At SimpleReach, our product runs off the world’s largest content data network of branded content publishers and brands. Every month, we roll up this data into aggregate views of branded content performance across multiple publisher industries and brand verticals into our Benchmarks product, which shows the trailing twelve months of data for the current month.

That same data, when explored in depth and over a longer period of time, can also be used to identify overall trends and changes in the branded content industry. After doing a deep dive analysis of our entire dataset for 2017 comparing changes in the trailing twelve months of data from each month from January 2017 to December 2017, we discovered three major trends that are worth considering as you plan your future branded content strategies.

Below we’ve highlighted those trends, seeking to explain what they mean for branded content buyers and sellers in 2018 and beyond.

Trend 1: Average Engaged Times Are Declining

A note on our methodology: Average Engaged Time counts the total time spent actively engaged with a page divided by the total number of page views. “Actively engaged” means any activity where the web or mobile browser window is active and the user continues to interact with a page—scrolling, watching a video, clicking, moving a mouse, etc, as well as while reading and article or watching a video.

The SimpleReach platform checks for activity every second and offers a more robust view of engagement than standard time-on-page metrics reported by Google Analytics or Adobe Analytics.

Over the course of 2017, average engaged times for branded content across all verticals declined by 10%.

In January, audiences engaged with branded content across all verticals for an average of 72.5 seconds. But by December, average engagement times declined to 65.5 seconds.

The trend was consistent within specific verticals as well. Average engaged times for business content mimicked the overall industry trend, declining 9% over the course of 2017.

Average engaged times for content in the business vertical were 80 seconds in January of 2017, but declined to 73 seconds in December.

Travel content saw a steeper decline: average engaged times declined 14% from the beginning to the end of 2017.

Average engaged times for content in the travel vertical were 70 seconds in January of 2017, but declined to 60 seconds in December.

Why are average engaged times declining?

This trend isn’t exclusive to branded content. According to data from eMarketer, page session durations decreased 10% for all publisher sites in 2017.

This indicates that the decline isn’t related to branded content quality or decreased audience interest.

Instead, decreased engagement times are more likely the result of three recent trends in how audiences access and consume content.

1. Increased Video Consumption

Consumption of online video increased 35% from 2016 to 2017. Overall, audiences today are spending more time online watching videos and less time reading content.

Outside of YouTube, average video watch times are relatively low. A previous analysis of Facebook Watch engagement for example found an average watch time of only 23 seconds.

Specific to branded video, a previous SimpleReach analysis found that 100% of the top performing branded videos in Q3 2017 were between 1 and 2 minutes in length.

If more people are watching branded videos than reading branded content, it makes sense that average engaged times would decline as a result.

2. Increased Mobile Usage

Mobile’s share of internet traffic increased 6.7% from 2016 to 2017. Audiences today are spending more time consuming content on mobile devices.

This is notable for two reasons. First, people spend significantly less time on pages when viewing them on a mobile device than when viewing them on a desktop device. Mobile users are more likely to skim content, which naturally leads to decreased engagement lengths.

Second, people spend more time watching video on mobile than desktop. As mobile usage increases, so does video consumption. Given that average engaged times are lower for videos and lower for audiences using mobile devices, these two shifts in content consumption likely account for the industry-wide declines in average engaged times.

3. Heavy Reliance on Social Referrals

Studies have shown that social referrals have the lowest average engaged times of all referral types. Additionally, Facebook referrals have the lowest average engaged times of all social referrals.

But brands and publishers continued to invest heavily in social ads to promote content. In fact, Facebook’s advertising revenue grew 25% from the last three quarters of 2016 to the first three quarters of 2017.

Advertising and promoting content on social channels may be an effective way to drive traffic to branded content, but brands and publishers should keep in mind the impacts this type of traffic may have on audience engagement.

What does this trend mean for the branded content industry?

As video and mobile increase in popularity, average engaged times may continue to decline. However, this is a reflection of shifting preferences for the way content is consumed—not the result of lower branded content quality or decreased audience interest. Audience engagement with editorial and other content types declined at the same rate as branded content in 2017.

Additionally, data suggests that any engaged times over 30 seconds means readers are engaged with content. Even in December of 2017 when average engaged times reached the lowest values of the year, the values were well over the standard for audience engagement.

Trend 2: Median Page Views Remained Consistent

Audiences may be engaging with branded content for shorter lengths of time, but they’re not reading it less often. Over the course of 2017, median page views—the number of times people accessed branded content—remained consistent.

Median page views of branded content remained consistent throughout 2017.

This data suggests that publishers are getting better at hitting goals with paid traffic, given that organic referrals from sites like Facebook continue to decline.

It also supports the theory that declining average engaged times are not the result of a decrease in branded content quality or decreased interest in branded content.

Trend 3: Social Actions Remained Consistent

Social actions—the number of likes, comments, reactions, and shares that branded content social posts receive—also remained consistent throughout 2017.

Audiences continued to like, share, react, and comment on branded content social posts at the same rate at the end of 2017 as the beginning of 2017.

While the previous trend—consistent page views—could simply be an outcome of publishers spending more money to hit page view goals, audiences wouldn’t bother to react to and share low-quality content. Since both were consistent, we can reasonably conclude that branded content continues to be high quality and continues to interest and engage audiences that find it, whether that’s via organic or paid methods.

Additionally, the fact that both social shares and page views were consistent over the course of 2017 supports the argument that decreased engaged times are a result of the shift in how content is discovered (social), accessed (mobile), and consumed (video).

Social actions is also a particularly important metric given the amount of attention that the media paid to fake news distribution last year. It means that branded content was not impacted by the audience skepticism that resulted from the increased awareness of social media being used to promote fake news.

How to Increase Engagement in 2018

If you’ve been tracking the metrics for your branded content this year, you may have noticed a similar decline in your average engaged time. The good news is this trend isn’t exclusive to your content; it’s something the entire marketing industry is seeing.

For this reason, it’s important that brands and publishers work together this year to reverse this trend—to find ways to keep audiences engaged for longer periods of time.

Here are three ideas to consider:

1. Build more branded content that includes both text and video instead of focusing on one or the other. In one study, researchers found that engaged times were significantly higher for articles with both video and text content, particularly when that content is viewed on mobile.

2. Focus on finding alternatives to Facebook for driving traffic to branded content. Facebook is sending fewer referrals now than search, and given the company’s recent news feed changes, we can assume a continued decline over 2018. However, Instagram is testing allowing its users to re-share others’ posts to their stories, Snapchat is enlisting publishers to produce original content for the platform, and Twitter is working on a Snapchat-like video sharing tool.  

3. Work with publishers to integrate influencers into branded campaigns: Posts from influencers perform 5-10 times better than those from brands on average.

4. Explore different creative options – Work with publisher partners to create more unique, interactive content like Bloomberg’s shopping mall game or Financial Times’ Uber game.

In 2018, brands, agencies, and publishers should keep an eye out for trends in their own branded content analytics. Make sure you’re using an analytics product like SimpleReach that has the right data sources and metrics for measuring trends over time, and that data will serve as a signal of the tactics and techniques that are working—and those that aren’t.

Want to know how branded content is performing in your vertical? Get access to the full benchmarks data set here or email us at hello@simplereach.com

About Benchmarks

Benchmarks is the largest and most comprehensive branded content data set in the world. Thanks to our partnership with more than 100 premium publishers—including The New York Times, Condé Nast, The Atlantic, Forbes, and Time—we’ve processed nearly 100 million total content items overall, with significant coverage of the entire branded content industry.

The data in the Benchmarking tool is sourced from the branded content SimpleReach tracks across our portfolio of clients. For content to qualify, it has to receive at least 250 page views in the first month it was tracked. The 2017 State of Branded Content report contains data from the last 30 days of activity for each month's benchmark, and 12 months of data for each trailing twelve month snapshot.

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