“The greatest danger for businesses is to say something that no one cares about, and no one reads,” according to Matt McGregor. In an effort to wean themselves off platforms build genuine ongoing connections with audiences and create truly engaging content, companies are now upping their investment in brand publishing. They’re borrowing from journalistic habits and marrying those with great design to create experiences capable of building loyal and engaged audiences.
Toolkits spoke with McGregor, director of content at Shorthand, which provides tools that help brands create immersive and engaging content experiences without the headaches of expensive in-house developers. McGregor, who also operates Shorthand’s own publication, The Craft, spoke to us about the move away from content marketing to true brand publishing, how wonky incentives can lead to adverse outcomes for brand publishers, and why print is back in favor with brand publishers.
This conversation was edited for clarity.
The temptation to create boring content
“Internal pressures. You’ve got a bunch of people internal to your company who have opinions on what you do. And so you need to have the courage to say something, even if they don’t agree with it. When you’re working for brands, that can feel risky. You’re not speaking for yourself, you’re speaking for this bigger entity a lot of the time, and that can be stifling. Especially if you’re not really confident that you’re right, that you’re interesting, and that what you’re doing is going to have a good impact on your business.”
“About a year and a half ago I wrote a piece about how PDFs are a terrible format for any marketers or communicators. It’s because of the design constraints of the web, which we’re solving for, and it’s way too expensive for most people to pay a web designer and a developer to create really beautiful, bespoke content on the web. The piece did well, but people in the comments weren’t happy. You need to kind of have the capacity to be like, that’s fine. The greatest danger for businesses is to say something that no one cares about, and no one reads.”
How content marketing became synonymous with SEO
“There’s historically been a good model for growing compound traffic to a website using SEO. And the problem is that the incentives of SEO run against some of the qualities of good content. I define great content as having great writing, great design and original expertise. And SEO requires none of that. In fact, the incentives of that algorithmic distribution actually go in the other direction, that kind of incentivizes you to not do some of those things. So that’s a problem because you find yourself building out this library of content that is really good for Google, but not very good for humans.“
“If the content was better and more aligned with the needs of your audience, you wouldn’t have that delta between the traffic and the business outcomes. Because if the content was linked more closely to your business outcomes, then more traffic should equal better outcomes for your business. So if they don’t, I think that’s a problem. Content marketers become obsessed with the top-of-the-funnel metrics and become quite dis-aligned with the business metrics, and that comes back to haunt us sooner or later.”
Why print magazines are a popular format for brand publishers
“We’re realizing that print magazines have been delighting audiences for a really long time. Trying to bring that onto the web is an interesting challenge. I think design is the big one. It’s too expensive to have developers and designers on hand working full-time to create bespoke web pages. Shorthand has been trying to figure out a way to enable people to do exceptional work without breaking their budgets, basically. It’s really exciting because you can go to those print magazines and go like, this is an amazing layout. Let’s do that for the web. That becomes possible.”
“It’s exciting for people who work in content, where often it can be really frustrating working as ambition is stifled by the resources available to you. I think every business should be doing some version of brand publishing. The way I define [brand publishing] is borrowing from journalistic processes and norms, but also layering on beautiful writing, beautiful design and specific expertise.”
Shorthand’s own content strategy
“We have a few different content lanes. One is generic factual SEO, and we’re still playing that game. We’re also trying to layer on journalistic methods for some of that SEO content. We’ve just written this piece about web accessibility. We paid a freelancer to go out and talk to a few experts and do a more journalistic thing, creating something at the end that is much more grounded in expertise than would otherwise be the case. Operationalizing this in a business context is difficult because again, the incentives run all the other way. The third is a more opinion-based column, getting that straight expertise that is just written directly for your audience without any kind of algorithmic interference whatsoever.”