I remember the feedback well. It was late fall of 2015, and we had sent a survey to Content Standard readers asking what they’d like to see us publish more of in 2016. One person wrote: “Content I can’t read anywhere else. A lot [less] fluff and bullshit.”
I had been running the Content Standard’s day-to-day editorial strategy for a few months, and as a new employee at Skyword, I was proud to be in charge of a growing content marketing publication, and proud to be able to see the direct impact of my work on Skyword’s bottom line. As an editor and marketer, there are few things cooler than being able to point to a piece of content and say “This article was the first touchpoint of a lead that eventually signed a contract worth $____.” And we’ve been able to say that with consistency—a 663 percent program ROI in 2015 felt pretty good.
But when I read this survey entry, along with other similarly worded responses from our readers, past successes instantly faded. It hurt, because it was true.
Through this survey, we heard from our audience loud and clear something we had suspected: Our content was only skimming the surface. “Depth of coverage” ranked last in how our readers graded the quality of the content published on the Content Standard. Our readers wanted long-form editorial that explored stories through original angles, incorporating unique perspectives that could only be found on TCS, not on another marketing blog.
I wanted an audience that returned to the site every day—not just a few times a month. I also wanted to differentiate the Content Standard brand from our competition, and to change the perception of our publication from “just another marketing blog” to the go-to destination for all things digital marketing. It’s no coincidence that these are characteristics of Leaders on the Content Marketing Continuum. Sure, we were growing an audience and passing off leads to our sales team that turned into actual bookings—qualities found as an Expert on the Continuum—but how long could we rely on a dissatisfied audience to fill the pipeline and become brand ambassadors for Skyword?
We weren’t willing to wait to find out.
Soon after, the TCS team decided to run an experiment. We asked a few of our freelance writers to shift to long-form content creation (1,000-1,200 words) and reduce their publishing frequency, and we compensated them accordingly. We’d keep the rest of our contributors in the 500-700 word range.
I was nervous. I didn’t know how our contributors would respond to being asked to write longer articles. I didn’t know if we’d be spending more time and money on content that would ultimately prove to be just as (or less) successful in engaging and converting our audience. It was a big bet, but one we were sure we had to make.
After a few months, we found the answer we were looking for in our analytics—our readers visited the long-form articles more often, spent more time on them, shared them more frequently, and converted to newsletter subscribers at much higher rates.
With this knowledge, we were confident in pitching our 2016 editorial strategy to Skyword’s leadership team, investing in depth and voice and unique perspectives within our reporting. It was the first time I stood in front of our CEO, president, and the rest of Skyword’s executive team and proposed a strategy. My voice may have cracked a few times, but they were willing to listen—as were we.
In 2016, all our contributors, freelance and in-house, produce long-form content that provide the depth and voice our audience wants. We’ve also incorporated a monthly pitch process where our content team workshops every article idea our contributors send us to ensure they will add originality to industry conversations, and not just make more noise.
This strategy has resulted in the best months TCS has ever experienced. We just finished our best half ever in terms of audience engagement metrics and program ROI, and we will continue to push the editorial boundaries of the publication. If we don’t, our audience will find another digital marketing publication to read. The internet is restless, but so are we.
Just like the Content Standard made a big bet on long-form content in 2016, we’ve recently committed to an even bigger one.
As our CEO Tom Gerace will explain tomorrow on the Content Standard, Skyword has begun embracing story form throughout our company—in our client reporting, in the way we design and sell our products, and in my case and the case of my coworkers on Skyword’s marketing team, how we create content and market to our audience. In 2016, I’ve started exploring ways we can “storify” the Content Standard.
I remember sitting in the Florence Gould Hall & Tinker Auditorium in New York City in April—a team of nine of us from Skyword had traveled into the city to learn from story craft master Robert McKee through his story seminar. And I remember thinking, as I walked into the basement auditorium on day one among a crowd of aspiring scriptwriters and novelists, how the hell will this apply to what we publish on the Content Standard? How will analyzing every turn of every scene and line of dialogue in Casablanca make me a better content marketer?
As we found out, through three 10-hour days with McKee, the elements of storytelling are not exclusive to fiction writers—they are essential building blocks for people to capture and hold the attention of audiences everywhere, content marketers very much included. Just as Casablanca director Michael Curtiz was able to adapt Murray Burnett and Joan Alison’s stage play, Everybody Comes to Rick’s into arguably the best movie ever created, so too can marketers adapt their content into gripping stories.
It’s difficult, but not impossible.
Just a few months later, we’ve already started transforming our content on the Content Standard to include these essential storytelling elements. We’re encouraging our writers to include basic story components like conflict and the protagonist’s object of desire in their article pitches, and we’re planning more comprehensive storytelling workshops for our contributors in the second half of the year to talk about incorporating story elements such as forces of antagonism and turns of scene. Soon, we’ll introduce new content formats as well as new series written in story form.
But what won’t ever change is our audience’s desire for originality and point of view. Turning content into emotionally driven brand storytelling will help keep our topics personal and original, our perspectives fresh, and ultimately, our audiences interested and coming back for more.
My journey from Expert to Leader on the Content Marketing Continuum has been somewhat paradoxical. While the Content Standard’s success has in large part come from listening to our audience and interpreting our data, it’s also because we’ve published articles that are of interest to us as editors. There’s a reason why the best storytellers like Jad Abumrad of Radiolab suggest occasionally ignoring your audience and instead trusting your gut. Sometimes, you just have to lead. By incorporating story form into our reporting, that’s what we intend to do.
To read the rest of this series, click on the stories below:
1. Confessions of a Content Marketer: Admitting Where We Sit on the Content Marketing Continuum by Patricia Travaline, CMO, Skyword
2. If You Want to Move from Content Marketing Strategy Novice to Expert, Let Go of Complexity by Ruben Sanchez, Director of Marketing, Skyword
3. At Visionary Companies, Storytelling Runs Deep by Tom Gerace, CEO, Skyword
See where your brand falls on the Content Marketing Continuum, and learn how to move up the spectrum. Take the 5-minute assessment.