What’s the new currency of advertising? It’s content. Ad spend is declining across the media industry—except in content marketing.
From native posts to ebooks and even lush print magazines, the form is booming. In fact, the global content marketing industry will grow at an annual rate of 16% per year through 2021, reaching $412 billion by the end of 2021, according to a report published last November by the British market-research firm Technavio.
Media companies, knowing marketers are dissatisfied with traditional approaches, are pivoting accordingly. They use their brand credibility to create meaningful customer relationships for sponsors and advertisers by telling stories—not about the advertisers, but about the advertisers’ customers and the interests and values they share.
Across the media industry, news-gathering operations are creating specialized content studios to serve this growing market. This trend is seen in the non-profit space as well—associations, societies, academies, institutes and the like. One example is the C&EN BrandLab, a content studio for the American Chemical Society’s Chemical & Engineering News, which reaches the society’s membership of 156,000 scientists, as well as millions of people in the worldwide chemical community.
The BrandLab launched in April 2017 to serve the marketing needs of chemical and pharmaceutical companies, and help transform part of the nearly 150-year-old ACS into a marketing-agency startup. At last month’s Association Media & Publishing Conference, held in Washington, D.C., the BrandLab gave a presentation on the lessons it’s learned from its foray into content marketing. Here are some highlights.
Like virtually all content studios, the C&EN BrandLab uses its position as a media organization—possessing an audience, plus journalism skill and established market credibility—to develop, create and distribute marketers’ stories. “You might think that marketers know their audiences, but it’s always a surprise how much they can learn from what we know,” says Senior Content Editor Jeffrey Lee, who gave the AM&P presentation along with his colleague, Account Manager Kirsten Dobson.
And then, according to the presentation, the statistical context is compelling: In addition to the spending prediction, Lee and Dobson cited data indicating that 70 percent of advertisers are shifting to content marketing, and that 35 percent of publishers established a brand studio in 2017. Combine these trends with C&EN’s market credibility and distribution channels, and it becomes a business opportunity with great clarity.
Among the 10 lessons C&EN learned in the year after launching a brand studio:
- Find the right business model and scale smart. Lee said that after piloting the concept with a couple of clients, the BrandLab scaled up and went to work, bringing on a five-person team that includes Executive Editor Raj Mukhopadhyay, Assistant Director for Global Advertising Sales and C&EN Marketing Stephanie Holland, and Creative Director Kay Youn in addition to Lee and Dobson.
- Sell solutions, not products. Here, Lee and Dobson covered a lot of the techniques essential for any salesperson to be successful: Be consultative; study the marketing needs of clients and prospects; ask questions; carefully define success. One thing that C&EN does differently, though, is establish an internal “owner” for each of eight steps in the sales and execution process, from consultation through to creating a plan that includes timelines and deliverables.
- Tailor content to the buying cycle. This seems like a simple notion, but it isn’t. The content-marketing method has to match the marketing goals, and the content itself has to align with the buyer universe and the purchase cycle. Of course, there are many stages, and here too, the BrandLab has mapped products to cycles and audience segments. “At the end of the day,” says Dobson, “they’re still going to ask, ‘When am I going to sell my product?’”
- Don’t lower editorial standards. Quality editorial rings true, Dobson and Lee said in their presentation, and internal research has shown their readers get something out of native advertising. Beyond that, it comes down to basic journalism: Don’t run thinly veiled marketing pitches and be prepared to push back on marketers who want that. Have clear ethical guidelines. Branded content should have the same standards as any other, with air-tight editing, fact checking and proofing. “With great content and great execution comes great results,” Lee says. “A recent ebook [the title was “The Modern Chemist’s Guide to Hydrogen Peroxide and Peracetic Acid”] smashed records in terms of the number of leads it generated.
- Audience always comes first. Brands that start with their audience’s pain points in mind tend to do best, Dobson says. Ask what’s truly “native” for your audience. “Stand by your commitment to your readers and your credibility will pay off,” she added.
- Don’t forget distribution and discoverability. Great content that no one reads doesn’t have much value. Great content, the C&EN BrandLab team learned, will produce trickle-down revenue for other channels and activities. And in turn, those other channels—live events, special reports, social media, and others—serve as their own distribution options. Still, the BrandLab’s formula is to ensure that it feeds its distribution channels with 70 % content and only 30% promotional material.
- Create once, publish everywhere. The BrandLab tries to be platform agnostic, knowing that one size does not fit all. Develop cornerstone content, Lee suggests, and then reuse it as appropriate in webinars, social media, quizzes, events, and elsewhere. And what’s more, as a piece of cornerstone content is used in multiple ways, more metrics are available to share with the sponsor.
- Design (with purpose) sells. Great design sets you apart from the competition, but design without purpose is merely aesthetics, Dobson and Lee said in the presentation. Advertisers need to be able to see themselves in comps, mockups, media kits and more.
- Collaboration is key. Branded content campaigns are not like organic editorial content, or traditional ad campaigns, in the sense that the sponsor expects deep involvement and signoff, as well as regular communication as a project moves forward. This can be a planning and coordination challenge, but in the end, it’s the difference between a positive client experience and the alternative. If there is an agency as a middle man, make sure nothing is lost in translation, Dobson and Lee cautioned.
- Educate the market. Education underlies just about everything the BrandLab does, and it takes a lot of forms, from promoting thought leadership to using content in advertiser promotions, reinforcing brand and category leadership, and generating and nurturing sales leads.
In the end, they concluded, be nimble. Be prepared to adapt. “With certain clients, we pitched five different ideas and ended up using one of them,” Dobson and Lee said.