Last week, I wrote about the nine key principles I believe are most important for building successful brand publishing operations.
I received a note from an editor inside a brand about one point I made: That brands should find a niche early on and work hard at owning it. “Brand publishers will set themselves up for success by looking for the unique topics they have both permission to play in and where they can genuinely provide unique value,” I wrote.
This exec, who is just starting to build a brand publishing operation, said their biggest frustration is figuring out if it’s better to think broad in terms of the audiences they hope to serve, or instead to go narrow?
The question is a common one at companies that believe they have expertise in a wide variety of areas. The urge to demonstrate breadth of knowledge is understandable, but content focused on a highly specific need or topic often finds an audience much quicker, and provides much clearer opportunities for differentiation.
It’s a nuanced issue, and one that’s highly dependent on the brand in question, the category they operate in and the resources they have. However, brands should keep in mind some key considerations when establishing a target audience and content focus:
Content is abundant. There’s a lot of content competing for people’s attention. A lot of it tends to cluster around specific, zeitgeisty topics. One that we’ve been watching is the future of work: It’s an important and broad topic, and it’s also one that’s universally understood because almost everyone is reacting to a shift in how work gets done and where it gets done. Because of this, it can be tempting for brands to throw their hats in the ring with regard to this topic. In some cases, it may even feel silly to not cover it, since it so clearly strikes a chord with people. But at the same time, brands are better off not competing for attention in crowded arenas, and instead might want to find topics they can own that aren’t as popular so they aren’t fighting to serve audience needs for information about a specific topic.
Narrow focus can help with limited resources. Focusing on one topic can feel difficult at the outset, but gets easier as time goes on and teams gain expertise. Covering a broad variety of topics can be easier at the outset, but can over time lead to significant fragmentation of attention, both internally and from audiences. For brand publishers that are figuring out whether to go broad or narrow in terms of the audience needs they want to serve, a key consideration should be resources. It’s rare that publishing teams have an abundance of resources at their disposal. Hyperspecialization can help in ensuring teams are pulling in similar directions and aren’t spread too thin.
Tightly defined audiences. For brands, scale is less important than quality. Brands aren’t selling ads. For these companies, success is measured by even just the right handful of people engaging with what they’re writing about or the content they’re producing. Having a very clear sense of who it is brands want to reach and their unique needs can be a powerful way to narrow down on the topics to own.
Audience-first thinking. Relatedly, one way to think about topics is through the lens of audiences. At Toolkits, we’ve often found in our advisory work that brands newer to publishing can benefit from always thinking audience-first. One common error is applying internal needs to the planning process. For example, an internal need might be to “showcase employee experiences in order to attract talent.” For an audience of prospective employees, that “need” might be better positioned as “providing information about career paths.”
Asking for permission. When thinking about topics and themes for editorial operations, we often frame it as permission-seeking. As audiences become more discerning, they are also more likely to only consume information from sources they believe have permission to be communicating about certain topics. The idea of permission can help brand publishers think more deeply about the areas they truly believe they can add value to the conversation. It can also help them stay away from marketing-style tactics of thin-value content that over time erodes audience trust.
“Why does this exist?” Every brand doesn’t need to be a publisher, despite what Twitter threads may say. While publishing can be an effective way to speak directly to audiences, gain customers and build trust in the market, it is possible that for some brands, there simply isn’t enough value they can add to the discourse to make it truly impactful for their businesses. One way this often shows up is in brand publishers who tend to write about everything under the sun, even if it’s largely tangential to their business and their core expertise. Articulating why publications exist can help brands narrow their focus and set them up for success.