Content marketing is our next big revenue threat — unless we embrace it now


In the heat of a pitched newsroom debate, a former colleague once labeled me a “commercial whore” because I had dared to champion a project to save a weekly newspaper section from death.

I had asked its advertisers, who were leaving in droves, what changes we would need to initiate to give them confidence in the section again. I asked what content they might like to see and if  — or how — they could see themselves participating in that content.

My colleague was adamant that my dangerous ideas would lead to the end of quality journalism as we knew it. “It is not the role of editors to worry about advertisers and revenue,” the colleague thundered.

My response was we already HAD reached the end of quality journalism as we knew it for this part of the newspaper. The section would be killed in less than a week — a legacy of arrogant editorial decisions and misguided content — unless we could come up with a way to restore confidence in its content from its advertiser base.

This did not mean we would simply publish everything advertisers wanted, but that we would use our editorial skills to marry their objective to be part of the section with some of our content planning, to create an engaged environment for both readers and commercial supporters.

“Editors who refuse to understand the commercial imperatives of advertisers and revenue will preside over redundancies in newsrooms,” I retorted. “I know what kind of editor I’d rather be!”

And, upon that, I spun on my heel and fled to the ladies’ room to sob for an hour before giving the sales presentation of my life — ironically, the one that did save the section.

It went on to publish for another three years before returning to its old ways, and recently closed. My colleague’s career likewise continued to ascend, with that individual presiding over some of the biggest newsroom redundancies in the country, including the colleague’s career itself.

The inability of too many senior editors to understand the importance of content engagement with our commercial partners still saddens me enormously, but there is no more time for tears. I am not crying wolf when I shout, “Wake up, people!”

A new competitor has arrived in town to further erode the revenue of newspaper companies. And like the searchable classified Web sites we dismissed 10 years or so ago, while we focused on the “real” issue of what our traditional print competitor was doing, this new competitor is going to take us by surprise and rip a major revenue stream from us unless we wise up right now.

Because our new competitors are actually our advertising clients.

Content marketing is the new buzzword that leading edge companies are now embracing and newspaper companies are clueless about, even though it is something we should and can excel at.

The rise of content marketing has been developing over the past five years. Technology solution company Citrix has an excellent white paper that gives a lot of detail on what it is and how to do it. Frighteningly, it has been around since 2010.

Ardath Albee, the paper’s author, argues that content marketing allows companies to generate high-quality leads, lengthens the sales cycle, and helps create a buzz — all things advertisers have traditionally come to us for.

And now, as more companies embrace social media strategies, content marketing is in the ascendancy. What is it? The encouragement of businesses to create their own content around their own brand and stories to encourage engagement, spread messages, increase stickiness, and improve sales.

I can hear the harumphs from newsrooms everywhere. Who cares? Advertisers have always developed their own creative. We’ve also survived the tedious demands of advertorials, and many have even built custom publishing divisions to produce client-sponsored magazines or special reports — safely sequestered from the real journalism of the newsroom.

But content marketing is more than just sponsored publications. It’s the creation of genuinely interesting stories with words, video, and online, for mobile, in social media, billboards, and print, on any platform and available whenever people want to engage.

It is a threat to traditional news media for three reasons:

  1. It is yet another tool that promises measurable audience, dividing our proposition of broadcast media and taking money away from advertising budgets if we only know how to sell column centimetres.

  2. It takes more time away from engagement in traditional media. We didn’t believe there could ever come a time when people would spend more time playing a game that involved flinging birds at buildings than reading us, and look how that worked out.

  3. There is a very real risk that our clients could be better at this than we are. There are certainly enough former journalists and storytellers out there to lend their skills to these bold new forays, and they are coming at it. One Australian company, King Content, gives its potential clients a seven-step programme, which is, in fact, a primer on “how to be an editor.”

    Edge Content provides an excellent portfolio of work that explains to advertisers the power of telling stories by telling a great story about Edge itself

The industry is still nascent, but that’s a good thing. It means it’s not too late for us to get our act together.

It will, however, grow and grow quickly. Some of the best marketing businesses in the world are already investing heavily.

Coca Cola has announced it is spending 10% of its marketing budget on “innovative” techniques to drive brand engagement, and this includes content marketing. (Check out this slide show and blog from McKinsey partner Josh Leibowitz.)

In case you were wondering, Coke’s marketing budget in 2011 was US$4 billion. You could buy entire newspaper companies for 10% of Coke’s marketing budget. Imagine what happens when this trend moves from “innovative” to ”new” as part of their budgeting.

Will readers really spurn news to watch Coke’s new video? They will if the content is fresh and surprising and interesting and good enough. And these guys have the budget to make sure it is.

So what can we do?

Newspaper companies need to urgently revise our thinking around “custom publishing.” We need to quickly get our heads around content marketing and work out how our skills and expertise can put us in a position to lead this space, because there is still time to do that.

That will require a robust analysis of the traditional artificial barriers that have separated church and state. I don’t advocate anarchy, but we should understand what will and won’t work for us in the new world, and develop guidelines that are better suited to audiences’ rapidly evolving understanding of media and consumption.

Content marketing can be seen as a threat. But I prefer to view it as a huge, exciting opportunity in urgent need of exploration. Choosing to ignore it or claim it is not relevant will end only in shouts and tears.

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