The 3 Traits of a Great Content Marketing Mindset

What’s the secret ingredient to good content marketing? That’s the question everyone’s trying to figure out, and if you Google it, you’ll find a thousand different blog posts with varying answers. But when you talk to the most successful content marketers, three common strategies emerge.

Content first, marketing second

There’s a shared philosophy running through the brains of the leaders behind the world’s most successful branded content, and it goes something like this: Forget the “marketing” part of content marketing. At least when you’re first starting out.

The rise of GE Reports is thanks in no small part to Tomas Kellner, a veteran editor from Forbes, whom Beth Comstock, GE’s CMO, brought on board as GE Reports’ managing editor in 2011. Kellner approaches his job at GE as a purely editorial endeavor.

“I really approached it as an online magazine rather than thinking about it as a company blog. I wanted to produce an online magazine that tells people something new,” he said. “I basically ignored press releases and focused one hundred percent on storytelling. My stories have real protagonists who are trying to solve real problems and reach real outcomes.”

As chief content strategist at Edelman, Steve Rubel has seen what works in content marketing both from a bird’s-eye view and in the trenches. He agrees that putting storytelling first is crucial to content marketing success.

“Brands need to start with an audience-centered perspective,” he said. “I think too many brands start with: ‘What do we want to talk about? What’s our message?’ They’re not thinking about how content flows from the people who create it to the people who ultimately are going to consume it and all the different diversions within that.”

“Do not build a house on land you don’t own”

A second common element you’ll find among content marketing’s biggest success stories is a firm belief in owning the property where you publish, as opposed to relying purely on social or native advertising. While it’s important to reach people where they spend their time, you also don’t want to cede total control of your audience to another site.

“Once you have your site, it sort of weaves this seamless web over your content. No one story exists on its own.”

As content marketing legend John Batelle wrote in 2014: “Do not build a house on land you don’t own.”

At GE Reports, Kellner notes that the data, relationships, and content ecosystem you develop through an owned media platform are all extremely valuable.

“It’s your audience,” he said. “You know who they are, and you can communicate to them directly. You know what they like, and you know what they don’t like. Once you have your site, it sort of weaves this seamless web over your content. No one story exists on its own.”

For example, last January, GE published a story about the Revolution CT scan, an exciting new non-invasive technology that creates stunning pictures of a patient’s internal organs.

“It’s really similar to what you would see like at the ‘Bodies’ exhibit—that kind of level of detail,” Kellner said.

Buoyed by stunning GIFs that showed the technology in action, the story rocketed up the Reddit boards and soon got picked up by the press far and wide, from Newsweek to The Washington Post. After about a week, that story ran its course, but then a funny thing happened: News outlets started picking up another GE Reports story, this one about a microscope that produces incredibly detailed pictures.

“Basically, when our CT scan became old news, there were journalists out there who still wanted to run on the story, so they went for the next thing,” Kellner explained. “The way they found out about it is because that microscope story was featured below our CT scan story. That ecosystem is really valuable, and GE Reports allows us to build and nourish that ecosystem.”

Rand Fishkin, the Wizard of Moz, also believes an owned audience has been essential to his company, which generates all of its leads through inbound marketing. “I think it’s almost indescribably huge,” Fishkin said of the benefit of Moz’s owned audience. “I think if we didn’t have it, we’d be constantly working on building it.”

Relying on your brand’s expertise

Just because you’re taking an audience-first approach to publishing doesn’t mean you have to abandon the core mission and expertise of your brand—far from it, in fact. GE did not build its audience on the back of Taylor Swift GIFs, nor did Moz develop a readership behind promises of 10 celebrity transformations you just won’t believe. Great branded content almost universally ties back to the unique knowledge a brand brings to the table.

The key is to tell stories that connect back to your brand without any overt promotion or contamination of editorial integrity.

“These are GE stories in the sense that they’re always somehow connected to GE,” Kellner said. “But they have to be newsworthy enough so a person who is in no way connected to GE, interested in GE, or [who] owns GE stock would still walk away and say, ‘This is a really cool piece of information. Maybe I should come back and check on them more often.'”

“It’s part of our DNA,” Fishkin said. “We believe in sharing and being transparent in putting out there the things that we’ve learned.”

Indeed, the incredible technology stories that Kellner and GE Reports cover all tie back to GE in some way. In a very real sense, Kellner is a reporter within his own company—much like Kurt Vonnegut, one of the company’s first reporters in the 1950s.

“It’s basically just old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting,” Kellner said. “You have to go to the factories. You have to develop sources. You have to go to the labs and see what those guys are doing. It didn’t happen overnight for me. It took me a while to develop my network of sources, and to figure out who’s working on what.”

Similarly, Moz’s content is founded purely on the company’s own learnings. “It’s part of our DNA,” Fishkin said. “We believe in sharing and being transparent in putting out there the things that we’ve learned.”

That sharing of brand knowledge—whether it be a technology, a philosophy, an opinion, or an ideal—is universally at the core of great branded content.

This is an excerpt from “The Ultimate Content Strategist Playbook No. 2: Staffing and Launching Your Content Marketing Program.”


Image by Shutterstock

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