“It may be ‘content’ in the digital world. In the real world it’s mostly garbage,” wrote the advertising guru Bob Hoffman in his book The Ad Contrarian. ”Ninety-nine per cent of it will go unnoticed and will live and die anonymously.” I couldn’t agree more. Content, no matter how brilliantly constructed, will “live and die anonymously” unless it is made smart.
As important as content marketing is, it is by no means new – depending on your definition of ’content’. In fact, you could say it’s as old as storytelling itself. What is new (and evolving) is the technology that powers these stories – that is, the tools that transform quality copy into smart content and give it a competitive edge.
For a few years now, that smart content has meant PRs focusing their efforts on building editorial content, with a little social media marketing here, a little SEO there. More and more businesses have been adding content- makers to their workplace, hiring bloggers and/ or journalists to spruce up their web presence and make it social- and search-friendly.
Cision’s own office is a testimony to the fact, with a growing editorial team firmly embedded in the organisation.
This is undoubtedly the right approach – at least when it’s combined with traditional media relations. Television, radio and even newspapers (at least in the UK) are still valuable channels for PR. More to the point, branding on these channels translates into newer-fangled online activity. Any mature PR strategy aims to consolidate the old and the new.
In 10 years at Cision I’ve worked with some of the leading PR agencies and in-house communication teams in the UK and around the world. Experience has taught me that businesses that invest in the latest means to engineer their communications emerge as winners only when they combine new tools with tried and tested formulas.
A case in point is travel insurer Allianz Global Assistance. It knew it had a great story to tell and its website was good at telling it: there were hundreds of posts for travellers geared for search and social media success, with clickbait headlines such as ’The super-quick guide to applying for a passport’ and ’Six tips for cheap international travel’. What’s more, the brand was on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube. It shared relevant content with its community and was a trusted resource.
But with squeezed resources, our client was unsure about the best way to reach a new audience. In the end, it was a new approach to content marketing that was key to its success.
Allianz used paid ‘amplification’ services to place links to its posts as recommended stories on news sites such as USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph,the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror, using an algorithm that served up stories to the readers most likely to be interested in them. It quickly found that its content was attracting a new audience to its website. Once it introduced an RSS feed of its tips to premium publishers through paid amplification, that section of its site began outranking its own home page on Google.
The strategy was working – and director of communications Daniel Durazo had the figures to prove it. When its content hit the big-name sites, Allianz saw a 20 per cent surge in website visits.
Allianz is one of many firms to realise the power of content marketing as a PR strategy tool. A study by Uberflip, a marketing and publishing software provider, indicates that although only a minority of businesses have a content marketing strategy in place, by next year nearly 70 per cent will budget for it as part of their communication plan.
So what has changed in a year? You might simply answer “hype”, and there would be some truth in that. But there are plenty of other reasons. These days there’s a more mature understanding of social media – like the realisation that ‘engagement’ can work much better when there’s a ‘broadcast’ element underpinning it; that chat is simply chat if you’re not actually saying anything.
Consider too the mainstream media’s search for new revenues in areas such as online bookstores and dating sites, which encourages brands to ask whether this is a two-way street, and whether they themselves can act as publishers. In addition to that, there are increasingly sophisticated means of promotion, and of measuring that promotion – the ability to move beyond impressions and clicks to real return on investment. Clearly that’s a massive factor for getting buy-in internally.
Then there are the times we live in. Compared with traditional marketing and ad campaigns, content marketing requires fewer resources and has faster turnaround times. As such, it fits in well with the current economic climate. Moreover, content marketing is in keeping with the direction media and communication are heading, which is digital.
A longstanding client of Cision, St Mary’s University College in London, has already recognised the potential for communicating with young audiences, turning to content marketing this year when it entered clearing (the process by which university places are offered to students who’ve yet to secure one). By amplifying content that offered tips for students in clearing, St Mary’s clocked up 3.5 million impressions and 1,351 new clicks outside its usual network in just a week, enabling the university to reach its clearing goals.
In the competitive higher-education sector, it is imperative for universities to up their digital game. As St Mary’s senior PR and marketing officer Marina Boor says: “Students are all online and this is the best way to connect with them.”
Looking ahead, 2014 promises to be an exciting year. I’m not saying the number of success stories will explode, but I do expect to see content marketing mature and become part of an integrated communications approach. Smarter, engineered content will prevail.
As Hoffmann says: “Like all the online wonder drugs, there will be a few winners. They will be the same really smart people and the really smart agencies who know how to do things right.” If you’ve the right tools to integrate content with the rest of your communications, you have a much better chance of being among them.