It’s been a year since your publication went live, and your content strategy is going strong. You’ve got the writers, the message, the forum—but you’ve begun to stagnate, and lead generation is wavering big time. Despite a strong, consistent editorial strategy, a clear understanding of your audience, and standard investments made toward social and search reach, the site’s traffic just isn’t where it should be.
You’ve been steady, relevant, and reliable, but it isn’t enough.
One afternoon, in the heat of desperation, you head to a competitor’s digital publication—and you realize its content is taking new risks. The company’s editorial team has introduced new interactive elements to their site and changed directions with editorial. Innovative content media such as data visualization and serial content have emerged, the team has introduced gifographics, and they’ve even hired a writer you weren’t able to get yourself. You want to take risks, too, but aren’t sure how far you can push your readers—especially if they’re already tapering off.
Suddenly, you feel a renewed, surging sense of purpose, and your mind is running wild with potential. You’ve got ideas for upgrades, and you’re inspired to push your traditional content creation practices further than ever before. But your heart sinks when you realize you have no idea what to do, how to do it, or how far to push your readers at each step along the way. How do you know you can trust your readers to come along for a transition of this magnitude? Do you have a strong enough stomach to forge onward with changes to your site design, editorial strategy, and more—even if your site isn’t growing like you imagined it would?
“If your competitors are innovating and taking risks, and you’re not, you’re already in trouble,” says Steve Armenti, director of content marketing services at Skyword. “The first thing you need to do is get out of your own way. Stop thinking about it and go do something. Get whoever you need to on board with your ideas—and if you can’t, do it anyway and ask for forgiveness later.”
Second, you need to realize your audience is bombarded with content every single day on every single platform they visit, so you need to be unique. MarketingProfs says there’s more than two million pieces of content published every single day. Instead of worrying about what your competitors are doing to contribute to that two million, start thinking about what they’re not doing. If you’re both targeting the audience, ask yourself, ‘Why would someone read my content over my competitors?’
According to Sailthru, trust is a major tenet of what makes customers loyal to a brand, both because consumers feel they can trust them to deliver and because they feel themselves and their needs valued by the brand. In fact, according to Forbes, it’s the most important factor affecting your content marketing. That trust goes both ways, and can be extremely fragile, but you can help foster it by talking to your readers, rather than talking down to them. So while you’re considering where you can go with your content strategy, shift your thinking to where your audience will want to go—then trust them to follow.
Some risks are taken on pure, unsupported faith, but calculated risks are possible with plenty of inside knowledge and a hefty dose of trust in your audience. One reason William Gibson is such a successful and renowned storyteller in science fiction is because he trusts his readers. When he’s creating worlds in Neuromancer or in the short story “Hinterlands,” he doesn’t waste his time, his words, or his readers’ patience overly explaining where a place is or what a group of people is like. He’s going to the tell the story as if you’re already perfectly aware and can gain everything you need to know about them from context clues and, when done well by a skilled writer, audiences love this.
Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s site Business Insights does the same, but with content. It’s a thought leadership blog aimed at top-level IT executives, and it’s written that way. The CIO, VP of Ops, and CISO won’t need anything spelled out to them when it comes to talking major tech jargon. Because of this, the writers write at their levels, urging scale and reinforcing the business value of IT. Also integral is the publication’s focus on subject matter experts: the majority of HPE’s Business Insights content features an interview with an SME so business leaders reading the blog are getting prime time with other leaders and specialists. It’s also not all about the data center in every single article; top performers have included big data in agriculture, utilizing data to lead healthier, happier lives, and more.
“When developing strategies for clients I often ask them, ‘Why should I care about what you have to say?’ If they can’t answer that question, the audience will see right through their content strategy,” says Armenti. “Once you know why you exist, study your competitors, find your niche, and then go about taking risks—risks that push your publication, your brand, and your audience forward. It will come naturally because you will have put in the work to know your market, your competitors, and, most importantly, your audience. You will become your audience. Once you do that, you simply create content for yourself, and that’s much, much easier than faking it or copying your competitors.”
Bank of America is another strong example of branded content that’s taking effective risks. One in particular is how the company chose to sponsor stories rather than always telling them on its own and in its own brand voice. By helping share the worthwhile stories of others, BoA is helping cement its place as a quality resource for its audience—and it’s trusting its audience to following their association back to BoA’s own site and content. The company also favors data-driven content highly relevant to its audience and tells it in the form of creative, effective stories on its YouTube channel, The Business of Life.
“Trust is mutual,” says Armenti. “If brands don’t trust their audiences, their audiences won’t trust them. They may still be able to sell some products or services, or get their audiences to take action, but in the long run they will fail.” He cited his favorite example of trust as Patagonia’s “Don’t buy this jacket” campaign. The company’s risk of exposing its environmentally unsound past could have been damning, but it trusted that its audience would respect the transparency.
From there, Armenti noted, “[Patagonia] went headfirst into environmental debates, staking its claim for what sustainable business really means.” In fact, Yvon Chouinard, the company’s founder, even wrote a book called Let My People Go Surfing in which he describes the product design, production, distribution, marketing, financial, HR, management, and environmental policies at Patagonia.
“As a result of being so audience focused, Patagonia has some of the most loyal customers you can find,” Armenti continued. “Customers trust that Patagonia will do right by them and the world they live in. That same approach needs to be taken with your content. Patagonia doesn’t write about style, clothing trends, or its products; instead, it writes about environmental crises and what people are doing to solve them. It writes about our environment and why it’s so critical to stop being a ‘throw-away society’ where everything we own becomes disposable. It’s truly making a difference, and writing about it—not bragging about it—and its audience supports them all the way.”
With content marketing, you’re open to the whole, wide internet of media, methods of outreach, and audiences. Innovation takes bold steps. The answer of whether or not you will leap should be a given—knowing which way to leap is the real consideration.
Let’s go way, way back to one of the first snapshots ever recorded of Forbes‘s website.
On December 21, 1996, Forbes was largely magazine-focused, featuring the magazine’s cover as one of the only visuals accompanying a very basic table of contents and a story about how censorship never hurt Hustler or Penthouse, but the internet sure did.
Today, Forbes‘s website looks just a bit different: you can still sign up to receive the magazine, but you’ll find the link in minuscule font close under the main header, while colorful social sharing links have their own place on the right-hand side. Having embraced digital as their lead form of content, readers can find podcasts, videos, and a ton more storytelling than ever before, where stories like “Why Did The Recruiter Call Me a ‘Stretch Candidate’?” fill the Most Popular tab.
A comparison between The Atlantic in 1996 and The Atlantic today shows a similar leap in editorial strategy. Self-described then as a magazine devoted to politics, science, the arts, and culture, the ’96 version shows only links to longer articles:
Today, The Atlantic is famous for big visuals, longer-form content, and sensational storytelling, and its topics have topics; under their main menu, readers can navigate to Next America to follow current campaign happenings and, once there, be go to more specific topics such as Early Childhood, Economy, Workforce, and more, depending on their own micro interests—a decision that widens the publication’s audience to those with varying views. It also has several sections dedicated entirely to storytelling beyond what it publishes in newsier topics; both The Ambition Interviews and Inside Jobs feature the real lives of real people in long-form, impactful formats—the kinds of stories their audience can’t wait to read:
“To push your audience, you need to try new things, analyze the results, and adjust accordingly,” says Armenti. “It might seem odd for a content marketing company to talk about neuroscience and the brain, but that’s exactly what we’re doing at Skyword. In our effort to storify the marketing industry, we need to dive deep into the neurological reasons why people enjoy story.”
The fear of risk is very, very real, but you can never innovate if you don’t try to. “Content marketers and managing editors need to adopt a try-fail-learn mentality. Try something new, analyze every piece of information you can to find trends and themes, and then use that data to try something else. Every month should include something new in your editorial calendar. Use the data from your content to understand patterns and where new ideas could spawn from. Go and execute those ideas and test the results. It’s okay if it fails. You will at least learn what doesn’t work and maybe uncover the next big thing that could work.”