A few years ago, I ran a content campaign for an electronics company in partnership with a popular tech publisher. The content was all about how to choose the right tech for your needs, and it absolutely crushed it. The publisher had to do little more than share it once on Facebook, and the reads came flowing in. Everyone involved — advertiser, agency and publisher — was thrilled.

But when I tried to recreate the campaign (and its accompanying success) this year, it barely made a blip. So, what changed?

I spend a lot of time looking at data on how people discover and engage with content. It’s part of the job, and it’s in constant flux. I’ve seen organic traffic surge and then just as quickly fall off a cliff. I’ve seen brands and publishers pivot to video, paid and subscriptions at a dizzying speed.

The internet is oversaturated, and much of what gets posted online is never seen — a recent study puts the number of unseen content at about 91%. This means that of the millions of pieces of content published in a day, less than 10% of them reach an audience of even a single person. If you build it, there’s no guarantee they will come.

The way people discover content has changed dramatically, but the way most brands and publishers work together on content programs is stuck in the past. It’s time to update the model.

Something is broken, so how do we fix it?

A big part of the problem comes from how we’re buying and selling branded content in the first place.

In a traditional branded content transaction between an advertiser and a publisher, the program comes at a fixed cost, regardless of how well the content is received. There may be several promotional ad impressions included, but how the actual branded article or video performs is often a black box — every story is different, so no promises.

That model was fine when organic reach meant that most programs did pretty well on their own, but it breaks down in the reality of today’s elusive free reach.

When we transact on a flat-fee basis, there’s no contractual obligation to perform. While everyone has the best intentions, there’s no guarantee of achieving specific content goals — and, therefore, no financial motivation to do so. This also means that the depth of reporting is lacking. Why track things like how engaged a viewer is or if they completed the article or video if it’s not a clear requirement at the outset?

It’s not that fixed rates are intrinsically bad; it’s just that they can cause a misalignment of goals between parties. Would you risk paying for your morning coffee if there was no guarantee there would be anything in the cup?

Of course, we wouldn’t be having this conversation if quality engagement was easy to come by. As valuable as engagement is, it’s impossible to achieve these results efficiently and consistently. Or is it?

How branded content can perform without breaking the bank

In lieu of a flat-fee model, some publishers and advertisers are championing a new way of buying and selling branded content — one focused on guaranteeing quality reads and views. Under this new model, the publisher dedicates budget to paid social promotion to ensure success. After all, while organic reach may be declining, we found that paid reach is stronger than ever. And there are incredible benefits to focusing on quality content performance.

First, it makes branded content more competitive when compared to other digital products because advertisers can easily show true ROI. We found that the average time spent with branded content is around 46 seconds (we calculated this by finding the midpoint between the mean and median attention seconds). This is much higher than the attention given to a mobile banner ad.

Second, it ensures that we look beyond vanity metrics. Measuring attention and completion rates weeds out the distribution tactics that don’t deliver. This eliminates any awkward surprises, like the CMO finding their brand at the bottom of some random website next to an article titled: “This weird trick will cure your illness!”

Advertisers and publishers want the same thing from their branded content campaigns: a great story that resonates with an audience and meets (or exceeds) performance expectations. After reviewing the poor results of our recent campaign, my team moved the buy from a flat fee to a performance model. You can probably guess what happened. Once all parties were realigned on the goal of driving quality engagement to the content, the numbers picked up overnight.

How people discover content has changed — it’s time we do, too.