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When content, data and tech collide: Guardian Labs on changing audience behaviour

Branded content needs to "change audience behaviour" in order to be engaging and fight through other offerings, said Anna Watkins, managing director of Guardian Labs at The CMA's Content Marketing Summit today in London.

Speaking of the organisation's "unstoppable stories" Watkins said that the business is built on a "trinity" of three elements: content, technology and data.

Keep it simple

"We're asking the user to actively choose to spend time with us above all other content out there," said Watkins, "so the content has to be good. This is simple but critically important."

Noting the harsh reality of ad blocking and the "profound effect" it's having on the industry, Watkins said it's easier than ever for consumers to opt out of advertising. "In a cluttered world, the boring is ignored, and there is a lot of very dull branded content out there," she said. "We want people to spend time with our branded content, but some are choosing not to - a fifth of British users are blocking ads."

Quality is nothing without an audience

Watkins' spoke of an audiences' typical behaviour with content and used a Russian doll analogy to illustrate: "A small number of users will watch your content, like it, even love it, but a tiny amount will actually buy the advertisers' product," she said.

Changing behaviour

"We need to evaluate the ROI of content marketing," said Watkins. "Engagement, likes and shares are all very nice, but they don't pay the clients' bills. Soon, they won't be sufficient metrics to measure content, if not now."

guardian labs ()

Just over 18 months old, Guardian Labs boasts clients including Cisco, Rolex and HP, and prides itself on telling "unstoppable stories". The lab employs 130 content 'specialists', experts in visual journalism, mobile experiences, video and audio, digital interactives and live events.

"Content is exciting and expensive," said Watkins. "If you want to do it right, you have to invest and you need a new set of storytelling skillsets to do it, which includes embracing technology to make our stories truly unstoppable. Stories need to flow seamlessly across Guardian platforms and beyond."

The importance of technology and data

Watkins said the business has "deep rooted" tech partnerships with Silicon Valley - and noted the fact that the publisher was one of the first to push branded content via Facebook Instant Articles.

"Data helps us to evolve, optimise and distribute stories," said Watkins. "The Guardian is already a trailblazer in that sense. We measure 100bn 'data events' every month, and are one of the most powerful sources of insight capabilities in the world."

"When you have those insights, you can really start to understand and tell stories that matter to people."

Watkins presented The Guardian's 'Audience Explorer' product, which she referred to as a "barometer of cultural trends". It uses data to plan campaigns, but also to optimise and provide audience insight. "By capturing people's reactions (depth of view, interactions, shares), we can begin to define an audience of warm leads. The brand has earned the right to talk to that audience again. It enables advertisers to plan, optimise and evaluate campaigns."

But without audience scale, none of this matters. "We couldn't do it if we didn't have a powerful audience," said Watkins. "We are way bigger than Vice and Buzzfeed in the UK, with 140m unique browsers every month."

"We'll continue to create unstoppable stories, giving the ability to demand attention, scale and influence and impact on our clients' businesses."

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