What content marketing means in 2016

As we step into 2016, content has moved from buzzword to the boardroom. Leading companies are more prepared than ever to allocate large budgets to content marketing campaigns, and some are going one step further and hiring internal CCOs, or ‘Chief Content Officers.’

As a company that lives and breathes content, we at New Narrative (n/n) are excited to see the way the business has developed over the past couple of years, and we’re optimistic about the year ahead–though there are a few pitfalls to avoid. With that in mind, here’s our take on the trends that should drive content marketing in 2016:

Gourmet dinners trump fast food

First and foremost: quality must (and hopefully will) trump quantity. To be effective in 2016 and beyond, marketing departments must engage the people or partners that have the intellectual capital to produce compelling content, and be prepared to take calculated risks.

The Internet has given every company the ability to publish as they wish. But that freedom, while intoxicating, is often abused: some companies rush to publish even though they may not have anything compelling to say. They end up like the annoying guest at a dinner party who adds nothing of value to the conversation but keeps talking anyway.

How does a company ensure what it says is compelling? That’s the million-dollar question. One rule of thumb is to make sure something important is at stake in any piece of published content–just like in the movies and novels we all know and love. Content consumers have to care about or be invested in the story, emotionally, intellectually or financially. Many companies instinctively shy away from expressing opinions or taking a clear stance in the content they produce, but that makes it difficult for an audience to draw inspiration from or identify with it.

This also means content creators need to care about caring. The issues they address in their editorial output should matter to their key stakeholders, but also resonate beyond their company and its immediate goals and interests. Put plainly, companies need to talk about something beside themselves. Corporate narcissism is no more appealing than its human counterpart.

Take a global investment bank for example. Bragging about its size or capabilities probably isn’t going to get the bank very far in the world of content marketing. But sharing a prediction about the future of market reforms in China, and how companies and investors can benefit by adjusting exposure to China’s currency, the renminbi? That’s a story that an external audience is also invested in, and positions the institution as a voice of authority on a topic that matters by many definitions.

Let’s see that editorial calendar

The second content marketing trend in 2016 will be the rise of the editorial calendar. Although quantity should never be a goal in itself, it’s a fact of life that clients, investors and customers expect regular engagement in this sleepless information era. The trick is to produce a steady stream of content without sacrificing quality.

On that note, one-off items like lengthy white papers, no matter how insightful, will no longer have the impact they once did. These projects should be part of a broader editorial calendar rolled out over a longer time horizon, typically six months to a year, that builds the image of the company as a consistent and informed voice in the marketplace.

These corporate editorial calendars, much like news planners in the world’s top media companies, should include a diverse mix of content types in order to keep audience engagement fresh and compelling. Content sets could include everything from op-ed columns to infographics to animated videos.

Flexibility is a requirement. The editorial calendar needs to respond to current news developments, and output adjusted accordingly. Again, back to the dinner table conversation analogy: no one invested in Asia’s financial markets would be interested in your views on the latest developments in Indonesia if Hong Kong were to drop its currency peg.

Focus on distribution – and results

Once you’ve got the content, what do you do with it? In 2016 more focus should be on the answers to this question. Companies will need to find partners who offer comprehensive distribution plans for their content to make sure the effort doesn’t effectively float out into space, never to return. Distribution is where companies will be able to unlock and evaluate the return on the investment they are making in their content.

The first step toward an effective measurement of content ROI is audience definition. Just as companies must have a compelling story to tell, they also need to know who the story is for. An existing customer? A potential customer? An investor? A regulator? Many companies fail to spend enough time considering these questions before they launch their campaigns, and hence struggle to produce content that’s relevant and insightful.

All content is not equal for all audiences, and no one piece of content is likely to appeal across a firm’s stakeholder groups. A bank’s insights on China’s interest rates may be of interest to currency investors or CFOs, but irrelevant to everyone else.

Once the audience is defined, however, the content can be crafted accordingly, and the right distribution machinery deployed. The options have never been more numerous. There are paid-for distribution options on LinkedIn; dedicated content publishing platforms such as Outbrain; and all-in-one marketing software solutions such as HubSpot, all of which allow content to be channeled towards certain audiences with a high degree of accuracy.

Use of these platforms will give marketers an overview of who is consuming their content, where they are based, and to what extent the content is reaching the target audience. This data, in turn, should be used to refine future content outreach and converted into sales leads, making it easy to establish the links between content and the bottom line.

A new arrival

We’re delighted to announce today a new addition to the New Narrative ranks — David Line, former Asia managing editor for thought leadership at the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), who joins us as an operating partner. Needless to say David’s significant experience overseeing major content campaigns on everything from the future of the renminbi to the ‘quality of death’ (eek!) in the region, as well as his talents as a panelist and pitiless pool shark, should stand us in good stead as we head into 2016. For more information on David and the rest of the team please see: http://new-narrative.com/about/people/

Crowdfunding – A crowded field?

There’s no disputing the power of crowdfunding. It’s birthed some pretty nifty things that probably otherwise wouldn’t have seen the light of day, and that the team here at n/n just can’t do without, like card games featuring exploding cats (www.explodingkittens.com) and old-school video games (http://eternity.obsidian.net/).

But can crowdfunding save and sustain journalism? Probably not, argues one of our managing directors in the current issue of the Correspondent, the official magazine of Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club (http://fcchk.org/hkfp-leads-crowded-field-online-news; under ‘Crowds to the Rescue?’).

This might seem overly cynical, especially just after a couple of much-needed independent media sources have successfully launched through crowdfunding in our hometown of Hong Kong. But it’s less the ability to get a publication off the ground than keeping it going for the long-term that we’re worried about. At the same time, there’s good reason to believe journalism shouldn’t be left completely to the mercy of market forces, and that crowdfunding could serve as one pillar of a revenue strategy that also includes subscriptions, advertising and content partnerships. Donating to get a publication started is great, but what a media outlet really needs is a dedicated audience — and one that’s willing to shell out consistently in some form for what it consumes. Thankfully in the current environment there are many ways to be a long-term supporter — from regularly paying a few cents to read individual articles, to sharing good content across your personal or professional networks.

Ad Blocking – Around the block

To the list of great ethical debates of our time – cloning, capital punishment, pre-emptive strikes – we can now add … ad-blocking? At least if the general uproar over Apple’s decision to enable software that blocks online ads in the latest version of its operating system is anything to go by. Fortune frets that this state of affairs may be ‘morally wrong,’ (http://for.tn/1LKqUAx) while the slightly more hyperbolic The Verge equates it with ‘hell’ and the ‘death of the web’ (http://bit.ly/1NzuvWC).

That’s an awful lot of fire and brimstone for the hundreds of millions of people who have already downloaded ad blockers to enjoy a less intrusive web browsing experience. The basic arguments remain the same: ad blocking opponents worry it will deprive content providers, online-only media outlets in particular, of a crucial source of revenue; to the tune of $21 billion this year, according to one recent study (http://bit.ly/1DHGnnd). The publisher of consistently excellent online journal The Awl estimates ad blockers could zap up to 85 percent of its earnings (http://bit.ly/1FPqUgO). On the other side are fed-up consumers who find online ads disruptive or even invasive, and are quite happy to nip them in the bud given the option.

What’s different this time around is that Apple’s move brings what was primarily a PC phenomenon squarely into the mobile environment. Some also see it as a cynical ploy to hit Google – which makes most of its money with targeted ads – where it hurts. The controversy has already produced a few casualties; the developer of one popular ad blocker recently pulled it from Apple’s app store after having a change of heart about its possible impact on publishers.

This is a tough one. On the one hand, publishers and content producers have an unquestionable right to be compensated for their work, just like everyone else – and every click counts in an era when many previous sources of revenue (like print ads) are drying up. But it’s also hard to assert that people should be forced to endure marketing that in many cases has grown more aggressive — think blinking banners, full-page hijacks, and autoplaying videos — in its efforts to claim attention. There are also completely justifiable concerns about the tracking and data collection around web ads, which these days act more like programs than the passive billboards of yore.

Beyond the moral question, it’s important to look at what the rise of ad blocking means — and we’d hazard a couple of guesses:

*Leaner times for mid to small-sized publishers — and perhaps Google, at least until they figure out a way around it (and they will)

*More content migrating to and being accessed through apps rather than standard web browsers. Publishers and advertisers alike will be motivated to make this shift, as apps like Facebook are essentially ‘walled gardens’ in which ad blockers presumably won’t be allowed to play

*More marketing taking the form of ‘native advertising’ — that is, paid-for content, such as a sponsored article on an issue of interest to readers of a particular news website, that’s integrated into the platform around it and is therefore not typically targeted by ad blockers (at least not yet)

Some might see native advertising as a sort of wolf in sheep’s clothing. And of course, we’re biased. But as long as it’s clear when content is sponsored or supported (and who’s supporting it), we’d humbly present native ads as a compromise that might be the best way to address the ad-blocking dilemma. Publishers and creators can earn a living, and audiences won’t have to suffer through seizure-inducing pixel-fests because more advertisers are forced to come up with content that’s (hopefully) tailored, engaging, and editorially sound. Perfect, no. But better than pop-ups — surely.

Good reasons for playing hard to get

After a decade or so of being unloved, print media is suddenly looking like hot property. If Japanese financial publisher Nikkei’s move to scoop up the Financial Times for $1.3 billion wasn’t enough, now former FT owner Pearson is set to jettison its 50 percent stake in the Economist Group, publisher of the venerable self-titled magazine. Given the hefty premium the Nikkei shelled out — over 35 times the FT’s estimated operating income, according to Ken Doctor in Nieman Lab (http://bit.ly/1IlV6V7), way beyond media industry norms — the Economist sale is bound to attract a lot of interest, probably from more than a few companies that were prepared to give old-school publications up for dead.

So — is this the beginning of a newspaper/magazine bidding frenzy? Can we expect private equity funds to start squabbling over other well-established broadsheets that may (or may not) be up for grabs, like the Los Angeles Times? Maybe not. For one thing, it’s probably no coincidence that the current buzz surrounds two of the few ‘legacy’ publications with successful digital strategies — over half the FT’s revenues come from digital, and the Economist’s ‘Espresso’ daily briefing app has been downloaded over 800,000 times since its launch late last year. The FT and the Economist are powerful names; two of the very few publications globally with broadly affluent and sophisticated audiences, sterling reputations, healthy independent streaks and genuinely international credibility. Viewed in that light, the Nikkei’s purchase looks like a bargain.

The Nikkei-FT deal also seemingly vindicates a couple of strategies that raised questions in the past. One is the FT’s reluctance to work through middlemen, no matter how big or powerful, for the sake of a larger audience, demonstrated by its decision to ditch its iOS app for one of its own making. The other is Pearson not rushing to offload the paper at the earliest opportunity. It’s a simple enough calculation that paid off: in this world, there are (and always will be) only so many FTs and Economists to go around.

It’s also a nice reminder that bidding excitement, and heady valuations, aren’t limited to the current crop of digital-first, platform-neutral, social-media driven publishers (Buzzfeed, Vice, Gawker, etc.) that tend to dominate industry discussions. Relentless dedication to quality, combined with a certain degree of exclusivity, also creates massive value. It’s a formula the luxury industry knows very well, but many in the media sector seemed to have forgotten — until now.

The delicate art of keeping score

As investors in China’s stock markets are fast discovering, it’s tricky to put, or predict, a price on a lot of things, and the same applies to content. Companies that produce content as part of their marketing or branding strategies regularly attempt to measure its value or impact in a quantifiable fashion, like contributions to the bottom line or customer numbers. The ever-helpful experts at Contently have come up with a scorecard that aims to make that easier: http://bit.ly/1H9fiaJ

To sum up, the scorecard suggests assigning content ‘points’ based on how prominently it features the company and the importance of the media outlet(s) it makes its way into. Thus an op-ed written by a senior executive that runs in the Financial Times, say, would score far higher than a press release picked up by an obscure industry journal.

This seems sensible enough, especially if, as the author states, content marketing and traditional PR are pretty much the same thing. But we’d argue they’re not — and that a ‘score’ assigned to content based on these metrics may fail to reflect its value, for a few reasons:

*Media mentions are the holy grail of most PR campaigns, but that doesn’t have to be the case with content. Star billing in the likes of a Bloomberg TV piece is always nice, of course, but the whole point of the web and social media is that companies no longer need to rely on media outlets to publish, distribute, or connect with an audience. Compelling, informative content (not blatant sales pitches!) will travel.

*If you’re creating content yourself, you can include, exclude, praise or blame whoever you like. However that shouldn’t be seen as a license to bar all references to the competition. Including balanced information on competitors in a thought piece or interview suggests confidence, and that the content represents a broader statement rather than the (probably biased) views of a single organisation.

*As Contently acknowledges, assigning a value to a media outlet is difficult because it depends almost entirely on context. For companies in specialised sectors building credibility with a limited number of influential experts is probably much more important than connecting with the mass market reached by the likes of CNN.

*Content campaigns are primarily about building a recognisable persona in the marketplace, and loyalty with existing and prospective audiences or clientele. These processes touch on the intellect and emotions, and can’t be wrapped up overnight since they require a sustained voice. Excessive concentration on numbers in the early stages can therefore be counterproductive — and demoralising — since they might convince a company to abandon a content program before it has any real shot at making an impact.

All that said, we’re in full agreement with the need for any content marketing drive to have clearly defined goals, and to be measured against them. But these goals will most often have to be worked out on a case-by-case basis, and standard formulas will be difficult to apply.

Untimely deaths, and new arrivals

There’s rarely a dull moment in the news industry, and recent developments have been both worrying and inspiring. Bad news first — the rapid demise of Circa News (http://bit.ly/1Ie92Rr), once seen as a leading light of mobile media, has underlined once again just how difficult it can be to combine an old business with a new medium and achieve any sort of financial success. Circa’s app broke down news stories from various sources into bite-sized summaries that could be easily digested by users on the go. However this approach requires a healthy amount of talented human editing, which makes it relatively expensive to maintain and scale. As Julia Greenberg’s excellent post-mortem in Wired (http://wrd.cm/1di5lgs) points out, that and the increasingly fierce fight for audiences and advertisers — still, after all these years, the industry’s only real sources of revenue — ultimately did Circa in. To this list we’re inclined to add Circa’s focus on text;  many consumers of news on the run prefer it in multimedia format, hence why more venerable organisations (the BBC, Reuters) and upstarts (Buzzfeed, Snapchat) alike have been experimenting with short-form video news. Which, of course, is also hideously expensive to produce, especially on anything approaching a 24-hour cycle.

On a more upbeat note, our hometown of Hong Kong got its first new independent English-language news outlet of note in quite some time this week with the launch of Hong Kong Free Press (http://www.hongkongfp.com/). The experience of outfits like Circa shows it won’t be easy, but HKFP is pursuing a non-profit model and will seek to recoup its minimal costs through a combination of membership, advertising and donations (full disclosure: n/n was an early sponsor). At a time when Hong Kong (and the world, really) is in dire need of independent voices, we salute HKFP for its commitment, and hope it gets the support it deserves. Hard news might be a tough, and increasingly fragmented, business, but it’s more vital than ever.

Man or machine?

If ever journalists doubted their skills were still in demand, Apple’s call for editors for its nascent Apple News team (job posting available at https://www.apple.com/jobs/us/) should serve as convincing evidence. The titan from Cupertino is quite clear about wanting newsroom-tested journalists — not digital content producers, marketing storytellers, social media writers or any of the other iterations on the profession that seem to be emerging (and paying better) these days.

By hiring human editors to pick and choose content for its news app, Apple is adopting a very different approach than Facebook, which relies on algorithms to do the same thing (for its Instant Articles and news feed). It all sounds good — Apple is promising editors will work closely with leading outlets to gather the very best of the news, and to give enterprise journalism the visibility it deserves. And there’s no doubt a human might be able to recognise groundbreaking journalism in a way software can’t. But given Apple’s control freak tendencies, it also raises the question of what kind of remit and freedoms these editors will be given — especially when it comes to stories about Apple itself, which dominate the global media on a regular basis. This is doubly true if Apple News starts to displace other popular aggregation tools like Flipboard, putting pressure on publishers to ‘play nice’ with Apple and its editors to make sure their content reaches a huge potential audience.

On the other hand, there’s no reason to assume Facebook’s news-bots are inherently any more neutral or less susceptible to manipulation — presumably it’d be easy enough to flick a switch so they bypass exposes of the company’s latest privacy breaches. And the success of both Apple News and Instant Articles relies on a certain degree of transparency; any ham-fisted attempts to stifle information will simply drive people to other services.

Still, while not dismissing either news ‘service’ out of hand, consumers should keep in mind that this isn’t ‘news’ as we know it, provided by organisations with an express mission to inform the broader public, and that neither Apple or Facebook are bound by the conventions (or financial concerns) that, even in these strange times, govern most media outlets. Some discrimination is in order … along with perhaps a celebration that at least a few journalists will be working at a cash-rich, fast-growing organisation for steady paycheques.

All power to the readers

If there was ever a media industry milestone, this is it. A closely watched annual survey by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers shows circulation revenues have displaced advertising as the global newspaper’s industry top earner — for the first time in a century (http://bit.ly/1dIfOmz).

The trend has been building for a while, and has a few interesting, possibly contradictory, implications. On the plus side, fears of influence of the almighty advertising dollar on newspaper coverage may turn out to be overblown, and broadsheets (at least those with self-preservation instincts) will presumably redouble efforts to focus on what matters to their audience. On the other hand, if readers are the biggest contributor to the bottom line, we could see more papers opt for Daily Mail-variety shock-and-fluff tactics in a desperate effort to raise circulation numbers, or raise prices to squeeze more cash out of the readers they do have.

One thing to keep in mind that circulation revenue isn’t necessarily replacing ad income — in many mature markets both are stagnant or declining; it’s just that ad revenues are dropping at a more precipitous rate. Newspapers therefore won’t be absolved of the need to update their business models or hone their content for other platforms. In fact the same survey showed mobile consumption of news is growing faster than ever. Regardless of economic conditions, newspaper ad revenues are also unlikely to stage any kind of meaningful recovery, given the range of other marketing channels advertisers now have to choose from. Not such a great time to be a developed-market newspaper with a limited budget, maybe, but with so many publications (and advertisers) experimenting with new forms of stories and distribution to win hearts,  minds and revenue streams, content consumers will have more choice — and clout — than ever.

 

Choose your weapons

Godsend, or weapon of mass destruction? Over at Quartz, Monday Note editor Frederic Filloux has sounded the alarm (again) about ad blocking, which is spreading like wildfire, getting more sophisticated and making a bunch of media and marketing types very, very nervous: http://bit.ly/1LFjHmG.

We’re of two minds about this. When it comes to seizure-inducing banners, invasive pop-ups or videos that start playing without being asked, it’s hard to see ad blocking as anything other than a Very Good Thing. However the news that ad blockers are starting to target native advertising and branded content — for example, articles or microsites that are ‘sponsored by’ a company or organisation — is a bit troubling. Okay, so we have a vested interest. And yes, there is no shortage of sponsored content that probably deserves to be zapped. But that applies to all media output — and what about the quality stuff?

Savvy companies use or sponsor content not to hammer home a blunt marketing message, but to engage people and position themselves as authorities in their fields, which requires the content to be convincing, and to contain real information or insights. Who would deny Alibaba might have some useful things to say about e-commerce, or HSBC about the opening of China’s capital markets? Ad blocking certainly has its place, but targeting all sponsored content is a bit like using a flamethrower to take on a mosquito. We’d argue for a more nuanced approach — which is where some good, old-fashioned human editorial judgement may need to come in.

(As an aside, for an example of good, informative sponsored content, check out this Economist collaboration with Asia-focused Australian bank ANZ, which looks at the various ways integration is progressing in Asia-Pacific: integrasian.economist.com. Full disclosure: n/n was involved in this project, but it shows how a company can contribute to the dialogue around a remarkable process in which it’s also playing a role.)