Keep Readers Foremost In Mind

How many times have you heard media owners and commentators tell you that "x" is not a sliver bullet? Then compare that against how many times publishers rush at a new initiative, giving it huge silver-bullet status.

Content marketing is rapidly evolving as a marketing discipline and seems to be the term on everyone's lips in the media and marketing industries around the world. However, evidence suggests more education is needed to help marketers and publishers practise this new discipline effectively. A study of US B2C marketers released by the Content Marketing Institute shows that while 90% of B2C marketers are already using content marketing, only 34% rate themselves as effective at it and 52% have no documented content strategy.

And yet publishers are falling over themselves to offer a home for this content, sometimes under the guise of native advertising, sometimes as plain old-fashioned "sponsored content". It seems the logical choice for marketers. Place your video content on YouTube and get lost in the huge mass of cats and people falling off stuff. Blog on your own site and rely on social media channels to get the message out? Not the most effective. Work with a publisher who already has hundreds of thousands of engaged readers? Seems like a plan. Everybody wins. The publisher gets the money, the brand gets itself out there. Yet, I’m not sure it is as simple as that.

Like many digital marketing trends, several brands and their agencies are lemmings rushing towards the cliff. Marketers are creating vast amounts of content but, sadly, much of it can best be described as being of ‘mixed quality’. The fact that there is an element of "our content" and "their content" is what makes content marketing so hit and miss. What a lot of brands have failed to ask themselves is why spend time and money trying to shout your own name if you have nothing worthwhile to say. And not enough publishers have challenged this.

Of course, the one group I’ve missed out of this whole equation are the readers. Unless they are careful, publishers risk flooding readers with too much sponsored content rather than their own. The result is lower dwell time, less engagement, fewer page views and even lower ad revenue. Perhaps we should be looking at the Mashable model. The Mashable homepage is 95% algorithmically driven. This means user engagement with various pieces of content determine what makes it to the homepage. BuzzFeed use a similar method of rewarding popularity.

Publishers need to be on the ball here. Unless they work this out quickly, they risk losing out to the likes of Facebook. As Raju Narisetti, News Corp senior vice president of strategy, recently pointed out, “The number of platforms that are not owned by a New York Times, a Wall Street Journal or a Financial Times have dramatically increased. Brands now have multiple ways of reaching their audience. So the primacy of publishers has somewhat diminished in the eyes of some brand companies”.

I would argue that it doesn’t have to be this way. Not only are traditional publishers still very significant aggregators of audiences, but they also have deeper relationships with those audiences than most brands out there.

So the message coming through is that a lot of collaboration is going to be key here. Publishers, agencies and brands are going to need to work closely together on what works, what fits with editorial style and what their readers will engage with. I’ve got no doubt that the rise of native advertising and content marketing is a very good thing for publishers struggling with a declining display market. But only if done well and done with the reader and not the revenue first and foremost in mind.

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