Can Publishers Compete As Content Marketers?

Brian O’Leary

Publishers that see the value of conversion architectures and content marketing may still wonder, ÔÇ£Can we really compete in this space?ÔÇØ IÔÇÖm strongly arguing yes, as publishers already have the skills required to compete effectively as content marketers. In fact, publishers can deliver on the promise of conversion architectures and content marketing because:

  • They are already in the business of linking content to markets, the purpose of content marketing;
  • They are established as content curators, a core component of effective content marketing;
  • They have access to and can offer the kind of longer-form content that is most likely to have an impact, whether measured in shares, inbound links, actual consumption or sales, and
  • They are among those best able to recognize and know how to tell great stories.
  1. Linking content to markets

Publishers have long been in the business of linking content to markets. They evaluate titles on their merits, and in doing so publishers think carefully about the readers who would buy a particular book. The links are often intuitive, with successes backed by years of trial (and error). Still, understanding how audiences look for, read, share and recommend content is in our nature, even if publishers havenÔÇÖt always measured it.

Publishers are also accustomed to the idea that we can give away content to sell it. Whoever decided to put chairs in bookstores was a content marketing genius. Galleys, ARCs and blads are examples of the way that publishers traditionally have tried to build word-of-mouth by giving away early looks at a book. Typically, these samples are distributed to booksellers. As with the decisions made about what books to publish, the measurement might not be precise, but publishers recognize the value in building awareness of a book by using the content of the book, itself.

More recently, publishers have been able to offer sample content directly to readers through features like AmazonÔÇÖs ÔÇ£Search Inside The BookÔÇØ. For the most part, only the platforms know the extent to which these samples turn prospects into readers, a situation that partners like Kobo are working to change.

But the traditional and emerging marketing efforts share a common characteristic: they rely on content to help sell a product: books. In that sense, publishers have been acting as content marketers for decades. Now, they need to use the data available to us and refine our understanding of how prospects find, consume and respond to our content.

To better understand those interactions, publishers can try using journey maps, the ÔÇ£visual or graphic interpretation of an individualÔÇÖs relationship with an organization, service, product or brand, over time and across channels.ÔÇØ The journey is mapped from the readerÔÇÖs perspective.

Journey mapping can help publishers in a number of ways, providing data that allows us to connect, collaborate and align around reader interests.

In mapping a readerÔÇÖs step-by-step journey, it is useful to look upstream to understand prior experiences, and downstream, after purchase, to see what a customer does as a result of their interactions. These journey maps can be decidedly low-tech: wall maps, post-it notes and visual aids are the preferred tools.

The need for effective journey maps is probably growing. I have noted that ÔÇ£ItÔÇÖs much easier to deal with an overarching platform than it is to figure out how to market at a small scale. But the web isnÔÇÖt a community of millions; itÔÇÖs millions of communities.ÔÇØ

More to the point, Jim Bankoff, founder of Vox Media, described the challenge this way: ÔÇ£The audience isnÔÇÖt ÔÇÿsports fansÔÇÖ or people interested in ÔÇÿhealthÔÇÖ but rather New York Rangers fans or those suffering from gout.ÔÇØ

  1. Publishers are already content curators

Across social-media platforms, marketers can use content to reach audiences. Whether the content is owned or aggregated, it is effectively curated ÔÇô chosen with a target audience in mind.

Again, this is an area in which publishers excel. The industry already understands how to develop and publish content that:

  • Provides value to readers
  • Creates opportunities to interact more frequently with those readers
  • Showcase content depth in a given area, and
  • Earn attention from target influentials (that is, reviewers and book bloggers)

Consumers value content providers who can gather information and share recommended links or resources. Bundling the work of others can be an effective way to build a provide value, interact with prospects, showcase expertise and gain visibility. So, too, can mindful sharing of published content.

  1. The web values longer-form content

ItÔÇÖs a common refrain: no one appreciates long-form content anymore. People want snippets, factoids, blog posts, news they can use. Publishers lament that the web is overwhelmed by short-form content.

Platforms like Medium, Atavist and LongReads challenge those notions, but the mere presence of platforms isnÔÇÖt confirmation that longer-form content has value. What is interesting, though, comes from the world of search.

Writing for ProBlogger, Garrett Moon, co-founder of CoSchedule, explains that GoogleÔÇÖs algorithms favor long-form content. Data developed by social-media consultant Neil Patel show that long-form content is more likely to be linked to from another site. The posts at the top end of their assessment run about 35,000 words.

Patel also found that longer-form content was more likely to take the top spot in search results. Analysis from SerpIQ shows that the average length of posts returned on the first page of a search result consistently exceeded 2,000 words, with the longest posts outperforming the somewhat shorter ones.

Okay, youÔÇÖre thinking 2,000 words is not a book, but publishers are unlikely to post a full book online, right? Something north of 2,000 words is a healthy excerpt, though. It is certainly more than enough room for a thoughtful interview with an up-and-coming author. It could even be the right length for an editorial preview of a coherent, carefully curated spring list.

Publishers understand longer-form writing. The question they have to ask (and answer) is, “What content can we offer that helps us attract and retain readers?” ThatÔÇÖs an interesting and inspiring question to answer.

  1. The primacy of good storytelling

To illustrate how far ahead of the curve publishers are, I decided to draw on something Scott Aughtmon wrote for the Content Marketing Institute. AughtmonÔÇÖs post explains how BusinessWeek began as an in-house publication for a furniture maker, A.W. Shaw. External demand for the publication led the owner to sell the magazine to people outside the company.

After proving the concept, Shaw sold the rights to McGraw-Hill, which owned BusinessWeek until 2009. The success story inspired Aughtmon to remind content marketers of what works:

  • Top-quality content. ShawÔÇÖs content benchmark: make it so good that people will pay for it.
  • Even though he was a furniture maker, Shaw thought like a publisher. Specifically, he understood his target audience and its immediate and longer-term needs, creating content that helped his audience address those needs.
  • Shaw focused on niches. He didnÔÇÖt try to serve everyone; he picked the markets where he was able to deliver a superior solution.
  • He found value in developing your own style, a unique voice that stands out.
  • He understood that audiences expect a clear point of view.

Any publisher could have predicted the points on AughtmonÔÇÖs list. The reason is simple: Effective storytelling is at the heart of what publishers do.

This isnÔÇÖt to say we have it all figured out. New platforms and new formats emerge about as often as new books seem to. Some of them seem impossibly intriguing. Snapchat, the home of the disappearing sext, has started to offer Snapchat Stories. At Business Insider, Nicolas Carlson noted that the interface guaranteed that the recipient was always 100% engaged. ItÔÇÖs inherently an opt-in program, meaning you get qualified leads. The demos are young ÔÇô who wouldnÔÇÖt want a younger demo these days? ÔÇô and the scale can quickly rival broadcast or cable.

And of course, it came out last fall and will probably peak in less than a year. Welcome to the web …

Publishers can be good content partners

Publishers can also be good partners for content marketers in industries and niches that would benefit from distinctive, high-quality content. The easiest sales might come from those imprints specializing in content of value to specific audiences. The result would be win-win: publishers could gain more sales of existing or adapted content; content marketers would benefit from greater effectiveness, increased loyalty and sales growth.

The alignment need not be perfect. It might seem counterintuitive, but the most powerful kind of content a marketer can offer might actually be content that doesnÔÇÖt directly focus on its core business or industry.

Think about the perceived effectiveness of eBooks as a content marketing tool. These digital formats offer both value and persistence. For a content marketing partner, a prospect might return to a well-chosen eBook on more than one occasion, each time directly or indirectly remembering the marketer who offered the book.

Publishers represent an important resource for content marketers who face challenges doing things like ÔÇ£producing engaging contentÔÇØ, ÔÇ£producing content consistentlyÔÇØ and ÔÇ£producing a variety of content.ÔÇØ Content marketers are on solid ground in considering publishers as part of their content strategy arsenal.