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If You’re Serious About Content, You Need To Start Thinking Like A Publisher

2014 April 30

In 2010 Pepsi pulled its Super Bowl ads and invested $20 million into its Refresh project, which employed crowdsourcing to support good causes.  It was an astounding social media success, with more than 87 million votes cast.

Unfortunately, as this HBR case study points out, it was an abysmal business failure and Pepsi eventually fell to third place in the soda category, behind Diet Coke.  For all of the hype and hoopla on social media, sales suffered dearly.

Research by the Content Marketing Institute estimates that 90% of consumer marketers are investing in content.  Unfortunately, most of those efforts will fail.  In order to succeed, marketers will have to learn to think like publishers.  That will mean more than a change in tactics or even strategy, but a starkly different perspective.  Here’s what you need to do:

1. Define The Mission

When John F. Kennedy decided that it was time for America to send a man to the moon, he saw that it would take more than just implementing the right policies.  He knew he had to galvanize the nation.  In his famous speech presenting the task to the nation he talked little about the science.  Instead, laid out an aspirational mission:

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too

Great publications have missions too.  Helen Gurley Brown sought to make every girl feel that she can be beautiful and confident. That’s Cosmopolitan’s mission.  Henry Luce sought to create a better-informed public and Time magazine embodies his vision even today. Vogue is a fashion bible because Anna Wintour believes a stylish world is a better place.

Marketers need to take the same approach.  Nobody is going to believe that the CEO of Pepsi wakes up in the morning thinking about how she can build better after-school programs and bike trails, which is why Pepsi Refresh didn’t resonate.  Others, like American Express Open Forum succeed because they are in line with the brand’s mission.

Coke has taken an interesting approach with its sustainability initiative.  Water quality and energy efficiency are important to Coke’s business and it has built up considerable expertise in that area.  People who have an interest in the issue appreciate the company sharing it and if they can get an occasional coupon in the process, so much the better!

So the content conversation shouldn’t begin with implementational ideas like social media and video or marketing buzzwords like “value propositions” and “emotional connections.”  Start by figuring out what you have to offer the world and go from there.

2. Identify Analogues

Marketers like to cut through the clutter and get noticed.  They focus on “unique selling propositions” and want their marketing messages to be distinctive.  By looking, sounding and feeling different, they hope to grab the consumer’s attention.

But marketing in the digital age is less about grabbing attention and more about holding attention.  That goes double for publishing.  You need to create an easy-to-navigate experience that will make consumers want to come back.  The best way to do that is by adopting familiar conventions.

That’s why content development should always start with 3-5 analogue products.  You need to ask key questions like: Who’s done this before?  How did they do it?  What can we add? What can we subtract?  For example, if a cosmetics brand wanted to publish content, would their reference be Cosmo, a Sephora store, or Sex and the City?

Starting with analogues is the best way to get everybody on the same page and define what you want to achieve.  From there, you can find your own voice.

3. Structure The Experience

Possibly the most important—and certainly the most overlooked aspect of content creation—is structure.  Every content discipline has its own rules and every content product is defined by the rules it chooses to break.

Magazines have a clearly defined “brand bibles”, which designate flatplan, voice and pacing. Radio stations run on clocks.  TV shows have clearly defined story structures, character arcs and so on.  The rules not only set audience expectations and make content easier to take in and enjoy, but form the crucial constraints in which creativity can thrive.

So when marketers approach publishing, they must go beyond the usual advertising conventions of target and message.  Instead, they must think seriously about the format in which information will be presented.  Established publications have detailed brand bibles—sometimes running up to 100 pages—but you have to start somewhere.

Every great publishing product combines consistency and surprise, so it’s okay to break some rules now and again, but you have to first establish what the rules are.

4. Create A True Value Exchange

It used to be that awareness could drive sales.  If you spent lots of money on TV, you could be sure that consumers would know your brand and be more likely to buy your product.  But today, brand awareness is less likely to result in a trip to the store and more likely to lead to searching behavior online, where your competitors can retarget your consumers.

That’s why it has become so important to build a relationship with consumers.  Publishing is a great way to build unique bonds, but there has to be a true value exchange rather than a clumsy attempt at promotion.  Gimmicks won’t work.  You need to build trust and credibility through content that makes an impact because it informs, excites and inspires.

Most of all, great publishers lead.  People like Helen Gurley Brown, Henry Luce and Anna Wintour created legendary brands by driving trends, not following them.  They do not seek to merely join the conversation, but to lead it.  If you expect people to listen to you, it’s best to have something meaningful to say.

If marketers are ever going to be successful at content, the first step is to start thinking more like a publisher.

– Greg

An earlier version of this post first appeared in Harvard Business Review

8 Responses leave one →
  1. Peter permalink
    May 2, 2014

    This is a very thought provoking read. I work in the publishing industry, that is currently struggling. I think your idea can be inverted, where publishers think more like marketers.

    Thanks for the article.

  2. May 2, 2014

    Thanks Peter. I’m glad you liked it.

    – Greg

  3. May 4, 2014

    Peter has just shown why people like this. It tells them they don’t have to change – they can continue doing more of it. Oh, and by the way, you know you always fancied being a magazine designer, not just crafting the odd email – well you can do that too.

    Douglas Adams told us we would look back at the back end of the 20th century as the broadcast era – when people with deep pockets could talk to us, but we couldn’t talk back.

    That era has gone. We have entered the era of connection – where everyone is connected to everyone else and can have a two-way conversation.

    The publishing industry was set up on the principle of “you need to know this, and I’m the expert”. People felt they were short of information so they bought in other people’s ideas. Those ideas are no longer currency – people have more ideas, from m ore trusted sources than ever before and the problem is sifting them and choosing which to ignore.
    Now marketers have lied to them for decades. Told them everything was wonderful. Nothing ever went wrong. Too good to be true. So they aren’t trusted.

    So publish all you like. People have more trusted sources than you. So, even if you get though, you will only be one of hundreds of other sources of information.

    Publishing is the worst possible way to get your message through. It is just an ego-trip for those who always wanted to be the authority on something. And a convenient lie for those who find they are too set in their ways to change.

  4. Cornelia Wylldestar permalink
    May 4, 2014

    Hi, Greg,
    Thanks so much for this article. I am in the process of writing an informational e-book and your ideas get to the ‘heart of the matter’; I will refer to them throughout my editing process – to keep on task and to authentically contribute.

    I agree with Peter, publishers could benefit from your wisdom and experience.



  5. May 4, 2014

    Thanks Cornelia. Good luck with the e-book!

    – Greg

  6. May 4, 2014

    Interesting perspective. Thanks for sharing.

    – Greg

  7. May 27, 2014


    What resources do you recommend so I can learn more about Structuring the Experience?

    Great piece!

  8. May 28, 2014

    A good place to start would be Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug.

    – Greg

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