Second of (probably) three posts about the future of digital media
Quality Content + Audience at Scale + Community =
Sustainable Engagement, Loyalty and Conversion
In my previous post, I presented this marketing equation. It means that for publishers of content, whether a media company or a brand, creating quality content and building a large audience is not sufficient to drive sustainable consumer engagement, loyalty and conversion.
We need a community.
There is a certain “duh” about that statement. Of course community is important. Fandom is the bedrock of social media. But I don’t think we’ve quite hit on how to effectively use community to reach our marketing goals. To truly partner with our community, not just create content for it (the typical publishing model), or build spaces where it can can create its own content or connect with likeminded folks (the social platforms, including blogs).
In this post, I am going to cover a concept for how digital publishers/channels can collaborate with the community to create higher value content. It is by no means the only way to partner with or build community.
A content ecosystem created around media sites or brands that seamlessly combines “owned and operated” editorial content with content created by consumers (the community) but on their OWN sites or platforms, not hosted within the media property or brand site. Accompanied by robust revenue shares between the publisher/brand and the community partners.
How we get there:
People don’t visit destination sites the way we did when the web was young and we bookmarked all the sites we loved and checked them frequently for new content. Search and social drive discovery, and loyalty is fleeting, especially in B2C lifestyle content. It is a distributed model, and we may not even be aware of where we are consuming the information (a problem for another day.)
Tightly focused verticals and B2B, which is sort of a vertical, are slightly different and may still see some success as “destinations,” but the cachet of writing for a mainstream vehicle is far less than it was “back in the day.” Content creators can find their audience and create a community without the endorsement of mainstream brands.
As a result, the model of getting people to create content on a destination site for free just won’t work very well and it doesn’t scale easily (if at all.) That’s not how we consume content, and the value exchange is unbalanced. The content creator gets far less than the site owner; the cachet of writing for a site — even HuffPo — only goes so far. The site owner may not be getting exactly the content it expected either. If you aren’t paying someone, it is much harder to dictate what they produce or maintain your desired content quality.
Syndication is a better choice for the content creator, as it offers the possibility of click-over to the original content site, where the content creator can monetize through advertising and potentially bring the viewer deeper into HER content. The mainstream site owner can control quality by only syndicating content that meets its quality standards and editorial needs.
But syndicated content is rarely integrated with the editorial content alongside which it lives. It disrupts the flow of content experience, just like advertising does. And more so when it is sponsored content syndicated into a native unit within a site.
If we really want to increase the long-term value of content — to publishers, brands, consumers, content creators, everyone — we need a better model.
My ideal content network is a community-centered editorial ecosystem. With an integrated editorial strategy that leverages the contributions of the publisher/brand and the distributed sites on the community network, somewhat like a hub and its spokes.
How many spokes? 20-25 contributing sites that really match the editorial mission. If you cover multiple vertical markets, 15 or so per vertical, depending on how many verticals you have. You really don’t want more than 100 or so content partners in the editorial community. Because you have to deliver a high degree of service to maximize the value – yours to them as a content and probably advertising partner, and theirs to you as content producers in your ecosystem that will help you deliver a great content experience and scale more easily. Remember: they continue to invest in building their audience just as you do yours. The collective effort increases scale beyond the capacity of any individual.
When a viewer finds a piece of content — however and wherever she enters your ecosystem, she is offered additional content that matches her interests through contextual matching, behavioral targeting and as she comes back, knowledge of her content consumption. What does she love? What content is she more likely to engage with? Offer her the best matches, both on the site and across all the content partners.
What’s the tech that does this? I have some ideas, based on things I have been working on recently, but this doesn’t have to be complicated to start. It is a simple commitment to build an integrated content strategy with the community, where content lives equally in both places.
Why does this matter so much? Consumers are already banner blind unless they are actively seeking. Without some innovation, they will become equally blind to native advertising, which is the most relied upon method for scaling sponsored content. I also expect that midroll ads on Facebook video are going to impact video completion rates far more than preroll did. It’s disruptive, and consumers hate being disrupted. (Side bar: I am already sick of the insurance company souffle.)
These common ad formats won’t go away. They have their place in the ecosystem, but it is largely top of funnel, driving awareness and interest. If we want to drive down the purchasing funnel, we need to engage consumers with our message, and convert them to customers.
Branded content, and most specifically influencer content, is the key. Consumers are more likely to trust influencer recommendations than any other source when it comes to purchasing a product (Source: In the Company of Friends, SheKnows/Research Narrative Influencer Marketing Study, October 1, 2015, PDF.)
By creating a more hospitable ecosystem for influencer content, in which we seamlessly move within the content network, the experience of reading or viewing sponsored content is less disruptive. We’ve already accustomed our reader to following her interests across our network with our “regular” content. The branded content experience looks much the same. Anchoring branded content or video, usually on the brand or mainstream media site (but not necessarily,) seamlessly integrated with influencer content on other blogs or social platforms. With the right intelligent tools, we could even target sponsored content to the most likely consumers, eliminating the circulation “waste” of readers that are not in the target demo.
As I noted above, you wouldn’t need hundreds of influencers as content creation partners in such a community ecosystem. 20, 25 per content area or niche. But you could complement the vertical networks with microinfluencer activations and social marketing promotions on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. If you didn’t want to build out your own group of social influencers, there are PLENTY of agencies and software platforms that you can contract on a campaign or annual license basis.
This model is far from complete as I’ve described it here, and there are a number of considerations not even mentioned, but we’ve been circling around this idea of community-centered publishing for years. HuffPo built the first relatively successful model where folks would write for free, and Medium came along to scale it, but neither quite got there in the end. HuffPo is at its core a contributor-fueled website that sells ads. Medium had no center to serve as the hub for the spokes of distributed content, making it too hard for advertisers to buy. From Medium. Without the hub that adds value, brands can create influencer marketing programs on their own. No need to come to a publisher.
YouTube has a revenue share model with its content creators, but it too is center-less, relying on brands and content creators to create broadcast channels for some semblance of structure. It’s still very much the wild wild west. Other media businesses, from BlogHer and SheKnows to CafeMom/Media and the now-shuttered Mode developed variations on this theme, and got very close, but each time, one side of the ecosystem dominated, either the O&O channel/site or the partner network.
Largely because the media industry wasn’t ready for such a distributed model.
For this ecosystem to work, the two sides need to be equally important, content partners. Decisions about where content runs are driven by creating the highest long term value for the content and consumer relationships, which creates the value for the partner sites. Ownership — of content, even of exclusive relationships, is less important than results and creation of value. This is not the usual way we do things. When valuing a company, one of the first questions is what do you own – content, technology, exclusive contracts. In our distributed model, we don’t own all the assets, but we are using them in proprietary ways to create value.
And everybody wins.
Especially the customers, who get quality content about the topics and brands they love, from a variety of trusted voices, editors and consumer advocates alike.
I think and hope we are ready now. I’d love to build this.
15 September: Updated to add link to an excellent column by Jack Myers: How Wall St. Priorities are Damaging the Media Ecosystem
Final post in the series (for now) will be some thoughts about video specifically.