How Publishers And Marketers Can Make Content King – Again

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Jeff Pundyk, a fellow and advisory board member at The Conference Board, in this op-ed considers the fundamental shift underway in publishing and the way it can best be used to support marketing goals. Publishers must become more accountable to readers, and less so to advertisers, he argues. Pundyk was also senior vice president of global integrated content solutions at The Economist and, before that was publisher of  The McKinsey Quarterly. He consults with publishers and brands on their content strategy.


A lot has happened in the five or six years since marketing pundits started preaching that every brand should “act like a publisher.” Most notably, neither marketers nor publishers can rely any longer on their consumers to blindly trust them. As a result we are seeing a new tone in the way both marketers and publishers communicate, putting more of a premium on transparency — and even acknowledging their co-dependence.

For publishers, the shift has been dramatically accelerated by the steady shift in ad dollars to the big social platforms, making it perfectly clear that the long-term survivors will be those who best serve their readers, not their advertisers.

For marketers who embraced the ‘everybody should be a publisher’ mantra, many have learned that it is easy to publish, but hard to build a trusted relationship with an audience. Whether it is text, video, interactive or social, there are tools that make it easy to publish. And there is no shortage of writing and production help available. What’s harder than acting like a publisher, however, is thinking like a publisher. Marketers have largely applied an advertising mindset to content; they speak of “campaigns” and measure success through “reach” rather than focusing on establishing their credibility over time.

Publishers have recently begun to realize that their readership is something much more than a set of demographics that they can aggregate to sell to advertisers. Their readers are a potential source of direct revenue, but only if they are convinced that the publisher is, in fact, accountable – both for their work and to their readers.

“The best publishing is a service, not marketing.”

In an effort to build new revenue streams, publishers are shoring up their circulation businesses, often reframing it as membership. One consequence of shifting the business model to reader-generated revenue is a parallel shift of the editorial product based on better serving those readers. For publishers, this is a significant change as it aligns the interest of editorial and the business model. (In the old model, editorial served the readers while the business model largely served advertisers.)

For marketers there are lessons to be learned from publishers’ turn toward their readers:

Publishing is not marketing: The best publishing is a service, not marketing. Its primary job is to serve the reader. To do that in a way that is distinctive and valuable, marketers need to have a clear sense of who their readers are, what is keeping them up at night, and how the brand is credibly positioned to help them. Publishing is not a substitute for traditional marketing. Rather, it is an opportunity to develop a direct relationship with customers and prospects with the focus on them.

Focus on your most committed supporters: Branded publishing is not about reaching everybody. Traditional advertising – likely broadcast advertising – is a much better tactic for scale. Content-based programs are better suited for well-understood niche audiences where the goal is engagement.

Commitment can be a two-way street: If marketers are focused on engaging a well-defined audience with content that truly serves them, then audiences will return the favor with their feedback. But branded publishers need to provide the tools, environment and encouragement to make that happen.

Tone matters: Voice is a critical and often overlooked element. Publishers are learning that maintaining a voice of authority does not mean clinging to an institutional or purely objective perspective.  The more human the voice – a voice that acknowledges its biases — the more inviting it becomes.

Transparency can be uncomfortable: This shift to more transparency has been among the most difficult for publishers to make – and the most rewarding. As publishers more and more reach out for help, their work has gotten deeper, richer and more valuable. And, as the community participates, it becomes more committed, more loyal and more of an advocate for the content.

“Publishers are learning that the economics of focusing on readers is very different than the economics of ad-generated revenue.”

Get it right: If trust and credibility are the goals, spend the time and resources to get things correct, starting with the basic facts. This is easier said than done. It requires developing standards and giving the publishing team the autonomy to hold everybody to them. And, let those editorial standards be a baseline for achieving editorial excellence. Hold your content to the same high bar to which you hold your products and services — make it unique, make it delightful, and make it useful.

Publishing is a long-term investment: Publishers are learning that the economics of focusing on readers is very different than the economics of ad-generated revenue. For both marketers and publishers, the need for short-term returns can create tremendous pressure. Many of the marketers who have already embraced publishing have struggled to show how their content programs ROI, or have tried to squeeze content into direct marketing campaigns. Publishers who are pivoting to membership are betting on cementing long-term relationships with fiercely loyal supporters.

For brands, the stakes are equally large: When a reader puts a brand on his or her very short list of trusted partners, the brand can move out of consideration based on price and specs and into the rarified world of being a true partner.

Yes, brands should act like publishers, but many of today’s publishers are no longer acting like the publishers of five years ago. Brands should choose their publishing models carefully.

Article by Knowledge@Wharton

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