How the Washington Post and CNN are measuring branded content success

When it comes to native content, how are brands measuring their success? If it’s in terms of page views, they’re a step – or several – behind.

Branded content studios and their brand partners have shifted focus to analytics that they believe are more accurate in determining whether native content campaigns have met their goals. The recent, overarching metric trend seems to lie in combining several different KPIs and rebranding them (if you will) into the umbrella metric of “engagement.” But what exactly is engagement comprised of?

Brands have to make an “impact.”

The Washington Post’s branded content studio, WP BrandStudio, calls their personally designed metric an “impact score.” As described by Paul Tsigrikes, vice president of marketing at The Washington Post, it’s made up of “things like time spent, scroll depths…social referrals, and then uniques and page views.” It also “actually compares how the content programs are doing…against each other,” meaning that the studio can (and does) also measure native branded campaigns against standard editorial content.

And if the branded content is doing as well as The Washington Post content, that’s, according to Tsigrikes, “a sure sign of success.”

Time will tell…

Why? The Washington Post is a respected news source with an audience of “serious news readers.” If it gets traction there, it’s passed the test of integrity.

CNN has similar editorial standards, and its branded content studio, Courageous, must reflect them in its native content. A less precise success “metric” for this content is whether it “meets our sense of editorial merit,” said Otto Bell, Courageous’s vice president and group creative director.

In terms of numbers, which determine “something like engagement,” said Bell, Courageous focuses on its CNN-native branded content’s completion rates and social actions. Though Bell called engagement a “loosey goosey term,” he does see it reflected in likes, comments, and shares on social. On publisher platforms, it’s measured in time. “We are only interested in views that are over 30 seconds—that’s where for us a view begins, so that’s a big metric for us,” said Bell.

Which metrics truly reveal branded content success?

Swipe right if the metric is sexy…

Survey says: Brands want to know how you feel.

Numbers alone don’t mean much to brands, though. “We’re firm believers that 100,000 page views and four and a half minutes time spent and a 65% scroll rate are generally meaningless pieces of information if they can’t also tell you about how people now think and feel about the brand,” said Paul Josephsen, vice president of The CoLab, Thrillist’s branded content studio.

For The CoLab, those metrics help extrapolate the “lift” in brand awareness from a sponsored campaign by offering up a sample group of people, usually numbering in the hundreds, exposed to the content. Then, a third party research team conducts surveys on how people feel about the brand/product, surveying both the exposed group and a control group who hasn’t seen the content. These emotion-based “metrics” are felt to be more telling when it comes to true engagement than the raw numbers.

“Every brand wants to change the way people think and feel, or evoke an emotion or create a need or desire for their product,” said Josephsen. That’s why he measures a “blend” of information, from time spent and scroll rates, to people’s interactions with the content, their shares, and their comments. “We even go so far as to look at sentiment,” Josephsen continued. “When they’re sharing [branded content], what is the commentary? Is it positive? Is it negative?”

But how do the brands feel?

Marriott Hotels, besides having its own in-house content studio, has run native campaigns on sites like and They’ve created native video, editorial, and interactive content, such as quizzes.

“[We are] always focused on time spent and engagement with the article or video,” said David Beebe, vice president of global creative and content marketing at Marriott International. For him, engagement extends beyond the piece and into the continued conversation surrounding it.

“No content should ever have a dead end,” he said. So the big question, according to Beebe, becomes, “How are we keeping [consumers] there? How are we keeping them in our world?”

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