It's Time to Take a Responsive Approach to Content Marketing
Lots of companies are grouping a few writers and designers together and proclaiming themselves "brand newsrooms," but most of the messaging that comes out of newsrooms like these feels stale and awkward. The culprit? Process. Most brands won't let a single Tweet, Facebook image, or banner ad out the door without it being vetted, quintuple-checked and sent to four directors for approval five weeks in advance.
Instead, brands need to make more like publishers and adopt a truly responsive philosophy in their newsrooms.
On the other end of the spectrum, publishers face intense competition for their readers' time from thousands of other content producers, aggregators and social media feeds. To survive, they need to act more like brands, putting care into distinguishing their product from competitors and truly connecting with their readers. For publishers, content is the final product they're selling, and yet most editors don't always consider how to package and distribute it once it's on the site.
Here are three ways brands and publishers can learn from each other:
Fluidity is key
The main difference between the way brands and publishers behave on the web is how they produce content.
Publishers instinctively understand how to react to fast-paced environments and create truly raw, responsive content. They're okay with the unknown. In fact, publishers call news "the first draft of history." This style adapts well to social media, which users experience as a never-ending stream of raw, continually updated information.
Brands, on the other hand, feel extremely uncomfortable with the idea of incomplete or raw content. This impulse makes sense in the legacy context of TV or print. When you're producing highly polished creative, you need to plan tight content schedules, months in advance.
On the internet, and especially on social, the context is completely different. Here, brand messaging is mixed in with everything from publisher content, competitor content, and imperfect messages from real, breathing people. In these environments, too much polish feels awkward and inhuman, and tight planning is impossible if you want to keep up with the news cycle.
So how do brands adopt a more fluid style? Change the process. Companies that succeed in this world have the courage to organize their content marketing operations like newsrooms. In addition to planning campaigns months in advance, they empower their strategists to behave like editors and publish reactively and quickly.
Operating in this way isn't just about jumping on memes and news events and putting your own spin on it. Adopting a fully responsive philosophy means being comfortable with setting up loose structures around your brand's feature stories for the year, and letting your newsrooms adapt and adjust as these stories are put into the world.
The best brands listen to how the world responds to their planned creative and layer on stories that arise naturally from these reactions, creating deep connections between brands and the consumer. Directly or indirectly, it matters less about where the audience encountered the story -- what matters is whether the story has weaved its way into culture.
Publishers, you are a brand
Building connections is where publishers have a lot to learn from brands.
Although publishers are great at producing and distributing content, they often struggle when it comes to packaging and branding it. In fact, a lot of publishers will tell you that their content is their brand. This way of thinking comes from a time when publishing was so expensive that only a few publishers could operate in any given market.
Now, of course, anyone can be a publisher. There is more content produced every day than anyone could process in a year. Trying to differentiate on content alone is becoming impossible. And even if your content can stand out in the crowd with a strong, recognizable brand, the prevalence of news aggregators means there is no guarantee that readers will ever get it directly from you.
The only way to make sure users come to you consistently is to do the work: Establish your brand and build connections between it and readers. One way to do this is to think more like a brand when it comes to packaging and releasing products. A brand wouldn't dream of releasing something new without obsessing over every detail -- from naming it, to packaging it, to focus-grouping the hell out of it. And yet, publishers routinely release new series with little or no advance warning, and sections with uninspiring names like "top stories" or "trending."
Instead, publishers should seek to understand what excites their readers and communicate new products to them with the same adaptive awareness that brands are starting to employ.
In the coming years, brands are going to move beyond content production and explore more tools from the publisher world like curation and aggregation. As publishers search for new business models, they're going to have to start becoming serious about selling their own products, like a brand. Instead of trying to "protect" their content with paywalls, they'll start to think about how to move a subscriber along a purchase funnel and entice a purchase, with language and content that changes subtly along the way.
The convergence of brand and publisher is only going to get stronger. Both will need to learn new competencies from each other.
It's a fascinating time to be in the middle.