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Best of 2014: No 7: What I Learned About Content Marketing in 2014

This week we are showing you the 10 most popular posts of 2014 on State of Digital. The top 10 is based on a combination of reading numbers, shares and comments.

This is number 7, by Jonathan Allen, about what he learned about Content Marketing last year.
Originally posted: December 3, 2014, 11:42


“Content is King”: its message still rings true, but this overused industry aphorism is actually completely useless. As far as advice goes, it’s as good as telling your locked-out neighbour that the keys she lost are in the last place she left them.

Similarly, although there are a lot of tools out there to help you track audience engagement with your content after the fact, there are very few good ones to advise you on what to create in the first place. If you have little knowledge of the sector for which your content’s being written, it can be difficult to know where to start or how to even conceive of the target audience.

Luckily, this year saw some huge players in content marketing and native advertising share some of their wisdom. In particular, they offered advice on how to think about your target audience before you even really know who they are.

Opposing Narratives: Eddy Moretti, Vice

Speaking at NewsCred’s Content Marketing Summit 2014, Eddy Moretti gave a stellar presentation on Vice’s success. It was probably my favorite talk of the year.

In his presentation, Moretti recounted how Vice was an established print brand with a smallish following that was interested in street art. Yet like every other publisher, they had to adapt to the challenge of web publication. What may not have been obvious in the boardroom at the time was that in that moment, they contained all of the potential to become the global media company they’ve become today.

Vice’s management team suspected they needed a new direction, but conventional wisdom at the time was that “millennials” don’t read, don’t watch TV, don’t care about global issues or politics, and just want to spend their time flirting on social networks (my summary). In an exercise they thought would confirm their worst fears, Vice set up focus groups with their target audience of 18-34 year olds, drawing from their readers all over the world.

From the focus groups, Moretti identified two opposing cultural narratives and found that his readers were stuck at the crossroads. One was what he called “the crisis of information” and the other was “the liberation of information.”

Far from being disinterested in news, Vice discovered that “young people” – their readers – actually wanted to stay informed and up to date on the world around them. In fact, they shared a sort of global conscience and were acutely aware of the differences and similarities in their peers from countries all over the world. The idea that “the youth of today” were apathetic couldn’t have been further from the truth.

Yet the transformational insight that Vice discovered through their focus groups was that, despite their interest, millennials had completely lost faith in mainstream media. Put another way, mainstream media was not remotely representative of their views or their interests, so they had taken to the internet and social networks to feed their appetite for information.

When Vice started putting the feedback together, the pieces of the puzzle started to create a true picture of the needs of their readership. Their readers had grown up during a period of intense change in the role of mainstream media and politics. The controversies surrounding the War on Terror, climate change and the global financial crisis had brought the credibility of an independent media voice into question. Reports on phony documents, global protests against military intervention, phony science and housing loan scandals massively eroded young people’s trust in the media.

You can hear Eddy Moretti discussing the two opposing narratives in this video:

Drawing these themes together, it became clear that the internet’s liberation of information had made it the go-to source for young people to research and source news themselves. Millennials were, in effect, driven towards web media by the apparent inability of the mainstream media to provide a consistent, thorough narrative on current events. Vice’s mission had emerged: they would win the trust of readers by presenting up-to-the-second information in a package that was aligned with their media consumption habits.

Through the focus group, Vice discovered a tremendous opportunity to reinvent their editorial brand. Eddy Moretti and his team realized that they could rethink news coverage, dispensing with minute-by-minute coverage or talking heads on cable channels and create a TV news product designed for YouTube. Now, Vice’s 10 minute video documentaries are available on YouTube and HBO Go, and their publishing products have spearheaded developments in native advertising.

The key takeaway for you is that Vice didn’t just start writing content for its own sake. They took the time to find out what their readers were thinking about in the first place, then tailored their content product to fit them. This meant they had to adapt from print to be a multi-platform product, but the courage to do so came from their audience. They made a strategic change that took a very long view rather than a tactical one designed to generate page views.

Small Audiences: Jonah Peretti, BuzzFeed

Also this year, Jonah Peretti from BuzzFeed gave a talk at both Newscred Content Marketing Summit and SMX East, where he shared some of his insights into his company’s editorial strategy. In both his talks, he made the point that it wasn’t pure data that was driving his decisions—search data was mostly irrelevant to the daily production cycle of content on BuzzFeed. Instead, they really had a “big think” about audiences and how the way they consumed content was changing. At the NewsCred summit, he cited Douglas Rushkoff’s book The Media Virus as a useful tool for grasping the nature of new media formats and the consumption habits that they’re changing.

For example, one thing Peretti often discusses in his presentations is the Bored at Work Network. These slackers spend their workdays on mobile devices and social media, and when people are bored, they generally look to make conversation with friends and colleagues. Targeting that audience, BuzzFeed’s design and content is made for mobile and social audiences: easy to consume and just as easy to share.

However, one of the factors that has contributed to their editorial strategy is thin-slicing every possible identification people might have of themselves. There are broad categories like mother, father, brother and sister, which are powerful ways to culturally identify oneself, but these categories can be further divided into even more nuanced tribal affiliations, such as being from a certain city, or following a particular type of music. Even the most segmented audiences can be appealed to, like those with a nervous disposition, big boobs, little boobs, man boobs, crushes on a celebrity or even degrees from a specific university—you get the picture. There are thousands of articles on BuzzFeed that are strategically segmenting their audience, just to get viral attention within extremely marginal cross sections of society.

The thing that I like about Peretti’s advice is that he’s not just telling us to write tactical articles that are designed to be shared because they hit some kind of emotional trigger—the kind of strategies that make clickbait so effective. Clearly that stuff works, but I would argue Peretti’s strategy points to something content marketers too often forget: that the audience comes first. How big or small that audience doesn’t really matter, because the real test of content is whether anyone is paying attention at all.

BuzzFeed’s strategy is proof of a theory that’s been put forward by papers about Google and Twitter, namely, that news travels faster in smaller groups. And the source of a message is just as crucial to its delivery as the content itself.

For example, Duncan Watts wrote a research paper for Yahoo entitled, “Who Says What to Whom on Twitter,” the major takeaway of which was that, despite the openness of social networks, people actually tended to talk to their own peers (and by extension, their audiences) rather than broadcast to the entire Twittersphere. His research found that celebrities tended to follow other celebrities, bloggers followed other bloggers, and media companies followed other media companies. Furthermore, the amount of content that diffused through the network was created by a remarkably small number of users, and it was usually opinion leaders that triangulated the key stories for their audiences.

Who Says What to Whom on Twitter diagram

Diagram from “Who Says What to Whom on Twitter” research paper

The point is that people don’t listen to everyone. They’re selective, and for whatever reason, lots of them listen to the same voices—the source matters. Think about it for two seconds and you’ll see it’s not a groundbreaking observation. It’s an obvious one and the data proves what we already know. But it is an important consideration if you’d like to craft a winning editorial strategy. You’ll probably fall flat on your face just saying what you like, but you could get some real attention if you adapt the message for a selective audience.

Similarly, networks on Google are considered to have topologies. That is to say, they have a shape. While the shape of networks tends to look the same (lots of interconnected nodes), there can be important structural differences in shapes, and these tiny deviations make it surprisingly easy to identify anomalies that are actually extremely instructive. For example, people are often surprised about what Google can identify as being relevant to a specific individual name or profile in the search results. Yet the reason it can is quite simple, thanks to a sociological concept called “weak ties” that you can find Mike Grehan explaining in his paper, “Filthy Linking Rich.

The “weak ties” concept means that people who have more acquaintances tend to be exposed to more information about society in general, so much so that this exposure gives them a social advantage. They learn about threats and opportunities faster than those with a tight circle of friends, where information input is generally screened and controlled more heavily.

By extension, search engines and social networks can identify these weak ties, and are thereby able to say more about a person. The same phenomenon also applies to Duncan Watt’s Twitter study in which information was distributed through a network of influencers who all act as the weak tie for thousands of smaller collectives.

This means that the weak ties in your network are the ones that are most likely to listen to you, and they’re easy to identify for yourself as they are the most influential acquaintances. Though they may not realize it, BuzzFeed’s thin slicing of audiences functions very well within the context of weak ties. Influential sharers can help content reach the community that’s most likely to identify with the content faster. Essentially BuzzFeed’s strategy to slice the audiences as thinly as possible, works especially well as it creates lots of weak ties. It’s through the “structural hole” in the network by which a message increases in relevance.

As far as your own content marketing efforts go, this means that writing about specific issues to a specific audience has a greater chance of success than general ideas have with general audiences. Put another way, you don’t always have to appeal to the lowest common denominator, or “the crowd,” to make an impact.

Check out the video below to get a quick primer on the general concept of weak ties:

Brand Affinities: Marc Lefton, DiMassimo Goldstein

At CoOperatize’s Native Ads talk, DiMassimo Goldstein’s Marc Lefton gave an excellent presentation that shed light on how psychographics can be used in marketing and advertising. He said that what’s key to a good ad—and this applies to content too—is not just that it’s appropriate to the audience, but has a dual quality of being unexpected, too. Put simply, ads that are appropriate and expected are boring, and ads that are appropriate and unexpected get your attention. However, the question remains: how do you deliberately do something unexpected?

Lefton suggested that content creators try to look for what he dubbed brand affinities, along with other things that their target audience is into, and identify overlaps between them. Using a tool called Affinio, he was able to analyze what other personalities, brands, and news publication accounts his target audience on Twitter was following. In this case, he wanted to create social ads for advanced function calculators and discovered that his target audience were also big Xbox players, particularly fans of the Madden series of NFL games by EA Sports. By tuning the ad creative for calculators to be about using maths to better understand NFL games, he was able to win his target audience’s attention.

Be The Content King In The Boardroom

To my mind, the most important lessons from these three presentations is that your target audience is already interested in things other than your product, and you have to engage with that first before you can expect them to engage with you. In the boardroom, companies often issue the directive that content mustn’t deviate from essentially shilling the company product and it can be difficult to argue the case for the sacrifices you need to make to win the audience’s attention in the first place. But using audience analysis as a starting point for the content conversation, drawing from social data mining and anecdotal data from focus groups, you can start to build a picture of what is both appropriate and unexpected but interesting to your audience.

In your next social ad or content campaign, then, you might want to consider using brand affinity and social media analytics tools like Affinio, Crowdtangle, Topsy, Newswhip, or Oz to understand what your audience is talking about and already paying attention to. The likelihood is that a deep analysis of what your audience (rather than how often) is sharing will help you craft a message around what they are already interested in.

So, when you’re next in the boardroom and facing the objection that, “you didn’t write about blue widgets!” —— point them to your own audience analysis and say, “if you want people to be interested in what you’re selling, you have to be interested in what they’re doing first.” That’s the real starting point for content to be king.



Jonathan Allen is the President of Longneck & Thunderfoot, a brand publishing company which is part of the Columbia Startup Lab, an incubator program based in New York City. He is also formerly the Director of Search Engine Watch (2009-2013), one of the longest running news publications on the search engine marketing industry.
  • Maddie

    When you spell the fourth word of your content marketing article incorrectly, I’m disinclined to carry on reading.

    • That’s irritating. Fixed. I hope you did carry on reading.

  • JamesCarson

    Great post – ordered The Media Virus straight away 🙂

    • Glad to hear it! Present Shock is good too – it’s got an interesting discussion about timelines which might be right up your street.