TCS Case Study: Finding Balance in Digital Publishing
Marketing Content Strategy

TCS Case Study: Finding Balance in Digital Publishing

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When I talk about what I do for work, I often stumble through my words and fail to actually describe my day-to-day responsibilities. I went to journalism school, but then I quit to pursue advertising.

Now, I find myself floating somewhere between news reporting and fiction writing—between The Fourth Estate and Mad Men. My primary objective is to further elevate Skyword’s editorial line, while simultaneously generating leads to fuel our pipeline. And it’s very hard to do both well.

A desk with a keyboardFor many marketers who have found themselves in the content marketing industry, the task of building a branded content hub brings a whole slew of emotions. At first, it doesn’t sound hard (because running a media site is so foreign to traditional marketing), but we quickly learn just how hard it is to drum up interest from an invisible audience.

When I set out to build the Content Standard, I didn’t know where to start. I had accumulated some marketing knowledge, but when it came to developing an editorial mission, I couldn’t figure out a natural starting point. To some extent I felt an editorial eye was something you either had or you didn’t.

I’ll be the first to admit that from the start I looked at the Content Standard as a marketing engine—something that would build up search relevance and generate leads. And while it does both of those things, it has evolved into something much bigger.

Today, we operate the Content Standard as a separate brand from Skyword. We very rarely publish company news, and our audience’s loves and interests have inspired much of what we report.

However, we’re constantly being tugged in two directions. On the one hand, we want to prioritize the editorial side of the program, giving our writers greater flexibility and ignoring SEO altogether. On the other hand, we have seen first-hand what happens when you ignore the marketing side—and sometimes prehistoric optimization best practices—of the equation.

This next edition in the Content Standard Case Study series will look at the tug-of-war being played between editorial and marketing in the content industry, acknowledging weaknesses in the practice and hopefully giving you some advice on where to go next in your own program.

Creativity Versus More of the Same

The best publishers push the envelope with their reporting style and subject matter. When you visit The Atlantic or The New York Times, you become engulfed in a world of knowledge, ideas, thought-provoking opinions, and breaking news. These publishers have learned the art of storytelling, and while the media industry might be drowning, their best work still lies ahead. Just take a look at some of the amazing work coming out of the Times‘s T-Brand Studio.

pens on a deskIn the content marketing world, many are still learning the ropes of media, and their style of writing touches on Journalism 101. Those organizations aren’t at fault; they simply aren’t equipped to launch programs as advanced and well thought out as the Times.

Yet that’s what good content marketers should strive to become, and it’s something we take very seriously at the Content Standard. Unfortunately, as we have learned more about the publishing world and implemented more sophisticated processes, we have learned a hard lesson: A lot of ordinary content coming from big-name properties still dominates Google News and search rankings.

While it pays to think creatively from a media perspective, as a brand you still need headlines that cater to SEO best practices. Because many brands starting out on their content journeys don’t have a built-in editorial audience, starting with creative ideas and working backward to optimization may set a program up for failure.

Google still struggles to understand quality and intent of a single piece of content. What the search engine does understand is domain authority, keywords, links, and traffic. That doesn’t mean you can’t produce unique and amazing content, but your headlines will catch more eyes when they use keywords because Google will do better at prioritizing your work in search.

Lesson: Strike a balance between creative writing and optimized content creation. Unless you have the cache of a top-tier media company, chances are you need to rely on SEO to get your work in front of the right audience.

Editorial Freedom Versus a Company’s Bottom Line

One of the biggest challenges content managers face is learning how to toe the line between editorial freedom and their companies’ broader marketing mission.

Make no mistake about it: Content marketing strategies need to show results in order to secure future funding. Even the best editorial programs won’t survive if the effort doesn’t deliver on some measurable goals.

With the Content Standard, we’re constantly in a tug of war between pursuing our audiences’ passion points and what they need to do their jobs well. Striking a balance is important when your branded content hub is supposed to be equal parts entertainment and utility.

For me, this is a constant battle. Because we’re a small publisher with specific business goals we cannot afford to chase every interesting lead we find or have fall on our laps. In some cases, this means passing up on a few story angles that might be interesting, but a bit riskier than the rest. To get around this, without losing all of the edge in our writing, we work with specific writers who are charged with pushing our editorial mission forward. By building reporting beats and guardrails for these writers, we essentially empower them to chase down thought-provoking concepts, while our remaining contributor base keeps their stories closer to our core offerings and our clients’ professional needs. The more business we bring in for the company, the more we’re able to hire additional freelancers to explore out-of-the-box ideas.

Who invented the computer

(Note: Nothing to do with content marketing!)

When you visit the Content Standard today, you’ll notice that our “News” and “Enterprise Marketing” sections cover trends and best practices in digital marketing, while our “Art of Storytelling” and “For Storytellers” sections explore self-awareness, productivity and creativity, and transformation. We tie these themes together with a nice bow, and deliver it all to our audience through a clean reader experience.

Lesson: Find the right balance between experimental and standard content for your content marketing strategy. You won’t see the results you’d like if you play it too safe, but work your way up to riskier and more envelope-pushing content. If this is your first jaunt in digital publishing, make sure you spend the necessary time to get your feet wet before barreling into an industry you know nothing about.

Growth Versus Plateauing

After running the Content Standard for more than 18 months, I’ve learned to deal with plateaus in traffic and even steep declines month-over-month. Running a media site is a tumultuous endeavor, as you often find your sanity and happiness dips and rises as your program progresses.

Ask any of my coworkers what I’m like on down days; it’s not a good look.

TeddyHK

But it’s important to be as proactive as possible in publishing. You can’t approach your site as a “set it and forget it” project; the second you take your eye off the well-oiled machine, something will break. Here are some scrappy ways to continue driving new eyes to your content—and hopefully prevent plateaus and major traffic dips:

  • Partner with a content discovery platform like Outbrain, Taboola, or even LinkedIn Marketing Solutions. We worked with Bizo (now LinkedIn) to develop a retargeting program that would drive past visitors to new editorial content through display ads. Instead of promoting landing pages with conversion points, we opted in some cases to simply offer free articles in hopes of building trust and increasing newsletter subscriptions.
  • Look at your newsletter as a separate platform. When we first noticed a growing number of subscriptions to our newsletter, we knew we had to rethink our approach to email marketing. Instead of blasting five random articles to our subscribers, we took a strategic approach to curation, building out themes for each newsletter combined with a note for the editors on why that theme matters today. When a big trend breaks, we send one-off editorial notes to our audience in a conversational and helpful tone. Now, our newsletter is one of our most-powerful amplification tactics because it leverages a baked-in audience that we can tap into at anytime. You can subscribe to the Content Standard Newsletter here.

TCS Newsletter

  • Find and love third-party newsletters. Once your branded content hub becomes a credible and established resource in your industry, you’ll begin to see pick up in third-party, industry-relevant newsletters. Just this past week, a newsletter drove nearly 2,000 views to a single piece of content in a matter of hours, and we didn’t do any heavy lifting at all. But don’t look at these events as one-off opportunities you can’t influence. Be sure to identify the source of these traffic bursts and work out a partnership program that benefits both parties. Earned media doesn’t have to always be in the form of media mentions—newsletters can be just as powerful.
  • Influencers, but have something to offer. I’m increasingly turned off by the idea of influencer marketing, but I still recognize its importance. When you have a loyal reader base, you likely have a few subscribers who also have massive followings of their own. Instead of looking at industry influencers, identify audience members who are already bought in and want to get more involved with your brand. You’ll find it’s easier to work with people who believe in the message you’re presenting, rather than trying to convince (or pay) those who don’t know much about you. I’m a firm believe that customer advocates are more powerful than social media influencers. See how we partnered with some of our biggest influencers for our Content Rising Summit.

Lesson: Successful publishers constantly look for new audiences. As a content marketer, don’t wait for your traffic to plateau or something to break along the way. Use these scrappy techniques to continually drive traffic to your site, and then find ways to capture their email addresses so you can reach them in the future.

The Future of Digital Publishing

Your branded content hub is not a long campaign, nor is it a side-project or something you look at once a week. For marketers who have found themselves in publishing roles, you must learn how to shed bad marketing habits and begin to think like an editor with a long-term vision for your site.

What story are you trying to tell your audience, and how can you build on that narrative time and time again? Yes, you will need to prove ROI and make sure your writers aren’t going rogue with their reporting. But ultimately, to be successful, you need to find out first-hand what it means to be in the media business. Then, you need to be better than that to make any sort of impact.

Visit our resources library for more content marketing insights.

What are some digital publishing challenges you run into as an editor for a branded content hub?

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