Why Ambitious Content Is the Only Content That Matters

This is a story about risk and reward. It’s also a story about pumpkins. Let me start from the beginning.

Last fall, I found myself in an editorial meeting at the office of a large brand. The company was relatively new to publishing, and its family-focused finance content had performed respectably so far, but the employees were still a long way from reaching the goals they’d set months before.

With the holidays approaching, we saw the opportunity for a timely piece of content: an infographic about the exorbitant costs of holiday travel for families. We suggested a slick production design with an accompanying article offering tips for saving money when visiting grandma. It was, we said, the type of content that could easily go viral. I showed the employees this list of the 10 most viral infographics and pointed out that they all racked up hundreds of thousands of likes and shares. If we approached this project the right way, other personal finance blogs would pick it up, as would mommy bloggers and travel sites.

An awkward pause ensued. Across the table, noses crinkled. Shoulders rolled into noncommittal shrugs. “I don’t know,” their marketing director said. “Aren’t those expensive?”

Yes, we explained, but the ROI can be huge.

Another stakeholder piped up: “ doesn’t do infographics.”

With that, the idea of doing an infographic died. In its place, they opted to do a listicle. It was called “10 Things You Didn’t Know You Could Do With a Pumpkin.” And even if you wanted to find it, you’d have to struggle through page after page of similar-sounding Google results to do so.

No risk, no reward

For traditional media outlets, one of the most critical channels for building a readership is the old-fashioned “exclusive”. They get the coveted interview. They publish the big scandal before the other guys. In short, they have something no one else has. Brand publishers aren’t breaking news (yet), but they have a similar opportunity to earn seismic readership gains by giving the audience something they can’t get anywhere else.

But like the pumpkin publisher above, many brands shy away from going for the home run, preferring instead to play small ball, grinding away with slap singles and hoping to win by pure volume. This strategy is destined to fail, and no one explains it more effectively than Moz’s Rand Fishkin:

The vast vast majority of links and shares and amplification signals of all kinds are going to only the top five or 10 percent of content that gets put out. There’s not a whole lot of value in writing a decent blog post anymore. [There’s not a lot of value] unless you can be pretty extraordinary. Ask [this]: If they’re searching for an answer to a question, would they rather reach your piece of content than anything else on the Internet right now? Unless the answer is a slam dunk, “Yes, this is 10 times better than anything else out there,” I’m not necessarily sure it’s worth publishing.

In short, if you’re publishing unambitious content, you’re throwing your money away. There’s no ROI for being just another voice in a crowd.

Why Ambitious Content is the Only Content That Matters

Excuses, excuses

Even though brands have a financial incentive for producing creative, original content, too many still insist on churning out mediocre work. They tend to justify that mindset with three typical reasons.

-It’s hard. When I show publishers great examples of branded content, like Land Rover’s outstanding “The Vanishing Game” or NVIDIA’s delightful debunking of lunar landing conspiracies, they often assume that marquee content is outside of their grasp. But with the right creative talent, this sort of thing is very doable. Look at what Contently accomplished with the team at Marriott Traveler. Sure, standing out can be challenging, but it’s far from impossible.

-It’s expensive. In fairness, content like “The Vanishing Game” is indeed a little spendy. But taking a chance and creating something exclusive doesn’t have to break your budget. As Amanda Walgrove recently pointed out on The Content Strategist, the old fashioned article remains the most effective type of branded content. It’s also one of the easiest to produce. Video is a close second in effectiveness but remains substantially more difficult to create. The lesson here? Put some effort into creating outstanding articles that give your readers something they can’t get elsewhere, and watch the wins roll in.

-It isn’t being done by competitors. This facepalm-worthy comment crops up more often than you’d believe. As I’ve noted previously, when brands enter the content game, they’re not just competing with the other brands in their industry—they’re competing with every other established media brand out there. This realization alone should spur brands to create truly ambitious content. It’s a crowded field, and you’ve got to stand out to win.

The pumpkin publisher offered up each one of these flimsy excuses, some more than once. But even though its content was unambitious, its goals were anything but.

No substitute for a good story

A few weeks later, the company published the pumpkin piece, along with a few others, all of which were similarly worthless. A month rolled by, accompanied by more unfocused, uninteresting content. The executives expected slow, organic growth and gradual development of an owned audience. It wasn’t happening. In fact, almost no one was reading their content. Few viewers arrived, and almost none stayed.

“Give it time,” the marketing director said. “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

At this point, we know what was coming. We also knew that letting it happen would be the only way we’d convince them to be smarter about their content. When the quarter came to a close two months later, they’d missed their content goals—every metric, from pageviews to engagement—by nearly 75 percent. This, we thought, would be our opportunity. But before we could even suggest doing better content, the stakeholders decided that pouring money into distribution would be their magic bullet.

We sighed. And then we waited.

At the end of the next quarter, little had changed. Despite tens of thousands of dollars spent on distribution, their content was still underperforming—and not by a little. At this point, they were ready to throw in the towel. “Maybe content marketing isn’t right for our industry,” they said.

Our response? “Give it another quarter. And give us a chance to do something great this time.”

Three months later, their content had surpassed all of their goals. Their audience was growing, sharing, and engaging. But we didn’t give them a magic bullet. There is no secret to why their new content succeeded where their old stuff failed.

All it took was great stories.

We gave their audience thoughtful, useful content they couldn’t get anywhere else. We made it interesting, and we made it unique to their brand. We started with the stories themselves, and everything else fell into place.

Ryan Galloway is the Senior Managing Editor at Contently.

Image by qvist

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