Part of the allure of branded content is that when people share it in social media or it's hosted on websites, marketers aren't paying media companies to distribute it.
But marketers are finding content is far from cheap, and that "owned" and "earned" media don't mean you don't pay handsomely. A Gartner survey earlier this year found marketers now spend almost as much on content creation and management as they do on paid online display. And they're spending almost twice as much on the infrastructure behind digital content -- such as website operations, video production and social-media marketing -- as they do on paid display and search combined.
Hence, efforts to measure and improve return on investment for content are on the rise. Procter & Gamble Co., which spends 25% to 35% of its U.S. marketing budget on digital, according to Chairman-CEO A.G. Lafley, has been particularly focused on content ROI, according to people familiar with the matter.
Barefoot Proximity, Cincinnati, part of Omnicom's BBDO network, which handles such content-intensive multibrand P&G sites as HomeMadeSimple.com and PGEveryday.com, along with such clients as ExxonMobil, uses an in-house system to measure content ROI. It draws on Google Analytics to find how well content reaches people broadly -- and new site visitors specifically -- and how well it generates engagement, based on such factors as topics, authors and language.
Barefoot CEO Chris Evans calls it "content Darwinism," with the idea that content constantly evolves to work better.
Marketing tech companies are putting more emphasis on content ROI, too. Idio Platform, a content-optimization player, recently hired Damon Ragusa, founder and chairman of multimedia marketing-ROI measurement player ThinkVine, as president. Idio has begun working with MXM, formerly known as Meredith Xcelerated Marketing, which handles such clients as Unilever, Kia Motors and GlaxoSmithKline.
The systems don't yet measure ultimate sales lift from content, at least outside of e-commerce or direct marketers. Rex Briggs, CEO of Marketing Evolution, said the first step is just measuring cost per "impact," or person reached. During an exercise at a panel in Sweden he analyzed the data of more than 100 marketers and found costs per impact ranged from 50¢ to $50.
"I feel like a doctor telling them they've got cancer when they see this ROI," Mr. Briggs said. "You see people turn white as a sheet, especially if they're sitting next to their boss. But it's one of those calculations you have to do."