Outbrain Marketing Review: A Fictional Cape Wearing Lunatic & the Unusual Truth About Content in 2013

Fiction (David Light Orchard) 674 x 280

Businesses are increasingly turning to content, and more specifically, Content Marketing, to maximise brand engagement, but do they really know what consumers want? After all, 33% of organisations surveyed in the IMN 2013 Content Marketing Survey state they don’t even have a strategy in place. Kathryn and Nick trial Outbrain’s PPC content discovery system for two weeks and discover a, perhaps not so surprising, appetite for fiction…

In October 2008 Greg Goode burst into cyberspace with a bizarre omen, rhyming poem and story about how his retirement dreams had been crushed. By April he was dressed in a 16th century cape, a wig Elton John would laugh at and firmly believed he had founded a new society. This was Greg’s fictional blog, Rebellion, run online, in real-time over six months and promoted using a range of digital marketing and social media.

When we ran this project five years ago we attracted a small, cult, following… but what we found equally exciting, was the way our marketing campaigns engaged the audience. We wrote a wide variety of fictional content to publicise ‘Greg’s’ website and quickly found that this received almost as much attention as the content we were actually promoting. In fact, it was a short story that sprung out of these early fictional campaigns that gained the highest response rate on our recent Outbrain trial.

In the past, editorial print brands have used fiction to great effect in order to gain readers. Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and Playboy, for example, have always been renowned for good quality short stories. High end broadsheets like The Guardian, The Independent and The Daily Telegraph will often run serials which are later published, such as Bridget Jones’ Diary and Alexander McCall Smith’s Corduroy Mansions. Whilst there is an obvious synergy in using fictional content to attract readers to digital magazines and newspapers, we are now in an age when most businesses are turning to content to promote themselves. Yet strangely, most organisations are overlooking fiction.

When we took part in this Outbrain trial, we submitted a range of content, much of it fictional. Links to our pieces appeared across a number of sites, primarily UK facing news outlets such as The Guardian, Sky, and The Sun (just before the paywall went up). This was an audience apparently hunting for news… yet during the course of the two week trial we received an average CTR of 0.14% and were hitting read times that suggested over half of the 3000 visitors Outbrain sent our way were reading the content in its entirety. We knew people loved fiction, this is what they read or watch for fun, so perhaps it wasn’t too surprising that our most popular story was getting nine minute weekend read times from brand new consumers and hitting a CTR of 0.22%.

Clearly there are an ever growing number of people who don’t want to read “how to” pieces anymore. They want to be entertained. This is highlighted by Outbrain research released this July which shows that headlines with negative superlatives get over 60% more click throughs than those with a positive. They also get over 30% more click throughs than those with none. It appears that there is an increasing disconnect with headlines that offer direct endorsements, whilst negative headlines seem more honest and fun. This was backed up by our highest performing headline for the Outbrain trial: “Pretentious Director with an Awful Film Idea,” which returned a CTR of 0.24%.

Such research suggests that fictional content can find a home in the world of Content Marketing and right now is the perfect time to test it. At present Content Marketing is experiencing a period of rapid growth. The CMA values the industry at £880m across all platforms and forecasts it to be worth £1.14bn by 2015. In a recent IMN Content Marketing survey, 90% of those questioned think Content Marketing is important, but many organisations don’t know what to do with it and often aren’t thinking creatively.

Today there is a big vogue for story selling. Leveraging brand data to create unique stories to help promote content is the new era of advertising. The obvious next step up from this is fiction… because the real trial in Content Marketing is that people don’t want to feel marketed to. This is nothing new of course, some of the most successful advertising campaigns of all time have utilised a fictional narrative to drive brand engagement. Thirty million people did not tune in to watch the final advert in the ‘Gold Blend Couple‘ series because they loved the coffee, they did so because they loved the story. Handily for Gold Blend, though, the campaign also helped their bottom line quite substantially: within 18 months of the launch of the series, sales had risen 20%. and by the time the campaign ended, sales were up 70%.

At present, one of the biggest facets of Content Marketing strategies is social media. According to the recent IMN Content Marketing Survey, 51% of respondents named social media as their most effective form of Content Marketing. But if you look at what’s being pumped out by many brands, it’s not too much of a stretch to take the next step to utilising fiction as an avenue of customer engagement. When we were testing fiction as a method of promotion on social media five years ago, many companies did not even have social marketing, let alone a social marketing strategy.

Coca Cola didn’t start social media engagement until the end of 2008… and it was another two years before Pepsi even dipped their toe in the water. Today Coke has 70 million followers on Facebook, whilst Pepsi has around 18 million. When they first started, they were posting a picture or two a month. Now they are engaging on multiple themes, across numerous genres, several times a day. Customers themselves are being asked to tell their own stories on a range of subjects; Pepsi’s recent ICC Cricket promotion, for example, achieved 30 million page impressions from consumers. And evidence suggests forays into fictional storytelling would engage in exactly the same way.

Take the 2008 film Somers Town, which was entirely funded by Eurostar and set in the neighbourhood of the company’s St Pancreas terminal. Whilst last year, Pepsi Max launched two five minute videos based on the exploits of 80-year-old basketball sensation ‘Uncle Drew‘ (played by heavily made up NBA star, Kyrie Irving). These may have represented the brands’ core values, but are nonetheless pure, standalone entertainment and great examples of storytelling. The next stage is destined to be written fiction. After all, it is far cheaper and easier to post some good, interesting writing on your website than fund a film – even a short.

In a world of multimedia engagement, the market for short story fiction is growing fast. Contrary to widely held beliefs, the internet did not kill off quality, it just gave people more choice. This often means the good stuff is simply harder to find. With the rise of new successful short story apps, such as Ether Books which generated 150,000 downloads with no marketing, we can see the growing demand for fictional content. Whilst a recent eMarketer Report estimated there will be 63.5 million e-reader users in the US alone by the end of the year, over a quarter of the population… add in the rest of the US tablet users and that’s a total of 123.1 million by 2014.

The desire for fictional content is there. We covet it. From the people reading short form satire on The Onion, to the folks reading The Guardian’s Sketch, right through to the millions of readers downloading an avalanche of short and long form content, from thousands of publishers, every single day. These people are a clear target market for fictional content as a marketing tool. They’re the same people who are being pinpointed by 30 second YouTube ads, website banners and billboard adverts, only this time they’d be getting something they actually want. Their drug of choice… fiction.

We’re not suggesting brands start writing stories about talking Mars bars who save the world – just good quality fiction that maintains similar brand values, and is delivered in a format that certain consumers will devour. Just as people have different tastes in fiction, content can be expertly created to appeal to the average consumer of a product or brand. And in a multimedia world where you are delivering content to your customers on several fronts, this could well be the missing piece – the snippet of marketing that can take your brand to the next level… and deliver content that your customers will actually want to read.

When we concluded our 57-part online novel in April 2009 we received a flurry of very varied responses. These ranged from the award winning poet who rubbished our rhyming fun, an English teacher who took our emails along to her GCSE class, and in some cases  genuine surprise that our fictional art empire wasn’t actually real. The engagement was there in spades at every level. An appetite was made clear. And it really does look like the audience out there is waiting for more. The only strange part is that brands aren’t yet cashing in on this clear desire for fiction…


  1. Fab piece!

  2. Doodlebug says:

    Good stuff ! When is Greg Goode to re-appear !

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