I take it back.
Every brand should not be a publisher.
I’ve spent the past few years preaching that brands should take up the tools of publishing to connect with their prospects and customers in more sustainable ways. And while I still believe that in theory, reality is a different story entirely.
Now that “brand as publisher” has become conventional marketing wisdom, we’re starting to see what happens when brands have the tools of publishers but not the skills--a proliferation of bad content. Bad because the brand doesn’t really understand or believe in the value of separating its knowledge agenda from its sales agenda. Bad because the brand doesn’t actually know how to create quality content--doesn’t know how to hire and manage the right resources or relies on agencies that are moving up the very same learning curve. Bad simply because the brand has nothing distinctive or useful to say.
Bad content can also be bad for those who create good content as consumers burnt by the bad stuff start to filter out anything that comes from brands. Don’t get caught on the wrong side of that filter. Don’t start pumping out content until you have the strategy and resources in place to produce and sustain a consistent level of quality. Credibility is earned by creating content of quality, every time. That’s what good publishers do. If you want to act like a publisher, then take the time to understand what makes the good ones successful.
For brands, that means taking a more thoughtful approach:
- Stop thinking about “content.” Start thinking about “knowledge.” Content has become a catch-all for marketing that doesn’t look like an ad. Knowledge is putting what you know and who you know in service of your customers and prospects. Be a knowledge brand. Knowledge brands are service-oriented; they create utility for their readers. Their knowledge is a natural by-product of who they are and what they do.
- Know your audience. You can’t be service-oriented unless you truly know the issues of greatest importance to your audience. And you can’t reach that audience unless you know their channel preferences, their reading habits, their digital lifestyles, and their communities. Do the research.
- Commit to quality. Sure, you know a lot. You have experts, case studies, whitepapers, and PowerPoints galore. But knowing a lot and knowing how to share it in a way that is credible, consumable, and useful are very different skill sets. Set high standards and invest in the professional resources necessary to maintain those standards. Quality is the ultimate differentiator.
- Have a business model. If you want to act like a publisher, then think like one. One way or another, publishers have to monetize their content. The need to get people to pay certainly sets a high bar for distinctiveness. You make money in other ways, but is your content good enough to pay for? (And, by the way, in certain circumstances there just might be a place for revenue as part of your strategy; it certainly can validate your credibility in the marketplace.)
- Pick your spots. Where are you most authoritative and authentic? Where do you have proprietary data to draw upon, or an unparalleled network? Where do you truly lead? Which issues are most sustainable over time? Where is there white space? Where can you be forward-looking? If these questions sound familiar, they should. Developing knowledge products should be no different than any other product development.
- Assess all your assets. As you think about your knowledge strategy, don’t limit yourself to the obvious knowledge assets–your experts, senior management, and existing documentation. Look at your extended network, your access to data, your partners; look deeper into your organization. Consider your corporate social responsibility programs, and draw on your audience itself. Think outside the blog.
- Integrate with your paid, owned, and earned programs. While you may be a relative beginner to publishing, you have deep expertise in integrated marketing. Use that experience to help build your audience. Your content strategy should flow from your larger communications strategy and should fully leverage and be leveraged by all your paid, owned, and earned programs.
- Do I really need to say it? Be open. Be responsive. Don’t sell.
Your content strategy is only as good as your ability to execute at an extremely high level. The quality, thoughtfulness, and utility of your program can create lasting relationships and serve as a public demonstration of your commitment to excellence in all that you do.
Or it can show you to be just another brand with a blog.
Note: This post was partially inspired by a presentation posted on SlideShare by Doug Kessler, creative director, Velocity Partners. I don’t know Doug or his colleagues, but his presentation found its way to me through the magic of social media and was helpful in taking my own thinking from half-baked to three-quarters-baked. Well done, Doug. I think they call that “content marketing.”
On a different note: In my last post, I wrote about the value of partnerships and some of the ways to develop the ability to partner effectively. In response, I heard a whole lot of partnership horror stories. One theme that emerged is what can happen when small companies partner with big companies. Several people from small companies wrote about the difficulty of partnering with bigger companies. Often this means principals from smaller companies working with teams from big companies that do not have the same level of experience or expertise--or that don’t have the same motivation and, thus, the same standards–as they do. It’s definitely something to manage as you weigh the opportunity to work with a big prestige brand.