This interview with Content Strategist, Dan Levy, is part of the Convirza Webinar Series. The following is the Q&A portion of the presentation.
McKay Allen: Thank you. Let’s begin today with a couple of questions. And I did want to sort of begin with this discussion about content marketing and what it is and brand journalism, that whole idea. First of all, kind of define for us if you can Dan, what content marketing is, what brand journalism is.
Dan Levy: Sure. So content marketing, or brand journalism, or branded content. It’s all really just words for the same thing and that’s using stories to tell a brand story. In that sense I’d say that it’s not that different from traditional journalism or traditional content in general. Whether you’re a magazine, whether you’re a blog, whether a TV network, whether you’re a brand, you have a set of ideas that define you instead of values, a set of goals. You have an audience you’re going after. In the case of a newspaper that goal might be to inform the public in a way that’s fair and balanced and transparent.
If you’re a magazine, it depends on I guess on what kind of magazine you are. National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, and Cottage Life and The New Yorker all have very different values and goals and audiences. But essentially in any case you start with what we call here an editorial bible. That editorial bible defines your scope, it defines your audience, your voice, what you sound like. If you’re HBO it’s kind of edgy. If you’re Gawker it’s a bit snarky, if you’re The New Yorker it’s a bit erudite. But you use that bible to kind of define what the magazine or what the content brand sounds like and is.
In the case of content market or branded journalism, you really, it starts with the brands. It starts with the brand’s values and the brand’s goals and the brand’s audience. And so in that case, you’re using the brand as your guide rather than something that’s set out by a publisher or a news organization.
McKay Allen: Then let me ask you this. Tell us why content marketing is so critical. From an SEO perspective, but also just from an educating and building sort of reputation perspective.
Dan Levy: So Google has gotten really smart. And it’s getting smarter and smarter at sniffing out folks who are trying to game their system. So it used to be you can create backlinks and you could, there’s all these black hats tactics to get your ranking higher in Google. And more and more as Google has improved its algorithm as well as its human filters, it’s gotten a lot smarter at that. So really the way to rank on Google, or any search engine, is through quality content. So in that sense content marketing, good, relevant, branded content is the way to get your content bound and your brand bound these days.
I think I used to think that SEO was some sort of crude form of writing in code. As somebody with a journalism background, as a writer I always sort of turned my nose up at it a little bit.
But more and more I realize that a lot of good SEO techniques are really just good communication techniques or really just good writing with clear and concise headlines. I tell you what you’re going to read. Tags and categories and subheadings that help you navigate the piece, short paragraphs. These are all things that really about good communication. So I don’t think that SEO and good quality content have ever necessarily been mutually exclusive but more and more it’s really quality that’s going to get you noticed on the web.
McKay Allen: Do you think there is, not do you think, I mean it seems there is a premium then on companies that are producing good content, and that are producing content relevant not just to their audience but relevant to, relevant to good quality as you said, original, good, quality content. Describe the importance, I mean in terms of just… because I think some people write content just to write it. How critical is it that it’s actually good? That may be a dumb question, Dan, but what do you think?
Dan Levy: No, I mean it’s not dumb in the sense in that I think you’re right. I think a lot of people write content for the sake of writing content because content has become a buzz word. But the truth is nobody’s going to read your content or going to watch your content or listen to your content or consume it however they want to if it’s not, if it’s not good. And by good I think the right word is probably relevant, and relevant to them. So I think that rather than just going ahead and launching a corporate blog or whatever, brands need to think about who their audience is, where their audience is, what platforms they’re using and create content that speaks to them and their needs on these various platforms.
McKay Allen: That’s a great point. Now there are people who are joining us today and who will listen to this in the future and we hear this all the time in the future “I don’t have anything to write about”. What do I produce content about? Maybe I run a smaller medium sized business or maybe I’m in the B2B space. No one wants to read about what I write about or no one’s going to want to listen to this. What do you say to those companies who say, “Look, I get it, content’s important. I don’t know what to write about or produce content about?”
Dan Levy: So what’s the oldest cliché in writing? Write what you know. That’s what they teach you in grade school. Write what you know. Write about yourself; write about whatever your expertise is. That’s exactly what content marketing is about. Whether you work for a brand or you own your own brand or you’re just writing for yourself and you have your own personal brand, then that’s what you stand for. That shouldn’t be hard to write about
I think that speaking as an editor it always helps to have people that can help you tell that story and articulate that story, but fundamentally all you need to do is look at what you stand for and use your brand story as a starting point.
They’re writing about what they know about what they do every day as marketers, as people in the media business, as designers, as data analysts. They’re writing what they know. So whether it’s mobile marketing or branded video or luxury travel or emerging markets, all these subject areas that we cover, we looked at people who know what and we help them really craft their story and find the best ways of telling their story. I think that’s the case for any brand or anyone that wants to start creating content. Start with what you stand for, what your goals are, what your audience is and use that as a starting point for your content.
McKay Allen: Can you give us some ideas of places to look as far as examples as to who to look to for really good content marketing and branded journalism?
Dan Levy: The first thing to keep in mind is that content marketing isn’t new. It’s something that has been going on for at least 100 years and you can make the argument that it’s going on forever. You can go back to cave drawings or whatever which a lot of people do in presentations. But for example, in 1895 John Deere created a magazine called The Furrow. And fundamentally they sent it out to people who were settling areas in the states that were just becoming farmlands. At the strategic level it helped them keep track of their customers and their far-flung dealer network. But in terms of content it was content about the technological changes that were happening at the turn of the century in farming and agriculture. So content marketing goes back, at least, to 1895 with John Deere.
A lot of people probably don’t think of, for example, the Michelin Guide as a form of content marketing. That was launched only a few years after John Deere’s The Furrow. Really it was created to help encourage people to get in their cars and drive around France. You’re a tire company. What do you do to encourage people to use their tires? Well you give them incentive to go and explore the countryside. And so the Michelin Guide and the restaurant reviews and the ranking system, that all started in France with this piece of content marketing. Now it’s gone on and really taken on a life of its own. And some might even question whether people even associate the brand with the content anymore and whether in that sense the content’s sort of gone away from the marketing if that makes sense. But in any case that’s content marketing and that’s been around for a long time.
Now content, like I said, has become a buzzword, and us web people like to think we invented everything but we didn’t, as you can see through those print examples. But you’re definitely seeing some really, really interesting examples of content marketing on the web these days, going beyond print and text, and for example, onto web video.
One piece of content marketing that I really like is a web series called Web Therapy with Lisa Kudrow. Basically it’s just short videos with Lisa Kudrow playing a therapist and she interviews celebrities like Rosie O’Donnell and Conan O’Brien. It’s, you wouldn’t even necessarily know its branded content except if you look in the top right corner of their website, there’s a little L. That L stands for L Studios. What does the L stand for? Lexus. It’s actually Lexus the car brand that puts out the series.
I think that’s a really interesting example of branded content that really exists to make you see the brand a little bit differently than you might have otherwise. You might just watch the series and then, “Oh look, Lexus produces that.” So it just develops a bit more of a human connection to the brand and it’s a funny series so it makes you laugh and it kind of gives you a good feeling about the brand.
Recently I came across a site for Monsters University, which is Pixar’s Monsters Inc. prequel that either just came out or is about to come out. They put together this really fun website which is basically a fake university website full of article about the Monster’s football team and faculty pages or there’s the School of Scaring where you can take courses in Hiding in Closets 101 and Advanced Screaming, and it’s just really fun and exists to create engagement with the brands and the movie beyond when you’re theaters. I say brand in this case because Pixar and Monsters Inc. is kind of huge franchise and there’s toys and all sorts of opportunities for brand extensions. So this site gives you another way into that story world.
It makes sense that Hollywood movies are getting really, really good at branded content because they’re fundamentally all about stories. Incredibly rich story worlds exist already. We saw this also with The Hunger Games. They created Facebook and Twitter accounts for each of the districts described in the books and the movie. And so yeah, branded content isn’t just about magazines, it’s also branded web series. It’s Twitter and Facebook accounts that are tied to some sort of story worlds that’s tied to a brand.
Another example of content marketing that I really like is an app. A mobile app by Charmin and it’s called Sit or Squat. I think this is a great example of creating something that customers just want and need. In this case it’s just an app that helps you find the nearest public bathroom and rates them in terms of cleanliness and accessibility and all that. Whether or not you use Charmin or you kind of think about the brand, it’s an app that’s pretty much anyone that’s ever out in the world and is looking for the nearest public toilet could use.
Again, I think a great example of content marketing, also a great example of an app, that’s content but isn’t just content in the sense of allowing you to consume content on your mobile device that you would consume in other places. It’s really a utility. I think that’s what mobile apps, the best mobile apps are. They’re tools that you can use to help you through life, and if that tool is provided by a brand then that’s a great opportunity for the brand.
McKay Allen: So basically what I’m hearing you say Dan is that the key seems to be providing useful information and it can be presented in a humorous way, in a serious way, whatever will engage your audience but the key seems to be providing useful information that the audience can use and will encourage them to engage with that content.
Dan Levy: Exactly. That’s exactly right.
McKay Allen: Do you have any recommendations for really how to begin the process? Is it as simple as just starting a blog and just starting to write a few times a week? What would you suggest in terms of actually getting started down the road to useful content marketing?
Dan Levy: I would say that no, the way isn’t to start a blog and start writing. Because to be honest the last thing the web needs right now is another blog. And field of dreams, if you build it they will come. If you start a blog, no, they will not read it. I would start with all content and need to start with strategy.
I would start by thinking about what your goal is as a company. Why you want to create content, not just good as a buzzword but because you have some sort of objective that that content can help you reach. Whether that’s changing the perception of your brand in the eyes of people, whether it’s customer loyalty and retention and building relationships with existing customers, whether it’s to launch a specific product. Definitely you need to start with strategy and you need to start with the why before you get into the how.
In terms of the how again, what sort of platforms do you want to use? That starts with where are your customers? Are they people that are on the go? So you want to look at mobile as a platform. Are you a hotel and you want to speak to customers when they’re in their rooms? So a print magazine in that case might make sense. Are they social media savvy and you want to speak to them through twitter and speak to them through a blog? So I think you need to think of a why, you need to think of a how. And I guess the who is the next “W.”
In that case it’s sort of self-serving. But I think you want to hire a brand journalist. Hire somebody who knows how to take your story and create interesting sub-stories out of that. For example, journalism schools, I’m a journalism school graduate. I think you are as well McKay.
Believe it or not journalism schools are still churning out hundreds maybe thousands of graduates every year even though as we all know journalism jobs are getting fewer and fewer. So I think that there’s an opportunity here.
And Joe Pulizzi who founded the Content Marketing Institute talks about this a lot. He thinks there’s an opportunity for brands to embrace and hire young journalists or experienced journalists who are looking for different opportunities in their career and to get them to help them tell their story.
These people are born storytellers trained in the art of binding and curating and telling great stories and they’ll work with you and your brand to identify and defend and define your brand story and identity and again put together an editorial bible that will help them guide their content marketing efforts on your behalf. You know, content marketing, to me, is really a partnership between a brand and storytellers.
McKay Allen: That’s good, that’s good advice. That’s interesting about the hiring a brand journalist. I think that as you say, I think there are a lot of people out there who really just don’t know where to get started. They know they should do this but don’t know what to do so I appreciate that advice, that’s good.
Give us some keys or useful tips to just creating sort of a content strategy. Is it as you said, it starts with creating what do you want to accomplish? And then from a tactical perspective, is it useful to have a good mix of videos and written content? Is it most critical to produce content regularly? What are the most critical elements of actually being effective at content marketing?
Dan Levy: I think the keys to effective content marketing are in some ways the keys to effective content in general. And there are whole books on this written by people who have been doing this a lot longer than I have. But on the most basic level I think it starts, you know, we talked about it starts with the story. And so there’s a story and there’s the medium or the platform. So on the web you’re going to want to think about things like short paragraphs and lots of subheads and bullet points. What web people like to call snackable content.
Video as you mentioned is probably, if anything, underused. There’s so much generated video on Youtube. People are spending so much time watching Youtube but I’d stake in terms of content creators and content marketers they probably aren’t using video enough. But definitely a mix of video, of snackable bits that people can share easily on social networks. Stuff like full quotes and just pithy content that’s easy to share and to sum up.
In print there’s obviously more room for longer narrative, content that people can really get lost in. But again at the heart of it, the matter, the medium, it’s about having a good story and that’s something that every person and every brand has.
Steve Jobs of course was a master at this. He famously told his story of when he was in college and I think he had already dropped out at this point but he began auditing classes and he started auditing a calligraphy class and that really taught him the value of good design and aesthetics, which of course is something he brought into Apple. So I think it is finding your story and finding the right medium to tell it with.
One thing I think is interesting about brands and kind of the benefit in a way is that brands are always-their stories and their goals and their values are always evolving. There’s a real opportunity as a content marketer for that content to evolve with it.
McKay Allen: One of the things I think that we’ve seen Dan, and maybe you can speak to this too after I make this comment you can piggyback off this for a moment is we’ve seen clients of ours who are savvy in marketing, clients that are big and small but it doesn’t, you don’t have to be a major brand to do content marketing effectively.
We’ve got clients who are dentists who have blogs about how to clean your teeth and who produce videos on effective ways to take care of your family’s dental health. We’ve got small businesses in the automotive industry that produce great content about taking care of your car and driving safely. Would you agree that it’s not, as you said a moment ago, any business regardless of size and regardless of the scope has a story to tell and can make their content available to whomever wants to read it in whatever way they want to see that or view it or read it or what have you, would you agree with that Dan?
Dan Levy: Absolutely. Yeah. One of the best examples of content marketing that I saw a few years ago was, it’s basically a company that makes scuba diving gear, and snorkeling gear. They really distinguished themselves by creating this great interactive timeline of the history of underwater exploration and of scuba diving.
They took their own industry and their own story and instead of just going out there and handing out deals about scuba diving deal or talking about their offers and their brand, they really look, they really became thought leaders in this industry in general and put together a definitive sorts of information and content on scuba diving and underwater exploration in general.
McKay Allen: The other question we’re seeing a lot of is, “Okay, I have content, I have what I feel is useful content.” How do you promote, because you said earlier you made a good point, like the field of dreams. It’s not as simple as if you build it they will come. How do you then promote that content to an audience, I mean, whatever your strategy is, how do you promote that? What are the best means to get that content out there?
Dan Levy: Yeah, so we get this question a lot. How do you get more traffic from your content, which I take it is essentially what you’re asking right?
McKay Allen: Right.
Dan Levy: I think what I usually say is what kind of traffic do you want? So it’s essentially a matter of quantity versus quality. I think that the days of one-size-fits-all, lowest common denominator content is pretty much over.
Look what’s happened to newspapers like USA Today, magazines like Newsweek which just announced it’s no longer going to be printing. I think that the key is to identify your audience and your niche and build a platform that’s catered to them.
So it might not be a platform that’s meant to get thousands, hundreds of thousands of users a day. It might be to build a community, a very specific niche community and then cultivate that community, and then you can sell things to that community. Rather than just advertising you could build a platform and do stuff like webinars and sell books, conferences, and so I think there’s no such thing anymore as traffic for the sake traffic. It’s really about building a community and knowing what you want to do with that community.
So to get to your original question how do you get that content out there? You need to find that community. You need to go to where that community is.
McKay Allen: And Dan, it sounds like what you’re saying, correct me if I’m wrong, you need to put the same care into marketing your content, and marketing is probably the wrong word, but the same focus you would for your whole business plan. Who am I targeting? Who am I going after? As you would for your content strategy in terms of who do I want this to appeal this, how do I reach them? Focus on engaging with them. So perhaps that’s a specific industry or perhaps that’s a specific group of people within an industry. Is that what you’re saying, am I stating that right?
Dan Levy: Yeah, absolutely. Once you’ve identified that audience, that industry, the people within the industry then, then it’s a matter of finding out where they congregate. Whether it’s at certain events or whether it’s on LinkedIn, certain LinkedIn groups, or whether they’re still reading certain prints magazines. It’s about finding who they are, where they are, and then bringing the content to them. That’s how you, I think, you promote your content or you get your contact out there. You go where your users are and you serve them with your content and they’ll keep coming back to you.
McKay Allen: No that makes a lot of sense, that’s great. Give us, and I want to conclude here in a moment. Give us a couple of the biggest misconceptions about content marketing or brand journalism that businesses have. What are the things that they’re doing wrong, what are their misconceptions?
Dan Levy: Well, on a business level I think a lot of businesses or business people confuse content and communications. Content is a form of communications, but it’s not PR, it’s not press releases. We’ve had people come to us and say “Oh yeah, we know we need content, we need to build relationships with the press and we need to let people know what’s coming up and when we have a new product”. And we say “That’s great, that’s important, but that’s PR, that’s not content”.
In some ways, I think in some ways, this industry switched, it used to be called custom publishing, or custom content, now it’s called content marketing. In a sense, I can see why for agencies it’s sort of advantageous to emphasize the marketing because frankly people usually are willing to pay more for something called marketing than something called content that they associate with publishing. But in a sense I think something is lost there because I think in the content marketing equation it’s really the content that sets it apart which is why I think you need really good brand journalists and people who understand content and not just marketing to put it out there.
McKay Allen: Good information, Dan. Well we appreciate your time today, we really do.
Dan Levy: Thanks McKay.