Marketing Content Strategy

The Content Standard: How We Transformed from Content Marketers to Editors

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I remember my reaction the first time Skyword tried to recruit me from my last job. As a 24-year-old journalist-turned-marketer, I wanted nothing to do with a technology startup churning out what I thought was the same rhetoric as every other content company in town. So I arrogantly fired off an “I’m not interested” email to the then VP of Services, and went back to my work.

Six months later, through a series of introductions, I found myself sitting across the table with Skyword CEO and Founder Tom Gerace for lunch. He asked me what I wanted to do with my career, and without hesitation, I told him I wanted to create something meaningful. Only I didn’t know what that meant at the time, and I certainly didn’t sound like I knew what I was talking about.

He suggested I figure out what it is I want to create at Skyword, and I joined the Marketing team a few weeks later.

Feeling unprepared, unqualified, and scared, I walked into work on my first day as a marketing content specialist and fired off several all-company emails establishing content creation requirements and processes. I wrote editorial guidelines, barked orders in meetings, and I even broke the website during my first week. I wasn’t confident in my skills. I led with fear. And I thought that if I acted like a sergeant, no one would question my decisions.

After three months on the job, I didn’t understand my role at the company, and I remember questioning my decision to join Skyword at all. My former boss who ran the company’s SEO efforts, noticing I hadn’t fallen into a groove, gave me honest advice that I now pass on to any new person I meet at the company: Only you can decide the impact you’ll have here.

Webinar: Learn How the Content Standard Shed its “Just Another Blog” Perception

The Result

Last month, the Content Standard shed its “just another content marketing blog” persona and evolved into a digital publication focused on the theory and practice of marketing, creativity, and storytelling.

The site ended 2015 with 610 percent ROI and a budget increase of over 50 percent. In January 2016, we had our best month ever in terms of audience, goal conversions, and new subscribers.

As an editorial team, we made a strategic shift to kick off 2016, outsourcing the majority of content creation to subject matter experts. We had spent Q4 2015 developing a new feedback loop that made how we collect and analyze data simpler. We had constructed a writer development system in response to a reader survey, and now our contributors had the tools they needed to produce in-depth, well-researched stories that go beyond content marketing.

This shift hasn’t just produced eye-catching numbers; it has transformed how the entire company looks at content marketing. From our EVP and CMO to our Content Services and Client Success teams, all eyes are now on our process as we begin to institutionalize what the Content Standard team has learned over the past two years.

And we’re only just beginning to show the world how much we’ve learned and changed as an editorial team. With our anticipated new site launch in March 2016, the face of the Content Standard and how we format stories will further elevate our publication above our competitors.

But how did we get to where we are today? A lot of team-wide decisions helped protect the independence and integrity of the site over the past two years. But what’s harder to articulate—what story is almost impossible to tell—is how we all have changed as people while working on the Content Standard.

So we’re going to tell that story now.

Who We Were

There is a big difference between a journalist and a marketer. There’s an even bigger difference between an editor and a content marketer. Yet in today’s changing marketing world, we have to learn how to be all things at once.

When we set out to re-launch the Content Standard in February 2014, we were 100 percent marketers. We cared about SEO more than story; we had traffic ambitions but didn’t know who we were trying to reach.

As a marketing team, we were moved to launch a digital publication because we knew we had to—not because we had anything original to say. While it’s easy to look back at our state of mind now and laugh, the team made crucial decisions that laid the foundation for our success today.

It’s important for every content marketer to realize that his or her understanding of publishing and storytelling lies on a continuum: We’re unable to see beyond the present. So it’s essential that you take risks when they’re presented, because if you deflect opportunities to experiment, then you’ll miss the chance to move up the ladder.

We were willing to take a risk and invest in an on-domain publication. This wouldn’t be an overnight success—in fact, we expected the whole process to be rough. But the team committed to the project; we committed to understanding what it takes to transform from a marketer to an editor.

The Content Standard 2.0 (2014)

In 2014, we launched the Content Standard 2.0, focused on covering content marketing news and research.

2014 TCS

Traffic grew, but plateaued only five months into market, and we stood with our hands in our pockets without a clue of where to go next. Looking back on our decisions now, we made three crucial mistakes in my mind:

  1. We started too big: The website we brought to market had dozens of categories and tried to cover all marketing-related topics. We did not follow the “crawl then walk” mantra; we broke straight into a full sprint. But we didn’t know where we were running.
  2. We hired the wrong storytellers: Because we were focused on industry influence more than we were interested in building trust with our audience, we contracted contributors who were better at buying social audiences than building connections with actual people. This boxed our editorial strategy in, and made us look like a replica of every other industry blog.
  3. We weren’t audience-focused: In the first eight months of running the Content Standard, we didn’t ask a single question about our audience. We didn’t develop personas, we didn’t look at the right data, and we didn’t focus on building community through social media or a newsletter offering. People were data points to us—a proof point we could send to the executive team.

In Q4 2014, we regrouped as a team to discuss what we had learned over the past 11 months, and we quickly discovered that we were no better off than before the site re-launched. In fact, there was a communal feeling of disappointment ending the year.

However, we had committed to the program and weren’t ready to give up. When I talk to Skyword clients, I often hear about the pressure they’re under to prove ROI of content marketing fast. It just doesn’t happen like that. It’s my opinion that many enterprise organizations don’t exercise enough patience when launching a digital publication. Many want to experiment and test new practices, but they’re unable dedicate enough time to seeing their ideas through to the end.

At Skyword, we never felt that pressure because our CMO has always been an invested and active contributor to our content program. She gave us the room to run the program in a way that allowed experimentation and failure. This involvement speaks to her character and leadership style–an openness to change that can be rare to find in marketing departments today.

The first hint of transformation I experienced in my move from marketer to editor is when I realized that when it came to editorial strategy my CMO relied on us for strategic direction. She depended on us to explain and convince her that the risks we were willing to take would be in the best interest of the company. We didn’t understand how that impacted the progression of the site at the time, but today, I can honestly say without that level of trust and support we would not have been able to pivot as quickly as we did over the next 12 months.

The Content Standard 2.1 (2015)

In December 2014, Darryl Gehly, Skyword’s Executive Vice President, ran an internal workshop with the Content Standard team that, for the first time, required us to face our audience as people, not data points. We left our computers out of the meeting room, and on a white board we began describing our audience and identifying personality traits based on our real-world interactions with our customers.

Content Workshop

The Content Standard is in a unique position because it’s run by marketers trying to reach other marketers. For many companies launching content marketing strategies, the first rule of thumb is to create content for your audience, not for yourself. In our case, we had to look internally to better understand our audience.

As a group we talked about our ambitions, our fears, our external pressures and life choices; we described our characteristics and our faults; we highlighted big career mistakes and achievements; we recognized qualities in each other that flew beneath the radar. At the end of the session, we had a wall full of descriptors that not only defined who we were trying to reach, but who we were as people.

In February 2015, a year after the site’s initial launch, we refreshed the taxonomy and editorial strategy of the site into two parts: 50 percent of what we’d cover had utility (industry news and enterprise-marketing best practices) and 50 percent offered entertainment (the art of storytelling and career advice for storytellers).

2015 TCS

We had also launched our first community-building initiative: the Content Standard Newsletter.

Traffic increased. Subscribers grew 960 percent. The Content Standard became the company’s number one lead source. All in all, the business value of the digital publication grew exponentially, but a bigger change had begun to take shape.

From Content Marketers to Editors

The Content Standard had gone from a program run by two marketing team members with the help of a few part-time Skyword services team members to a digital publication integrated into everything the company was doing externally.

This transition forced the hierarchy of our department to transform into a more agile team. Now, the Content Standard sits at the middle of our marketing efforts, and every team member uses it as the foundation for achieving our company goals.

I had changed as a person, too. When I first started working on the Content Standard, I wanted this to be the hallmark of my time at Skyword. This digital publication was my baby, and I wanted everyone to know how much time I put into the project. Today, I am only a small part of why the digital publication succeeds.

There are people at Skyword who dedicate their free time to contributing to the website’s editorial calendar. There are external writers who have improved their craft and personal brand by working on the program. Our content has been cited in major publications like Fast Company, The Next Web, Ad Age and more. Furthermore, our audience has praised our work and coverage, and our audience and subscriber numbers set new highs every day.

Two and a half years later I feel more mature and level-headed. My decision-making process has gone from “what’s best for me” to “what’s best for my audience, contributors, and teammates.” I think this is part of that transformation from marketer to editor: when you care more about telling great stories than selling ideas or products.

Webinar: Learn how the Content Standard Team Went from Content Marketers to Editors

The Content Standard 3.0 (2016)

Despite all fingers pointing toward trashing the Content Standard more than two years ago, Skyword kept the Content Standard. Skyword CMO Tricia Travaline says that if she had abandoned ship at that time, it would have been the worst mistake of her career.

Today, the Content Standard drives more than 45 percent of traffic to Skyword.com and is the company’s top lead generator. We attribute this success to three major shifts:

  1. Finding the right resources, from hiring new full-time internal team members to focusing on recruiting the best freelancers in the world
  2. Shifting from a marketing machine to an editorial destination by focusing on always telling the best story possible
  3. Rethinking when to bring Skyword into the conversion

Here’s how we do this:

This is what our marketing department looks like when we’re acting as “content marketers.” So when we’re thinking about distribution, PR, demand generation, and all of that essential stuff, we fall into this structure:

Skyword Marketing Team

But when we’re thinking about the Content Standard, our marketing team changes shape and looks like this:

TCS Team

The Content Standard is at the center of everything we do, because the decisions we make should always be for our audience, not for our marketing goals.

And our editorial planning has evolved because of our adoption of agile marketing. Our team is much more efficient when we can snap back-and-forth between how we operate, and this has provided our editors with more time to focus on data analysis and writer development.

Our editorial planning breaks down into two main areas: Data and Writer Development.

Editorial Planning Process

We collect data from many destinations, including the Skyword Platform and its proprietary analytics, Google Analytics integration, social listening tools, and reader surveys. We organize this information into a central repository and filter it into our writer development process.

The Content Standard editors work with our writers one-on-one to develop editorial beats similar to traditional magazines or newspapers. You don’t just become a contributor to the Content Standard—you become our content theory expert, studying the connection between psychology and information consumption.

More, we’ve built in a fluid writer feedback loop using the Skyword Platform that helps us constantly communicate with our columnists, whether they’ve started writing a piece or if they’re still in the research phase. This open communication makes our content creation a collaborative process. Freelancers don’t get their assignments from us and write alone at home—we’re working with them to put out the best possible story up until the publish date.

And then because we’re committed to turning our writers into experts in their beats and niches, we give them complete control over the topics they write by running monthly pitch days in which the whole Content Team reviews ideas for the next month and critiques them until there is a unanimous vote of confidence on each one.

Our monthly milestones look like this:

Monthly Milestones
Pitch Day: Our writers are tasked with submitting their next-month pitches around the 15th of every month.

Monthly Editorial Review: After collecting all pitches for the next month, the Content Standard lead editor Jon Simmons acts as the liaison between our writers and the editorial board. It is his job to work with our writers on an ongoing basis to get pitches up to par, and then he stands in front of the team and convinces us why an idea is worth covering. As an editorial board, we tear down ideas until we get to the root of what’s important.

Assignments to the Skyword Platform: After the pitches are agreed upon, we assign each idea to our writers using the Skyword Platform. These assignments include feedback from the team, so every contributor can better understand how and why his or her original idea has been edited.

Weekly Content Standard Meetings: Because our industry is ever-changing, we hold weekly editorial meetings to achieve two main goals: Organize any new thoughts on next month’s topics to give our editors the opportunity update an assignment and to tie the publishing side of what we do to the marketing end. It’s here that we look at next month’s editorial calendar and begin planning our paid distribution strategy. We look at what pieces will add value to email nurture tracks, what stories would interest our influencers, and where we can expect increases in traffic and how we should go about capturing new subscribers from that spike in audience.

Editorial Process: Instead of copyediting each piece and publishing it as is, our editorial process is a lengthy review in which we work with our writers to improve every article.

Publish to the Content Standard: We’re at the point with our publishing process that we’re looking at weekly, monthly, and quarterly themes. Previously, we weren’t able to plan far enough in advance to have a consistent publishing model, but our data and writer development loop makes this a reality.

Analyze Performance: We’re constantly looking at and trying to understand the data coming in from various touch points. We take this data, and the process comes full circle as we start of pitch and monthly editorial review meetings over again.

How Do We Connect Our Editor Side to Our Marketing Side?

When a reader subscribes to the Content Standard Newsletter, the digital publication becomes the lead source of that business opportunity. While we don’t let our sales team reach out to our subscribers until they’ve engaged with other areas of our website, we do consider our Newsletter a lead generation program.

What we’re able to do is go beyond the Content Standard as a lead source and understand what article specifically converted an anonymous visitor into a known lead. We use Marketo for this, and while it sounds like an ROI benefit, it has editorial gains as well. For example, we’ve learned how to format articles for higher lead generation by analyzing the data coming into our Marketo instance. Here you can see the top-converting articles on the Content Standard for a specific timeframe:

Top Converting Articles

We noticed that my “6 Content Marketing Trends to Help Plan Your 2016 Budget” piece began picking up speed and performing really well in late August. With that information in our back pocket, we turned that article into a 7-part series. You can see two other posts from that series also on this list: “Trend No. 2: What Brands Need to Know About Interactive Storytelling in 2016” and “Trend No. 1: How to Develop a Content Promotion Strategy for 2016.”

We can also see datasets that show which categories converted the most subscribers:

Top Converting Categories

All of this information is helpful in understanding who is converting and why, how, and where they’re joining our community. But from there, we have to connect our editorial insight to our marketing goals. We do this in two main ways:

  1. Based on the content of the viewed Content Standard articles, supplemental material is sent to a lead in the form of a related article, eBook, or other content format. For example, if you come to our site and spend most of your time reading stories about video marketing, we’re going to send you eBooks, webinars, and research on video marketing.
  2. We also send a weekly newsletter to all subscribers that features our top-performing articles of the last week. Because we have built a system that allows us to plan our editorial months in advance, our newsletter runs like another platform with its own editorial themes and cadence.

We use these two outreach methods to:

  • Push leads through the funnel by providing them with targeted messaging
  • Increase existing lead scores
  • Automate process wherever possible to enable more efficient outreach
  • Nurture leads with relevant information from our Big Idea content pushes
  • Personalize emails as much as possible

More, we’re able to measure our nurture efforts in a unique way using our CRM and MAP integrations. Here are a few ways we do this at the Content Standard:

Our sales team can see when a lead has clicked on an article:

Lead Pageviews

Our marketing team can see who clicked on what link in our Newsletter and how many times:

Newsletter Performance

We have automated reports that tell us who our new subscribers are, when TCS leads are moved over to sales opportunities, and when TCS has contributed to an increased lead score.

Here is an example case study of how the Content Standard has impacted a won business opportunity:

This is a report you can generate in Marketo. Every orange dot represents an event where the decision-maker at an organization engaged with a Skyword marketing activity. The green section represents when an opportunity was created to when it was closed.

Client Conversion 1

At the beginning of this report, you can see that the first touch point was an article published to the Content Standard called, “Channel Your Inner Art Director to Build a Better User Experience.”

Channel your inner art director

Then, the lead subscribed to the Content Standard and requested a demo of our content marketing platform.

Lead Source

Then the lead downloaded an eBook:

Global eBook

Visited our booth at Content Marketing World:

CMW Booth

Did a bunch of other cool stuff:

Other Stuff

All the while heading back to and reading the Content Standard:

TCS

Holy sh*t, right? I know—we were really creeped out at ourselves when we first implemented this process, but it’s an essential part in connecting the editorial work we do to our business goals. We don’t just send ROI reports to our executive team—we show them exactly how we contribute to won business.

What’s Next for the Content Standard?

It’s taken us over 2 years to get to this point, but the Content Standard is just getting started.

We’re different as a team, too—more focused on becoming better storytellers and illustrating how B2Bs and B2Cs can build their own credible publications.

As the managing editor of the Content Standard, I’m excited to show you all where we’re going in 2016, and I invite you to join the ride by becoming a subscriber. We’re launching a new video series, interactive content formats, long-form, mixed-media stories, and more this year. Because we’re not just another content marketing blog anymore—we’re the editorial team just like you who is looking to create something meaningful.

I didn’t know what “meaningful” meant in 2014 sitting across the table from Tom, but I’ve found that purpose in the Content Standard, and I’m excited to be sharing it with you.

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