Sunday, July 22, 2012

Editorial Piety, Brands in the Sandbox, and Data as Design

I joined the magazine editorial ranks when the church/state axis was a whole lot clearer than it is today.  Yes, we paid attention to the editorial cost per page and the price of dropping that fifth color on a favorite graphic, but we were largely word girls and guys and would get to the business stuff in due time.  I will be forever grateful to the keeper of the financial keys at Rodale, for sharing all those gnostic secrets about magazine financial levers and ratios.

The chatter during a recent Linkedin Independent Publishers Forum about vendor-supplied content suggests the church/state battle lines are still sharply drawn.  Participant Andy Kowl, who advocated rethinking the content model, wrote that he felt he had been “digitally tarred and feathered.”

If I still believe that magazine editorial content, delivered in print, on the web or mobile devices, holds specific value because it is brand-stamped and curated through the intelligence of savvy editors, I must also acknowledge that other content, especially in the verticals, makes a medieval church/state discussion a little less neat and predictable.  Of course, we have an editorial trade association that keeps magazines reasonably honest by separating advertorials from editorial content, but even this distinction has become fuzzy and business requirements often become the tail that wags the editorial dog.

But I’m not that interested in this somewhat virtuous dustup.  Rather, I am more interested in digital content created by marketers that is engaging, provides value and adds to the online experience.   I will acknowledge that I am a late convert to what is generally called content marketing, having long thought it a diminished, if not bastard, form of what I produce.  I was frankly surprised to learn from Outbrain, a content discovery platform, how extensive, and above-board, this practice is on the part of marketers.  In a report entitled “The State of Content Marketing, 2012,” Outbrain notes that “Content marketing continues to be one of the rising stars of the online marketing worlds as brands from American Express and Proctor & Gamble to GE and General Mills use it alongside more traditional strategies to reach their target audiences.”

Senior-level brand managers and agency executives surveyed while they judged the 2012 Effie Awards report that 100% of brand and agency marketers use content marketing; 87% of respondents cited video as the most common form of content created.  Not surprisingly, social media is the most popular channel.  Outbrain found that “marketers employ content marketing efforts to drive brand awareness and target top of the purchase funnel rather than for generating leads.”   This is one of the key strengths of magazine advertising: reaching the consumer when she is ready to make a purchase decision.

Now this is all very interesting, but what does content marketing look and smell like? examined content marketing strategies of GE, General Mills, and Sears.  Fundamental to all these corporate marketing efforts is the idea that if content isn’t good enough to share, then they have failed in their efforts.  The companies carved out consumer interest areas within their portfolio that they think consumers might be interested in.  Sears, the country’s largest supplier of fitness equipment, built on that strength with its Fitstudio effort that includes a library of content, making decisions in ways not unlike traditional editors: what type of content would most interest, inform, and engage readers.

General Mills through, a site consisting of straightforward editorial content, marketed to the Millennial audience through food-related web sites, Pinterest, content vertical, search engines, and blogger-relationships.  The branding is behind-the-scenes.  General Electric, through sites like Ecoimagination and Txchnologist, are more straightforward brand initiatives, with GE being a little more data-driven.  The company seems very sophisticated about understanding why a consumer moves from one piece of content to another.    

While the branding around these efforts vary—some are readily apparent; others mentioned in Terms of Use or About Us--none is trying to put one over on the consumer.  These companies have a sophisticated understanding of content and have found that paid or branded content has a place along the editorial continuum.  Sharing is rising to the top as the key measurement metric.

In many ways, these companies are becoming content publishers and curators themselves.  The people writing the blogs are very knowledgeable about the verticals.  The marketers are quite sophisticated about measuring consumer engagement and in ways seem more advanced than some publishers in their use of social media metrics, particularly sharing.  All have vast libraries of useful content.   

It’s not a new insight that content models are changing, though we are still early in this disruption cycle.  But it is not only the big marketers that are getting involved in this transformation of content; non-profits and independent media organizations are also in the hunt.  I read a very interesting article at by Jeremy Lehrer with the catchy title “How a Web App Can Help Non-Profits Tell Better Stories and Raise Cash.”  I was drawn in because I am doing some consulting for a non-profit, exploring how to marry content and cause marketing in ways that are ethical, interesting and measurable.  Or to put it another way: how does one link storytelling to social enterprise?   

Enter Sparkwise, a project from Tomorrow Partners in San Francisco, a free, cloud-based, open-source service that combines visualized data with video, audio, text feeds to create a moving story featured in widgets.  At the heart of this offering, now in beta, is making stories easier to tell through visualizing data.  Sparkwise provides a platform that integrates open access to big data with art and everyday metrics.   Data should always be visual. 

One benefit of this platform is that it is completely transparent; for non-profits this would mean that the results of its efforts will be front-and-center, updated in real time.  We are inundated with data, most presented as flat, ponderous and unremarkable.  Sparkwise brings all this blandness to life.

When I was sitting in the editorial high chair, I saw content marketing as something just short of treason.  Now I am a little less righteous.  Editors and publishers can learn from marketers that are consumer-centric, technology and data-driven, and are re-envisioning content along a dynamic continuum, not unlike the consumers they chase on social media platforms.

Equally important, revenue is flowing out of traditional advertising into content marketing.  Perhaps this will take some of the sting out of the angst editors might be feeling. 

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