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How Much Should Brands Pay for Content Marketing?

This cost of content marketing post was inspired by Kate Headen Waddell’s post entitled Pay Peanuts Get Monkeys.

At least one time per day, every day for three years, someone emails us at Junta42 or submits a project looking for a content vendor wondering how much content marketing (both print and web content) should cost them.  And who wouldn’t want to know?

Before now, we’ve never put all our thoughts and answers together into one post, but here it is, quite lengthy, but important enough to discuss in detail.

The Short Answer

Question: How much should I pay for my content?

Answer: It depends.

Unfortunately, it always depends, but there are ways to determine a fair price for content.

When most marketing professionals budget for content, whether that be for web content, blogs, editorial for print magazines, enewsletters and more, they go by what “feels” right. I’m not saying this is right or wrong…it’s just a fact. Marketers inherently judge content pricing based on what they’ve paid for PR or other creative, or even the value of their own time. Content and copy are always subjective and there are always multiple steps.  But the starting point is the Content Goal.

Look at it this way.  I can pay $12 dollars to play eighteen holes of golf at a Sandusky, Ohio golf course.  I can walk on and carry my bag (the gas carts have been known to die on the course, so I choose to walk).  The course is not in good shape. There are brown spots in the fairway…big ones.  The greens are bumpy.  There are no places to get drinkable water on the course.  Holes four and five kind of smell.  Sometimes you get some people on the course that shouldn’t be on a golf course.

I can also pay three-hundred dollars at Pinehurst in North Carolina. The course is immaculate. Every amenity you can think of.  There is a caddy that will carry your clubs for you and tell you which club to hit and when.  He or she will even rake the bunkers for you.  Sometimes you’ll see someone famous.  You can feel the history of the course. Even four-putting a green still feels okay (hey, even the pros have done that on this course).

What did I get?  If you really look at it, I overpaid by $288 to play eighteen holes by going to Pinehurst.  The two courses are both around the same length.  Both courses took about the same amount of time to play. I took about the same number of swings (= a lot). So what’s right? 0.67 per hole or $16.67 per hole.

The difference was that my goal was not the same.  There are times for each situation (just like content). If I just want to swing the club, the $12 course is perfect.  Exactly what I needed.  If I want an experience, or want to share an experience with someone else, I may take the rare occasion to play Pinehurst.

There is no right or wrong.  I can purchase both and succeed depending on what I wanted to do.

The same goes for content.  There can be a time for “cheap” content.  There are also times for premium content. Just like playing golf where they both have 18 fairways and greens, 500 words is 500 words.  What happens with those 500 words is where the price difference comes in.

First, a Word about Cheap Content

If you don’t know the story about Demand Media, you should read this Wired article. Demand Media is the company behind much of the content you find on the Internet, including hundreds of thousands of videos you find on YouTube and even the content behind Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong website about all things health, wellness and family. As a marketer or publisher, you should understand their model.

Without going into too much detail, Demand uses complex algorithms to try to predict what people will be searching for on the internet, whether that be for Banana Nut bread or a new crazy form of exercise. They then use those predictions to create content…lots of content around those topics.  Articles, videos, how-to pieces…you name it. Although they’ve changed their writer-payment model a few times, it seems that writers get about $10-15 per 300-word post and videographers get about $25 per online video…maybe less.

Anyone growing up in the publishing business gets sick at these prices.  When I was at Penton, it was not a rare occasion to pay $1 per word for web and print content.  There were even times where we paid up to $2.50 to $3 a word for highly specialized content (more on this in a second).

In order for writers to make a living producing content in a model like Demand Media’s, they need to write about a lot of topics very fast without much research, or be able to write many related posts about sub-topics in a limited timeframe.  Gone are the days where we wrote an article, came back to it, proofed it, rewrote parts, and then presented final copy (at least not in this model).  So, much of the content in this model includes:

  • Re-writes: One writer taking one article and rewriting it to a point where it can’t be considered copying (there are some ethical issues here).
  • Content curation: Reviewing a number of sources and blending an article back together from those sources (think of a filter).
  • Industry experts not charging very much money for their work.

Most marketers and publishers I talk to think that this “cheap” content consists of writers doing rewrites and curation.  What they can’t understand is that there are industry experts/skilled writers and videographers that are creating much of this assembly-line type content.  I’m not saying that it’s right or wrong.  I’m only saying that it’s happening and we need to be aware of it.

With content marketing, using this model is dicey at best.  Why?

  • You have a unique voice and your content needs to portray that. Getting writers to understand your voice takes time and expertise.
  • You have a marketing plan that has specific goals that need to be addressed. That means the content created has to speak directly to those goals.  This takes time and expertise.
  • Your content needs to original, engaging, valuable and compelling. Developing this kind of content takes time and expertise. [even curated content must be valuable]
  • Your content serves multiple purposes in multiple channels.  For example, a blog post might also be a video which might also need to be discussed on Facebook and delivered as a Tweet.  Correctly integrating this message takes time and expertise.

Remember the Steps of the Content Process

Every brand’s process of creating content is a bit different, but generally you have:

  • The marketing plan
  • The content strategy within the marketing plan
  • The specific tactics (i.e., a blog) within the content strategy
  • An editorial plan for the tactic (the managing editor’s role)
  • Base content for the tactic (i.e., a blog post)
  • Review of the base content (expert review and proofreading)
  • The distribution of the content through the content management system
  • The optimization of the content for search engines (on-page and off-page)
  • Syndication of the content (i.e. though Facebook and Twitter)
  • Integration of the content (back to the marketing plan and with the other content marketing strategies and traditional marketing strategies)
  • Measuring the content (through analytics, conversions, direct/cross sales or other qualitative measures)
  • Reevaluating the content (based on the feedback about the content through analytics)

This is a simple version of a very complex process. Cost, or better said, investment is something comes at each one of these steps.  Most marketers only look at content cost as the base content (the word or the video), something you might pay someone $25 a post, $100 an hour or even $2 per word, depending on the complexity of the content and the needs of the business.  Let’s say that you need to invest $300 for this particular blog post. Many marketers think they are done with the budgeting process (blog posts needed x $300). Oh no, not even close.

  • Who’s creating the ongoing editorial plan?
  • Who’s keeping the content fresh, cutting-edge and compelling?
  • Who syndicates the content?
  • Who repurposes the content?
  • Who measures the content?
  • Who’s reevaluating the content?

The list goes on and on.  This is exactly the reason why, if you outsource your content marketing process to a content agency or custom publisher, it’s extremely difficult to break out just base content. Rarely do brands have all the other parts figured out and just need the base content. When brands come through Junta42 and want vendors for, say, blog posts every month, most haven’t thought about 75% of the content creation process. Turnkey content creation costs more…but you need to remember what you are getting.

What’s the Experience?

So what type of experience are you trying to create between your content and your customer? The answer to that question will determine what parts of the content process you need, and ultimately, what you need to pay for your content.  Maybe you are at a point where you could pay someone $25 for a blog post. This model works for Demand Media.  It doesn’t work for most brands. We can’t afford to focus all our attention on predicting what our customers will search for next and write content for that.  We need to develop content that will help lead the conversation with our customers, and ultimately help our businesses profit from the content we create.

I don’t necessarily agree with the idea of Pay Peanuts, Get Monkeys because I know some amazing writers that have been able to use the Demand Media system to their advantage, like it or not. And, there are customers that are achieving their goals with that model. But, as a marketer, you must understand what you are paying for in that model.  Do you just want to take some swings and walk 18 holes?  That might be enough.  Or do you need Pinehurst.

Final note:  It took me about two hours to write this post.  Cost = priceless.