Posted by ronell smith
"Man, I'm sorry. You guys weren't ready to adopt the brands as publisher mindset. I suspected you'd never be ready to do it successfully. I knew it; I could sense you knew it. I wish I'd spoken up when I saw the intra-departmental debates waging. That's on me. My bad."
Those were my words to the executive of a midsize lifestyle brand I worked with in 2014. It took me months to get up the nerve to reach out and make it right, even though I'd done nothing wrong.
He seemed to understand. But he did have a question that stopped me in tracks and continues to haunt me.
"If we couldn't get it right, with all of our resources, what does it say about the feasibility of becoming a brand publisher?" he inquired. "Does that make content marketing [in and of itself] a bad idea?"
A fair question, to be sure, and one I did not have a sufficient answer for. But in looking back, I realized this exec, like so many others before him, made the mistake of thinking he could do quickly what he had not yet learned to do well. Content marketing wasn't the missile that sank his boat. The decision to do content marketing at warp speed and with little direction was his brands' albatross.
Any one of these could have led to failure. Facing them all at once is akin to content marketing suicide. I see these same four elements dooming content marketers so frequently that I've resorted to naming them the four horsemen of content marketing failure.
For the purposes of this post, I want to illuminate how attempting to be a brand publisher is a lofty, needless goal for all but a handful of brands. Then I will highlight how to make steps 2, 3, and 4 work for your brand, not against it.
Before I begin, however, I want to make one thing abundantly clear: The ideas shared in this post have been formed through working with hundreds of brands over more than a decade, either as a writer, business strategist, content strategist, product marketing consultant or in a PR/media relations capacity.
I'm under no illusion that each (or any of them) will apply to everyone, but experience has shown me that these elements play an invaluable role in the success (or failure) of most brands embarking on the content marketing journey.
The web is rife with examples of marketers sharing the "wisdom" of brands becoming publishers, and no less common are the examples of brands who've done just that, adding content publisher to the laundry list of services they already provide. Here's the problem with that logic: You're not a publisher, and attempting to become one is fraught with risks that more often than not lead to failure.
Brand publishing refers to brands attempting to behave as media companies, specifically with regard to content breadth and frequency. Also, and most important, it requires a mindset wholly different from that of a typical content marketer: These brands view publishing as part of their business model.
That's where the confusion comes in. A lot of very knowledgeable people say any brand that publishes blog posts or adds updates on social media is a brand publisher. But that's akin to saying anyone who runs is a marathoner. It's about scale. While content marketing's goal is to attract and retain customers through the creation and distribution of content, being a brand publisher means you have layers of staff, strategic insight, vision, resources to build platforms for sharing new content and, most important, the ability to produce content at a rate that rivals, well, publishers.
If content marketing is a single-family dwelling, brand publishing is a city of one-million-plus.
It's not that being a brand publisher is a bad idea all by itself. It's that too many companies, who are barely ready to do content well, now think being a publisher is a sound idea.
As brands continue to bite off more than they can chew, the realities are tough to stomach, and have led to some interesting conclusions:
After months spent developing content strategies for clients looking for content marketing help, I decided that, in good conscience, I would never again insist that brands become publishers.
Instead, I adopted a strategy that's as far away from one-size-fits-all as possible.
First, I refrained from using the term brand publisher. Next, I became a vocal proponent of the good-for-business-doesn't-mean-good-for-your-business philosophy, which meant that in meetings with managers, directors and C-Suite execs, I had the courage of my convictions in sharing that while content marketing is a sound practice, becoming a full-fledged publisher is something that requires a minimum of three things to be successful:
If your company is ready to shoulder such a commitment, then by all means dive right in. If not, there's a better way to do content marketing, one that is no less effective but does not require you to mortgage your future in the process.
Instead of attempting to become a publisher, or even a content marketer, focus your efforts on becoming a brand that consistently creates content that puts the needs of prospects and customers first, while simultaneously providing meaningful solutions to their problems.
I've been a very vocal haranguer of content marketing, though not because of its inefficacy.
I'm simply not a proponent of brands thinking of themselves as anything other than what they are in the minds of their prospects and clients.
Hopefully, at the core of your business is a product or service customers clamor for, not a content engine.
That's why becoming a customer-first brand that has meaningful content as part of its DNA is the safest, surest, easiest-to-adopt model for brands with the desire to do content marketing right but who aren't willing to re-org the business to get it underway.
In this way, you keep the main thing the main thing. That main thing in this case is serving your core audience.
At this point, I'm hoping you see the light, realizing that becoming a brand publisher isn't necessary for your company to be successful at content marketing.
If you're ready to chart a solid, more reliable path to success, it begins with turning away the four horsemen of content marketing failure.
We've banished the first horsemen. Let's do the same with the other three.
Whenever I sit down with a prospect to discuss their business, I open up my notebook and write down the following three phrases, including a checkbox next to each, on a sheet of paper:
Then I ask "What are your goals for the business?" all the while knowing full well the answer will be one of the three things I've written down.
The followup question, too, is canned: "What are you doing to get there?" That answer, too, is typically never a surprise: "That's what you're here for, right?"
After I've apprised them that the shortest path to failure is not having a clear view of their goals, I have their attention and they are ready to begin the goal-setting process.
Here's the catch: Only you and your team can decide what those goals are/should be. It's important that the goals take into account the entirety of the business, not just SEO, content, social media, etc.
Also, I've found it helps if the metrics assigned to measure a business's success toward their goals are meaningful (e.g., a sincere help to the overall business) and clearly communicated (e.g., everyone involved is aware of what they're working for and being judged against).
No matter what specific goals you decide on, applying the principle of "HAS," as in holistic, adherable (er, sticky) and sustainable, can be a huge help:
I've found that keeping these principles top of mind helps to order a brand's steps, ensuring that everyone is aware of the goals and of their role in working toward them.
As an example, let's say you're a small business ready to jump into the murky waters of content marketing, but you don't yet have a website.
The right goal would be to launch a new website. To make the goal as HAS-friendly as possible, you could assign a timeframe—say, 90 days—then break out the associated tasks by order of importance (see image below).
I'd even suggest keeping a checklist in a Google Doc where team members can stay abreast of what's going on, in addition to seeing who's responsible for what and having a better understanding of where the team is in terms of completing each task related to their goals.
If I had to single out the No. 1 reason content marketers I've worked with have failed it would be that they based their goals on what the competition was doing instead of what's best for their own business.
Seeing a competitor rank higher for their main keywords; having thousands of web pages indexed by Google; spending mad cash on paid media; and having brand pages on Google Plus, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest, these businesses attempt to do the same.
Sounds comical, right, until you realize it happens all the time and to businesses of all sizes.
So we just had a new client shut down our social strategy to instead "copy anything and everything their competitors are doing" #brilliant
— Greg Gifford (@GregGifford) January 26, 2015
Problem is, no two businesses are entirely alike and, well, "You aren't them," as the saying goes.
Aside from having little idea of how much real success the competition is enjoying from their search, social and content efforts, these brands are taking their eyes off the main prize: their own business.
An approach that works well and is easy to carry out entails taking an inventory or where you are in relation to where you want to be while keeping a keen eye on the competition.
With your goals solidly in hand, begin by sketching out a plan based not on where you are, or on what the competition is doing, but on those actions that would likely lead to success for you.
(image created by author)
In the graph above, created in Google Docs, you can see that I mainly focused on the content-related activities that would have the biggest impact over the next 90 days. (Caveat: This is simply a high-level overview of one area of the business, but it's plenty thorough enough for a team to begin working from.)
The key is to take the time to get to know (a) what success looks like for your business, then (b) focus on specific, actionable elements that can be done in the allotted timeframe.
"Why do you hate content marketing?" I get asked these words at least once a month. The answer is always the same. I don't hate content marketing. I hate most brands' approach to content marketing.
There is so much more to making it a success than we're typically led to believe there is.
The focus is always on produce, produce, produce. Outreach, outreach, outreach. Produce more. Outreach evan more. Rinse and repeat.
As marketers, we've seemingly trained a generation of brands that the focus should be on doing fast (and often) what they barely know how to do at all. We never learn to do well.
Yeah, I know it works...for some. But is it scalable over the long-term? Better yet, will it remain scalable into the future?
If you want to position your brand for success in content marketing, make sweating the small but oh-so-important steps a priority.
This process starts with clarity.
Simple. Brilliant. What I loved about this slide and the line of thinking is it helps brands (and the staff who work for those brands) stay the course, focused on their already-defined objectives. For example, once you know who you are and who you are in the minds of your core prospects and customers, any actions you take should be done with this information in mind.
Therefore, if the team begins to get distracted by shiny-things syndrome, anyone has the right to ask "Why are we doing this?" or "Why does this...make sense?"
Nothing like forcing someone to defend a bad idea to provoke clarity.
I can't say for certain that, if you refrain from attempting to be a brand publisher, you'll be a successful content marketer. I also cannot promise that going all-in with the three points outlined above ensures your success.
What, however, I can say is the vast majority of brands would do better if they banished "I want to be a brand publisher" from their lexicon and decided to focus on the right goals, executed a sensible plan and made the small things part of the main things.
What about you? Are you ready to do content marketing wisely? Dive into the discussion in the comments below.
(main image: licensed by the author )
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