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Establishing and documenting a strategy is a crucial, early step in creating a successful brand publishing operation. But despite that, companies often skip this step in their enthusiasm for getting started, especially as brainstorming and creating content is often more exciting than the initial strategy work might seem.
Brand publishing needs a well-defined strategy precisely because its borders are relatively flexible. Publishing, while certainly a cousin of other marketing vehicles, has to have its own goals and mission so it becomes a foundational part of how companies operate and express brands and identities to the world. Because content is published on and distributed through company channels, properties and platforms, it’s important to ensure the strategy is detailed and overarching to cover all bases.
Companies often mistake mediums and distribution mechanisms (tactics) with a strategy — for example, emails, podcasts, events, panels, interviews or a video series are all examples of tactical marketing but the editorial product, itself, is important to discern. Before companies begin to get into the messy business of developing an editorial operation, hiring people and drafting copy the important job of defining an audience, creating a mission and setting goals must come first.
It tempting to start churning out posts, videos, and podcasts with the intent to “figure it out on the fly,” or to assume the brand needs to publish certain types of content at all. Diving into brand publishing without a clearly defined strategy typically results in confusion, operational inefficiency, sub-standard content, and ultimately, a lackluster brand publishing operation.
A far more effective approach is to establish a clear and overarching strategy from which tactical and executional elements should flow. This initial strategy should influence everything from hiring, staffing, and team structure, to day-to-day operational processes and workflows. Most importantly, the strategy must influence the nature of the content that’s produced and published.
Given that companies may need to hire specialists who understand certain types of content production, failure to map out a strategy can lead to expensive mistakes, and even more expensive corrections, in terms of time, equipment and personnel. Perhaps even more troublingly, companies that don’t spend the time and resources on crafting a strategy will find that their publishing operation simply doesn’t do its job of building authority, driving users and contributing to the bottom line. Therefore, a carefully considered strategy is a cornerstone around which all elements of a brand publishing program should be built.
A successful strategy should:
- Articulate goals and objectives: Any company engaged in brand publishing should be able to articulate what it intends to achieve and why. This includes identifying the outcomes it plans to generate and having a clear sense of how it expects those outcomes to positively impact the broader goals of the organization.
- Define a target audience: Writers and content teams should, at all times, be capable of articulating whom their content is designed for and why. Attempting to create engaging and interesting content without a specific audience in mind is a recipe for failure.
- Establish a clear editorial mission: Every brand publishing operation should carefully establish an editorial mission statement that succinctly describes what it strives to deliver to its audience and why its content matters. What’s the reason for its existence? How does it benefit its audience? What’s its unique value proposition? How is it differentiated from other content? What ideas and ideals does it stand for?
Answering these questions will provide a North Star that can guide more practical decisions, such as what kinds of content to publish, how often, on what platforms and with what personnel.
This guide provides a framework for establishing robust answers to the elements above. It is also intended to help companies create and document a strategy that can be used to install a solid, strategic foundation for any brand publishing initiative.
Articulating goals and objectives
Any company engaged in brand publishing must be able to articulate what it intends to achieve and why. This includes identifying the outcomes it plans to generate and having a clear sense of how it expects those outcomes to positively impact the broader goals of the organization.
Establishing clear goals helps measure the progress and success of a brand publishing operation over time. It also allows the company to gauge the return on its investment in the endeavor.
Goals and objectives may vary greatly from one company or organization to the next, based on a range of variables, but some common examples include:
- Promoting awareness of a company among a target audience.
- Educating an audience around an issue or topic.
- Positioning a company (or its staffers) as an authority or “thought leader” around niche topics, industries, or concepts.
- Generating website visits or “traffic” from a target audience via search engines, social media, etc.
- Collecting information from or about a target audience.
For example, a newly launched company selling plant-based alternatives to meat products might have a target market of customers in the U.S. under 40-years-old. The company might use brand publishing to:
- Promote awareness of its brand to target consumers with the expectation that those consumers may purchase its products the next time they visit a grocery store.
- Educate the target market around the health benefits associated with more heavily plant-based diets.
- Position the company’s executives or scientists as leading experts in the field of plant-based nutrition.
- Generate website visits from people in the target market with the hope they’ll order products from its online store.
- Collect information about its target market’s tastes and preferences to be used in the development of future products.
Even companies with established brand publishing operations should ensure their goals and objectives are updated over time. As companies and brand publishing operations evolve and progress, goals and objectives should be adjusted accordingly.
The frequency with which this happens will vary, but at the very least, an annual check-in and reassessment, using metrics and performance numbers, should take place. This can also happen when, for example, teams grow rapidly, or there are new mandates for the brand publishing operation. Success and failure, however they are measured, are also signs that goals and objectives should be calibrated and checked in on. As a matter of course, however, an annual adjustment or check in is recommended.
A common pitfall with brand publishing is attempting to do too much. It’s understandable for companies to look at the goals outlined in the example above and hope to achieve every single one, but in practice, it’s rarely feasible to do so effectively. Instead, a few choice goals should be picked for the group to orient towards. This is especially true for a younger or newly-established brand publishing initiative.
If companies optimize to everything, they optimize to nothing. Brand publishers that set overambitious or wide-ranging goals will often find that resources are spread too thin, goals and incentives can quickly begin to conflict with each other, and teams and staffers quickly lose sight of how their day-to-day activities map back to broader, intended outcomes.
A better approach for most publishers is to identify primary and secondary goals that can serve as a map towards which everyone involved with the operation can strive for on a daily basis. Over time, additional goals may be layered on top in a way that doesn’t threaten or undermine the foundational goals.
For example, a plant-based food company might set the following primary and secondary goals:
- Primary goal: Generate website visits from people in its target market.
- Secondary goal: Collect information about its target market’s tastes and preferences to help inform future products.
Once goals and priorities are clearly established, the next step is to define what success against those goals will look like.
Arriving at a set of high-level key performance indicators (KPIs) will enable everyone within the organization to easily benchmark progress and determine whether changes should be made, investment should be increased, and ultimately, how much value a brand publishing operation is delivering to the company overall.
Less is often more with KPIs; the intent is to ensure stakeholders within an organization have a common set of high-level expectations, rather than getting lost in the weeds with data and measurement.
KPIs will vary from company to company based on their goals, size, resources, expectations, industry and more. In some cases, brand publishing KPIs might be relatively specific, while in others, they may rely on softer metrics, such as “brand perception,” that are harder to quantify with data.
Another factor is the tools at the company’s disposal to track established KPIs. Setting up KPIs that can’t be measured, or failing to build those metrics in at the outset, can lead to failure. Something else to consider is that publishing can be a long game, and certain editorial products can take time to start showing success. For example, SEO traffic, or even podcast listenership, can take several months to start growing. Brand publishing is about building a relationship with readers and the audience; that relationship has to be nurtured consistently in order to meet a team’s goals. Depending on the sector, there may also be a lot of competition for readers’ time and attention, which means the time it’ll take to establish a strategy, create consistently high-quality content and then have readers pay attention to it will also take longer.
Regardless of how specific KPIs are or how easy they are to measure, it’s advisable to institute at least one overarching indicator that maps directly back to primary goals, even if it only makes sense within that specific organization.
Sample goals for the previously outlined plant-based food company might look like:
Promoting awareness of a company or organization among a specific audience: a broad KPI for this might be reach and engagement, which might, in turn, be tracked using metrics such as:
- Unique visits
- Content views
- Time spent
- Comments on a post or piece of content
- Social media activity
Educating an audience around a specific issue or topic: as above, engagement metrics for educational content might be tracked, including:
- Unique visits to the company website/blog
- Content views of specific posts and stories
- Time spent on specific posts and stories
Positioning a company as an authority or “thought-leader” around specific topics, industries or concepts: in addition to the engagement metrics outlined above, “authority” might be measured using metrics such as:
- Inbound links
- Press interviews
- Social media mentions
- Content recirculation
Generating website visits or “traffic” from a specific audience: in addition to high-level traffic, it may also be possible to tie traffic increases to more business-focused metrics, such as sales. Metrics might include:
- Sales volume attributed to organic traffic
- Revenue attributed to organic traffic
- Unique visits
- Repeat visits
- Time spent
- Bounce rates
- Audience demographics
Collecting information from or about a target audience: KPIs for this type of goal would depend on the information being collected and how, but might include:
- Email signups
- Forms completed
- Surveys completed
- Behavioral user profiles obtained
Defining a target audience
There’s truth to the adage “if you try to please all, you please none.” Having a clearly defined target audience is an essential step for any successful brand publishing operation and should inform nearly all subsequent decisions, including what types of staffers to hire what channels to distribute content through and, most importantly, the nature of the content that’s produced and published.
Attempting to create engaging and interesting content, without a specific audience in mind, is a recipe for failure. Writers and content teams should, at all times, be capable of articulating whom their content is designed for and why. Often, aiming content at a specific audience will generate a quality over quantity outcome, reaching a brand’s most highly motivated fans, and resulting in more engagement with fewer total visits. Targeted content is also usually more compelling than anodyne content, and thus, may even resonate outside a target audience. A solid editorial strategy creates an emotional connection with the target audience, resulting in engagement and if applicable, brand loyalty when considering this company.
Defining a target audience is more straightforward for some brand publishing initiatives than others, and is largely dependent on the operation’s goals (as outlined above). In some instances, the target audience for a brand publishing effort might simply mirror the core market for a company’s products or services, while in others, it may be more nuanced.
- A plant-based food company may decide its content should appeal to people in the U.S. under 40 years of age because that’s the core market it has identified for its products.
- A wellness supplements company might decide its target audience is physicians who may recommend its products to patients, rather than the patients themselves.
- A manufacturer of high-end, business-related software may choose to target an audience of senior executives with the authority to sign off on expensive purchasing decisions for their companies. A competing company might, instead, opt to target more junior staffers with the hope they’ll promote its software internally to their superiors. A third company might decide to target both of these audiences.
A key consideration when evaluating and defining a target audience is striking a sensible and manageable balance between specificity and scale. Slicing an audience too thin will limit its size and may make reaching it significantly harder. Conversely, going too broad can make standing out in an increasingly crowded sea of content more difficult, and may result in attracting audiences who won’t help meet the goals and objectives outlined above.
At the same time, it’s often sensible to leave some room to grow, dependent on the ambitions and goals of the company. For example, a manufacturer of high-end sporting apparel might choose to define its audience as elite athletes, or it may wish to cast its net a little wider by targeting fans of the sports it’s involved with, more generally.
Some companies may even decide the target audience for their brand publishing efforts should not be directly related to their products at all. For example, a footwear manufacturer may have research indicating that a large portion of its customer base also enjoys a certain type of music. As a result, it might focus on generating content to attract people who listen to that specific genre.
Creating audience personas
After a target audience is established, the next step is to begin thinking more tactically about the needs and interests of that audience and how the brand’s content will serve them. An effective way to think about those needs and interests — and to ensure they’re represented throughout the content generation process — is to codify them in the form of audience “personas.”
For the purposes of a brand publishing operation, personas can be thought of as fictional “characters” that broadly represent the demographics, interests, needs, and behaviors of a target audience. Audience personas are particularly valuable for content creators in helping to decide which content mediums, themes, topics and formats to focus on. Perhaps, just as importantly, they can help decide what things to avoid. For writers, it can be useful to think of personas when they’re coming up with story ideas, or deciding, for example, to create a new editorial product, such as a newsletter.
Depending on the audience, one or two personas may be sufficient to reflect its general characteristics. Larger or more complex audiences may benefit from multiple personas in order to represent different segments within them. Narrowing down to no more than five to seven personas is typically advisable for most audiences.
Personas are generally most effective when kept as pointed and succinct as possible. The types of information included within a persona will vary from one company and content operation to the next, based on audience, goals, objectives and more.
As a general rule, personas will specify attributes in the following categories:
- Challenges, objectives, goals and interests
- Behaviors, values and beliefs
For example: a manufacturer of high-end, business-related software might build personas for its business-to-business audience around the following attributes and questions:
- Job title and function
- Company type
Challenges, objectives, goals and interests
- What challenges do they face?
- What specific problems do they need to address?
- What are their professional goals?
- What parts of their job interests them the most?
- What parts of their job do they find most frustrating?
- What are some gaps in their knowledge, expertise or experience?
Behaviors, values and beliefs
- Are they an early adopter of technology?
- Is work a primary focus in their life or do they have other priorities?
- What do they aspire to?
- What are they motivated by?
Establishing an editorial mission
Once a target audience has been identified – and its needs, interests, and characteristics have been broken down further into personas, where necessary – it’s time to get more specific about what, exactly, a brand publishing operation will seek to accomplish for its audience.
Every brand publishing operation should carefully establish an editorial mission statement that succinctly describes what it strives to deliver to its audience and why it matters.
In other words, a brand should answer the following questions:
- Why does it exist?
- How does it benefit its audience?
- What’s its unique value proposition?
- How is it different from other content sources?
- What ideas and ideals does it stand for?
Mission statements should inform the content and provide a framework through which all content-related decisions should be made. In some instances, mission statements might be made public, but their purpose is primarily to orient internal content teams around a clearly defined common goal.
Mission statements may, subsequently, be used – in conjunction with the goals and objectives detailed above – to help inform what topics and issues to explore (and which to ignore), focus writers’ day-to-day efforts, inform hiring decisions, provide freelancers and partners with important context, and much more.
Crafting a mission statement
Editorial missions will, by definition, vary from one publisher and publication to the next. Crafting an effective mission statement is an art as much as a science. It should embody the culture and sensibility of the company, wherever possible.
As a rule of thumb, effective mission statements should typically include three core elements:
- The audience being served
- The type of information/product(s)/service(s) being provided
- The outcome(s) that information intends to generate for the audience
This may work, for example, if, via a competitive analysis, this company uncovered that its competitors tend to write about big, multinational companies in their content. This company will focus on differentiating itself by writing about small businesses and, specifically, their owners. It may also work if this company’s values focus on impact and helping people beyond the bottom line. For example, perhaps they seek to make a difference in their customers lives through community.
Effective mission statements should typically seek to:
- Focus on the audience: encapsulate the value being generated for the target audience, rather than the company publishing the content. Business-related benefits for the publisher should already be outlined in internal goals and objectives.
- Relate specifically to content: speak to the content being produced, rather than the formats, mediums, platforms and distribution channels through which it will be delivered. Formats and delivery mechanisms may change over time, but an editorial mission should exist outside of their influence. Formats, mediums, platforms and distribution channels should be informed by the mission statement, not the other way round.
- Be short and concise: statements should be no longer than two or three sentences in length. If a mission can’t be described in three or fewer sentences, it may be too specific, ill-defined, poorly articulated, or a combination of these issues.
- Promote points of differentiation: place emphasis on what’s different and uniquely valuable about this specific approach. A competitive audit of competitors’ content can help identify “white space” in which to serve audiences in new or different ways, or opportunities to simply serve the same audiences more effectively with superior content.
- Map to company values: an editorial mission should generally relate to the overarching mission and value proposition of the company. While a brand publishing initiative needn’t be a direct representation of the company behind it, it should not exist in a vacuum.
Checklist and next steps
A robust strategy should form the basis of any brand publishing operation, and be used to help inform nearly every single facet of a content operation, including the types of content to publish, how much of it, on what platforms and with what personnel. Editorial strategies can and should be evaluated, and re-evaluated, on an annual basis – and communicated to the entire team in order for groups to operate effectively and work towards a shared goal.
Companies should ensure they have answers to the following questions in order to develop a brand publishing strategy, and prior to hiring writers and creating content:
Articulate goals and objectives
Define a target audience
Establish an editorial mission
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