Data and content are undeniably linked.

There’s no way to create successful content without analyzing the behavior and the preferences of your audience. You’ll have to understand what type of articles could interest the people you are writing for, and what are their reactions to the posts you’ve published.

Melanie Deziel is one of the world’s leading experts on native advertising, who has composed branded content for both The New York Times and The Huffington Post. She believes that in order to create truly outstanding sponsored stories, advertisers and publishers have to work together, and they both have to analyze several data sources throughout their collaboration.

“Great sponsored content is relevant not only to the target audience of the advertisers, but the audience of the host publishers too,” she told me during our Skype chat. “What you’re looking for is the overlap between those two audiences.”

She says you’ll want to gather information from the brand about who they are trying to reach and what they are trying to accomplish, and that you also need information from the publisher about what content has worked for them in the past.

“If you can align those things, that’s when you get the kind of content that is going to work for the biggest overlap of that audience, and produce the highest ROI,” Deziel said.

The brands are usually well-aware of the characteristics of the consumers that are most likely to buy their products—their gender, age, geographic location, and more. These are often the same groups that need to target with their sponsored stories. What they don’t always know is where they could find those people, who will engage most with their content, and in what context will their articles or videos work effectively. These are the kinds of questions publishers can help advertisers find the right answers to when they’re creating content together.

Sourcing topics from both parties’ data


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According to Deziel, the data publishers collect about their audience’s behavior can also inform them about the type of brands they can effectively collaborate with. For example, if a fashion website knows that its audience usually likes articles about lipsticks, but is less interested in content about eyeshadow, it could use that insight to pursue partnerships with lipstick advertisers.

Deziel believes that publishers need to create sponsored stories that echo what they are already accustomed to. “If the content is going to live on your site, you want it to fit in. You want it to be similar to what your audience tells you they visit you for, and similar to what they tell you they trust you for,” she said.

What publishers can’t figure out using only their own data sources, is what exactly the sponsored content should be about. To find that out, they need additional information from their advertiser partners.

Advertisers and their agencies have access to feedback from customers that can be very useful for inspiring content ideas. For example, a customer service or sales division likely receives customer questions, and the advertiser’s social teams track questions and conversations on its social media channels. In that data, they will very likely find inspiration for engaging content ideas that customers truly need and want.

For example, if a car company gets a lot of questions car seat installation on their customer hotline, or complaints on social media of difficulty when doing so, this insight could be a signal that an instructional video on that topic would be highly valued by customers.

Measuring the results


The key performance indicators of sponsored content depend on the goal of the campaign.

Page views and impressions are the most important metrics for advertisers who create content in an effort to raise brand awareness. But if the campaign’s goal is engagement and shifting the perception of a brand, then other metrics may be more relevant.

Metrics like time spent on page or the social actions taken by readers—the number of shares, tweets, and comments—show a deeper level of engagement. And if you analyze the word choice of the visitors who commented on a post, you can also find out about the emotional response your content generated.

Deziel noted that not all content formats are created equal, and that metrics for success should be chosen based on the format the content is presented in. One topic might bring great results if presented as an informative infographic, for example, but might prove dry if it’s presented as a video. Carefully choosing your format to align with your goals, and then measuring it appropriately, can help paint a clearer picture of successful measurement.

Optimizing your content campaigns


You can apply many of the methods that conversion rate experts use to optimize landing pages performance to your sponsored content campaigns as well. For example, A/B testing a headline or thumbnail image of a video can help you find a winning combination that appeals to the target audience, and help increase click-through rates.

Rather than trying to create a single “one-size-fits-all” content piece or campaign, you could also create several different content pieces and campaigns that appeal to different subsets of your audience.

You can also use the insights gathered about your audience in the discovery and creation process to optimize the content’s performance. For example, knowing which devices your audience consumes content on or which social entworks they prefer can help you develope a strategic distribution strategy for your content.

Perhaps the car seat installation video mentioned in the previous example is a great piece of content for marketing to the parent subset of your audience, but you might choose a list of road trip tips for the adventerous under-30 subset of car buyers. Since you know that your parent group most often consumes content on desktop and spends a lot of time on Facebook, you choose a longer video format and distribute it via the Newsfeed. Your adventerous millennial group, however, consumes your content mostly on mobile, so you’d make sure that list is short and mobile optimized instead.

Regardless of the story you want to tell and the format you ultimately choose to tell it in, the best content comes to life when each partner brings their best data and insights to the table.