or Pinterest Analytics dashboard, there is definitely room for improvement!
Seer POV: Gravity once had a substantial monthly minimum, which caused us to initially forgo testing in 2014. Now that the threshold has been lowered, we’ve started planning initial campaigns for Q1 of 2015. Some of their larger network sites include WordPress, AOL, Forbes & exclusivity with the Huffington Post. Gravity also has some niche specific sites that might work well for auto, beauty and sports content. We’ll follow up once we have statistics to share.
Seer POV: ZergNet operates differently than the other distribution networks, as it is not yet monetized. It’s free to work with ZergNet, but you’re required to have a widget placed on your site to promote your article (along with others), that sends traffic to the ZergNet homepage. The problem with this model is that it’s a 1:1 relationship and you must push traffic from your site to Zergnet in order to capitalize. If you are looking for a CPC mode,l you will not find it here. While a CPC model is not yet available, there are plans to potentially expand to this in 2015.
Seer POV: Initially, there were high monthly minimums for spend, however if you upload funds via a credit card, then there are no monthly minimums. The biggest advantages we see is here is the ability to target based on interests (other content networks use an algorithm that advertisers can’t control) and implement retargeting for ads. Publishers include Forbes, VentureBeat, Parade, Bloomberg, Answers.com and more.
Seer POV: Zemanta has moved away from their old platform to promote content at scale across multiple content networks. They’ll aggregate your content into multiple ad formats, then use platforms like Outbrain, Adblade, Gravity, and Disqus to promote them at scale. We prefer to work directly with each platform for more transparency and control over campaign optimizations.
Others we’ve reviewed, but not yet tested:
What’s next? What we’re testing in 2015
2015 is going to be another big year for content marketing, especially as digital continues to grow into a more holistic marketing channel. As we shown above, we’ve spent a lot of time testing out various networks and strategies in 2014 and are excited to continue the push in 2015, specifically on paid social promotion combined with content distribution.
Content promotion is more than just building links; it’s about doing #RCS and running integrated campaigns to drive engagement and interest in your business. During the course of the year we worked closely with one of our largest ecommerce clients to support several marketing campaigns.
The goal was to drive engagement with the assets created and ultimately to drive users to complete the desired conversion action, which was a combination of signups and downloads. The results of this campaign led us to put more emphasis on this holistic approach.
While not all social networks have the scale of the content distribution networks, their targeting abilities more than make up for it. You can see that overall conversion rates are much higher with relatively comparable CPCs. While, setting up multiple, A/B tested social campaigns is a more tedious process and slightly more costly compared to content networks, the results we’ve seen when compared 1:1 to content distribution are promising.
Lastly, since Pinterest just opened up their ad platform to businesses in January, we’d like to start combining content distribution with concurrent Pinterest promotion to determine how Pinterest ads stack up against the variety of other distribution platforms. We’re already seeing quite a significant ROI in our initial test, with CPCs ranging from $0.20 – 0.25 and CTRs around 0.15% – 0.20%.
Do you have any data to share on other content distribution networks? Are there any other networks we should be testing in 2015? We’d love to hear your comments below or feel free to reach out via Twitter – @AndrewMeyer8 & @AudreyBloemer!
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