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How To Do Brand Publishing Right

2014 February 26
by Greg Satell

Content is hot!  What used to be a relatively small cadre of bloggers and YouTube enthusiasts has become a major marketing arena.  There is a slew of specialist agencies producing branded content and major media outlets offering native advertising.

Yet some believe that content marketing has already jumped the shark.  On his popular {grow} blog, Mark Schaefer argues that, because there is so much more content and only a finite attention span, content marketing is no longer a sustainable activity.

I don’t find that a compelling argument, because it could be said about anything  Today, we have not only more web sites, but also more movies, TV channels and consumer goods than a decade ago and those business keep getting more profitable.  The truth is that content marketing has ceased to be a cottage industry and it’s time to start doing it right.

First, Stop Calling It Content

I think the problem probably started with Bill Gates’s famous Content is King essay, in which he quite presciently argued that content would be the “killer app” of the Internet.  He foresaw, back in 1996, that “those who succeed will propel the Internet forward as a marketplace of ideas, experiences, and products—a marketplace of content.”

Entrepreneurs and venture capitalists quickly piled on, looking to acquire content, leverage content and marry content with distribution in order to create an unbeatable business model.  It was an exciting time, with lots of buzzwords and deal flow.  You couldn’t help but get caught up in it.

Unfortunately, most ventures failed, including Microsoft’s own partnership with NBC.  The problem is that content is not a fungible entity, like pork bellies or credit default swaps.  It’s what informs, entertains and inspires us.  Very talented people devote their entire careers to learning how to do it effectively.

So, if you’re merely looking to do some content marketing, you will most likely fail. Brands need to become publishers and that entails not only new activity, but new skills and a new perspective.

Define Your Mission

Marketers are trained to think in terms of objectives.  They have a specific goal in mind, such as building awareness, driving sales or increasing loyalty.  They devise strategies in order to achieve those ends and design metrics in order to measure success.  Once those goals are met, they move on to new objectives and a new strategy.

Publishers, on the other hand, begin with an editorial mission.  Think of any great publication, whether it be The Economist, Cosmopolitan or anything in between, and the mission is clear.  They stand for something.  The mission doesn’t change at the end of the quarter or when success is attained, but only deepens and becomes more salient.

Some brands have also been able to define their mission successfully, such as Red Bull and extreme sports or the American Express Open Forum, which offers insights for small business.  Most, however, have not and their content marketing efforts end up looking like long form ads, which is exactly what they are.

So the first step to successful brand publishing is to stop thinking about content and start thinking about what you have to offer the world.

Strive To Hold Attention, Not Grab Attention

Most marketers still think in terms of the sales funnel.  You create awareness for your brand and that will create interest which will lead to a sale.  Yet now that model is broken.

Building awareness today is much less likely to result in a sale than it is to lead to searching behavior online, which your competitors will use to retarget your consumers.  In effect, by building awareness and walking away, you’ll provide ample lead generation for your industry, but very little sales for yourself.

We need to rethink how we market in the digital age and focus less on grabbing attention and more on holding attention.  Headlines should not be catchy slogans, but promise clear benefits.  Opening paragraphs should sell readers on why reading further is worth their time.  Structure should be clear, readable and consistent.

Most of all, you need to think in terms of delivering an experience that will make people want to come back and share your content with their friends.

Creating A True Value Exchange

The best way to create a superior experience is to stop thinking about promoting and start thinking in terms of delivering a meaningful value exchange.  Every brand has something to offer the world and if you present what you have to offer in a compelling way, consumers won’t mind that you’re promoting your brand at the same time.

Nike has a phenomenal connection with top athletes, so it’s not altogether surprising that it’s viral video featuring LeBron James was watched 1.3 million times in 24 hours. MailChimp provides great email marketing software, so its YouTube channel features advice that its customers value.

Perhaps most importantly, the value exchange needs to be genuine and meaningful.  So, if you’re a consumer electronics company, a listicle about the sex lives of Millennials might earn you lots of views, shares and likes, but will ultimately be a waste of time.  Metrics are meaningless if they don’t serve the mission.

Forget About Content Strategy and Focus On Content Skills

Probably the most visible consequence of content marketing is the rise of the content strategist.  These are often former brand planners who have reinvented themselves as content experts.  They are usually witty, exciting and even sometimes insightful, but unfortunately rarely have any experience at all in publishing.

And that’s why content marketing so often fails.  We need content skills, not content strategy.  We need to build positive, meaningful experiences, not clever taglines.  That means putting the mission before metrics and delivering value instead of thinly concealed sales pitches.

Most of all, it means that we need to take brand publishing seriously.  It’s not a gimmick, but a craft and one that takes work to master.  So, if you expect to make your efforts successful, the place to start is to learn the trade.

– Greg

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Keir permalink
    March 1, 2014

    We could discuss branding in a digital age further, but your insights/comments on providing meaningful experiences for customers, so that they value over time the helpful/relevant content you offer them, and stop interrupting them with hidden sales messages, is absolutely the way to go, which is why it’s hard. Some of the examples in Jay Baer’s Youtility are so “right”, it’s worth buying the book just for the stories.

  2. March 2, 2014

    Thanks Keir.

    – Greg

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