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Publishers should jump on content marketing bandwagon now

15 July 2013 · By Earl J. Wilkinson

More than just a fad dreamed up by publishers, content marketing could be a key to funding big journalism in the future — as long as the industry can deftly walk the line between journalistic and sponsored content.

Content marketing is spreading like a wildfire in the marketing community worldwide, and news publishers should fish out of this pond if they are serious about filling the print advertising hole.

According to the Content Marketing Institute, “content marketing” is a marketing technique that creates and distributes relevant and valuable content to attract, acquire, and engage an audience to drive profitable customer action.

Leave it to Wikipedia to simplify the definition: “Content marketing is any marketing format that involves the creation and sharing of media and publishing content in order to acquire customers.” Cited platforms include news, video, white papers, e-books, infographics, case studies, photos, guides, and more.

Crucial to understanding content marketing is that it is not designed to sell. Instead, through communicating with customers, the concept is to drive loyalty. Advertising agencies say content marketing improves brand awareness, which, in turn, drives customer acquisition and retention.

Content marketing is the creation of companies tired of traditional advertising. I suppose we could contrast “content marketing” to “advertising marketing.”

Like all great “new” ideas, content marketing advocates say this is actually nothing new. They cite the 1895 John Deere magazine, The Furrow, that provided farming information. They cite the 1900 Michelin Guide that provided tips on cars, hotels, and travel. They cite the 1904 Jell-O cookbook that was distributed for free.

“Native advertising” is seen as synonymous with “content marketing.” My read is native advertising is a subset of the bigger content marketing umbrella.

Native advertising is much closer to the traditional advertorial. It is more contextual advertising in an editorial environment, yet designed to drive sales.

So, where do newspapers and magazines fit into content marketing?

As the news industry pivots from advertising space sellers to multi-platform solution providers, we are beginning to deal with new questions from marketers. How to drive awareness of their brands through meaningful contributions to the editorial process or somehow linking their brands with your news brand are objectives.

The scary truth is that brands no longer need to pay publishers to market themselves – at least to the degree that they have in the past. Brands have built their own audiences. Yet, frankly, they have little to say to those audiences, either because they are poor at communicating or aren’t clever enough at communicating.

Or they don’t have credible enough platforms from which to launch meaningful conversations with customers or prospective customers.

Shafqat Islam, CEO of NewsCred, tells INMA that the great opportunity for publishers is to link the need for content and content environments with the digital realities facing brands.

The four parts of the loose content marketing umbrella for the news industry are:

  • Sponsored content.

  • Native advertising.

  • Custom publishing.

  • Selling long-tail editorial content.

Islam cites the value of content marketing:

  • 20% of all Web traffic comes from shared content.

  • 70% of consumers prefer getting to know a company via articles rather than advertisements.

  • 67% more leads are achieved by companies with active blogs.

Roper Public Affairs has similar data:

  • 80% of business decision-makers prefer to get company information in a series of articles rather than an advertisement.

  • 70% report content marketing makes them feel closer to the sponsor.

  • 60% say that company content helps them make better product decisions.

Coca-Cola is on record as saying that content scale is spreading in real time – with or without us. As such, they feel they need to be a part of the sharable conversation, whether that is on their Web site or others.

The two publishers most known for connecting to content marketing – notably sponsored content – are Forbes and The Atlantic.

The Forbes BrandVoice philosophy: The best digital advertising is organic.


Forbes created its BrandVoice programme
to provide non-disruptive advertising for today’s social era. They sell blogs to corporations, and they seamlessly mix paid content with journalistic content – albeit it clearly labeled as “Sponsored Content.”

Early advertisers Microsoft, Dell, and Oracle have already re-upped their BrandVoice contracts.

Forbes Editor Lewis D’Vorkin points out to INMA that there are now four to five sponsored posts per week versus hundreds by journalists, and some of the sponsored posts turn out to be among the most popular on Forbes.com (SAP, Oracle, and Netapp posts are examples).

Mindful of the blurring of lines between editorial and commercial, D’Vorkin describes Forbes’ content management system as a holistic one in which journalists, paid contractors, reader-volunteers, and advertisers submit content into a single system, out of which comes clearly labeled, valued content.

For sponsored content, D’Vorkin says the content has to be more than just money; it has to be reflective of the Forbes brand. Advertisers, he stresses, want to make meaningful contributions.

Forbes is for business news enthusiasts in search of information. BrandVoice today is vital to the company’s revenue strategy and it is part of the cultural ecosystem and social media product.

Three types of sponsored content from The Atlantic: embedded, in-stream integration, and social media.


The Atlantic is one of the great turnaround stories of the news industry, and sponsored content is a part of that story.

Atlantic Media wants to shift from being a magazine to a platform and from advertising to solutions. The Atlantic today stands for “smart distribution” and “social amplification.” In that context, The Atlantic has invested heavily in embedded content on its Web site, in-stream integration, and social media outreach.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post in June began allowing companies, notably special-interest groups, to buy space on its Web site’s opinion pages. A brand can post up to 600 words of commentary that appears below the Post opinion article – and before the reader comments.

Examples of Washington Post sponsored content in its online opinion section
Examples of Washington Post sponsored content in its online opinion section.


By providing sponsored content opportunities in its editorial platforms, Forbes, The Atlantic, and the Washington Post are on the front lines of the so-called Content Marketing Revolution.

Forbes’ approach is the most organic, while The Atlantic’s approach is the most comprehensive. The Post approach is more like bracketing advertising onto content, but it is clever enough for the digital age.

I admit that the blurring of lines between editorial and commercial is worrisome. Yet the inability to fund big journalism in the future trumps that concern. Surely, the smartest people in our industry can find clever ways to differentiate journalistic content from sponsored content.

Content marketing isn’t another fad dreamed up by publishers. It is an idea backed by data from customers who are – or have been in the past – our advertisers.

Surely this can become part of every publisher’s “solution” arsenal.


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About Earl

Earl J. Wilkinson is executive director and CEO of INMA. In his interactions with INMA members worldwide, Earl has one of the broadest views of newspapers of anyone serving our industry today. He is a trendspotter and a leading advocate for cultural change, transformation, and innovation. This blog represents his unique view of the emerging global news media industry.

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