Unlearn what you’ve learned about content marketing.
Traditional content tactics are insufficient to survive and win over the next decade.
Quick favor - Before you start reading, please fill out the audience survey so we can write better essays for you (and we’d like to know who you all are) - it takes 30 secs
Illustrations by Alejandra Céspedes.
If you want to succeed in the new era of content marketing, the first step is to accept a painful truth: the playbook everyone has been using for more than a decade is inadequate for addressing the needs of today.
Sure, some of the tried-and-true strategies and tactics that gave rise to content marketing’s dominance over the last few years will remain. SEO and email are far from dead, too. But the game has changed tremendously.
The tyranny of platform algorithms:
We are at a different moment of the internet where winning with great content is more complex and we must deliver value with zero-click content. Amazing content falls through the cracks and becomes forgotten given the tyranny of platform mechanics (paying to reach your audience) and how they are a fundamental component of the platform business. It is no surprise the biggest online brands want to keep you on their platforms, not send you to the source.
The inevitable death of third-party cookie data:
More and more people are becoming aware of the power of data. They are exhausted of irrelevant (and relevant) ads popping everywhere and are excited about keeping their information private from third parties. In other words, we must rely on good ol’ marketing fundamentals to create thoughtful messages that resonate with our audience and drive them closer to our product.
The creator economy and decentralization of the web
An influencer with a great idea, a good cell phone, and an understanding of social media/culture/trends can easily beat traditional advertising. This is the so-called creator economy, destabilizing and decentralizing how the internet was initially structured. Brands no longer need to stand out from the crowd by beating competitors, but they also need to consider all the magnetic content creators are putting out there.
Acknowledge that your ability to generate and capture demand is predicated on something many marketers don’t truly understand: awareness.
The average person consumes roughly 10 hours of media a day. If you believe for one second they’ll waste any of their precious time listening to your unsolicited sales pitch, you’re fooling yourself.
Sure, sometimes you’ll get lucky and catch a buyer at the exact moment they realize they have a problem that needs solving and be able to woo them into being a customer. But 95% of the time they don’t care — about you, your services, or your product — and have learned to simply ignore your advances.
To win the business of modern customers you must first figure out how to earn their attention and win their trust.
When your brand is competing against other brands, major media outlets, and TikTokers for attention, know your enemy: Random acts of content.
Random acts of content rarely form into a cohesive story and have little to no impact on a target audience’s perception of a brand. To be effective, content needs to be carefully constructed to support the overall brand objectives and be delivered with strategic regularity so that it maintains its relevance.
This failure to see the forest (the strategy) for the trees doesn’t just cause your brand to blend in. It prevents you from delivering results for the business.
Content atomization has helped content marketers achieve this level of sophistication for more than a decade. You might know it as content repurposing but it’s much more strategic than just molding existing content into different formats. In fact, it’s a process older than content marketing itself.
Tactical Clinic: Franchises and broadcast programming strategy
Media companies are familiar with the art of earning attention and creating predictability (they have done so for a century, if not more). By understanding how to earn attention in a predictable system (think about your favorite series when you were a kid and how you waited in front of the TV for the next episode), media companies built a system for growth.
Tactical steps to emulate franchises' success:
1. Become predictable: Coming back to your favorite TV show example, one of the best things about waiting for a new episode was that you had a pretty clear idea of what to expect. If you were an Alf type of person, you knew exactly what the basic premises of the show were and how cats would never be given any significant airtime.
2. Build for the long-run: As marketers we love to build campaigns and experiments hoping to move the needle as fast as possible. Franchises, on the other hand, are a slow process that requires buy-in from several internal teams as well as a clear understanding of your audiences. The advantage of building for the long run, however, is the fact that you can polish your product consistently, simplify the content production process for your team, and build intuitive connections between your audience and your brand.
3. Own your audience: Attention is scarce and noise is everywhere. That’s why building your first-party audience dataset, owning content distribution and engagement are crucial to escape from the random-posting rat race. Check out some conversion rate stats here + example of single session visitors) and some broadcast programming strategies you can execute to keep customers in your orbit.
Why should you franchise?
To build a loyal audience for whatever product you are putting out there. Consuming your products becomes part of the identity and cultural footprint they bring to their work, like the Apple type of person who has no idea why they love their Mac but will never be open to working on a PC.
To better understand different types of audiences and can create shows that combine cultural patterns people already love.
To leverage your media products and amplify their reach and resonance across multiple audiences.
To gain clarity about what your content stands for and how it becomes meaningful for people.
To streamline product creation processes (it is easier to create the same thing and iterate until you nail it, than trying smaller campaigns/experiments, and having to start from scratch every time).
Note: We found this article about how to scale your content team you might also find helpful.
Adopt a product mindset
Forget the “marketing” part and acknowledge yet another truth: Your content is a product.
Many will object, saying that the company's product is the product. But while this is certainly true, don’t get lost in this arbitrary paradox and instead understand the purpose of this shift in mindset, which is to accept that customers don’t convert in their first session nor do they make a purchase decision after consuming a single piece of content.
What’s more is that this mindset radically reshapes how we think about and approach content marketing.
We break free from our transactional mindset and recognize all the potential benefits of prioritizing relationships over traffic. We embrace the idea that we must design a content strategy that genuinely engages our audience, helps people build meaningful connections between their work and community, and—more importantly—keeps potential buyers in our orbit.
Reverse engineer distribution
It behooves you to forget the most favorite of all marketing concepts: the funnel.
The marketing funnel might be a useful construct when communicating with one another about the customer journey. But it doesn’t do diddly squat to help you develop the kind of strategy required today. For that you’ll need to map your audience’s cultural cartography—their topics of interests, their sources of influence, and their media habits.
It’s only after you’ve plotted out their whereabouts and deeply understand what connects them that you can leave a breadcrumb trail to your brand and whatever it is you want to sell them.
Tactical Clinic: Reverse engineering distribution to win.
Traditional distribution is broken given platforms want to keep you on their platform, competition is fierce, and attention is scarce. However, there is a more intuitive way to think about the digital influence you can embrace (The Orb Framework + cultural cartography).
How to reverse engineer media products that works.
Step 1: Have a straightforward brand narrative. Understand your audiences, the type of communication they value, and what your brand wants to be known for in such circles. Then, be sure you say the right things, the right way.
Step 2: Understand your audiences and where they hang out. To do so, be sure to adopt the Orb framework and identify the three types of relationships you can have with your audience:
Owned relationships: the type of relationships you control (e.g., your Website). Your customers are here.
Rented relationships: The type of relationships mediated by a third-party network (e.g., Twitter). Your fans are here.
Borrowed relationships: The ones you do not control at all, in other words, what others say about you. Your audience is here.
Once you know the type of content that works for each relationship, you can prioritize how to create your media products; we suggest using tools like SparkToro to build upon the natural influence in any given orb. The key is to listen to your audience, where they are, what they need from your brand (your brand values and communication), and what they value (what they discuss, trends, problems, etc.).
Combining an understanding of your audiences with clear cultural cartography can build highly resonating products that naturally stand out.
Step 3: Following the steps above would naturally drive you to find a way to work backward and identify what your brand needs to do to be present in these virtual spaces.
For example, if you identify a particular Slack channel with certain types of subjects and people whom you would love to influence, build a media product that you believe will organically align with whatever is already present in such space.
TLDR: Listen to your audience, identify your relationship with them, build products they would organically value, and communicate to them with a straightforward and unique brand narrative.
Respect the medium
You can’t just expand into new types of content and call yourself a media company. Not without comprehending the most fundamental of all media theories: The medium is the message.
What this means is that each medium is received and perceived differently by our audience. As such, each medium has its own set of rules that, when applied, deliver the intended message more effectively.
The abundance of boring podcasts, forgettable events, and other poorly thought out attempts to expand beyond written content practically proves marketers have yet to respect the rules of each medium.
This is not to say we need to become experts in every facet of media or attain a PhD in media theory. Not at all. You should at the very least ask yourself if the medium of choice is the best way to convey the message and carefully consider how the medium can enhance or detract from it.
Above all, be human
The marketing funnel is extremely helpful because it allows us marketers to track the efficiency of our endeavors without having to fully immerse ourselves in the messy, complicated, human qualities of sharing stories that turn into dollars.
But still, we are human. And the ritual of optimizing the lead magnet, landing page, email, purchase sequence, has already run its course.
People need content beyond the rational; they need to laugh, feel connected, and be part of a community, and they also need to be entertained.
The We don’t need no education mantra, is as relevant today as it was back then. Traditional funnel marketing strategies that disregard the human qualities of audiences are less and less effective every day because in fact no one cares about your product. They care however about what they can do and what they become once they buy it.
Steve Jobs did not start the iPhone keynote by saying, "check out all these great things our product does" instead, he talked about our habits and devices and allowed us to imagine what we could become with a different type of technology.
Map out the emotional landscape of your audiences, and try to understand their life moments and what they care about. Then, think about what you can do to create world-class content that would resonate with their lives and help you connect your brand and product.
Traditional content marketing is a distribution function of your main product to a particular audience. On the other hand, media content marketing is a set of highly resonating content products that are helpful/entertaining for your audience.
Traditional content marketing is about sharing what you do; media content marketing is about embedding your brand into the life your audiences already have (beyond just thinking about your product and how it helps them).
Human content goes beyond the funnel metaphor and focuses on understanding demand, audience, and mediums.
Tactical Clinic: Building a media machine.
A critical issue whenever a media machine is in the works is finding a way to justify how such investment makes sense. We all know that attribution is the contemporary marketing dilemma, and thinking about a media machine is an additional effort when budgets are getting smaller. Even so, the ultimate truth remains: The amount of demand you create is limited by the amount of attention you have.
So how do you build a media machine?
Step 1: Rethink your indicators. It is common in marketing teams, particularly content teams, to see indicators such as # of followers given the utmost importance. This is an important indicator, but it is only a result of a well-executed media engine.
As a rule of thumb, give more weight to leading indicators (are you on track to reach a goal) than to lagging indicators (the actual goal). Understanding the process and ensuring it is organized and scaled predictably will ultimately reap more benefits than reaching your 10k subscribers goal.
Likewise, rethink what the indicators even mean. For example, the frequency of visits to your site might mean readiness to buy. If you know that and identify which media products are more frequently consumed, you can build a revenue layer activity on top.
Step 2: Learn to measure your media efforts. There are many ways to measure what you are doing regarding media. However, the best formula we have found is as follows: your brand search volume, brand mentions, and org traffic compared to others.
Another option is to embrace the Disney model. This schematic shows the synergy of their properties — with everything flowing from the films. Media is not just a supporting area to a primary product but a unique and valuable product with a symbiotic relationship with the entire brand’s ecosystem.
Step 3: Let go of share of voice; think about revenue. This last one is pretty self-explanatory. Instead of thinking exclusively of how much attention you are grabbing, understand how that attention is connected directly with revenue.
It is not about building a famous brand online but about adding value to the right people in the right places online so that they connect your product’s brand with your media products.
Always remember who’s king
If you want to navigate the new era of content marketing and whatever paradigm shifts force us to unlearn what we’ve learned again, never forget where this all started: A 1996 essay written by Bill Gates.
The television revolution that began half a century ago spawned a number of industries, including the manufacturing of TV sets, but the long-term winners were those who used the medium to deliver information and entertainment.
When it comes to an interactive network such as the Internet, the definition of "content" becomes very wide. For example, computer software is a form of content-an extremely important one, and the one that for Microsoft will remain by far the most important.
Content is everywhere. Content is always present. From a media lens, content will allow you to access your potential customers in a much more creative and engaging way than simply focusing on educating them and making sure they are aware of your product.
Brands need much more than “awareness” to win in today’s media world. It is time to rethink our audience's basic informational and entertainment needs. Sometimes, your audience might need that SEO-driven solution for a particular problem/keyword. But, sometimes, they might need to see that meme or hear that entertaining podcast to cool off after a long work day.
When was the last time you shared a boring article? Or a bland video? Probably never.
Attention is the currency, and your job is to grab it at all costs. Educate, entertain, and, most importantly, care more about your audience — and the rest will follow.