5 Lessons We Learned Publishing 906 Stories in 2015

A few days ago, I had to fill out my annual performance review. At first, it seemed like a supremely unnecessary exercise. I’m tight with my boss, our VP of Content Sam Slaughter; he’s already well aware of what I do every day, what I’m proud of, what I’d do differently. Hell, he’s probably tired of hearing about it. So is my therapist.

But somewhere between humble-bragging about securing the top four spots in Google for “content marketing buzzwords” and admitting that the rest of my team does most of the real work, I remembered that content marketing is a game of reflection. You have to constantly analyze what’s worked and optimize your efforts accordingly—which is probably why I wrote this exact column one year ago.

So screw it, let’s make it a tradition. This year, we grew our audience by 100,000, became an award-winning publication, and drove a hell of a lot of business for Contently as a result. I feel more optimistic than ever for both our editorial efforts and the content marketing industry as a whole. And I really can’t wait to drunkenly ramble about these things at our Christmas party tonight.

But for the sake of my coworkers, let me get that out of the way right here with the five biggest lessons I’ve learned this year:

1. Empathize with every department

A lot of content marketing departments are filled with marketers learning how to do editorial. I’m the opposite—a journalist who had to learn about marketing.

No matter your department, it can be really tempting to stay in your own world. I covered the marketing industry for years as a reporter, and when we hired some super-smart marketers at Contently last year to supplement our vagabond editorial department, I naturally treated them like sources. I did the same thing with our sales team. They were folks who could give us background on complex topics.

With my reporter hat on, I never really sought to empathize with the challenges they face. But earlier this year, it finally sunk in that my job isn’t just to build the best publication possible; it’s to help everyone in Contently do their jobs better, from marketing to sales to HR and recruiting. And to do that, I needed to think of how content could help them overcome the challenges they face.

Our edit team started meeting and talking with other departments much more than we ever had. This approach gave us a much richer understanding of the impact and ROI that content can have across an organization, triggered some of our most impactful new stories, and helped us reach new audiences we weren’t speaking to before.

2. Focus on the big projects

I can be stubborn. For a while, I was dead-set on publishing at least three stories a day on TCS. I didn’t have a great reason. I just liked being a site that published at least three times a day, and coming from a pageview-chasing media background, it always felt weird to publish any less.

But here’s the thing: You’re never going to remember that “6 out of 10” blog post you pushed out on a random Tuesday in February, and neither will anyone else. What moves the needle for your brand publication and brand are the “10 out of 10” pieces. As content marketers, we don’t have to chase pageviews to hit ad sale quotas, and that affords us a great opportunity to be patient and only publish a story once it’s perfect.

That freedom also gives us the chance to work on big, ambitious projects. True to form, the pieces that made a real impact for us this year were big and ambitious: our five-part content marketing playbook series; our original research on sponsored content, brand lift, and the state of freelancing; this insanely comprehensive Facebook guide; and a thoughtful examination of the past and present of editorial independence.

Don’t waste time just “doing content.” Devote your time to projects that’ll make you incredibly proud. On both The Content Strategist and The Freelancer, we published fewer stories this year, but we were much more ambitious in our storytelling. It paid off.

3. Paid distribution on Facebook is the bomb diggity

Arguably the smartest thing we did this year was shift some of our content creation budget into paid distribution on Facebook. As I wrote two weeks ago, it worked ridiculously well, introducing new people to our best-performing content and getting them to keep coming back.

I’m going to write a full post on this in January with the data to back it up, but given the efficiency and targeting capabilities of paid content distribution on Facebook, LinkedIn, and other networks, it just makes sense to spend nearly as much on content distribution as content creation.

4. Data don’t lie, and tagging is key

There’s a big overlap between editors and Star Wars fans, and sometimes we straight-up believe we’ve got the force. It’s easy to think you can intuitively feel the exact combination of channels, content, and contributors that work best for your content. But you can’t.

We got a lot better about tagging our content this year by factors like category, industry, format, and word count so we could see what works best in our analytics platform. For instance, longform social media analysis is fire on Facebook and Twitter, and thought leader interviews and ROI explainers kill it on LinkedIn.

Making a habit of digging deep into your analytics every month and reevaluating your content strategy is crucial. I’d highly recommend coming up with a tagging strategy for next year as soon as possible. For a quick and easy guide, head here.

5. Remember, this is fun

Contently grew up in 2015. Two years ago, I was employee number 13; now, over 100 people work here. That’s meant new departments, bigger departments, and bigger demands as we seek to harness some serious momentum and grow, grow, grow.

Staying on track can get overwhelming, especially in this Mad Max stretch between Labor Day and Christmas. But then I step back and remember that the best stories come when you’re having fun—when you say screw it and write that blog post tearing apart buzzwords instead of catching up on email, when you create a funny quiz for the hell of it, and especially when you somehow convince your CEO to dress up like Fat Joe for a video on content marketing ROI.

Okay, maybe that last one was a little weird, but that brings us back to my biggest lesson: You have to try different things, reflect, and figure out what works. And if worst comes to worst, you can always expense all those gold chains that you bought at the Halloween Store.

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