Years ago, in journalism training, one soundbite on how to grab attention on an opinion piece stuck with me: “Ultimately, a brilliant article that nobody reads is an article that nobody reads.”
The same could be said for content marketing.
Last week, The Drum reported that bank UBS was slicing 10% off its content production budget in favour of distribution. Having invested heavily in production, the net result, according to the global head of marketing communications, was “We really thought the content would sell on its own and it didn't.”
In other words, nobody was looking at it.
UBS were probably correct in their approach identifying a need for content, but it’s probably one of the most common issues any brand investing in the space needs to overcome.
Despite calls from some quarters, the idea of brand as publisher isn’t dead. But just because you’re publishing content - no matter how good - doesn’t necessarily compel anyone to read or watch it.
With existing communities or audiences organic growth becomes a little easier. It’s how viral publishers like UniLad grew from their initial student LOLs, why anti-Brexit newspaper The New European can hit a weekly readership of around 20,000 and how food publisher Food52 pulls in 11m monthly views across a variety of platforms.
These publishers all have a degree of bottom up growth: the community was naturally there to support them.
For brands, unless they also have a relevant community, then it’s often a top down approach that relies less on discovery and more on pushing content in front of a disengaged audience.
Often the top down approach is employed out of necessity, which leads to a number of issues.
Firstly, the audience will be sceptical. You’re spending money to push your brand and its content into whatever medium you’re using to distribute, but what’s in it for them? You’ve got to convince the audience that your content is useful and worth their while to watch.
Secondly, you’re taking up space in their newsfeeds, inboxes or other areas. They didn’t ask to see or content (and probably don’t care), so you’re already starting from a point of slight hostility.
Thirdly, a lot of brands can employ a one size fits all approach, partly out of budget considerations. So one video will be produced and squeezed into platforms it was never intended to, because there’s an expectation of a presence here.
Even YouTube and Facebook have subtleties in distribution and production, while Twitter and Snapchat, say, require totally different approaches.
Finally, it’s not as if yours is the only content they’re consuming that day. You’re not fighting against brand competitors, you’re competing almost everything else. Snapchat and Instagram Stories from friends, long reads from credible publishers, and everything else.
That’s not to say producing branded content is a waste of time and budget but without proper planning and strategy, it will as likely just become digital landfill, no matter how good the writing, imagery or production values are.
UBS’s initial creative approach wasn’t wrong, especially engaging relevant publisher partners. They’d also identified a long lead time to conversion (two years in this case), which meant constant hard sell messages would have limited effect, hence the conclusion that relevant content could guide customers through the funnel.
That may still be the case. A slight shift to distribution from production is no bad thing. After all, you wouldn’t spend £1m on a TV advert and not spend anything on ensuring it got it front of the right audience.
Online content is no different. Without a solid distribution strategy in place it’s all too easy to be left with a lot of expensive videos and beautifully written articles that nobody sees. Which, ultimately, are just videos and articles that nobody sees.