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Content Strategy

How to launch a content experiment

Steven Wilson-Beales • 5 minutes

In 2017 the Reuters Institute released a report looking into news consumption trends, and the insights were quite shocking.

To summarise, it noted that whilst audiences still went directly to trusted branded news sources to verify breaking news, when it came to passive news consumption in their social feeds they very rarely remembered the brand serving them the news. Even more worrying, ‘brand attribution’ was even lower in search. That’s quite a worry in our era of fake news, but it’s easy to see how this has happened.

Remember the Irish bat? That hilarious video clip of a family trying to rid themselves of a bat that had flown into their kitchen? The video clip went viral as it was picked up by publishers across the world. Within 24 hours it completely dominated the social feeds of most brands, news sites, family and friends. But if you’d asked anyone that day who served them that story they would have been none the wiser. In short: the world had gone completely batty (sorry).

I’ve used this very specific example because it illustrates the challenge we all face as content strategists working in the digital space – capturing audience attention and retaining that attention. That’s why I focus my team on creating memorable ‘thumb-stopping moments’ every day for audiences to like, follow and share in their mobile social newsfeeds: if your content isn’t visible then you might as well stop right now.

Over the last 12 months we’ve become increasingly video-focused in alignment with Facebook’s preference for video in their feeds. This is all part of healthily adapting to the media landscape around you. But what if you need to introduce a significant step-change to supercharge your content output? Maybe it’s a competitor threat, change in algorithm or a commercial opportunity that means you’ll need to significantly ramp up the pace of your organisation? What’s the most cost-effective way of introducing that change whilst reducing the risk involved? The answer is: launch a content experiment!

A content experiment is simply organising a team to focus on a specific project for a specific duration. It could be optimising a newsletter, a video series or creating an entirely new digital product. Now that sounds extremely easy- but you’d be surprised at the number of projects that fail because there hasn’t been sufficient focus. Whether it’s one month or three, bringing a team together to focus on a project for a limited amount of time always reaps benefits. The limited time period creates a clear challenge and the solution should be self-evident – people will need to work together collaboratively to get the task done. For your experiment to be successful, you need to rapidly foster a culture of trust to speed up your operation, because at the end of the day, it’s the people involved that will determine the success of your experiment.

With that in mind, I’d like to introduce you to Popbuzz, a brand launched two years ago which now attracts more than five million unique users every month. This brand started as a content experiment with a simple objective: create an exciting editorial proposition that would engage a core female 18-24 audience. As a commercial organisation, the objective is, naturally, financially driven, but there were many other aspects to this product we also wanted to test such as developing a strong tone of voice, what it takes to build a brand that will last in a landscape of fleeting social media clicks; how to create engaging videos, podcasts and opinion features. Our content experiment would allow us a safe space to play with all these aspects, mitigating any risk to the business. So, what did we learn?

Recruit the community

Over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some brilliant editors, all of whom have taken formal qualifications in journalism. But, for Popbuzz, we didn’t necessarily recruit on that basis. We looked at vloggers on YouTube and peered into the misty depths of Tumblr to find content creators who had already spent years building up a community. These rare ‘Content Unicorns’ do exist – it just takes a little while to find them.

No Dance Shaming

For our content experiment, we found pretty early on that the ‘traditional’ entertainment/lifestyle formats didn’t really work. The internet is already awash with music reviews and ‘Watch to Watch’ guides and we found that if we wanted to cover topics like this, we needed to do it in a different way. That meant challenging the staff to think about what really ‘cuts through’ on social media. However, we also needed to preserve a coherent and consistent identity across everything we produced so that’s why we created a set of ‘house rules’ to align the team. One of these you could probably use to describe our entire ethos: ‘No Dance Shaming’ where we stated ‘Under no circumstances will we make fun of anyone for expressing themselves through the art of dance and you shouldn’t either.’ Or, in other words, let’s always be open to everything that is weird and wonderful on the internet and thereby being inclusive, never judgemental and always accessible.

Data-driven decisions

Nowadays, thanks to the power of social media and real-time analytical tools like Chartbeat or Parsely, we know in an instant how our audience are responding to our content. In the teams I work with, all editorial staff are required to deliver multiple headlines for a feature idea, with the data to argue why we should run with it. Each feature idea is, in effect, a hypothesis you are testing – will this headline work better than that one? What about this particular image? That means an equal amount of work can be devoted to analysing the performance of a piece of content as it’s being created. We need to allow data to challenge, and thereby inform, our editorial instincts.

What is your editorial Minimal Viable Product (MVP)?

What if you could strip down your 800-1000 word feature idea to its smallest component and test it with your audience before investing the hours it takes to research and write the article? In that case, the perfect MVP is probably the well-timed meme. Quite often I’ve worked in teams where we test a topic, or personality, in the form of a meme to see if it gets traction with our audience. If it does, we’ll invest more time, plus you’re getting free audience research by looking at the comments afterwards.

It’s more than just the clicks

Once your content experiment is off the ground it’s pretty easy to fall into a rhythm of identifying potential topics of interest for your audience and crafting those ‘killer’ headlines that you’re 90% sure will engage. However, if you don’t constantly monitor your output, you can end up mirroring the thoughts and beliefs of the community you are writing for, causing potential issues further down the line. Sometimes you need to go against the tide of public opinion by offering a different point of view. This may not ‘get the clicks’ in the short-term but it’s an essential part of building a brand in the digital age.

In summary

My final point is a simple one. With any content experiment I have been a part of, we’ve always learnt things beyond the scope of the immediate project that we could take back to the wider team. So, whether it’s a useful technique for A/B testing headlines, or captivating audiences in the first five seconds of your videos, these are all techniques that other teams can benefit from. That in itself is a very powerful message to take to stakeholders who may be funding your experiment – just make sure that you also make this relevant to their own KPIs!

How to launch a content experiment

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About the Author

Steven Wilson-Beales

Head of Editorial, Global

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