Brands as publishers: inside the content marketing trend

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Just as businesses and other website owners were being strategic about content long before the phrase ‘content strategy’ was coined, we were all marketing with content long before ‘content marketing’ became the buzzword it is today.

Intelligence marketing, thought leadership, advertorials, infomercials… all these classic marketing formats were developed to meet business goals – sales, conversions, brand engagement – by adopting an essentially editorial approach. Content marketing in its many forms adopts the same basic mechanism today.

Content marketing is about engaging prospects and consumers with informative or entertaining content they’ll want to use or consume for its own sake, rather than pushing or interrupting them with direct sales or promotional messages. That’s not to say, of course, that this isn’t a commercial activity – just that the consumer has changed, and so must the way we market to them.

From interruption to persuasion

Online – where most of us live a lot of the time now – the way we interact with brands changes. Even in high e-commerce mode, we might begin our journey with a question, essentially a request for information. The business that’s made the effort to anticipate my question – and been generous enough with its expertise to try and answer it – will have the best chance of being found in search, and may well predispose me towards a sale too.
Another big trigger for the online user is peer opinion. As social media shows us several million times a day, we’re much more likely to be pulled towards what our friends like than we are to respond to an old-fashioned commercial push. So brands need to create content that’s worth sharing in its own right. Inevitably, such content tends not to work if it’s too brand-focused.

‘Redefin[ing] customer relationships based on serving, educating, and entertaining customers with content necessitates a shift away from the “I” of a brand or product toward the “you” of the customer, writes Rebecca Lieb in her Altimeter report, Content: The new marketing equation.

‘Content that is too product- or brand-focused does not travel well digitally, whereas content that stands on its own merits as entertainment, storytelling, education will be shared and passed along.’

So, as marketing guru Seth Godin puts it, businesses must move from interruption marketing to permission marketing. Brands have become the new publishers, and what they publish has to be searchable, shareable – and actually worth looking at on its own merits.

‘Content marketing,’ says Godin, ‘is all the marketing that’s left.’

Content marketing by numbers

Stats that demonstrate the commercial advantages of editorial-led marketing – and business’ uptake of the approach – are not hard to come by:

  • the average cost to generate a lead through inbound marketing ($143) is about half the average for outbound marketing ($373) (cited here)
  • two-thirds of consumers say the information provided by content marketing helps them make better purchase decisions; more than a half say they are more willing to buy another product from a company that provides them with content marketing (Custom Content Council)
  • B2B companies that blog only 1-2 times a month generate 70 per cent more leads than those that don’t blog at all, while companies that increase blogging from 3-5 times a month to 6-8 times a month almost double their leads (Hubspot
  • ‘interesting content’ is cited as one of the top 3 reasons people follow brands on social media (Content+)
  • $118.4 billion will be spent on content marketing, video marketing and social media by end 2013 (eMarketer)
  • 78% of CMOs think custom content is the future of marketing (Yahoo)

Visual content marketing tactics such as video, imagery and infographics have a big role to play here too.  Use of video as a content marketing tactic has risen from 52% to 70% year on year in 2013, according to a survey of global marketing decision-marketers by copypress. Articles containing relevant images gain on average 94 per cent more total views than articles without images, according to Skyword. And both tweets and Facebook posts with images have significantly higher user engagement rates than those without.  

Best-practice examples

So who’s doing content marketing well? In B2C, the best-known example of all is probably Red Bull.

Red Bull is a massive content marketing industry all of its own, with an archive of over 5,000 videos, 50,000 images, and a range of high-octane sports events to its name – and not an energy drink in sight. It sells a lifestyle, a story – one that can be summed up in a single word: ‘adrenaline’.  In orchestrating Felix Baumgartner’s Stratos jump from the edge of space, the brand created around 15 videos a day in the period leading up to and during the jump, earning over 360million YouTube views.

Red Bull has the sort of budgets and production values that many pure-play publishers can only dream of. As Mashable’s James O’Brien puts it:

‘Red Bull is a publishing empire that also happens to sell a beverage.’

The great thing about content marketing, though, is that every brand can tailor the approach to suit their needs and resources. Even very niche businesses can benefit massively.  I love the story of Louis E Page, an old-school distributor of mesh and fencing. The company has launched a helpful and very informative blog, written in an engaging homespun style, which sets out to do nothing but answer customers’ questions about how to choose and use mesh and fencing. Since it launched, Louis E Page’s sales leads have increased by 850 per cent.

Meeting the challenges of content marketing

So everyone’s a publisher now. What could possibly go wrong?
For one thing, marketers struggle to find the skills and resources to plan, create and sustain all the content they now need to produce. This is especially true in b2b, where products and services are often complex, lead times can run into years, and content often has to go through a complex stakeholder sign-off process. The biggest challenge in b2b in 2013 is producing enough content, according to a recent Content Marketing Institute/MarketingProfs report.

The key here is to focus not on creating individual pieces of marketable content, but on putting in place a content marketing strategy that helps you embed a publishing operation in your organisation.

Avoiding inflating the content bubble

Another challenge – in a world where everyone from contract publishers to SEO agencies to creative shops is rebadging as a content marketing agency – is the content bubble. In the content economy, we’re in danger of creating a situation where the number of content creators outnumbers the market of potential consumer of that content.
Two million blog posts are written each day, 30 billion pieces of content are shared on Facebook each month and 278,000 tweets are sent every minute. As The Guardian’s Charlie Brooker wrote recently about his decision to rest his weekly column:

‘I've been overwhelmed by the sheer amount of jabber in the world… a vast cloud of blah I felt I was contributing to every seven days.’

The result is a vast content bubble – a proliferation of poor-quality content we all have to fight to be heard over. Too much rehashed, me-too content could easily create a situation where the C-word (content) replaces the S-word (spam) as consumers’ number one marketing bugbear.

So to make sure your output isn’t just adding to the steaming heap of content landfill, it’s vital to focus on quality rather than quantity. Look to produce fewer pieces of content, but ones with legs – ideas that are rich enough to be reused in different channels, can make a whole series rather than a single execution, and/or can generate lots of user response, which can itself seed more content ideas.

And if it’s not realistic to create, look to curate. Platforms like slideshare, and Pinterest facilitate the sharing and curating of relevant content. As content proliferates, users need trusted filters to help them sort out what’s worth a share of their highly-coveted attention.

The 5 Ss of marketable content

You need to put in place the skills, resources and processes to make sure that your content is…

Searchable: Search engines reward sites that deliver regularly refreshed content of a high editorial quality. Whether it’s for education or entertainment, your content needs to deliver both quality and impact. 

Shareable: As well as the benefits of gaining peer approval for your content, the social shares it attracts will also boost its search rankings.

Supportive: You can project yourself as an authoritative brand that’s generous with its expertise by anticipating users’ questions and telling them things they didn’t know. But first, you have to make sure you understand your users’ information needs.

Specialist: Your content must come from within your information niche – the intersection between your domain expertise and your users’ content needs and interests. 

Sustainable: You need a publishing process in place that allows you to generate ideas, populate an editorial calendar, and create relevant, effective content on a sustainable basis. 

Towards a content marketing strategy

To create engaging, shareable, search-friendly content on a sustainable basis, you need a publishing plan that addresses key questions like these: 

Goals and audience

  • What are the goals for your content? How do these support your overall business goals?
  • Who are creating content for? What are our audience’s content needs?
  • What do we want our content to focus on? What are our messaging priorities?

Production and distribution

  • What’s a realistic frequency for the creation and publishing of new content? 
  • What content channels can we use? How can we rank their importance in terms of our goals and our audiences? 
  • Where can we source content? What internal resources do we have? How much of our content creation needs to be outsourced?
  • Who are our subject matter experts? Do they have time to create content or are there other ways we could share gather their insights (eg by interviews)?
  • How can we make our content go further? Do we have existing content assets that could be reused?
  • What’s our quality control and governance process? Ideas and creation
  • Can we break content down into thematic areas and content types?
  • What content do we create for which channel?
  • Howe do we segment content by audience?   
  • What are the seasonal triggers and opportunities for our content? How can we make sure we are set up to respond to ad-hoc topical content opportunities?


  • How can we measure the effectiveness of our content? Of all the available metrics, which ones are most relevant to us? Which metrics can we technically support? And how can we use metric data to improve content over time?  

Read more articles from our Content Marketing issue - here


About the author

Catherine Toole (@catherinetoole) is the founder and chairman of the digital copywriting agency Sticky Content.

A former press journalist, she has spent the past 16 years providing content marketing strategy, copywriting, consultancy and training services to a wide range of clients, agencies and Government departments.

A well-known speaker in the UK, Catherine leads copy optimisation and content tutorials for the Nielsen Norman Group worldwide. She runs content strategy seminars and writes an expert blog for Econsultancy, and was a judge for the 2013 BIMA (British Interactive Media Association) awards.

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