Custom Content: Crowning the New King

Feb 20, 2013

Article ImageIn a world of free content -- from app to university classes from the likes of Princeton and MIT -- the consumer is making out like a bandit, while content producers wring their hands over the prospect of finding a way to make money. Companies are being forced to find new ways to market their services to encourage people to pay. How? Increasingly, it's through customized experiences.

Smaller Audiences Yield Bigger Results

Kathryn Hawkins is principal at Eucalypt Media LLC, a content marketing firm based in the Boston area. Hawkins has produced content for companies including Intuit, GEICO, State Farm, Charles Schwab, and others. "It is an uphill battle to compete with the legions of business owners who are willing to provide free content in exchange for a backlink and the chance to help build a platform," says Hawkins. She's learned this through experience. Last year, she says, a client ended their contract to produce custom content, opting instead to accept free content from any business owner who made the offer.

Still, she says, the task is not impossible. Specialized content holds value for users, she says, when it effectively conveys the brand's voice and messaging, and is produced reliably.

Indeed, as they say: "You get what you pay for." Free content providers, she says, generally have an ulterior motive: the content may be useful, but is usually self-promotional in some manner. Most importantly, she says: "It rarely fits with the company's overall messaging."

Anthony Flynn is a coauthor of Custom Nation: Why Customization is the Future of Business and How to Profit From It (BenBella Books, 2012). The premise: customization is completely revolutionizing the way we do business and, in the United States, the most successful companies are moving away from mass production in favor of personalization. Flynn himself has embraced, and learned from, customization through his line of completed customized energy bars, made with the exact ingredient, taste and nutritional needs of each client.

That same type of customization is being seen in fields ranging from clothing to e-dating and, of course, content. But, while consumers may value that customized content, they may ultimately not be the ones who pay for it.

New Business Models

Mik Stroyberg is director of consumer engagement and U.S. sales at Issuu, a custom publishing firm with offices in New York and Copenhagen. "It's like a YouTube for publications," says Stroyberg. The site is used both by organizations that offer paid content and those offering free content. For instance, says Stroyberg, paid subscription publications use the site to upload back issues and then use those back issues to direct traffic to the most recent issue; they also want traffic to older issues to show advertisers that they can create value even for content that is not totally up-to-date.

Other large organizations that provide free content are interested in eyeballs. "They just want as many people as possible to read them because they want their brand's name out there," says Stroyberg. In the future he sees a continued shift away from consumer-paid content to a model where brands will pay for the content "to get closer to the consumer or to get to the right consumer."

"We're probably going to be closer to the Tumblr way of doing stuff, where it's much more niche," he says.

Niche = customization. Gone are the days when generic content could appeal to the masses who were willing to pay for that content. Today generic content is widely available, at no cost. It is customization, as Flynn notes, which will drive demand. Whether consumers will pay for customized content themselves, or access that content through brands that do, or brands that are supported by advertisers looking for "eyeballs," is the million-dollar question. 

("Customized" image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

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"Content marketing" has grown from a murkily defined buzzword--or rather, a series of evolving buzzwords including "branded content" and "custom publishing"--into a ubiquitous, and in some high-profile cases demonstrably effective marketing strategy. Whether they knew it or not, millions of American consumers were touched last year by savvy content marketing campaigns from a broad spectrum of brands ranging from Oreo cookies to the Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns. With the rise of content marketing has come a proliferation of solutions for companies lacking the resources or the internal know-how to execute their own content marketing strategies from scratch.