4 Audience Growth Trends for 2015

Okay, so now I’m making content. But how the hell do I get people to check it out—and keep coming back?

This is the question nearly every content marketer asks today—and if they’re not asking it, they should be. At the Contently Summit last Thursday, I had the honor of being the least impressive person on a panel tackling the audience-building topic. After 40 minutes of jamming with Steve Rubel, Edelman’s industry luminary and resident tortured Jets fan, and Audrey Gray, a lead communications strategist at MetLife and an incredible journalist-turned-marketer, five trends stood out:

1. Agencies will push brands toward sponsored content in 2015

Rubel was bullish on sponsored content—the act of brands sponsoring content that runs on publisher sites—pointing to a comprehensive Edelman study that showed sponsored content can succeed when it’s relevant to reader interests, tells a story, and comes from a trusted brand. With those factors in place, Edelman found sponsored content can deliver a significant boost.

“If you publish with The New York Times, Slate, Vox, The Atlantic—all these high end publishers, you can see a 33 percent increase in favorability.”

Rubel also noted that there are tons of lessons brands learn from publishers when they work with them.

“The best practices for audience development are in the media world, they’re in Hollywood,” Rubel explained. “They’re not—with all due respect—with marketers. This is why I spend the bulk of my time with publishers: They know how to build an audience. Especially the digital-native publishers—if you look at BuzzFeed and Business Insider and Vox and The Huffington Post, if you spend time with them, you learn how they test and try different formats. Those best practices can be reverse-engineered and applied to marketing.”

I then questioned Rubel about whether it really made sense for brands to shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars to rent a publisher’s audience instead of investing that money in building their own audiences. Rubel responded that he’s most interested in sponsorship models in which a brand “carves out a section of the [publisher’s] site that they own.”

From the conversations I’ve had in recent months, I think Rubel’s stance is representative of how agencies at large will push brands towards native advertising in 2015. Native advertising fits the campaign mindset many brands are accustomed to; and for agencies, coordinating native campaigns is simply a safer proposition than attempting to build owned publications on behalf of brands—especially since brand publishing efforts typically take months, if not years, before they really start to pay off.

2. Go where your audience is

Now that most brands are at least somewhat comfortable creating content, the real challenge is getting people to actually consume it. Rubel advocated for sponsored content can be a powerful way for brands to introduce themselves to a publisher’s loyal targeted audience, but also noted that “a lot of old school channels can be overlooked.”

“Email!” Gray cut in.

“A lot of the time I go in and talk [to clients] about email and they look at me like I’m from the ’40s—and I am,” Rubel joked. “But the data supports it. There’s a study out there about how executives consume content, and email ruled.”

I agreed, noting that email is the biggest driver of traffic for us at Contently, sparking the daily wildfire of social shares of our content. I also advocated for brands to use paid social distribution to get more eyeballs on their content.

For instance, The Content Strategist’s content performs extremely well on Twitter; the social network is the driver of a large chunk of our daily traffic. While we don’t do much paid distribution, we do dabble in Sponsored Tweets to seed our best content in front of new audiences, and it works brilliantly, often sparking a wave of social shares. We also test the hell out of our tweets and optimize accordingly. As a result, we often end up paying just a few cents for new readers and get a ton of value out of our relatively limited content budget.

For other brand publishers, their channel of choice might be Facebook. Or LinkedIn. Or Tumblr. Regardless, brands need to explore different avenues for getting their content out there.

“If you come at your audience [strategy] with data that gives you an educated guess on what they’re consuming, and balance an experimental approach with tried and true, you can get somewhere,” Rubel said.

3. User-generated content is about to make a comeback

“User-generated content to me is the holy grail right now,” said Gray. “And it’s gotten so much better over the last year or so.”

Gray helps create content for MetLife’s 60,000-plus global employees—a task she likens to running a small-town newspaper—but her most successful content series wasn’t something she created. Recently, MetLife put out a call to employees to submit selfies while holding up a sign that summed up their relationships with clients in one word.

The series generated a tremendous response on MetLife’s internal site, with high-quality submissions pouring in from all over the world. Gray said the support was indicative of how user-generated content is back on the upswing, which presents a huge opportunity for brands. “User videos used to be terrible,” she said. “Now, they’re just great.”

4. Bigger, better, richer stories are the future

Rubel said brands need to look to Hollywood for best practices on audience development—and as a model for how to tell dynamic stories that capture people’s attention. Now, brands need to do more than publish simple blog posts. Multimedia must be a core component of every brand’s content strategy heading into 2015.

“When stories are told well, you see changes in metrics that quarter,” said Gray, who’s a big believer in the power of visual mediums. “We do some very beautiful video work and I always try and make a big case for it. I feel even more strongly about photography. You can get just beautiful photography—you pay a Getty photographer about $1200 a day and that’s totally worth it because people are just as likely, maybe even more likely, to scroll through a photo slideshow as they are to watch a 3-minute video.”

Final thoughts

It may sound obvious, but it’s worth spelling out: If brands want to become publishers with large audiences, they need to act like media companies. That means testing and tracking success with deep engagement metrics, experimenting with new forms of content and distribution, and doubling down on what works. There’s no single answer to the question, “What does it take to build an audience?” You have to do many things, and do them all well.

Dig into the session more with this amazing graphic representation by artist Kelly Kingman:

This article has been amended to correct some factual inaccuracies about Audrey Gray’s role at American Express.

Image by Jenny McCabe

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