Shifting terminology is great way to give the perception that you’re bucking a trend and forging a path as a thought-leader. The PR and marketing industry is especially good at this, amid the clamour to get heard in a saturated environment. At first glance, this article might seem to be a tenuous example of semantics.
But believe me, I won’t be making grand statements that “content marketing is dead”. Indeed, it has always been around, and it always will be. Content marketing is alive, well, and thriving.
The discourse has changed over the past decade, with big and small brands seeing the direct benefits of creative and thoughtful content strategy. This has paved the way for the next stage of development; for every brand to become a publisher in its own right.
In this article, I’ll look at what this means, how we’ve come by this opportunity, why it’s important to embrace the publisher mindset, and how brands can step-up to take advantage.
Technology and brand publishing
From magazines to digital
Brands have always told stories. A particularly famous example is that of John Deere, which Arnie Kuenn suggests in Marketing Land might be the first prominent piece of content marketing. The tractor company published a magazine called The Furrow in 1895, which was an educational resource to help farmers get the most from their land and livestock. It’s still in print today.
Another example, also cited by Kuenn, is Michelin. The Michelin Guide was released in 1900, providing readers with (free) useful information about maintaining their vehicle and finding accommodation on the road. If you consider that there were only 2,200 cars in France and 25,000 cars worldwide at that time, these guys were on the ball to say the least.
In 1926, the brand added restaurants to the guide, and now the Michelin Stars are the most sought-after validation of quality for any restaurateur.
Since the dawn of the printing press, sponsored advertorial articles (native advertising) have been placed in newspapers, magazines, and pamphlets. These haven’t always been built around the “hard-sell”. Marketers and advertisers have long understood the various buying stages and levels of awareness, and accommodated space for educating and entertaining through stories into their campaigns. Some have more obvious hooks than others, but the premise is the same; to nurture customers and prospects.
Image source: Copyblogger
These brands can definitely be considered ahead of their time. How did they get there? Of course they had the innovative insight, but they also had the budget and the resources to take a risk. This limited early-doors content marketing to the larger corporates who could afford paid media.
So, what’s changed? In a nutshell, technology has opened up the world of publishing to every individual and every brand. Platforms are free, distribution channels are more plentiful, and creative tools are more accessible. Furthermore, there are new methods of measuring ROI (which I will address later).
Most importantly – consumers are open and willing to read, watch, and listen. As often as possible.
The open access revolution has directly impacted the traditional publishing industry, and despite the book industry showing some signs of recovery in 2016, the general trend of the industry is towards consolidation and risk mitigation. The big players are struggling, and this leaves space for contenders to emerge from all walks of life. The balance has already shifted.
Digital content has become the go-to resource for everyday knowledge, and the big publishing firms aren’t set up to make the most of this opportunity. Brands, startups, and SMEs can step into the void by becoming the publishers of exceptional material across a range of media.
The mobile revolution has made an obvious impact. Smart Insights provide useful numbers in their compilation of mobile marketing statistics, citing in particular that people in the UK spend on average 66 hours per month browsing their smartphone. In the US, this rises to 87 hours per month.
According to Statistica, the average price of a smartphone has decreased everywhere except in North America. In Europe, the average cost of a smartphone in 2013 was $419. This has come down to $259 in 2017. In the rest of the world, the decreases are more steady, but the trend is set and smartphones are due to become yet more affordable over time.
Hardware isn’t only becoming more affordable, but also more powerful. When combined with better mobile data coverage and more WiFi hotspots, this allows brands to utilise high-quality content in a way that wasn’t possible just a few years ago. Video and audio have come to the fore, which is highlighted by Facebook and LinkedIn’s algorithm taste for visual content in user’s feeds. This is also reflected by the growth of platforms such as Snapchat and Instagram, and the popularity of Periscope and Facebook Live.
Better hardware is available everywhere in the form of mobile devices and tablets, but the new breed of cheap notebooks have also contributed to the landscape, with Chromebooks exceeding US sales of Macbooks for the first time in 2016.
As a society, we’re consuming more than ever before. A world of entertainment and education lives in our pocket, and is brought out at every opportunity.
This constant interaction with personal devices is undoubtedly bad for us, and I work very hard to avoid the trapdoor myself. However, the fact remains that people love to read, watch, and listen – and they hop around to consume as much as possible every day.
In May 2017, Redcode summarised a study by Zenith which noted a plateau in the number of minutes spent consuming media each day on a global basis.
“Globally, individuals on average spent 456.1 minutes each day consuming media last year; in 2017, it’s expected to decline slightly to 455.8 minutes. That suggests we’ve reached peak media, but that’s not the case when you look at the data by regions. North American media consumption is expected to increase by 1.8 percent this year to 612.4 minutes a day, compared with 601.5 minutes last year.”
So, if we look at one of the most commercially active societies with the largest consumer market in the world, media consumption is on the up. A Nielsen report backed this up, as featured in Adweek. The study found that US adults spend over 10 hours per day consuming media.
Millennials apparently dwarf this number by reaching up to 18 hours per day, according to Content Science. When do people have time to eat, drink, or sleep?
In the UK, a 2017 Ofcom report found that search engines are the only source of information for the vast majority of internet users. This came in at a whopping 97% of respondents. 80% of people who look online for info about leisure time say they’re most likely use search engines, and 79% of people who look for info for work or education say the same.
If we assume that these stats are broadly similar in much of the western world, we have a society that is obsessed with seeking information, actively engaged with online media, and hugely dependent on the search engines. This is magic news for brand marketers that are using content.
The age of distraction
We live in an age of distraction. When was the last time you waited patiently for a late friend without scrolling through your smartphone to kill the time? This used to be a period for reflection, or perhaps to watch the world go by. We now seek to fill that void with content and digital communication.
An article by The Independent back in 2015 gathered together a number of different studies, which highlighted some remarkable findings. There are strong indications that our long-term memories are being damaged by the over-reliance on checking information online. Microsoft has reported that our attention span has dropped from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds in 2015. Put shortly, this is the world we live in now; one of divided attention, and one in which people are constantly searching for content.
For insights and models on how this works (and how to break free!), check out Nir Eyal’s talk; Un-Hooked: Increasing Focus in the Age of Distraction. He uses his inside knowledge of how products and digital services work to give advice on improving focus. Essentially, he’s a double agent.
The age of distraction doesn’t reflect well on our society, but that can’t be helped on a macro scale – even despite the recent backlash. This ubiquitous desire for distraction provides a huge opportunity for brands to reach their audience. Yes, there is a lot of competition for those eyeballs. But by publishing emotive content that is distributed effectively, brands as publishers can capitalise on 24/7 consumption.
There is huge demand for compelling stories, and you can oblige.
Why become a publisher?
So, we’ve established that content is sought-after, partly due to macro societal changes and shifts in technology. But what are the fundamental business reasons for becoming a brand publisher?
Ultimately, this whole pursuit must meet business goals. You’re not investing time, energy, and money into something that has no return. Startups and established brands often say they need content, but don’t have goals in place. This is a mistake, and merely pays lip-service to the trend.
What sort of tangible business goals can be met by embracing content wholeheartedly?
1. Technical rewards
Creative work has a technical benefit.
If your brand is looking to improve SEO by building authoritative backlinks, becoming a purposeful publisher will go some way towards achieving that.
This might take the form of a guest blogging campaign, or it might involve the publication of a report that garners media attention with outreach. It might be a one-page parallax website that taps into current affairs or an untold story. Regardless of media, these creative activities can have technical rewards, thus improving rankings or referral traffic, and increasing the number of web conversions as a result.
Graph taken from Backlinko
2. Build influence and trust
You have a wealth of expertise hidden away inside your brain, and so too does every team member (if they’re on the ball!). Whether you’re a huge corporation or a small startup, there are plenty of flag-bearers ready to build their rep. If your representatives are free to pursue thought-leadership, this will develop the influence of your brand in the most important circles.
Particularly in the B2B arena, it’s important to remember that people still buy from people. They build trust in people, and admire people. Your influence as a brand is forwarded by the personalities that work within it, and by publishing content on their behalf, the business can grow an authoritative presence.
3. Convince and convert
47% of B2B buyers consume between 3 and 5 pieces of content before engaging with a salesperson. This highlights the essential function of useful material. A buyer must have confidence in your service or product, but the brand identity must also have resonance.
Buyers will look at the world you operate in, the opinions and news that you share, and the added value that you provide to customers.
4. Brand Awareness
This notoriously difficult-to-measure metric is most often associated with content marketing, but it’s not to be sniffed at. Publishing brilliant content will put you in front of more eyeballs, that’s for sure.Marketers also call it “increasing reach”, which is another vague term that’s often treated with suspicion.
How can you track brand awareness?
- Measuring the branded searches on Keyword Planner and Google Trends
- Use social listening tools such as Hootsuite, Buzzsumo, or Mention to track brand sentiment, regularity of mentions, and number of shares
- Monitor the increase in direct traffic to your site via Google Analytics
GA used to give us the keyword searches for organic traffic, but this has been replaced by the dreaded (not provided). However, as Daniel Threlfall points out in his article for Crazy Egg, there are plenty of ways to unlock this data, albeit with a workaround or two.
In order to measure the ROI of brand awareness, you should set up goals in GA to track conversions from direct and referral traffic, as well as social traffic. In essence, it’s about tracking attribution effectively.
A well-established customer journey is key in this regard, and your business should have the ability to determine which pieces of content move your audience from awareness to consideration, and then onwards to purchase.
A customer journey is also important for marketing automation, which Jonathan outlined in his recent post, 10 Steps for Better Marketing Automation Implementation. Below is an example of a buyer’s stage plan:
If you’re looking for further reading on calculating ROI, Jordan Con provides a valuable and comprehensive guide to measuring the ROI of brand marketing, which is worth a look.
5. Customer Retention
In an increasingly competitive environment, customer retention is more important than ever. Indeed, according to leading growth marketers it is harder than ever. You need to add value to the lives of your existing customers, and nurture their involvement with your brand.
This is where marketing automation and personalisation comes to the fore, enabling you to deliver compelling stuff to customers via their inbox, through social ads, and by other means. Without this, they might just forget you and move on.
6. Identity Shift
Brands shift their identity all the time. Take, for example, Shell. These guys are an oil and gas company, but in a world which is (rightly) shaping up against fossil fuels, they’ve gone on the offensive with content and communications that emphasise a greener responsible approach.
Shell’s Twitter feed is awash with content about technology, innovation, and alternative energy. Shell publishes advertorial articles in National Geographic, and promotes videos about how Shell products support China’s wind turbines.
BP is taking a similar approach. One peek at the reports and publications section of the BP website, and you’ll see lots about sustainability and corporate responsibility. Without the ability to aggressively publish, these brands would be limited in their ability to pivot. Now it’s just a matter of volume and consistency.
How to become a publisher
I’ve outlined the main reasons why it makes sense to embrace this opportunity. But how do you go about becoming a publisher? More importantly, how do you become one that drives business results?
Here are some key takeaways.
1. Comprehensive Research
Understand which type of content your audience responds to. Check out your competitors, and other brands that sell to the same audience (this might be a totally different product with similar persona targeting). Get a feel for what resonates, and look for the content that flops.
It’s not always about reinventing the wheel. Take inspiration from around you, but assign a research process and determine metrics for success and failure.
Measure twice, cut once. A deep understanding audience is always key to successful content marketing. You might wish to read my recent article about how to do audience research better than your competitors.
2. Audit your environment
Work out the who, what, and when of your own operation. There will be fruitful forests of insight in the brains of your people. There will be interesting micro-stories in your team’s daily activities. The smart minds within your organisation will have opinions, observations, and experiences.
What about the world that surrounds? Who are the people that circle your operation that could contribute?
Generate awareness within the team about the value of their experiences to your brand’s content strategy. Create a family tree and list the expertise, experience, and daily activities of your team. Set a process in place whereby the team can share their experiences and brainstorm content ideas. Empower people with incentives, and set the framework for feeding insight through to marketing output.
3. Set goals
Set clear tangible goals as a business, and align your content strategy tightly. Gone are the days of hit and hope, and no business should blog for the sake of it. Content always has a function, no matter the media. Set KPIs for output, and ensure each published piece aims for a return on investment. In some cases, this might just be eyeballs; but even eyeballs have measurable value.
Always align content with a tangible lead magnet and call to action. This is most suited to B2B brands, where the lead time is longer and you have more opportunity to nurture a cooler lead with marketing automation. Alternatively, combine content publication with AdWords remarketing to target those who are newly aware of your brand.
If you’re targeting rankings, each SERP has its own traffic volume; and a percentage of that traffic will convert to become a lead. You can therefore calculate the value of an individual ranking position for particular keywords; and as a result measure the ROI of content and link-building efforts.
4. Set Budgets
Great content takes time to plan and create. You’ll need to establish a budget for creation and distribution. You may need outside help on video design, audio editing, or writing. Content is always an investment. I usually work with VC-backed startups and established corporations with budget, but if your pockets aren’t so deep, check out this Kissmetrics guide to content marketing on a shoestring.
Naturally, you will refine the approach over time and get better ROI as you learn what works and what doesn’t. This will inform budget decisions as you move forward.
5. Avoid product-centrism
A few years ago, there was a breakthrough. Businesses small and large realised that they didn’t need to talk about their product or service all the time. This is when content marketing hit the bigtime, and this is when people started saying “content is king”. But now and again, I stumble on brands that are struggling to shift the mindset. Some businesses are obsessed with centring content around product updates and internal business news. This is a severely limiting approach.
It’s simple, really. Have the confidence to be creative, and focus on the audience rather than the product. Product-centric content has its place, but it can’t form the heart of a compelling campaign. Tap into your audience’s hopes, dreams, pains, and problems. Infiltrate the world that they live and work in.
6. Embrace Influencers
87% of B2B buyers give more credence to industry influencer content. Despite the headlines, influencer marketing isn’t limited to paying Instagrammers for a product placement. I outlined this in my recent guest article for Onalytica. It should permeate multiple aspects of your content strategy.
Every industry has its leaders, and each has already established an audience. Tapping into this audience will give you a leg-up over competitors.
Think about what works for the major publications: interviews, case studies, and in-depth storytelling. Will your audience respond to this? Think in terms of involving influencers within different media, from articles to podcasts to video interviews. Get input on sections of your content by reaching out and asking a direct question to someone in the know.
How to become an efficient publisher
When resources are piled into content strategy, it’s important to be as efficient as possible. You need to squeeze out maximum value, and reduce duplication of tasks.
Here are some ways to make your operation more efficient.
Always consider the multitude of ways in which initial research effort can bear fruit. You might be conducting interviews for a company video, but can this raw material be used for other means? Sure – a written article, an audio podcast, or social media posts. With regards to the video itself, your editor can create a master version, and cut out individual quotes and interviews into smaller snippets. These will be suitable for your Instagram, for example. Great content is hard work, so make sure to get the most value.
The Guardian has spotted an opportunity with its Long Reads. They’ve taken the lead among mainstream media outlets in tapping into a podcast audience, and have seen phenomenal success with their Football Weekly and Tech Weekly shows. Given their unique length and depth, the Long Reads were ripe for transformation into narrative podcast episodes, and this has expanded the content’s reach considerably.
Don’t give up on outdated content – there may be life in the old dog yet! You’ll likely have heard about evergreen content; the content that doesn’t go out of date. This is the ideal scenario, but in truth, most web content goes out of date eventually in terms of topic, angle, emphasis, or language. Monitor the performance of your old content, and reshuffle as necessary to give it a fresh edge.
Likewise, some content will bomb. There are a million reasons why this could be the case; from quality and tone to a lack of effective distribution / promotion. Always evaluate whether you have the makings of something useful before binning hours of work. Use what you have, and optimise if possible.
Also read: How to rejuvenate and repurpose old content
This falls into the distribution and promotion field, which I’ll address later in the article. Cross-promotion of on-site content can be automated with website plugins or with manual (contextual) linking. In either case, the philosophy is to consider what else the reader or viewer might enjoy, and point them in the direction.
From a link-building perspective, cross-promotion can be particularly effective for guest blogging. Say, for example, you’ve published a large guide on your website about commercial mortgages. Consider the offshoots of that top-level topic; perhaps the obstacles of commercial mortgages, or ways to find the best commercial mortgage for a new-build. These can be published off-site, linking back to the bigger guide for further reading or as a reference. Again, we see technical SEO benefits as a result of content.
According to IMN, 82% of marketers curate content. A different study reports that 41% of marketers that curate content say they’ve increased the number and/or quality of sales-ready leads as a result.
Curation is a highly efficient tactic, and one which can help you become an efficient publisher of valuable content. Ross Hudgens wrote an engaging piece for CMI in which he outlined three overlooked curation strategies. His tips are focused on generating a Twitter following, but the principles remain relevant. He advocates leveraging “underground” content to build authority, framing curated pieces with your own commentary, and making an effort to impress the original creator(s).
Essentially, curation taps into the same influencer-led approach that I’ve already mentioned. Rather than reinventing the wheel, you collect and re-present the best content from around the web in different consumable formats. You can do this cross-media. HubSpot has listed 10 of the best content curation tools, which is a very helpful place to start.
Content with integrity
People are frustrated by clickbait. Not just due to over-sensationalist headlines, but because the content often doesn’t serve user intent. It over-promises and under-delivers. It’s a broken system. The user goes away empty-handed, but the website gets more clicks for ad revenue or the marketer claims to have improved brand awareness. This is not sustainable, and does more harm than good.
A website should pursue a loyal base of repeat visitors, and a brand must monitor the bounce rate, dwell time, and time on site for specific content. If engagement is low, and numbers of return visitors are reducing over time, this is an indication that users don’t value what they find. It’s impossible to convert people who have a negative perception of your brand from the beginning.
Of course, there will always be time and space for flippant stuff – provided that it doesn’t masquerade as something different. But integrity and depth may be the key to standing out from your competitors. What does this mean exactly? How do you create content with integrity?
1. Be Humble
You’re not the Yoda of your industry. At least, not yet. We all take inspiration from others, and it’s fine to admit this explicitly. Be bold, but also be aware that other people may have put forward similar ideas in the past, and it’s okay to reference them.
2. Do your research
Triple-check your sources, and understand the context in which your content lives. Don’t make wild assumptions, and always seek credible statistics to support an argument or opinion. Integrity is acquired through accuracy of information combined with the legitimacy of opinion. Research is essential.
3. Take your time
What’s the rush? In most cases, publishing great stuff isn’t a life or death situation. Spend some time on strategy, research, creation, and distribution. You can’t get it right every time, but give yourself a chance to reach a better standard than your competitors.
4. Add value
When it comes down to it, this is probably the most important aspect of content publication, and the one which will build your integrity as a brand. A self-serving approach will have the opposite effect. Add value at all times, and you will be rewarded.
5. Choose topics wisely
Where does your audience need more reassurance? Which questions are they asking that haven’t been answered comprehensively by your competitors. This is your chance to build authority.
SEO and articles with integrity
Google has recognised the impact of poor-quality content on the web. In 2011, they launched the Panda algorithm update, which specifically targeted thin content, duplicate content, and low-quality content. In 2013, the Hummingbird update targeted keyword stuffing and other content misdemeanours.
Ultimately, Google wants to serve the user. If the user is regularly unhappy with the quality of their search results, this opens up an opportunity for Google’s competitors. A reduced user base results in less advertising investment, and so the downward spiral goes.
The user is at the heart of Google’s mission – not for any fluffy or loving reason, but due to the fact that without a satisfied user base and a consistent experience, Google’s domination comes under threat.
Studies have shown that articles of over 2000 words have a much better chance of ranking. The average number of words for content in first place position is 2416. Long-form content gets more backlinks, and can increase conversion rates. Whilst word count doesn’t indicate quality in itself, Google favours content with depth, quality, and consistency. 2000 words of empty nonsense won’t help whatsoever, but providing detail and value goes a long way.
Distribution and promotion
So you’ve nailed a brilliant piece of content, designed meticulously to evoke a reaction from your audience. Great job! What next? Planning and creation is one aspect of brand publishing, but distribution is equally important. Indeed, many would argue that it’s the most important element.
Social media has always been an ideal avenue for content promotion, but since the platforms began choking the reach of business pages, one could argue that paid social is the only feasible way to make an impact. Sure, the big brands have built a massive following, but it’s very tricky (and time-consuming) for a startup or SME to do the same. Sending out a few tweets about an article won’t cut the mustard.
Even the biggest brands and publications have embraced a hybrid approach, using remarketing and other smart targeting tactics to generate traffic and snatch new readers / viewers / listeners. This is the new normal, as social media channels look to maximise profits. The benefit for publishers is that social media is perfect for awareness-stage audiences, and you can make a big impact at the top of the funnel.
As I’ve already mentioned, the involvement of outside influencers is key to a successful content strategy. When it comes to distribution, you have a number of options for outreach. This first is to include influencers in your content and make them aware during the planning and creation stage. Secondly, you can feature others’ insights and inform them afterwards as part of your promotion strategy.
A common link-building tactic is to approach webmasters who host broken links or links to outdated content, and to suggest your article as a replacement. However, the return rate on this is low so it must be scaled to volume. Neil Patel’s guide to modern link-building outlines this tactic in detail, and you might also like to check out my ultimate guide to B2B startup link-building.
One of the most attracting prospects of becoming a brand publisher in the digital era is the ability to measure performance and track ROI. This is directly associated with the principle of setting goals and publishing content to successfully meet those goals.
How can you measure the return on your content efforts? Well, it depends on your goals and attributing a value to each action / event / outcome. This requires careful tracking throughout the customer journey. Luckily, the market is saturated with tools that can do just this.
Google Analytics is of course the most accessible tool (although you’ll need expertise to set up goals and tracked URLs correctly), and there are other tools to measure backlink results (such as Ahrefs) and rankings (such as Wincher). The social ad platforms provide their own data, which can be used to calculate the ROI of paid campaigns and worked into your overall budget.
The methods for calculating ROI on content marketing efforts are detailed and complex, and very dependent on your ambitions.
This article has highlighted some of the ways in which your brand can forge a path ahead as a publisher of great content. There needs to be a shared mindset across the organisation in order to maximise value from this opportunity. Each part of your business must understand how their insights can be translated into storytelling, and you must have the resources to research, create, and distribute smartly.
A brand is a commercial entity, so content publishing efforts must have return on investment. Brand awareness is a legitimate aim, but so too is lead generation. These are feasible results from becoming a brand publisher, tackled by different types of content. Each can be measured with attributed value.
In this remarkable era of technological advancement, every startup and established business has a chance to make a mark by publishing content. But plenty are getting it wrong. I hope that this article has given you an introduction to the key principles, and some actions points for getting started.