Is there a formula for wildly successful content marketing campaigns? It’s a question we ponder a lot at the Fractl office.
We do have our own tried-and-true formula that we continually tweak based on our observations of what does and doesn’t succeed. To help us spot trends that shape this formula, we collect data about every content marketing campaign we create for our clients. But we don’t keep this data to ourselves – sharing our internal data with the marketing community helps others create better content based on what’s worked for us.
We did this a few years ago using a set of 345 campaigns, and now that we have double the number of our campaigns under our belt, we dug into our data again. This time, the sample size was 759 campaigns that launched between 2013 and 2017.
As part of our analysis, we looked at the relationship between campaign performance, measured by the number of placements and social shares a campaign earned, and the campaign’s attributes, including emotionality, the target audience size, and timeliness. “Placement” or “pickup” refers to any time a campaign received media coverage. In link building lingo, a placement may refer to a link that is dofollow, cocitation or nofollow; we also count client mentions without links as placements.
Campaign performance was grouped into three buckets:
High success: more than 100 placements and/or 20,000 social shares
Moderate success: Between 20–100 placements and/or between 1,000 and 20,000 social shares
Low success: Fewer than 20 placements and/or fewer than 1,000 social shares
What sets apart our top performing campaigns
Our campaigns that were either emotionally resonant or surprising were significantly more likely to yield a high volume of media placements and social shares than content that does not include these elements.
The chart below shows the prevalence of three factors across the different campaign performance groups.
As you can see, emotions and an element of surprise were far more common in campaigns that performed extremely well.
Seventy percent of high success campaigns had an emotional hook compared to 45% of moderate success and 25% of low success campaigns.
Seventy-six percent of high success campaigns were surprising compared to 54% of moderate success and 47% of low success campaigns.
There wasn’t as great of a difference when it came to whether or not campaigns were broadly appealing. We believe on its own this isn’t enough to hit a home run, but it’s telling that this trait was nearly ubiquitous among the top performers:
Almost all of our high success campaigns (96%) had broad appeal, compared to 81% of moderate success and 86% of low success campaigns.
Let’s take a closer look at how each of these three factors correlated to campaign performance.
An emotional hook
Campaigns with an emotional hook earned 70% more media pickups and 127% more social shares on average than campaigns that lacked emotional resonance.
Creating an emotional response in viewers is crucial for driving sharing and engagement. This is clearly demonstrated by our campaign data, with emotional resonance being a key factor in our top campaigns and emotional campaigns performing far better on average than non-emotional campaigns.
Keep it positive. Creating a purely positive emotional reaction works best for garnering attention and igniting shares. Why is this? People want to share things that make others feel good.
Put the audience on an emotional rollercoaster. Complex emotional responses are also extremely effective for striking the right emotional chord. Consider pairing contrasting emotions, such as hope and despair or admiration and sadness, to pack the greatest emotional punch.
Pair negative emotions with surprise. Avoid rousing strictly negative feelings. Surprise is crucial if you’re hitting the audience with a negative emotion, such as fear or anger.
An element of surprise
Surprising campaigns earned 39% more media pickups and 108% more social shares than campaigns that weren’t surprising.
Surprise doesn’t necessarily mean shocking. Novelty, or newness, can also elicit feelings of surprise; incorporating information that isn’t widely known or new data are effective ways to play into this because it triggers a feeling of “I didn’t already know this,” which draws interest and encourages sharing the new information with others.
Furthermore, surprise or novelty can greatly improve your outreach efforts. Since newness is a pillar of newsworthiness, publishers are eager to get their hands on exclusive stories. This is why offering the media something never published before is essential for effective PR outreach.
As I mentioned previously, broad appeal on its own isn’t going to have a huge impact on campaign success. However, universal appeal still plays a role in getting a campaign in front of as many eyeballs as possible. Campaigns that appealed to a wide audience earned 38% more media pickups and 96% more social shares on average than campaigns created for a niche demographic.
Creating broadly appealing versus niche-focused content is a choice of fishing in a big pond or a little pond. You’ll have a larger volume of outreach targets and greater potential audience reach with a broadly appealing campaign. On the other hand, niche campaigns have limited reach because they’re much harder to get picked up by widely-read general news sites that want stories with mass appeal. Instead, you can only pitch the handful of publishers that cover the niche topic.
For this reason, we often create tangential content, or content about a popular topic related to a client’s vertical, for many of our clients whose goals include a high volume of links and media mentions. This being said, it’s possible to get a ton of media attention and engagement with niche-focused campaigns, which I explore later in this post.
When a combination of emotions, surprise, and broad appeal was present in a campaign, it supercharged the results.
So we know emotions and surprise work well on their own. However, when these factors were paired together with a broadly appealing topic, we saw even greater success.
Campaigns that were both emotional and surprising earned 199 pickups and 23,730 social shares on average. Incorporating all three made the biggest impact on the average results; campaigns that were emotional, surprising, and broadly appealing earned 207 pickups and 25,017 social shares on average.
We know audiences are drawn to emotionally resonant, universally appealing, and surprising content, but these traits play a big role in campaign success before the public even sees the content – they’re crucial for getting your outreach pitch read and acted upon.
Content with these three traits has strong headline potential, which publishers immediately pick up on when they read a pitch. In other words, it’s going to be easy for publishers to write an irresistible headline if they publish your campaign. Without a great headline, it’s much harder to draw clicks and views to a story, which are required initial steps for getting others to link to and share the content.
Can’t picture how a single headline can be emotional, surprising, and have mass appeal? Here are examples of headlines from our campaigns that hit all of these factors:
Drinking from a refillable water bottle could be worse than licking a dog toy
More American high school students smoke pot than binge drink, report says
Online fast food calculator reveals how long you need to run or swim to be guilt-free (and it’s more than you think)
The surprising reason why most men cheat
If you were browsing your social feeds and came across any of those headlines, they’d be hard to resist clicking, right? Here’s a look at the campaign behind that last headline.
Campaign example: The surprising reason why most men cheat
Client vertical: Online pharmacy
We went straight to the source to conduct a survey of people who have cheated on a significant other. This was clearly an emotionally charged subject that would intrigue a large segment of the population. Furthermore, the campaign offered a fresh take on a topic commonly discussed to the point of oversaturation by big publishers that cover relationships. By coming at it from from the angle of “from the mouth of a cheater,” which isn’t often covered and definitely not in a data-centered way, the campaign had a strong surprise and novelty factor that went over well with both publishers and audiences.
The results? 175 placements, including features on Fox News, The New York Post, Cosmopolitan, and Men’s Health, and nearly 40,000 social shares.
Pro Tip: When you pitch an idea to a publisher, they picture potential headlines. It shouldn’t be overly complicated to communicate that your idea is emotional, surprising, and broadly appealing. Try the headline test: Consider how all three factors would fit into a headline by writing a few mock headlines that concisely capture the selling points of the campaign. Does it make for the perfect eye-catching headline?
How you can still score big without emotions and surprise
Of course, there are exceptions to the rules. Here’s how you can still earn a lot of media pickups and social shares with content that’s neither emotional nor surprising.
Exception #1: Target one or more niche groups
Our high performing campaigns that appealed to a certain demographic or fan base were less likely to be emotionally resonant or surprising than those that appealed to a wide audience.
Successful niche campaigns were mostly educational and informative rather than purely entertaining, and many of these campaigns were data heavy. It’s no surprise that passionate niche groups are eager to learn more about the topics they care about.
Campaign example: The rise of the freelance worker
Client vertical: HR and payroll services
We analyzed 400,000 freelancer resumes to uncover new insights about the freelancing economy. While this topic isn’t universally appealing, it did have overlapping appeal within several niche audiences, such as HR and recruitment, freelance employees, and the general business community, which led to 269 placements including Forbes, Entrepreneur, and Fox News, plus more than 20,000 social shares.
Pro Tip: If your campaign topic appeals to several niche groups, you can increase your chances for media coverage on a variety of niche publishers, thus expanding your potential reach.
Exception #2: Incorporate “geo-bait”
Based on our data, we found that campaigns that were absent of an emotional hook or element of surprise but did have a strong geographic angle still performed quite well.
Since our identities are closely tied to where we come from and where we live, campaigns based on geographical areas (countries, cities, states, regions) play into the audiences’ egos. In Fractl terms, we call this “geo-bait.”
Campaign example: Which states use the most solar power?
Client vertical: Home improvement
Using data from the US Department of Energy, we looked at which states were producing the most solar energy and installing the most solar panels. There wasn’t much surprising data here, as environmentally progressive states topped the rankings (hello, California), but incorporating fresh data and featuring a ranking of solar-friendly states helped this campaign earn more than 200 placements. In addition to the geo-bait angle, this topic had strong appeal to the environmental niche, which helped it get picked up by green publishers.
Pro Tip: Geo-bait campaigns are especially appealing when they compare or rank multiple places.
Other key factors that affect campaign performance
Adding three magical elements into your content won’t automatically lead to success. A handful of other variables can make or break your campaign, some of which will be out of your control. So which variables in your control can increase your chances for success?
Even the best content will fail to get any coverage if your outreach game is weak. This means absolutely no mass pitching your campaign to a long list of publishers. Not only do you need to choose the right targets for outreach (a.k.a. publishers that actually publish stories about your campaign topic), you need to choose the right person at that publication (a.k.a. the person who regularly writes about the topic). That way, you’re not alienating writers with irrelevant pitches. You also need to send compelling, personalized outreach pitches to each target (don’t worry, we have a checklist for that). By sending solid pitches, they’re more likely to open your emails in the future.
You’ll quickly lose trust with publishers (and audiences) if your campaign includes questionable data and inaccuracies. Make credibility a top priority for your work and you’ll have an easier time becoming a trustworthy content creator and maintaining your trustworthiness in the long term.
First, you need to only use authoritative sources and data in your campaign.
What’s a good source?
Government websites and databases
Higher education sites
Notable publishers with stringent editorial standards
What’s not a good source?
Websites lacking editorial oversight (in other words, contributors can automatically publish content without an editor’s review)
Studies backed by corporate
Second, your campaign won’t be trusted if it’s riddled with errors. Our editorial team ensures campaigns don’t get released into the wild with glaring grammatical and factual mistakes. Include editorial guidelines and a quality assurance check within your production process to keep campaigns error-free.
One final word of advice: evaluate whether a campaign concept will be emotionally resonant, surprising, and broadly appealing before you move it into production. Our ideation guide sheds light on how we do this by scoring our ideas based on a 5-point grading rubric.
What trends have you noticed about your most successful content marketing campaigns? I’d love to hear how your observations confirm or differ from what I’ve shared.
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