As the vice president of digital experience at the recently merged McMurry/TMG, LLC, the country's largest independent content marketing provider, Andrew Hanelly spends most of his time working to bring journalistic standards and principles into the world of brand marketing. At a point in time when increasingly savvy consumers have little patience for or interest in the dry, overt pitches that defined content marketing of yesteryear, smart brand managers are learning to adjust their strategies to create content that looks, sounds, and feels more like the kind of content they are used to consuming in social and digital media.
"I tell clients all the time," Hanelly says, "Be useful, be interesting, or be ignored."
A spate of recent studies and surveys has shown that the direction that content marketing is headed is more than just hype. At the end of 2012, a survey, "The Spending Study: A Look at How Corporate America Invests in Branded Content for 2012," was conducted by the quarterly ContentWise and the Custom Content Council (the CCC is a professional organization representing custom publishers in North America). The survey showed that companies allocated 13% more of their budget to brand content over the previous 2 years, and that 79% of marketers reported that their companies were shifting toward branded content at either a "moderate" or "aggressive" pace.
As scary as that might sound for people in the content business, there is a flip side to this particular trend: outsourcing. A majority (58%) of the companies surveyed reported that they outsourced their content marketing projects to external agencies such as custom publishers, PR/social media firms, design firms, ad agencies, or interactive agencies.
In a separate survey by CopyPress, a software company based in Tampa, Fla., that creates tools for content production, promotion and conversion, respondents reported that while in 2012, content marketing had been a focus of 18.9% of their businesses, in 2013 it would be a focus for 34.8%. Content marketing knocked email down as a primary focus for 25.6% of companies in 2012 to a primary focus for just 10.4% in 2013. At the very least, this data suggests that there is a growing consensus among marketing professionals of where their focus should be placed in the years ahead.
The shift toward content marketing provides an opportunity for content publishers to provide a valuable resource for companies that are looking to engage with their audiences in these new ways. "Publishers are now finally wising up to the value of content marketing for their advertising groups," McMurry/TMG's Hanelly told Folio in the March 19, 2013, article, "Online Content Marketing: Getting Ahead of a Fast-Changing Art." "They aren't just going to their clients and saying they have a great magazine or website and offering a banner ad, they're saying, ‘We've got a great, engaged audience-why don't you create content that engages with them?' The subtext is that people are ignoring advertising but they're not ignoring content. For advertisers to really get in front of an audience, they should buy into the content stream."
Joe Pulizzi, the founder of the Content Marketing Institute, says that one of the first things that any publisher that plans to offer high-quality content marketing to its sponsors must do is fortify its editorial guidelines for that content, and to express those guidelines clearly and directly to the sponsors.
"You still have to put sponsored content through the same level of editorial review that you would subject the rest of your content to," Pulizzi says.
As an anecdote, he points to the Jan. 14, 2013, recent controversy in which The Atlantic, a publication known for its rigorous journalistic standards and its sophisticated audience, was met with a substantial amount of negative blowback for publishing a sponsored article purchased by the Church of Scientology. Sponsored content must be just as cognizant of the publication's readership and its expectations for content as anything coming out of the editorial department.
In a phone interview, Hanelly further described the tools and the strategies that publishers need to be highly attuned to. "One of the most important rules to live by is honing what I call ‘the journalistic B.S.' filter," he says. The content created for a successful content marketing campaign looks and feels like a news article, a travel essay, a cultural piece, or any of a number of other journalistic forms that are already appearing in the publisher's editorial channel-because in almost every way, that's precisely what it should be.
In addition to accepting high-quality sponsored content from advertisers, publishers may want to take advantage of the opportunity to offer clients creative services. But Pulizzi warns that, before long, publishers may find themselves acting a lot like creative agencies, and they need to be prepared.
"Before you start offering your advertisers creative for the content marketing campaigns, you'll need to set up the workflow that'll be required to execute those projects," Pulizzi says. He points to project managers-who coordinate deadlines and deliverables between the in-house creative staff and the sponsor/client-as an essential element in an efficient in-house content marketing operation. "Those project managers will need to have amazing customer service skills, because now you'll be working to meet the client's needs, timetables, and expectations," Pulizzi says.
Beyond project managers, publishers will need to build a network of creative staffers that they might not already have used for their traditional marketing efforts-including freelance writers and designers. Hanelly says that these staffers would ideally bring newsroom training (as opposed to advertising training) to the table.
"You'll want to have journalists creating this content, and social media specialists integrating the campaign into the various social networks," Hanelly says. Sponsored content that feels no different than editorial content is the goal, so the people producing it should have the same experience and standards, he says.
The expanding desire from advertisers to provide rich, informative, engaging, and high-quality content to their customers offers publishers an opportunity to expand, or even reinvent, their advertising revenue stream. But before they can, they've got to be prepared for a new kind of workflow and a new set of standards.
‘(Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)