Contently's publisher and VP of content explains how content marketing works, why native advertising helps publishers on mobile, and how technology proves the public is fed up with bad ads.
"Those who tell the stories rule the world."
Contently's business is content, and the slogan is tattooed on the wall of the company's office in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood. Similar phrases are often uttered by employees at meetings and company parties. Team members believe the slogan because many are themselves content creators. Employing journalists and writers, in addition to engineers and developers, helps the company better understand its customers, explained publisher and VP of content Sam Slaughter.
Contently's business is rooted in content. Aimed at publishers, media companies, and content creators the company creates a metrics and content management product that optimizes the content creation and marketing process. "The main problems that content marketers deal with are creating quality content at scale and knowing how to deploy it effectively. This might sound simple, but trust me, it's not," said Slaughter.
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Content marketing and inbound marketing are tactics that involve creating high quality text, photo, and video content targeted at specific market segments with the intention of driving web traffic. The intent is to convert a wide but focused audience"'leads," in industry parlance—into a customer of some sort. "Customers" are visitors who click an advertisement, subscribe to a newsletter, or pay for software or a product. The tactic is commonly used by businesses in most major industry verticals but deployed often by ecommerce, media, and technology companies.
Contently is modular and designed to optimize routine content marketing tasks like analyzing site performance and paying freelancers. "[Our] software supports each step of the content marketing process—ideation, creation, workflow, and governance, and on to publishing integrations, measurement, and optimization," Slaughter said.
Slaughter spoke with TechRepublic about how content marketing works, the media industry, and how hiring writers and reporters helped create a work culture that empathizes with media makers.
What unique problems does the product solve in the market?
Marketers often talk about quality and quantity as if they're mutually exclusive, but the fact of the matter is that you need both—and not just for the sake of publishing. You need a strategic plan. We think that original ideas are the fundamental building blocks of any effective content strategy. That's why in addition to calendar, workflow, and analytics tools our software helps customers find vetted creative freelancers who can handle the actual content creation.
It's this combination of really smart enterprise tech and world-class creative talent that sets us apart.
Can you explain how you built a culture and strategy around inbound marketing?
For us the most important aspect of inbound marketing is eating our own dog food—aka publishing content. We think that if we provide helpful, insightful information to marketers they'll know and trust Contently and proactively reach out to us. We've found intelligent content married with effective distribution (Facebook and affiliate buys, in particular) is by far the most efficient way for us to acquire new leads—and nurture old ones. That's why we created our digital publication, The Content Strategist, and its sister print publication, The Contently Quarterly.
When we launched TCS in 2011, our strategy was to build one of the best marketing industry publications by using Contently's writers, designers, videographers, and software to cover the rise of content marketing across the media landscape. Since then it's become a best-in-class trade publication and our most effective sales and marketing tool. It's editorially independent but also serves as a lead generator—and a way for us to prove that we practice what we preach.
Many of our clients are using content to support inbound marketing and lead generation. We also have clients using our platform to power high-level thought leadership content that supports brand awareness and bottom-funnel sales enablement content that has a direct impact on converting leads. We have clients using our technology for content that's focused on retaining existing customers—and helping those customers succeed. Point being, content can be used throughout the sales funnel.
How has automated, programmatic advertising changed publishing?
I think it's kind of ruined the value of a display ad unit, in a lot of ways, and it has led publishers to make a lot of decisions that have ruined their user experiences, particularly on mobile. Sure it promises great efficiencies and is a good way to find buyers for ad inventory—but the end result has been that a lot of publishers' sites are inundated with bad ads. It means more money coming in, but it sure feels like it's been at the expense of the reader experience, which is deadly in the long run. Which—to anticipate your next question—has gone a long way towards fueling the rise of native [advertising].
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If display becomes an ineffective way to deliver advertising to readers (and it's getting there if it isn't already), then ad-supported publishers have to find different methods.
How has native advertising changed publishing?
Despite the debate surrounding the actual number of adblocker users, and the ethics behind adblocking companies, the rise of the technology definitely indicates that the public is frustrated with ads that slow down their internet and distract from editorial content. Native advertising gives publishers the opportunity to continue providing value to their audience while monetizing, rather than interrupting them.
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Of course there have been plenty of hiccups as brands, publishers, and the public try to negotiate the grey area in the relatively new industry. There was the infamous Atlantic sponsored post for Scientology. Contently's own research has shown that people don't trust or understand native advertising. The industry has a long way to go but there is a lot of potential for publishers to monetize through native ads.
And again, I'm harping on this—but traditionally digital advertising simply does not work on phones, which is where we're all increasingly consuming our news. Though it can be tricky from an editorial standpoint, native has a lot of potential to help remedy that issue.
Can you explain the company's relationship with editorial content?
When we founded Contently in 2010 the trend du jour was paying writers $5 at a time for crappy articles written for SEO robots. That's bad for the journalists who can't make a living doing their craft and bad for the public who doesn't want to read garbage.
While Contently's CEO and co-founder Joe Coleman was running another company, he noticed that creating content for the company was beneficial but that it was challenging to find someone with the skills to do it. At the same time, our CCO and co-founder Shane Snow had just graduated from Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism in New York, and, like most of his peers, began his career as a freelancer. That was the eureka moment that there could be something behind the idea of using technology to connect trained freelancers and brands that needed to tell their stories.
The important thing is differentiating Journalism with a capital "J" that exposes injustice and reports news that's important for the public interest, and stuff that we call journalism but actually isn't. It's all about transparency. Brands, publishers, and freelancers all need to be as transparent as possible. We wrote a code of ethics when we were first getting Contently off the ground that holds true today.
The future: Can you forecast the next 18-36 months in native advertising and digital publishing?
Across the board we're going to see the industry make strides toward clearing up the murky ethical gray area that surrounds branded content. This includes publishers, brands, social platforms that in many ways act as publishers, and influencers. There's been a general discontent with the clarity of brand-sponsored content for some time and it's hitting a crescendo.
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Notes: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. And: in a previous freelance role the author worked for Contently.org, the company's not-for-profit foundation.