This article originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of CCO.

The challenge

By all accounts, Intel iQ was a successful digital publication in 2016. It boasted 2 million monthly readers who averaged more than two minutes of engaged time per visit. Yet the Intel team wondered: What is the additional value of a returning reader versus a first timer?

A lot, it turns out.

The true challenge of becoming a successful (brand) publisher is sustaining an audience, says @LukeKintigh. Click To Tweet

The iQ team knew its efforts were successful. Even so, it was clear to Kintigh that something was missing. He explains: “Creating content is not the difficult part of content marketing. Distribution of your content, particularly with paid media is also not that hard to do initially. The true challenge of becoming a successful publisher is sustaining an audience – providing so much ongoing value that they naturally seek out your content and become a loyal reader.

“When this happens, you’re transitioning away from renting momentary audiences one campaign at a time to owning long-term audiences that add real equity to your brand … equity that remains well after your product launch or short-term KPI.”

Rather than chasing volume in the short term by whatever means available, the team committed to earning readership in a long-term relationship – a simple enough maxim but one that eludes many content marketers. “We can get people to watch a video or read a blog post, but when you take a ‘direct response’ approach to content marketing, you essentially start from zero each time you attract someone new,” explains Kintigh. “We wanted to develop and deliver value to our audience over time and think about how to keep them coming back.”

Laying the groundwork

To figure out how to build a longer relationship with the customer, the iQ team defined what it calls a “customer ladder” – the steps someone takes to progress from first-timer to engaged subscriber. The most important KPI for the team is the number of email subscriptions – a sign that someone finds the iQ content valuable.

Sequencing touchpoints

iQ ad exposure: Kintigh calls this person the “fly by” – someone who may happen upon a mention of iQ or Intel content but hasn’t slowed down to consume that content.

First-time reader: First-time readers may find iQ through a native ad, a social media ad, or a shared social post. They stop and read because they’re interested in the content iQ is publishing.

Repeat reader: Repeat readers visit iQ more than once and demonstrate an affinity for the content iQ talks about – from virtual and augmented reality and artificial intelligence to robotics and autonomous vehicles.

Email sign-up: The holy grail of content marketers … readers convert to subscribers. This is a sure sign iQ content is paying off.

Recirculation: Kintigh says a small subset of their readers are loyalists or as he puts it, “fanatics.” This is a particularly valuable group to Intel because they care deeply about the topics iQ shares and can help steer the program’s editorial strategy.

Matching tools to touchpoints

What makes Intel’s example unique is that the iQ team believes truly engaging quality content is key, but it also knows to get that content in front of an audience, it must leverage data science, technology, and advertising. In other words, quality alone will never win; masterful content marketers exploit technology to maximize their investment in quality.

Quality #content alone never wins. Masterful marketers exploit tech to maximize investment. @LukeKintigh Click To Tweet

For awareness

Predictive: Predictive tools like SimpleReach help the team optimize the content they publish; predictive tools analyze what has worked as well as content trending online, and suggest topics, key phrases, headlines, and formats to ensure iQ maximizes its reach.

Social media management: The team uses a host of tools, from Opal, an editorial planning tool, to SpreadFast, a publishing tool to manage its social channels (primarily Linkedin, Twitter, and Facebook). Kintigh says social channels offer different values for each audience type. Twitter is effective to drive new audiences, but Facebook is more successful for retaining audiences and converting email subscribers.

For growing an audience

Recommendation engines: While some marketers use tools like Outbrain to grow awareness, the iQ team finds it much more effective for retargeting those who had visited iQ at least once.

In feed native advertising: iQ uses Sharethrough in conjunction with social platforms like Facebook for multi-channel native advertising, specifically sharing iQ content to help drive readers back to the owned site. Other native platforms like Nativo, Flipboard, and TripleLift fall into this category too.

For audience laddering

Marketing automation: The team uses Eloqua and Adobe Tools to automate all parts and processes of an ongoing content marketing program – from defining key audience segments and third-party overlays to personalizing emails based on content consumption patterns and engagement behaviors.

Email marketing: Intel uses Eloqua for its email service provider (ESP), which allows it to map content consumption and behavioral actions to the content email subscribers receive based on actions and attributes.

For loyalists

Customer relationship management: Once an iQ reader is in the email database and reads iQ content, the team triggers lower funnel actions and tactics based on the signals derived from the data. Tools like Salesforce or even programmatic media buys can be leveraged to micro-target iQ readers for specific calls to action more aligned to a sales goal.

Think programmatic: Designing serial content

In addition to defining an audience development framework and matching the right content to each stage, the team also changed its approach to content marketing strategy. “We began to move into a programming mindset,” says Kintigh. Consider how the team treated a series devoted to virtual reality.

Laptop screen displaying the Digital iQ website.

Primary stories

When taking on a new topic, such as the future of virtual reality, the editorial team designed a serial approach. In the case of VR, it built a three-part series to dive deep into VR’s use case for retail, software development, and impact on tech startups. Some serial projects included as many as 10 primary stories. Also, the series included short feature videos interspersed with other content in a splashy presentation on iQ.

Deconstructing the story

With a three-part VR series and accompanying video, the team chopped assets into smaller pieces for other channels. For example, the video was cut to size for three stories on Snapchat. Users swiped up on the short video to go to the primary story. And a feature video was uploaded to YouTube. Fifteen- to 30-second videos were used for retargeting ads, leading back to the primary content on iQ. And because of the insights available through retargeting, sequential ads had higher click-through rates.

“Delivering sequential content has been a big win for us,” explains Kintigh. “You have to think about content from the initial hook to the ultimate payoff, which can span a 15-second video on social to an 800-word long-form article on iQ.”

Mining for insights

Part of Intel iQ’s success is a thirst for doing better, not necessarily doing more. The team spends considerable time testing and tweaking: studying what the audience wants through the signals it receives, fine-tuning content and delivery to maximize the network effect from social media, and analyzing how best to deploy new tools available on the market.

Rethinking the pop-up: Many content-first companies push the “sign up for our emails” pop-up on a first visit to their site … sometimes before the visitor had a chance to read anything. That’s a mistake, says Kintigh, because readers rarely sign up for an email subscription on the first visit. The team determined repeat readers are four times more likely to sign up for emails than first-time readers – so it delayed the pop-up push until a reader’s subsequent visits. And as the team finessed the analysis – looking at post-click data to spot more patterns – it realized someone who spends more than 90 seconds on the site is eight times more likely to sign up. These findings helped the team optimize the precise moment a visitor sees the sign-up pop-up.

.@Intel's iQ repeat readers are 4x more likely to sign up for emails than first-time readers. @LukeKintigh Click To Tweet

Optimizing native ad timing: Similarly, the team studied how to use other channels to maximize value. Native ad platforms like Outbrain, says Kintigh, are more effective for retargeting than for growing awareness. And Facebook ads are more effective when displayed to users who have visited iQ multiple times rather than someone who’s unfamiliar with the publication.

Valuing loyalists: About 15% of email subscribers are “loyalists” – people who open and click on more than 10 iQ e-newsletters every three months. “We look at these loyalists as our core focus group,” says Kintigh. “Loyalists are immensely valuable to us, so we spend considerable time listening to their actions and feedback and learning from them.” The opinions of loyalists help define the editorial calendar and are instrumental in suggesting new content formats and concepts.

Agile fuels the approach: “Having an agile team that’s truly connected to your content supply chain is critical to drive the progression of your audience development strategy,” says Kintigh. He explains that, to succeed with an audience-first approach, editors must understand how their content is moving audiences from one stage to the next, and content distribution managers must see how content is being developed and optimized to drive strategic actions.