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How Publishers Can Overcome the Content Marketing Paradox

What’s the difference between content created and published by a brand and content published by a dedicated media organization?

Increasingly, the answer is “there isn’t one” – at least, not from the audience’s point of view.

This is great news for any brand looking to gain recognition as a trusted information source through its content marketing efforts.

But for media companies, this flattening of the content landscape has ushered in uncertainty around trust in their trade and their ability to monetize their content. Of course, publishers have opportunities to leverage their legacy of high-quality content and audience relationships as long as they adapt to shifting digital trends.

Recently, I spoke with Starmats Communications’ Christoph Trappe and Madison Michigan & Market’s Jeff Herrmann (who are speaking in the Publishers Forum at Content Marketing World in September) to get their perspective on what publishers and content marketers can learn from each other.

Big changes in the publishing game

Many brands have heeded the advice to act like publishers when it comes to competing on the content marketing stage. As a result, publishers face increased competition for audience attention and advertising dollars.

Now that anyone with an internet connection and an idea has the power to publish content, all the world has truly become a stage – one where media companies no longer book all the acts. This democratization of the content landscape has ushered in a renaissance of creativity and business opportunity, but it also has made it harder for any content to achieve its moment in the spotlight. 

Fortunately, publishers are no strangers to the art of “pulling focus” and their deep bench of professional storytellers gives them an edge when it comes to promoting their offerings.

Attracting eyeballs

One of the biggest advantages Christoph sees is that publishers come to the content table with a huge, ready-built, and relevant audience in a niche: “Sure, companies have audiences, prospects, and customers, too, but the relationship between publishers and audience is different. It’s usually a true journalist-to-reader relationship. When content marketing in publishing is done well, this can be a huge benefit,” he says.

Media publishers come to the #content table with huge, ready-built and relevant audience, says @CTrappe. Share on X

Example: What does it take for publishers to do content well in the face of increasingly fragmented audience attention? Consider The Weather Channel’s innovative approach to rising with the tech tides and staying firmly on its viewers’ (Doppler) radar.

Long trusted as the go-to source for local forecasts as well as live national coverage of natural disasters, the cable media mainstay enhances content engagement in its niche with some stunningly immersive AI graphic effects that bring its audience into the eye of the storm. They’re coupled with expert advice that viewers might need in a weather emergency. Clips from these segments have been shared on YouTube and TWC’s social channels, bringing greater prominence to its broad content platform and giving its audience more reasons to tune in than just to check whether they need to bring their umbrellas to work.

HANDPICKED RELATED CONTENT: How The Weather Channel Does Social Media

Trust falls and fails

Media companies have recently come under fire for their lax practices around audience data privacy (including big hacking scandals suffered by Yahoo, Facebook, Quora, The Washington Post, and countless others). These privacy concerns led (in part) to the implementation of 2018’s strict GDPR regulations throughout the European Union.

Another source of trust issues between publishers and their audiences is the perceived failure of policing the accuracy of their content ­– think of the often-misplaced accusation that legitimate news outlets are purveyors of “fake news.”

Perhaps the best way for publishers to rehab their reputations is to double down on accuracy and educate readers on how to distinguish the truth from purpose-driven rhetoric.
TIP: To counteract the bad rep the U.S. press has been getting of late, The Washington Post is educating its audience on how to tell truth from politically motivated fiction with a politics-related Fact Checker feature, which includes a searchable database and a weekly e-newsletter.

Money pit

The never-ending drive to share trustworthy, unimpeachably accurate news content at scale is well worn territory for old media mainstays like The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, or The New York Times. But there are barriers to success that legacy journalists and new media publishers alike are finding themselves much less equipped to overcome.

Chief among them is how to stay afloat financially at a time when audiences have become accustomed to accessing all the information they want – often for free – with a few quick keystrokes on Google.

Digital publishers who once relied on paywalls and subscriber fees are realizing that those revenue sources only take them so far in keeping the presses (digital or otherwise) running profitably.

Native advertising

Fixing years of overdependence on a declining revenue model isn’t easy. Pursuing a new way forward takes a concerted, ongoing effort from parties on both sides of the exchange.

But until a magic bullet for revenue generation appears, many publishers are turning to native advertising techniques – where ads closely match the form, feel, function, and quality of the content of the media platform.

Many publishers use #nativeadvertising techniques for revenue (which helps content marketers), says @joderama. Share on X

This hybrid approach offers publishers a much-needed revenue lifeline, while offering brands access to the publisher’s audience and an association with its reputation. Native advertising offers a high degree of creative flexibility, enabling publishers to provide a rich, engaging ad experience more akin to their editorial offerings than other forms of advertising. And, because publishers can often offer these placements through self-service tools, campaigns can be developed, launched, and optimized quickly and cost effectively – enticing brands that may have been locked out of pricier ad placements.

Example: Aspiring to connect with the lives of high school students considering their college options, Washington College partnered with youth-friendly media site BuzzFeed on a series of native posts focused on the theme You’ll Love This Place. The topics spanned from life on Chesapeake Bay to incredible experiences as a freshman. The native ads were distributed across BuzzFeed’s website and multichannel social media properties, giving the posts massive reach, easy shareability, and mobile accessibility.

Value-added services

Another revenue option comes from what publishers do best: delivering unique value to the audiences they’ve meticulously built around niche interests. CMI’s Robert Rose and Joe Pulizzi have characterized this approach as creating media that’s “so good that it pays for itself.”

This is a goal that publishers are well positioned to achieve, given their strengths at building owned media platforms with a niche focus.

Example: Meredith Corporation’s celebrity-focused Entertainment Weekly brand is planning to roll out a paid subscription-based Entertainment Wine Club, in which its editorial team curates a selection of wines to pair with their favorite TV shows. The effort serves a dual purpose: It fosters a deeper sense of (branded) community among pop culture fans who like to make an event out of viewing their favorite shows, and it adds a new revenue stream for Meredith Corp. (and its wine-company advertising partners).

Dedicated content studios

An alternate approach is to develop editorial-quality assets for custom branded content campaigns – publishers provide enhanced services to their advertising clients and generate additional revenue without compromising the quality standards that audiences expect from their brand.

It’s a model that publishers like The New York Times are committing to (through its T Brand Studio arm). As a prime example, consider the Orange is the New Black co-branded content campaign that StoryFuel founder Melanie Deziel created during her NYT tenure. It stands on its own as a well-written and well-researched multimedia content piece that the Times could have run on one of its editorial pages. And although some NYT staff had initially been wary of crossing the church-and-state divide between editorial and advertising, the multimedia effort ultimately made it onto the’s most-emailed list – and even earned high praise from noted then-Times columnist David Carr in a tweet:

However, a studio-driven approach like this can come with unique creative and budgetary challenges for some publishers, particularly those who can’t free up enough editorial team resources to execute on these kinds of campaigns.

“Writers dedicated to custom content often don’t have the same voice and institutional knowledge (as the main editorial staff), which can make the program weaker than it should be. Though they are in the best position to scale, they can lack the visibility of recurring revenue to give them confidence to pull the trigger,” Jeff says.

Still, media companies up for this challenge can take inspiration from efforts like the campaign HBO rolled out (in partnership with AT&T), which built an exclusive content experience around the excitement of Game of Thrones’ final season:

And the Los Angeles Times went all-in on the concept to drive attendance for its annual Festival of Books. The publisher created an immersive, multiplatform content experience called Newstory to promote creative storytelling that goes beyond books. It featured VR games, podcasts, TV show screenings, and live performances, plus a Newstory Playground of sponsored activations and exhibits.

What publishers can learn from marketing

No matter how publishers decide to move forward, they need to maintain some measure of flexibility – both strategically and operationally. It’s become increasingly essential that every asset can be adapted for multiple formats and purposes and that it is easy to share across multiple media channels.

To accomplish this, publishers might do well to take some of their cues from marketers who are more accustomed to working under a campaign-focused mentality – an environment where the need to switch gears is common.

Publishers might do well to take cues from marketers who have a campaign-focused mentality, says @joderama. Share on X

Learn to write backwards

Publishers need to be cognizant of how their strategic goals and distribution plans might impact other aspects of their content marketing initiatives – starting with writing process. For example, publishers who cut their teeth on writing for print might have to flip the script when producing content for a multimedia world. To this point, Christoph suggests, “Potentially the easiest way to get around that is to write for web first and then repurpose in print.”

Have a plan for repurposing your content

Another area where publishers fall short is efficiently repurposing existing content assets. “Too many content creators (in the publishing space) stay in their own lanes and are not effectively converting print pieces to digital and vice versa,” Jeff says.

One popular technique that might help publishers keep their content channels flowing with relevant content is the COPE method – Create Once, Publish Everywhere.

As Stephanie Reid-Simmons explains, rather than build every asset from scratch, plan in advance to repurpose, reconstruct, and reposition your best content ideas to get the most out of them.

Repurpose your best #content ideas in various ways to get the most out of them says @betterlater via @joderama. Share on X

When managed thoughtfully, COPE can enable publishers and marketers to satisfy their audience’s increasingly voracious appetite for quality content without overstraining their team’s resources to the point of a breakdown (nervous, operational, or otherwise).

Bring greater focus to your SEO strategy

Jeff also recommends that publishers improve their potential for content marketing success by focusing on search. “News organizations are so focused on cranking out fresh stories, yet they often lack foundation pages and an SEO strategy to maximize exposure for that topic,” he says. To address this, Jeff recommends embracing a deliberate SEO strategy. “Get focused on the topics you want to dominate, build a foundation page, and be religious about driving traffic back to that page,” he advises.

News orgs are too focused on fresh stories & fail to create foundation pages or SEO strategy, says @JeffLHerrmann. Share on X

Publishers: Go forth and rewrite your future

Flashy, multiplatform experiences, meticulously mapped distribution techniques, and emerging business models certainly help give an edge to publishers engaging today’s highly distracted and discerning consumers. Ultimately, though, the formula for content marketing success may boil down to publishers doing what they’ve always done very well: delivering the valuable information your audiences are looking for.

As Christoph says, “It’s really as simple as writing and producing content that people want to consume. The numbers will tell you what content that is.”

If you are a publisher looking for more advice on how to address your big challenges, why not register to join Christoph and Jeff at their Publishing Forum at Content Marketing World Sept. 6?

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute