This week marks two years since I left Digiday Media. Barring the handful of days I took off to eat coleslaw on the beach in Rhode Island – don’t knock it until you try it – I’ve spent the past two years thinking deeply about how brands of all shapes and sizes are building publishing operations.
At Toolkits, we’ve worked with a plethora of brands at different stages of their publishing journeys. We’ve advised executives on how to build an editorial strategy, structure content teams and helped transform organizations to think content-first. Our throughline has been simple: By borrowing the habits of traditional publishers, brands can create publications that add value for audiences and contribute significantly to the bottom line.
Here are my top takeaways from two years advising brand publishers:
Simple is good. Among many of the brands we worked with, the ones that kept it simple were best set up for success. That ranged from coming up with a straightforward editorial strategy that placed quality content at the heart of the operation, to not spending too much time and money upfront on fancy design, illustrations, brand names and website build-outs. By focusing the majority of their energy on content and avoiding the distractions and pressures caused by bloated infrastructure, brand publishing teams are able to concentrate on finding their unique selling point.
Optimize for trust. Trust is imperative for audience building. For brands, the trust equation is profound. Companies that make products people already love and trust may find that they have a leg up when it comes to creating content – people are likelier to trust their output. This works both ways: Companies can use content to build trust around their products and services. Optimizing for trust over other metrics means having a high bar: Speaking authoritatively on the topics brands have expertise in, avoiding not tactics that annoy or confuse audiences, and overdelivering on brand promises.
Reporters and editors matter. One way to build trust is by showing, not telling. For brands who want to demonstrate expertise and authority on selected topics, hiring a team of reporting staff who use sourcing, interviews and research to build their stories can be much more impactful than publishing single-POV thought leadership put together by ghostwriters. Audiences trust publishers who show their work over those who only publish opinion pieces. Relatedly, having true editors in charge of greenlighting stories without letting them get caught up in cumbersome, longwinded “review” processes can go a long way in building a sustainable publishing operation that has momentum.
Efficiency is imperative. Working inside newsrooms, it was always interesting to see non-journalists marvel at how productive (most) traditional media organizations are. Teams that are considered small by marketing standards can do a lot of original, quality work. That’s if they’re set up for success, with efficient processes and intelligent ways to “stretch” content. As we enter a period of widespread belt-tightening, this will become even more important. What’s good is that content has the ability to have an outsized impact on a business. That impact can also be much more long-lasting than a flash-in-the-pan advertising campaign. But the key will be to have rightsized teams with efficient processes.
Find a niche. There is a sickness of sameness in content. It’s as prevalent in brand publishing as in news publishing. For many companies beginning to think about publishing, it can be tempting to see what competitors are doing and emulate them. Another temptation is in focusing on zeitgeisty topics, such as “the future of work,” a topic that’s so universal that it rarely affords an opportunity to truly differentiate. 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.
Don’t let distribution dictate content. Many brand publishing endeavors are vanity projects, kickstarted by someone in the C-suite who doesn’t have a clear sense of what the brand can bring to the conversation and why audiences would want to hear from them. One telltale sign of this is when distribution comes before formats – “we want to make podcasts” or “we’re going to put on an event.” Brands serious about publishing quality content that actually serves audience needs are better served by thinking about the best possible way to present information before jumping ahead to how that information reaches an audience.
Scale doesn’t always need to be the goal. Big numbers are good, real numbers are better. Brands must focus on high-quality, focused audiences over simply optimizing for reaching as many eyeballs as possible. It’s something we at Toolkits also think of as our North Star – our focus is on creating practical content for very specific, narrow disciplines. For any publisher, reaching 1,000 of the right people may be far more beneficial than reaching 10,000 of the wrong ones. Most brands aren’t monetizing content through advertising. They need to reach qualified audiences that can eventually be customers.
The funnel can be a powerful tool. Brand publishers should take cues from news publishers when it comes to articulating their strategies via a funnel approach. Content can be an extremely effective way to fill the top of the funnel and amass an audience that can monetized in a variety of ways. Increasingly, we’re seeing brands implement tactics such as registration walls to better identify their audiences and move them down the sales funnel. Email gates can be a great way to build the middle of the funnel, so that audiences can be turned into leads, and then, eventually customers.
Brands should hold themselves to a high(er) standard. Brand publishing goes beyond a marketing tactic. It requires brands to often build new muscles and new ways of working. For the brands committed to it, it can pay off handsomely. The good news is that we’re in an age where people are willing to consume information from various sources that don’t look like traditional news programs. The bad news is that there is a lot of competition out there for attention, and audiences have become more discerning than ever. In my experience, brands that held their content to a high standard were likeliest to win.