The Answers to Your 18 Biggest Content Marketing Questions

Here at Contently, we geek out harder on content marketing than a Batman nut at ComicCon. For us, the only thing better than content marketing is talking about content marketing. In that spirit, earlier this month we asked our Twitter followers if they had any pressing questions, and they responded in droves. Here are our answers, with some added context, examples, and love.

1. What is “native” and what is “owned”? Which one is better?

2. Why would we create owned content rather than buy sponsored content?

These two questions are so similar that it makes sense to answer them together.

Let’s start with the basic definitions. Shane Snow, CCO of Contently, covered the definitions in our “State of Content Marketing 2014” report:

It’s hard to say which one (native or owned) is better in an absolute sense; they simply serve different purposes, and in an ideal world, they work in concert. In an article earlier this month, Contently VP of Content Sam Slaughter detailed how brands should use native advertising to build an audience that they own:

One could make (and many have made) the case that brands communicating directly with their own audience is bad news for publishers who depend on being the audience gatekeepers. I don’t buy that.

For one, building an audience is hard. And more importantly, even a brand with their own audience will want to reach other audiences with their message. Whether they use sponsored stories, paid distribution, or social advertising to get there is dependent on the circumstances—but the need to reach additional eyeballs efficiently and effectively is constant.

Case in point: Here at Contently, we have a huge audience for our industry pub, The Content Strategist. And yet we still pay through the nose to place sponsored content on publisher sites like Adweek. Why would we do that when we could put it in front of our own audience for free? Simple: Adweek readers are people we want to reach.

Shane also tackled this question in an article for Ad Age, noting that having direct access to an audience is every brand’s goal, but it takes time, patience, and editorial leadership to make that happen. In the meantime, sponsored content is a way to align a brand with an already recognized and trusted platform.

3. What is the value of a long-term content strategy vs. a campaign-by-campaign approach?

As we noted last month, the cliché is true: Content marketing is a marathon, not a sprint. You need time to develop an effective editorial strategy through trial and error and to build trust with readers. That’s why some agencies and custom-content studios run by publishers are requiring brands to commit to a content push of at least four months, if not a year or longer. In an ideal world, they’d be signing on for 5-plus-year commitments.

4. Who should we be targeting, i.e., who should our audience be?

Determining your target audience is content strategy 101. Who wants your service or product? Who shares similar values? What do they want but aren’t getting enough of? These are easy questions to ask, but difficult questions to answer—and those answers are different for each and every business. If you don’t have someone on your team who has built an audience before, you likely need to find the right help.

5. How do you go about developing a brand voice?

This is a crucial aspect of content marketing, and it was one of the main topics Shane covered in the first-ever Contently e-book, “The Beginner’s Guide to Blogging and Content Strategy.” Though three years old, the advice still holds strong.

Witty, smart, sarcastic, optimistic, skeptical— whatever the tone, be consistent. Early on, figure out what your brand’s message is and how you want to say it. Choose a tone or angle, and then consistently apply it to your content. If you want to be instructional and serious, stick with that. As Shane writes in “Beginner’s Guide,” it’s not so much what you say—it’s how you say it.

6. How much content should I be creating?

The short answer: a lot. A brand needs to pump out quality content in order to establish trust in their readership. The perfect mix is different for each brand, but when starting out, look at key engagement metrics (like engaged time, average finish time, shares, and return visits) to see which pieces of content are compelling your audience to come back. Then, double down on what works while constantly testing and iterating new approaches. That’s the approach the brand newsroom of the future will take.

7. How does a brand set up a newsroom?

Brand newsrooms are all the rage right now. When TCS sat down with content strategist Neil Chase, he had some key advice for setting up a brand newsroom internally:

The brand newsroom must embrace and follow the company’s culture, but it also needs the ability to change that culture. To make a closed company more open. To make a company that’s nervous about publicity more comfortable with it. To help a company that operates in a regulatory environment able to do more than it thought possible before. To try new things, use new technology and break bad old habits. More here.

Brands have the opportunity to reimagine the traditional newsroom structure to best serve their needs. This means establishing specific responsibilities for each department. And as Shane explains in the talk below, most every decision should be driven by data and the quest for an exponentially increasing return on investment:

And for a visual guide to brand newsrooms, check out our interactive e-book, “The CMO’s Guide to Building a Brand Newsroom.”

8. What’s a good strategy for getting more people to find your content in the first place?

One of the most important principles for building an audience is the “superconnector.” This is a person or platform that has an established audience you can borrow. If there are people in your brand’s network with whom you can connect, do it.

But how? You need to offer unique and valuable content. Produce content that their audience is interested in and then give it away. This way you make the superconnector happy, and you get exposed to a broader audience. Offering value leads to trust, and the audience will be more likely to follow you to your own platform.

It’s a similar idea to finding influencers. Connecting to 500 people through one person is much more efficient than trying to reach people individually. In addition, don’t be afraid to pay to jumpstart your traffic. Creating good content is only effective if people read it. Here’s the TCS breakdown of the top distribution platforms.

For more, check out Shane’s webinar, “Superconnecting Massive Audiences,” below:

9. What are the benefits of outsourcing content creation?

Don’t think outsourcing, think in-sourcing, as jargony as that sounds. (Forgive us.) Bringing in freelancers adds a fresh twist to a brand’s voice. For instance, General Mills brought in outside writers, photographers, and infographic experts to write and design their successful recipe site, Tablespoon. While the perspectives of freelance brand writers are often at odds with traditional marketers, that’s actually a good thing, breathing fresh life into a content campaign. Their ability to connect with audiences and tell a great story in unorthodox ways can be invaluable.

10. Is it really worth the investment to hire trained journalists for branded content over cheaper writers and copywriters?

Definitely. With the saturation of Internet content, brands are not only competing with one another for attention, but also with established media powerhouses. Brands need the talent to compete, and that makes writers who are talented, experienced, and passionate about a brand’s mission invaluable. There is truth to the warning “You get what you pay for,” and when it comes to content, quality is king. Click here for more.

11. What is a good strategy for getting people to notice your content when they mainly go to your site to buy stuff?

Depends on what you’re selling, but a smart strategy is to integrate editorial with the products themselves. You want a balance of boosting the appeal of your product with providing value through your content. The story cannot only be about the product. Contently uses the “Content Funnel” as a framework for creating content for varying levels of engagement.

The first step is to attract your audience by offering them stories that speak to their values and are either timely, seasonal, or evergreen—meaning always relevant. The second level of the funnel is for stories about the company and the customer. This gets a bit more personal and moves the audience closer to the product. The third tier is the stories concerning your product. The people who make it to this level of the funnel are the ones who will become patrons of your brand.

A few brands doing an awesome job of weaving amazing content into their commerce platforms are Mr. PorterBirchbox, and Apple.

Groupon is one more great example of combining content and commerce. It made stories an integral part of each deal, and rode unprecedented conversion rates all the way to an IPO. People could connect with the company on multiple levels and kept coming back for more.

12. What’s the best way to define your content?

The best content is mission-driven: For us, that mission is building a better media world. That’s why we cover the media and marketing world here on The Content Strategist, give freelancers the tools and knowledge they need to succeed on The Freelancer, and fund independent investigative journalism over at If you want a definition, start with a question: What’s my mission?

13. What metrics can help you improve your writing and performance?

14. How does a brand calculate their ROI? Not just a formula but the process and tools?

Most metrics focus on developing the brand, not the creator. The natural progression in smart content strategy is Stories > Engagement > Relationships > ROI. Each level of the brand newsroom should focus on one or more of those pieces. For creative people, the story metrics are the most important. For editors, engagement and relationships should take priority.

Story metrics that matter most: engaged time, finish percentage, and return engagement. These three metrics lead to relationships, which then directly translate to ROI when the conversion pathway is tracked correctly. For more, check out our “4 Keys to Calculating ROI for Content Marketers” (process) and our e-book, “The New World of Content Measurement” (tools).

15. Which social platform should I use to build a following of wealthy investors using longform content?

As we detailed in our “Banking on Content” e-book, LinkedIn is a finance content marketer’s best friend. LinkedIn has the audience you want, and their targeting capabilities are unmatched. If you’re publishing directly on LinkedIn, they have great engagement metrics built into the platform, and they also recently rolled out a redesign of their longform pages. If you can build an audience on LinkedIn, you can attract a following that will transfer over to your owned media platform.

For more finance content marketing tips, check out our “State of Finance Content Marketing” e-book.

16. As far as formatting and placement are concerned, what is the sweet spot for linking to external resources in articles?

If you’re giving a load of resources, do so at the end of the story, not as a distraction midway through. If links to external resources are important for context, definitely include them in-text (like in this piece). If you’re not concerned about content engagement, then split test it the same way you’d split test a landing page.

Also, whenever you reference a brand name in your article—yours or otherwise —always link it within the text. This can amp up your SEO ranking.

17. What is “thought leadership” and is there value to being considered a thought leader?

A brand that is a thought leader assumes expertise in a field. People rely on them as a resource. Thought leadership is the number one goal Contently clients list. Really, thought leadership is about branding. If your brand is intelligent, that’s exactly how you want to self-style. If your brand sells Doritos-shell tacos, who cares about thought leadership? You might care about entertaining teens and twenty-somethings.

And yes, thought leadership has become a buzz phrase, but it’s here to stay. Here are some tips to make it work for you.

18. What trends will be impacting content creation in the near future?

What if Coca-Cola took you inside of a can or Corona could actually find you your beach? Immersive virtual reality is going to hit marketers by surprise. Strapping on goggles and transporting instantly to a virtual hangout will be a huge opportunity for bigger and better storytelling.

The main answer is that we’ll see more players: media companies, media agencies, creative agencies, PR firms, small shops—everyone’s selling content right now. We’ll also see an explosion in multimedia and branded web series, leveraging YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, and other emerging platforms and talent to reach millennials.

There will also be a greater merging between digital and social media, and traditional media. HP’s recent commercial featuring a montage of Vines is a great example. Finally, a select few brands will finally figure out how to structure their organizations like a media company.

There you have it.

Thank you to everyone who submitted your questions. As always, when others pop up, feel free to reach out @Contently.

Image by Everett Collection

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