How do you measure the success of a piece of branded content? Publishers have a hard enough time deciding on which metrics are suitable for their own content, let alone that which carries the extra weight of brand advocacy. There’s a growing feeling that there may not be a single metric to measure the effectiveness of sponsored content, but that a more bespoke approach might be needed.

That’s a philosophy to which Anna Watkins, managing director at Guardian Labs, subscribes. She believes that when it comes to demonstrating the value of a brand advocacy campaign, the brute force metrics like hits and even dwell time aren’t especially helpful:

“What we’re trying to shift to with the Labs is to move away from very blunt traditional media metrics.

“Obviously they’re great in the way if you’re trying to look at uniques or if you’re trying to understand dwell time, but we’re trying to shift towards metrics you would traditionally associate with brand building campaigns. We want to shift towards metrics that really add value to the content.”

That goal has been aided in recent years by a changing perception of what sponsored content can offer to both client and publisher, says Watkins. The use of metrics that measure brand awareness or positive perception of a campaign is nothing new, she stresses, and doesn’t reinvent the wheel when it comes to how that content is created. Instead, it’s simply a gradual acknowledgement that measurements that had previously only been used in marketing can be translated to sponsored content:

“If you look at marketing, and again this is nothing new, you’ve got a positive shift in brand perception as a common metric. I think previously people hadn’t been using what is a common marketing metrics to maybe help coordinate a content campaign.”

Marketing metrics

So if Guardian Labs’ content is geared around creating a positive association with the Guardian for the brands, the success of which is measured in metrics traditionally associated with advertising campaigns, what separates the Labs team from a standard advertising agency? It all boils down to the position the Labs occupy within the Guardian, and what it can then offer to the larger organisation. Watkins explains:

“If you think about an ad agency or a digital agency…your primary focus is to create award-winning ads that drive profit for the shareholders. The main difference is here at the Guardian we’re all focused on the commercial partnerships and actually our ability to drive revenue.”

And it is, in fact, the Guardian’s status as a trusted news brand – the most trusted news brand in the UK, reportedly – that the Labs’ clients are attempting to benefit from an association with. But how does the Guardian navigate the dichotomy inherent to such brand advocacy partnerships; that it depends on using the trust of an audience to sell products on behalf of a client without then losing that trust?

It’s a question that’s obviously at the uppermost of Guardian Labs’ considerations. It makes a clear distinction between the types of brand advocacy that it offers, with ‘sponsored content’ being created solely by the editorial team – the client provides the brief, but then they have no further say in how that campaign is delivered. Watkins explains:

“The client will not be able to preview, amend or edit that content, it’s protection of our core editorial proposition. [For the clients] it wasn’t about promoting their individual brands and products, but what they wanted was the credibility and authority of the Guardian

It’s all in service of maintaining the trust – and therefore the value proposition – of the Guardian’s audience: If the relevant editors don’t feel they could deliver upon the brief for practical or ethical reasons, the possibility is there for the other side of the Guardian Labs, termed ‘brought-to-you-by’ content, to take over. Its sustainable businesses section, sponsored by H&M, is an example of this type of content. 

Year two

Guardian Labs is, despite the huge number of high profile clients with which it works, still a relatively recent proposition. Watkins believes that, while it would be great to eventually find themselves in a position where the Labs are so busy that the Guardian is almost oversaturated with its content, that’s a long way away yet. Instead, she believes that the biggest opportunities for Guardian Labs lie abroad:

“At the moment we’re fortunate in that we’ve got huge capacity for expansion, particularly over the US and Australia. We’ve just brokered our first international cross-platform deal with GiffGaff. I think there’s a huge amount of potential in these global partnerships.

“I would say the majority of our clients are UK-based but increasingly we’re working with clients abroad. I think we’ll see a shift.”

It’s still early days for Guardian Labs, and for sponsored content as a whole. As the sector develops it’s inevitable – and desirable, even – that how we measure its success should continue to evolve as well. There’s a great opportunity for news publishers to diversify and grow their digital revenue and to perhaps find a better way to measure the success of their own content as well.