Don’t worry, editors—content marketing will save your brand, not harm it

by | Mar 1, 2018

A former colleague from my newspaper days, who now publishes a high quality newsletter in the education sector, recently asked: “What’s the difference between news publishing and content marketing?”

“None,” I replied quickly, to her surprise. Thinking like an editor, she wondered whether her staff would oppose the idea of targeting news content to specific categories of users, like product marketers do, on the grounds that it would somehow sully the independence or integrity of the content. But I said the two are not mutually exclusive—in fact, they are aligned: Whether the content is a Pulitzer-worthy investigation on Russia’s influence on U.S. elections or a promotion to try some new software tool—it still needs to meet the needs of its intended audience, be easily discoverable by that audience and pay for itself (hopefully with a profit).

It’s not a message for just news publishers but anybody who publishes digital content: The benefits of content marketing extend well beyond commercial messaging. And the power of today’s marketing automation tools, combined with the way people consume content, make it imperative for all types of publishers to adopt the tools, techniques and mindset of content marketing.

Marketing automation reaches the newsroom

Publishers today are derelict in their duties if they still think they can simply post stuff on their website and pray for enough advertising clicks from the general public. The smart publishers, including The Washington Post and The New York Times, are integrating the latest capabilities of marketing automation directly into their content management systems—and even their editorial planning meetings.

Two interesting trends are underway that make it easier for editors to embrace content marketing: the rising awareness that subscriptions, and even memberships, are the only path to sustainability, if not profitability; and the evolution of traditional content management systems and email marketing systems into full-service content marketing automation platforms.

As pay-per-click advertising continues its slow collapse as a viable business model—accelerated by Facebook’s latest news-unfriendly algorithm—most publishers of any size are realizing a subscription paywall is essential. A September 2017 analysis of the nation’s 25 most-visited news sites by the Columbia Journalism Review found that 60 percent now use some kind of paywall strategy while 40 percent still rely on advertising alone. Of those that do charge a subscription fee, most use some kind of “metering” strategy that allows users access to a small number of articles before the paywall kicks in. The free content is still ad-supported, but clearly publishers must now adopt new marketing approaches aimed at targeting those most likely to subscribe rather than simply hoping to build a large enough free audience to attract an advertiser.

Fortunately, traditional email marketing systems and content management systems (CMS) are merging and evolving into multi-channel marketing automation platforms. Email systems are adding content management, social media and web marketing tools, allowing for unified campaigns and 360-degree views of customer behavior and preferences. Marketing operations in news organizations already are taking advantage of these improvements and are demonstrating success with targeted sponsored content and responsive campaigns aligned with audiences’ interests and needs.

On the editorial side, CMS platforms are no longer the cumbersome, custom implementations that once drove editors and bean-counters crazy. Their functionality in recent years has become increasingly commoditized and cloud-based, thanks to open-source platforms like WordPress and Superdesk. But until recently, they hadn’t evolved much in the scope of their duties. That’s changing, with HubSpot leading the way for small-scale sites and Sitecore, a modular enterprise-level platform built on the Microsoft ASP.NET framework, offering combined CMS/marketing automation power for medium- and large-scale needs. The Post has even gotten into the act, licensing its Arc Publishing content publishing and marketing system.

Reducing “random acts of content”

We’ve seen nonprofit publishers embrace this merging of content management with the ability to plan, launch and analyze multi-channel (email, web and social) campaigns.

Two case studies from recent clients: In one, Hubspot is replacing a small association’s stand-alone content management and email systems, allowing the editorial and marketing teams to post blog items and articles to their website, while using the same platform to target the items to groups of users via social media or email. They can see at a glance how each piece of content is performing—and new visitors are immediately added to the integrated CRM database and put on an engagement path. Another larger nonprofit client is pursuing a higher-end Sitecore installation, which will allow them to track even anonymous visitors, putting them into persona-based buckets to personalize their next visit. Every piece of content has a job to do, and its performance is mapped and scored. The goal for both organizations: Reduce “random acts of content.”

Facebook and Google are trying to help publishers down the marketing automation path as well. On Feb. 28 Facebook announced a $3 million fund to help 13 local newspapers improve the way they acquire digital subscribers. And Google, which until recently penalized subscription-based publishers by requiring them to offer at least the first three clicks on their news articles for free before listing headlines in search results, now offers “flexible sampling,” allowing publishers to set the paywall meter wherever they like. Moreover, according to Digiday, the search giant is working on ways to identify Google users who are likely candidates to subscribe to a publication—even making it easy for them to subscribe within Google and giving users an enhanced search experience for whatever they subscribe to.

To anyone whose mindset remains stuck on the model of advertising-supported free content, the future of publishing may appear bleak. Those embracing a paywall strategy might be more optimistic, but they’ll need a way to connect their content to qualified targeted users, and put them on an intentional journey toward a subscription or membership.  That’s easier to do these days, thanks to the integration of content management, email and marketing automation tools.

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Mike Mills


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