Over the past couple of years I have been immersing myself in the content marketing world, attending conferences and reading the books and blogs that are shaping the way we think of complex marketing and the content that can support it.
There is one main assertion that continues to rise to the top — “companies need to become publishers.” I find myself cringing each time I hear it. Not because I think it’s untrue: the imperative for companies to continuously creating fresh, relevant and original content that helps customers think about their situations in new ways is in fact very necessary.
I cringe because I know all too well the look I will get when I sit across from the VP of marketing at a conservative B2B company and tell him or her that the company needs to think like a publisher.
Companies don’t want to be in the publishing biz
I fear that this assertion has the potential to alienate companies, pushing them further away from their content goals rather than closer to them. Most companies don’t want to become publishers. They are in the core business of innovating, distributing, servicing, or whatever “-ing” they have chosen that is making them successful. That is the business model they know, and by and large, they are comfortable sticking to it.
Tell them that they need to become publishers too, and they bristle. True publishers have a distinctive business model. They identify, create and publish content that brings value to a target audience. It’s a hard business, and one that a handful of companies do very well. Whether they’re a book publisher, a Lexis-Nexis, or a media company, these publishers get paid to create content for content’s sake – both by the consumers who desire the content, and by advertisers who want to share in the eyeballs.
Outside the publishing business, companies don’t want to work as hard as they will need to work to become real publishers, because that’s not how they make their money. They’ll never be paid directly for producing content. It’s not a revenue generator. Savvy marketers know that ultimately content can do wonders for speeding up the sales process and effectively ushering prospects to the close. Companies are beginning to measure how content impacts their sales results — but arriving at that ROI might take time, especially when the sales cycle is several months long. In the meantime, the processes and resources involved with “becoming a publisher” to support something that, in most executives’ minds, is relatively unproven will most likely seem prohibitive.
The truth? You can’t handle the truth.
The truth really is that companies need to start thinking like, and acting like, in somewhat the same way that publishers do. But as we as strategists and marketers attempt to demonstrate the value of content in their business, we need to work to show them the value of producing timely, relevant content on a regular basis without shoving the idea of being in the “publishing biz” at them — and potentially scaring them off from the idea.
First, it’s important to acknowledge that there are a few key differences between a true publisher and a company building a content marketing strategy:
- Publishers’ goals are to entertain, to inform, to analyze and to educate. Companies producing content have the same goals, but they’re a means to an end — they’re not publishing content for content’s sake.
- Publishers have an infrastructure in place to support publishing activities from end-to-end. Companies usually have a marketing staff, sometimes just a handful of people, who are squeezing “publishing” activities into the final 5% of their day that isn’t already consumed by other things. It’s true that we must advocate for governance and the resources to support content “publishing,” but we also must be realists. In many companies, it’s extremely difficult to sell the idea of building a content function with real resources to support it, at least without the numbers to prove that it works. But you can’t get the numbers without the resources, with creates an unfortunate paradox.
- Publishers get paid to publish. The models might be changing, but in the end, if people don’t fork over money to read or advertise, the publishing business fails. Companies don’t get paid to publish. They get paid to produce or provide a service. Content publishing helps them sell that product or service — it’s an indirect payoff, not always a sure thing, and not always directly relatable to the work done on the content side of the house. (It might be a whole combination of content, plus a great salesperson, some word of mouth, some great PR, and many other subliminal things that ultimately help a customer decide to buy.)
So if not publishers, then what?
We spend a lot of time create detailed plans, tools and resources that help our clients execute a content strategy. Everybody starts out agreeing that creating original content that expresses a company’s point of view, supports customer needs, and subtly moves prospects toward the sale is a worthwhile strategy — but then reality sinks in.
Maybe it’s a shakeup in the marketing department. Maybe it’s a budget change, or a major initiative that comes down from on high and gobbles up all the marketing resources. Or maybe it’s the (often very quick) realization that they’re biting off more than they can chew. Whatever it is, if the head of marketing isn’t completed devoted to the idea of steadily building content over the long term, it isn’t going to happen. Because let’s face it, being in the publishing biz is hard.
Yet the payoff can be so rich when companies succeed in engaging with their customers on a deeper level with relevant and fresh content — so what’s the solution? Rather than insisting that companies start thinking like publishers, we perhaps need to take a more measured approach, getting businesses to first start thinking in terms of creating content that is focused on customers. For starters:
- Avoid the “publishing for publishing sake” trap. Some companies go overboard and think they have to actually create online magazines — and sometimes the product they’re trying to promote can even get lost among the “feature” content. If your company is a reluctant publisher, try to think of content as something that always has a definite goal. That goal may be to inspire customers to think of new ways to use your product, or to educate them about the features that can help them in their lives or businesses. But it is always a means to an end — and that will help your editors be choosier about what content needs to be created.
- Start small and build results over time. Identify the key pieces of content that people are going to be seeking out, and the two or three main touchpoints you need to cover to get prospects and customers to where you need them to be. Create a very small repertoire of great content for those purposes (and a plan for implementing it and keeping it fresh), and then measure the results. As you see the positive results emerge,
- Look for ways to automate and outsource. Are there tools you can use to manage social media more efficiently? Could you hire a freelance writer for 5-10 hours a week to manage blog updates, write copy for website articles and sidebars, and clean up outdated content? There are many ways to keep your content relevant, fresh and engaging without dedicating a lot of resources to it: the trick is to step back and figure out what you need and how to get it.
- Be realistic. When you are embarking on any kind of content strategy or planning initiative, don’t bite off more than you can chew. A good content strategist should help you look at your resources as well as your plans for future resources and make recommendations that support your business goals but are still sustainable. If you don’t launch your new site or communications plan with a fully baked idea of how you’re going to get it all done, chances are that you won’t get it all done.