The practice of brands publishing media products to create utility for their customers (read: make people's lives easier) isn't a new one. One of my favorite examples is the Michelin Guide. First published in 1900, it helped drivers maintain their cars, find decent lodging and food while touring, and encouraged travel - all while generating brand affinity to drive more sales.
Content marketing in the digital era is the evolution of this concept. What's different nowadays is that attention is incredibly scarce due to an abundance of supply, market fragmentation, and low barriers to entry. Conversations happen between brand and customer in real time, and the media landscape changes daily (not monthly or yearly as in the past). In short, creating a compelling content experience efficiently and at scale is more challenging than ever.
There is great information available about why content marketing makes sense for brands. And most of it, I couldn't agree more with. My goal here, however, is to provide you with how to successfully execute content marketing strategies.
The Long Haul
Stakeholders from the brand, agency, and publisher must be prepared to commit time and resources over the long term. We refer to these projects as "media annuities" - meaning that they are invested in, measured, optimized, refreshed, and paid back over years, not quarters.
The 3 C's: Context, Content, Conversation
Set up an editorial calendar each quarter and program it to include evergreen content, seasonal content, and space for opportunistic/timely content. My friends at Percolate talk about long-form stock content (i.e., "A Memorable Sit-Down Dinner") and short-form flow content ("Tasty Snacks to Keep You Going"). Optimize your stock and flow mix over time by measuring what best resonates with your community via earned media metrics and site analytics. Also continually monitor and curate content based on search terms and keywords - give readers plenty of what they're looking for.
Partner and Publish
Establish partnerships with best-in-class publishers to contribute high-quality paid content to your platform. Use media as a platform for conversation by running content-driven banners leading to those articles. Additionally, request that publishers amplify their content via social channels, and regularly optimize the publisher list based on agreed-upon performance metrics like engagement (page views, comments), amplification ("likes," shares, retweets, pins), and equity (organic traffic, SEO).
Architect for Extensibility
It's essential that you create a dynamic platform and domain where your content will live to point people to - one that you own. Utilize a well-known, widely supported, and scalable CMS such as WordPress. Architect your platform in a modular way - over time, add tools and widgets like paid content syndication from Outbrain, commenting from Disqus, most read/emailed/popular content widgets, email subscription functionality with VerticalResponse, and social media/comment counters on articles.
It Takes a Village
Set up an organizational structure for the "go-team" with clear roles and responsibilities. Key functions will include an account manager, program manager, editor-in-chief/content manager, community lead, and analytics lead. Also include project leads from the brand and agency.
Establish KPIs and targets at the beginning of each quarter, then check in regularly with bi-monthly metrics reviews and quarterly KPI resets. During those, be sure to evaluate paid, earned, and owned metrics, including site stats (page views, visitors, time spent on site, page views per visit, bounce rate, repeat visits, etc.) with tools like Google Analytics; social actions (retweets, inbound links, comments, "likes," shares) with tools like Facebook Insights and Topsy; and the tone/sentiment of conversations (positive, neutral, negative) with tools like Sysomos and Radian6.
Engage your audience early and often; the key to growing return visitors is by regularly showing your community love. Create appreciation contests on your platform and via social media channels with partners like ePrize and Wildfire. Run quick-hit polls and caption or comment contests. Establish loyalty programs to get your products and other goods into consumers' hands. And don't forget to have fun - communities are people-powered so be sure to interact as real people do.
Images Sell Content
Image-based content is incredibly important - as evidenced by the stunning growth of platforms such as Pinterest and Instagram. To merchandise your content and engage users, use large-format, rich images on your home page carousel, Facebook Timeline, and elsewhere. Use thumbnail images in other mediums, such as banners, social channels, video channels, and email newsletters. Research shows that users are significantly more likely to click on headlines when accompanied by images.
Create a Feeder System for Content Contributors
As your platform begins to snowball, editors and contributors will come forward and offer content in exchange for their listing as a contributor. Create an evaluation and response program for these arrangements to gauge the quality of their content and audience, and to encourage a deeper level of participation.
Leverage Network Effects
Develop a decentralized content strategy by utilizing different mediums to find and build your audience - be those video, mobile, social, local, email, events, blogs, etc. You don't need to be in every channel, but you do need to be in channels that matter to your audience. Target the right channels, prioritize resources accordingly, and enable users to easily friend, follow, and like your brand and share your content. Note: it's great to have lots of followers, but make sure you are scoring engagement and amplification metrics highly; the overarching goal is how deeply you have reached and connected with people.
Your brand can be front but not necessarily center. In the print media world, we talk about the advertising-to-edit ratio of 45:55. A standard ratio in the online world is a bit harder to come by because so much varies by situation. I recommend a sensible ratio, one that relies on more signal and less noise, and that can be applied to areas such as visual design, blog posts, and social media updates.
Keep the system in beta for an extended (or indefinite) period of time. Stakeholders should be willing and ready to experiment, fail fast, and iterate. Leverage the platform as a tool for continuous testing and learning - it's your sandbox, after all!
Do you have great tactics for developing and operating content marketing platforms? Please share in the comments section below.
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Matt Jessell currently serves as director of ad sales operations at Federated Media Publishing in San Francisco. Matt, a founding member of the company since 2006, has worked to develop and implement award-winning programs for Fortune 500 brands including Intel, BMW, Dell, Clorox, Toyota, and American Express as well as build the Strategic Programs and Ad Sales Operations business units. Prior to FM, Matt held various, key positions in operations, and sales and marketing at Wired Magazine and Conde Nast. He graduated from the University of Montana with a dual emphasis on management and marketing.
December 12, 2013
1:00pm ET / 10:00am PT