If You’re Serious About Content, You Need To Start Thinking Like A Publisher
In 2010 Pepsi pulled its Super Bowl ads and invested $20 million into its Refresh project, which employed crowdsourcing to support good causes. It was an astounding social media success, with more than 87 million votes cast.
Unfortunately, as this HBR case study points out, it was an abysmal business failure and Pepsi eventually fell to third place in the soda category, behind Diet Coke. For all of the hype and hoopla on social media, sales suffered dearly.
Research by the Content Marketing Institute estimates that 90% of consumer marketers are investing in content. Unfortunately, most of those efforts will fail. In order to succeed, marketers will have to learn to think like publishers. That will mean more than a change in tactics or even strategy, but a starkly different perspective. Here’s what you need to do:
1. Define The Mission
When John F. Kennedy decided that it was time for America to send a man to the moon, he saw that it would take more than just implementing the right policies. He knew he had to galvanize the nation. In his famous speech presenting the task to the nation he talked little about the science. Instead, laid out an aspirational mission:
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too
Great publications have missions too. Helen Gurley Brown sought to make every girl feel that she can be beautiful and confident. That’s Cosmopolitan’s mission. Henry Luce sought to create a better-informed public and Time magazine embodies his vision even today. Vogue is a fashion bible because Anna Wintour believes a stylish world is a better place.
Marketers need to take the same approach. Nobody is going to believe that the CEO of Pepsi wakes up in the morning thinking about how she can build better after-school programs and bike trails, which is why Pepsi Refresh didn’t resonate. Others, like American Express Open Forum succeed because they are in line with the brand’s mission.
Coke has taken an interesting approach with its sustainability initiative. Water quality and energy efficiency are important to Coke’s business and it has built up considerable expertise in that area. People who have an interest in the issue appreciate the company sharing it and if they can get an occasional coupon in the process, so much the better!
So the content conversation shouldn’t begin with implementational ideas like social media and video or marketing buzzwords like “value propositions” and “emotional connections.” Start by figuring out what you have to offer the world and go from there.
2. Identify Analogues
Marketers like to cut through the clutter and get noticed. They focus on “unique selling propositions” and want their marketing messages to be distinctive. By looking, sounding and feeling different, they hope to grab the consumer’s attention.
But marketing in the digital age is less about grabbing attention and more about holding attention. That goes double for publishing. You need to create an easy-to-navigate experience that will make consumers want to come back. The best way to do that is by adopting familiar conventions.
That’s why content development should always start with 3-5 analogue products. You need to ask key questions like: Who’s done this before? How did they do it? What can we add? What can we subtract? For example, if a cosmetics brand wanted to publish content, would their reference be Cosmo, a Sephora store, or Sex and the City?
Starting with analogues is the best way to get everybody on the same page and define what you want to achieve. From there, you can find your own voice.
3. Structure The Experience
Possibly the most important—and certainly the most overlooked aspect of content creation—is structure. Every content discipline has its own rules and every content product is defined by the rules it chooses to break.
Magazines have a clearly defined “brand bibles”, which designate flatplan, voice and pacing. Radio stations run on clocks. TV shows have clearly defined story structures, character arcs and so on. The rules not only set audience expectations and make content easier to take in and enjoy, but form the crucial constraints in which creativity can thrive.
So when marketers approach publishing, they must go beyond the usual advertising conventions of target and message. Instead, they must think seriously about the format in which information will be presented. Established publications have detailed brand bibles—sometimes running up to 100 pages—but you have to start somewhere.
Every great publishing product combines consistency and surprise, so it’s okay to break some rules now and again, but you have to first establish what the rules are.
4. Create A True Value Exchange
It used to be that awareness could drive sales. If you spent lots of money on TV, you could be sure that consumers would know your brand and be more likely to buy your product. But today, brand awareness is less likely to result in a trip to the store and more likely to lead to searching behavior online, where your competitors can retarget your consumers.
That’s why it has become so important to build a relationship with consumers. Publishing is a great way to build unique bonds, but there has to be a true value exchange rather than a clumsy attempt at promotion. Gimmicks won’t work. You need to build trust and credibility through content that makes an impact because it informs, excites and inspires.
Most of all, great publishers lead. People like Helen Gurley Brown, Henry Luce and Anna Wintour created legendary brands by driving trends, not following them. They do not seek to merely join the conversation, but to lead it. If you expect people to listen to you, it’s best to have something meaningful to say.
If marketers are ever going to be successful at content, the first step is to start thinking more like a publisher.
An earlier version of this post first appeared in Harvard Business Review