Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Publishing Without Profits: What's Behind the Content Marketing Craze?

American Express web site for small businesses
Since when do insurance company web sites look like this?
Though the publishing industry isn’t exactly booming these days, the hottest trend in marketing is for non-publishing companies to act like publishers.

Consider that Citibank is posting articles like “5 Healthy Snacks Your Kids Will Actually Eat” – not what you expect to find on a bank’s web site.

Or that retailers like Walmart, Target, and Walgreens recently launched or are launching magazines primarily to enhance their brands.

Or that content marketing – AKA brand journalism – is taking a growing share of what non-publishing companies are spending on marketing.

It’s no accident that one of the leading books on the trend is Content Marketing: Think Like a Publisher. It explores how non-publishing companies can use “words, images and multimedia to systematically enhance consumer engagement and conversion rates.” (Note: It does not address such key publishing tactics as stating inflated prices on a ratecard, debating whether print is dead, or blaming all problems on the circulation department).

Many content marketers follow the 4-to-1 rule of thumb: publish four non-promotional items for every one that mentions the company’s products or services. But some eschew any promotional copy and focus only on establishing their companies as “thought leaders”: You have to look closely to see who is sponsoring sites like OPEN Forum (American Express), HouseLogic (National Association of Realtors), or especially Brighter Life (Sun Life Financial).

National Assoc. of Realtors site has a Target ad.
Publishing Executive just published in its January 2013 issue my article, The Content Marketing Craze: 7 Ways Publishers Can Fight Back, which explores how traditional publishers can respond to the challenges presented by so many companies vying for our readers' attention.

But why are profitable non-publishing brands emulating Newsweek – pouring millions of dollars into creating content without much of a revenue model? Here are seven reasons content marketing, which has been around in various forms for decades, is suddenly booming:
  1. The Web: In the pre-internet days, freedom of the press applied mostly to those who owned a printing press. Now everyone can be a publisher. 
  2. Social media: Who would think of turning to an insurance company to read about The Year’s Most Inspiring Athletes or a deodorant to see Seriously Dangerous Snowboard Stunts? It doesn’t matter. With Facebook, Twitter and other social media now rivaling search engines as the means for discovering information on the Web, relevant content can find an audience that wasn’t even looking for it. 
  3. Search engines: Algorithm enhancements have made search engines less prone to being tricked by keyword stuffing, link baiting, and other gimmicks. Now they look for quality, which means real people spending time on a page, sharing it with others, and linking to it. Acting like a publisher has become one of the best ways to get “Google love.” 
  4. Consumer changes: With so much information at their fingertips, both consumers and businesses are doing more research these days before making purchasing decisions. When considering potential vendors, I often look at their blogs, news releases, Twitter feeds, etc. to get insights on their expertise and mindset. 
  5. Banner blindness: Ads in print publications tend to be part of the reading experience; they’re noticed without being intrusive. But, unless they're really obnoxious, Web ads are easier to block out, causing many brands to look for more engagement with consumers rather than just shouting “Buy!” at them. 
  6. Measurability: Determining whether branding efforts are working is a notoriously difficult process. After all, what value did the U.S. Postal Service gain from the $30 million or so it spent sponsoring Lance Armstrong and his teammates? (Maybe USPS should get Lance to do ads promoting mail-order drugs.) At least with content marketing, companies have metrics like page views and social-media shares that enable them to figure out which content reaches the most people. 
  7. It’s hot: "Clients come to me saying they need a content campaign -- that's a solution. When we ask, ‘What's the problem?,' often it's that every other CMO [Chief Marketing Officer] has one," Kyle Monson, founder of a content strategy agency, told Ad Age recently. Bob Hoffman, a content-marketing skeptic who blogs as “The Ad Contrarian”, puts it more succinctly, "There's no bigger sucker than a gullible marketer convinced he's missing a trend." 
Footnote: My friend BoSacks has some interesting commentary on this article, including the question of whether "content marketing" has become such a broad term that it no longer means anything. It's a valid point: I've seen the term applied too broadly, including to what was basically just an ad campaign. I'm defining the term very narrowly, to mean non-promotional articles, graphics, videos, and other content published by non-publishers.
For other Dead Tree Edition commentary published in conjunction with my "View from the Tree" columns for Publishing Executive, please see:

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