The past 6 months have seen tremendous upheaval in digital media. Companies that were once high flyers — Mashable, Rolling Stone, Time — sold for a fraction of their former (perceived) value. Whether you think this is massive disruption or simply inevitable course correction, the ingredients for digital success have evolved.
It’s not enough to have a mobile-first site with strong traffic, SEO friendly content, a way to deliver video pre-roll and a good native offering. You DO have to have that, but digital success in 2018 requires a few more ingredients. Scale alone is not enough.
Here’s my recipe for digital success in 2018. Whether you are a digital publisher or a brand extending its content strategy, below is my take on how to turn readers and viewers into true audience that you can then further monetize — events, products, e-commerce etc.
1. Great content. With a point of view
Content with a point of view will be more successful than content that tries to be all things to all people. Vanilla is a lovely flavor, but if everyone offers that same vanilla, content becomes a commodity. Point of view isn’t necessarily an opinion or a “stand;” you don’t have to be news or hard-hitting to have one. It can be everything from a niche target, an overt POV, to a more subtle theme or vision underlying and holding together the content you create. It is NOT a mission statement or manifesto, although those can part of a point of view.
2. A deep understanding of and commitment to your customers — both the one you have and the one you want.
Point of view is likely something you share with your target audience or customers. The more you know about them the easier (but never easy) it will be to build a product they will love. This is equally true if your project is 100% digital, or digital is simply the gateway to purchasing a tangible good. You also have to be committed to looking at your business with a customer-centric lens. Everything truly does depend on making the customer happy. Shortcuts may get you through in the short-term but long-term success for any brand is about delivering to customer needs. Consider expanding the C- suite to include a Chief Customer Officer to be the steward of this effort in partnership with client service, marketing, sales, finance and operations.
3. Data, data, data
Data drives decisions. What gets measured, gets managed. You’ve probably heard these phrases more than once in your career. Simply put, the things we measure are the things we can effectively act upon. If you don’t have data, you can’t adjust, optimize, improve. Of course, for measurement to be effective, you have to define a baseline for success up front so you measure the right things, not every thing. All data is not equally important.
Analytics (website, social platforms, campaign performance) are just the first part of a comprehensive research plan. Third party research data is the second. And proprietary research – into your audience, your content performance, market opinion — is the connective tissue that brings analytics and third party data together into meaningful, actionable information that you can use to make your content better and differentiate from the competition.
Our first set of ingredients are the traffic drivers. How do you find the audience and bring them to your content?
4. Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
SEO is your first, and best, friend for building traffic. Nothing — not even paid search — replaces strong organic search results. You can build an internal SEO team or contract an SEO firm to develop your SEO plan and process. However you choose to operationalize SEO, it should be a continuous loop between the content creation team and the SEO management team. But search alone is not enough to ensure success, and you shouldn’t expect it to deliver all your traffic. Against one measure, it scales amazingly well. One well written, search-optimized article can deliver many readers against multiple queries. On another, not so much. You acquire every reader one search at a time. To achieve any scale, you have to keep feeding the beast fresh new content all the time. Even though you can update older content, you still need staff to write and edit. Search is the foundation of your traffic strategy, but it isn’t the whole structure.
5. Social traffic
Social traffic isn’t the panacea either, but you need a robust social strategy to distribute your content on the popular social platforms. Specifically Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter (in descending order of importance). Earned, or “organic,” mentions of your brand are important and you should by all means start with a social communications strategy that leverages your owned social accounts to spread the word about your content and initiatives. But don’t expect earned social to get the volume you need. For most brands, organic social reach is a delightful myth. While your audience may follow your accounts for the news, they aren’t going to re-share it at the volume you need to reach new audiences. And then there’s the fact that the algorithms of social (Facebook in particular) are DESIGNED to push you toward paid social. Ads, boosted posts etc. Don’t fight it. Embrace it. Make it work.
My advice is to post your news and stories and get the organic reach that your audience will naturally deliver. Then boost the best performing posts to reach new readers. This will increase the potential pool that might share the content, thus increasing your earned media. Branded content in the form of influencer-generated posts is an important ingredient; consider MarketingLand’s report this week on research done by social analytics firm Shareablee showing that viral reach from branded content ads on Facebook eclipses standard ads.
6. Native advertising
The power of native content is why you should use your web and social analytics, and even your SEO analyses, to identify the best content to put in native advertising units. Publishers may prefer to promote the branded content they create in their native units, but increasingly they are opening their inventory up to native programmatic as well as premium native advertising using content sourced elsewhere. Plus of course services like Taboola and Outbrain, although I recommend that you regularly evaluate whether the traffic you get from less-premium sources is the same quality that you get from more premium sources of traffic.
But like SEO, social posts and native ads deliver one reader, one viewer, one click at a time. Scale requires volume. Every increase has a real cost to produce and distribute the content. It’s effective, but not terribly efficient.
In addition to growing your unique users, you need to convert those one-time readers and viewers into a loyal audience. You want them to keep coming back for more, and consuming more than one piece of content at each visit. In analytics terms, you want your uniques to keep growing, but your page and video views to eclipse uniques. In my opinion, 4x is a baseline for good, and you really want it to be much more than that. Our next set of critical ingredients are the engagement and loyalty drivers.
Engagement and Loyalty Drivers
These ingredients deepen your readers’/viewers’ relationship with your content.
What’s old is new again! Newsletters are the best mechanism to get casual readers/visitors into into your content ecosystem and regularly coming back for new content. Because they are permission-based, with the user having control over what data is shared with the publisher, they are more compatible with privacy regulations like the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which will become increasingly important for any firm doing business with EU nationals when GDPR takes effect in May 2018.
That said, getting permission from the user is only part of the privacy mandate; you also have to protect it, so your newsletter tech needs to be super smart. Bottom line though, the more you can get the reader/viewer to share with you (first party data), the less you will be restricted by potential regulations/restrictions on the use of third party data from the big databases. That means delivering real value in exchange for personal information, and the more you ask, the more value you must add.
Don’t use your newsletter simply as an index to articles on your site. Folks may subscribe but they won’t necessarily become loyal readers (and repeat visitors) if the newsletter is nothing more than a promotional tool for your articles. Take the time to create some original content around the articles you recommend. Follow the example of Digiday; its daily newsletter highlights articles from the Digiday site, but it places them in context, giving the reader value even before she clicks over.
Website design matters. It is all well and good to say that no one comes to your home page, so giving it undue importance is wasted effort. For many, site visits are driven by search and social directly to the content. But the structure of content on the site once someone gets there and their ability to discover new, relevant content matters. A lot.
Publishers and brands need to invest in recommendation engines and native units that bring readers/viewers deeper into content based on their interests. Baseline is a smart keyword/topic match to the article/video they are reading or viewing, but we need to push the envelope on this. As we build stable databases of loyal readers’ preferences and past viewing habits, we should make inferences about the type of additional content they would like to consume, both editorial but also branded content. The better we match our recommendations to their interests, the more likely they are to consume multiple pages of content by choice, and not just because you split the content up into 7 pages.
9. Video (but smarter)
Digital publishers by and large have struggled with video. There is huge advertiser demand, nowhere near enough quality inventory, and strategy after strategy to manufacture it has met with lukewarm success at best. Facebook seems to be the hands-down winner for delivering targeted video eyeballs, followed by the video aggregators like Jun Group who have fed the digital demand of both publishers and brand-direct.
What seems clear to me, whether you are looking at digital, linear or OTT, is that successful video strategy is grounded in more than just delivering consumer eyeballs through targeting and audience acquisition strategies. If you BUY every view for slightly less than you re-sell it to your advertiser client, your business cannot scale efficiently. It works for a while, but eventually the advertiser figures out that she can buy that same eyeball direct.
To be successful with video, it comes back to figuring out what resonates with your audience, what fits with your editorial or brand mission, and most importantly, what you can do better, smarter than the other guy. I wrote about this in September. Success is rooted in smart content strategy, incorporating video where it makes sense for the story, not simply to deliver advertising. We shouldn’t pivot to video; we should integrate video into a multi-format digital strategy that includes all sorts of content. For a successful publisher’s take on this issue, check out Digiday’s report on Bustle’s strategy.
Even if your content is primarily text, and doesn’t seem to “need” video to tell the story, for example B2B content, you need to start at least thinking about video. Pew Research reported this spring that millenials are now the largest living generation : “In 2016, there were an estimated 79.8 million Millennials (ages 18 to 35 in that year) compared with 74.1 million Baby Boomers (ages 52 to 70).”
This generation looks at and engages with content — both digital and IRL — differently than the older generations. For many in the cohort, video is the preferred communication medium. Business sites that want to reach this new worker need to think about how to incorporate video into their content strategy.
For what its worth, I think it helps to think about video as 5 basic types.
- News / Documentary — current events, educational, fact-based. Your purpose is to convey specific information to viewers, and you may or may not have a specific point of view and desire to convince / persuade.
- Comedy — Make ‘em laugh.
- Caught on Tape — There is a reason “America’s Funniest Home Videos” has been on television for more than 20 years. People LOVE to watch real people and animals in funny, silly situations. The quality of the videos may be dodgy, but the quality of the engagement is not. See also babies, puppies and kittens.
- How-To – do just about anything. Cook, apply make-up, style a wardrobe, decorate, garden, change a tire, take pictures, make videos, even business topics can come to life in video. You name it, there is a how-to video to show you the way. This is the easiest type of content for publishers and brands to add to their sites, and our appetite for it is insatiable.
- Scripted entertainment with HIGH production values — the market has been cornered by linear and OTT properties created by the big entertainment studios, especially at long-form, but I think there is room for scripted short-form where talented amateurs can be competitive with the big guys.
In my opinion, there are two successful video strategies. You can specialize in one type of video, and go deep and long to meet the needs of your audience for that type of content on your channel. In an increasingly crowded marketplace, you must have an unserved or underserved niche to be successful. The other strategy, which is the one most publishers and brands would be well-served by, is that you integrate the appropriate type into your story telling as needed, but your focus is the stories. You don’t need to specialize in one form as much as you need to make sure that the video you are creating is additive to the stories your audience comes to you for.
Note that some of these formats lend themselves naturally to the development of community, ie the fans that are loyal viewers. For example, comedy shows, reality TV, and character driven drama or comedy. Others are more likely to be driven by search engine results such as tutorials. Current events are a bit of a blend. We may be fans of a particular franchise such as The Rachel Maddow Show, but much of the time, we are driven by search about a specific news item.
Make small, smart investments in your original video programming, and then look at the numbers – what drives traffic and engagement? Do more of that. Drop anything that doesn’t work, no matter how much you love it.
Influencers must become part of your content ecosystem. For branded content but also more broadly to extend the footprint of a publication or brand authentically into the community. This takes a different shape if you are a brand using your content strategy to directly promote your company and its products or a publisher, aggregating content and monetizing through advertising, but the fundamental principle is the same.
Go beyond seeing your customers as content or product consumers, and engage your audience in the content creation process. Last fall, I outlined how this might look for a digital publisher. The most important thing to remember is that you want to create multiple touch points for your customers into your brand or publication, and leverage their contributions as much as you can. Everything from deep relationships and extended partnerships with brand ambassadors or top-tier contributors to simple content creation programs with mid-tier influencers and earned media with micro influencers.
Many publishers are leaving money on the table by not integrating shopping into their sites. For branded content for sure, but also to earn against the products used in the normal course of business. Where can I get the clear mixer bowl in that video? I love what the host was wearing. Show me similar outfits. One needs no further proof that this is a smart strategy than that Amazon has launched an influencer program to develop branded content as an extension of its affiliate marketing program.
Online retailers like ShopStyle have a robust affiliate program as well as content programs using influencers. Publishers like Diply, Mashable and Bustle have incorporated e-commerce on their sites, to varying degrees:
- CRO and President of Diply Dan Lagani sat down with Cheddar to talk about the potential of e-commerce for digital publishers.
- Bustle in the Wall Street Journal: “The company has also signed additional video deals with Facebook Inc. and YouTube, and boosted its affiliate commerce, where it takes a cut of product sales generated by links included in its posts.”
But for long-term success, publishers need to develop e-commerce strategies that do not depend on Amazon affiliate income; Amazon will likely start cutting its affiliate commission rates as it further develops its own content strategy. Whether they choose to go direct to brand, partner with the affiliate networks like CJ Affiliate and Rakuten or partner with retailers, the key will be to integrate the shopping cart in such a way that it is non-intrusive to, but integrated with the content experience. The smarter, the better. Bonus for integrating influencers into the mix, as ShopStyle does.
The other e-commerce play is to have your own product line. Not every publisher has the wherewithal, the brand or the stomach for this, but if you have your own products, you are the original channel 😃 Subscription boxes were all the rage this year; no matter what your interests, you can probably sign up for a box of merchandise to be delivered to your door every month.
The garnish — a podcast
A podcast, my last ingredient for you, is more of a garnish than a requirement, so I am not counting it among the 11required ingredients for 2018, but I suspect it will be one by 2019.
Podcasting is the most social of social media. The format is so simple — a conversation between/among two or more people that makes us feel, with the intimacy of sound, like we are seated at the table too.
According to Edison Research, podcast reach has grown by 50% over the last four years, and nearly a quarter of Americans age 12 or older listen to a podcast monthly. Podcasts are most popular among 18-34s, but teens and the 35-54s are also listeners. 41% of Americans listen to some form of “speech” audio on any given day.
Right now, the playing field, and opportunity, is wide open to all. The duopoly of Facebook and Google are no better situated than any other player to establish a podcast audience and generate revenue from (and with) that audience. Even though many big advertisers are still waiting for listener metrics to get better, Edison projected podcasts to earn $220 million in ad revenues in 2017. Publishers searching for new sources of revenue would be well served by considering a podcast. It ticks a lot of boxes — content, community, native advertising, low barrier to entry and easy to experiment with formats.
The fast and simple way in is to sponsor an existing podcast that aligns with your brand values/proposition and reaches your target audience. The longer way around, and the more lucrative for a publisher, is to create a new podcast that delivers unique value for your brand and to your advertisers. I highly recommend looking to your community of readers/viewers/influencers for both hosts and guests.
And there you have it — 11 ingredients for digital success plus a bonus garnish. Thanks for sticking with me to the end.