Beyond the Blog

The SXSW program is always a great barometer of dominant buzzwords. Take “content marketing.” Four years ago, there were only a handful of content marketing panels, and they were all cordoned off at a Sheraton a mile from the convention center. This year, the term appeared nearly 1,200 times in the schedule. By comparison, “synergy” only got 18 mentions.

As the content marketing wave has crested, one particular tactic has been at the center of the buzz: the branded content site. Go to a marketing happy hour, and you’re likely to hear the same favorites cited time after time—American Express’s OPEN Forum, Red Bull’s Red Bulletin, L’Oréal’s, Coca-Cola’s Journey. These sites are visual proof that brands can, in fact, be publishers.

(Full disclosure: American Express and Coca-Cola are Contently clients.)

But it’s becoming clear that publishers need to have more than a homepage. And if brands want to continue to earn the publisher title, they’re going to have to change.

I’d like to buy the world a platform

Few people at SXSW look like they’re having a better time than Doug Busk, Coca-Cola’s affable global director of digital communications and social media. If any brand has a reason to be happy during the recent content marketing surge, it’s Coca-Cola.

In late 2012, Coca-Cola launched a digital magazine, Journey, as part of its larger Content 2020 initiative. Over the past three and a half years, Journey has earned millions of readers each month with consistent viral successes. A post about the making of “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke,” for instance, generated 200,000 views in four days due to intrigue tied to the Mad Men season finale. Another post examining the making of “Taste the Feeling” with artists Avicii and Conrad Sewell has been shared more than 160,000 times over the past year. Journey now has 24 separate editions across the globe.

On stage at Contently’s Content Cookout barbecue, Busk channeled Bernie Sanders to explain his approach to content: “It’s not just for the one percent. It’s delivered for everyone else in the country. It’s a content revolution, people. You can all join me!” he declared, imitating the Vermont senator’s accent with a smile. Reaching the 99 percent, Busk knows, means doing more than just posting on your blog.

To understand what’s happening to the Internet, it helps to liken the landscape to a presidential race. The open web, or websites that live on domains accessed through browsers like Chrome, Safari, and Firefox, is the incumbent, which remains popular—web usage is still growing at a 16 percent clip. However, the incumbent is seeing its vote-share fade as everyone gets drawn to the sexy new insurgent: apps.

Consumers are ditching desktops for mobile devices, and when they use those devices, they spend 85 percent of their time in an app. App usage was up 76 percent in 2014 and 58 percent in 2015, according to Flurry Analytics, which is owned by Yahoo. This change, in turn, is having a big impact on the way we consume media. As a whole, mobile media consumption grew 49 percent to over 800 billion minutes from 2014 to 2015.

For Busk, that’s meant transitioning from a “boomerang strategy,” in which the company posted content on its site and used social platforms to drive traffic back to Journey, to creating “channel-exclusive content” specifically for each network.

“We’ve started to build out our content and our editorial strategy with a network-driven focus,” he said.

Last spring, the company launched @thecocacolaco, a corporate Instagram, and started natively publishing stories like a feature on Matt Smith, a Coca-Cola fan with cystic fibrosis who dreamed of driving the Coca-Cola Christmas truck. Instead of just teasing the story and telling people to read about it on Journey, Busk’s team told the tale in an Instagram caption.

Matt Smith has dreamed of driving the Coca-Cola Christmas truck ever since he was a young boy. But his cystic fibrosis means driving will eventually become harder and harder. So Matt reached out to us on social media, aiming for #cfawareness and hoping his friends would help spread the word. In just a few hours, Matt’s Facebook post had gone viral. That’s when it caught the attention of Coca-Cola. And so last month Matt’s dream came true, as he became the first member of the public to drive the Coca-Cola Christmas truck. Visit Coca-Cola Journey to get the full story! || #CokeJourney #cocacola #cocacolachristmastruck #cocacolachristmastrucktour #cocacolatrucktour #christmastruck #holidaysarecoming #christmas #england #cfaware #cysticfibrosis ||

A photo posted by The Coca-Cola Company (@thecocacolaco) on

Busk also said that Coca-Cola plans to get on Facebook Instant Articles, which opened to brands this spring.

The content wars

While brands are eager to publish content on the social platforms where people already spend their time, major social platforms are also eager to attract brands and publishers of all kinds.

Facebook has pushed its organic and paid video options heavily, with its platform receiving over 100 million daily hours of video viewing time each day. Instant Articles’ incredibly fast load times have made the feature a favorite among Facebook’s 1.6 billion users. Instagram offers impressive ad targeting. Medium has made itself the go-to platform for corporate PR, with tech giants like Apple and Amazon using it to fight adversaries through longform posts. Twitter is rumored to be killing its 140-character limit in an effort to keep up. Snapchat is finding new ways to cement itself as the millennial whisperer while brands and media outlets can now publish articles and videos through Discover.

Since it’s abundantly clear that media consumption will take place more and more inside social apps, marketers, like political operatives, want to be on the right side of history. No one built a legacy by bravely going all-in on Laser Disc promotion in 1985 or print ads in 2004.

“With the atomization of publishing that’s happening—Facebook Instant Articles, Google Now Cards, Apple News, etc.—the reality is that your dot-com [site] is just another platform for people to connect with you,” Busk said. “If you want to get greater engagement, you’re going to have to go to where your readers live. Increasingly, readers live within their networks.”

The conversion question

For brands that have largely centered their content marketing efforts on a website, branching out comes with risks, particularly in terms of having less access to data on what’s working. But Busk and Coca-Cola Journey have long been leaders in content measurement, using a custom formula called EOI (Expression of Interest)—a combination of reader-engagement metrics like pageviews, bounce rates, read rates, time spent, shares, and comments—all across different platforms.

For B2B brands that use content to drive on-site conversions, the process is significantly more difficult. When readers consume B2B content away from a website, the company is one step further from getting a customer to commit to a conversion event, like signing up for a mailing list or filling out a lead form. Nonetheless, B2B brands still have to adapt to these changes in user behavior.

“You’ve got to reach people in the venues where they’re choosing to spend time,” explained Jay Baer, a renowned marketing author and consultant. “If everybody’s spending time on Facebook, you have to reach them there. The key is, whatever you’re doing on Facebook, use that to get them over to your own world, to get them to subscribe to your email or something else that’s a little bit more reliable in terms of your messaging.”

Moving forward, brands will have to find that fine line of reaching people on their own turf while also giving them ample opportunity to convert into customers. Otherwise, these businesses will have to confront irrelevance.

“We’re competing with all of you. Everyone here is a content creator. That’s the power of the devices we carry,” Busk said. “That’s the strength of Facebook. That’s the strength of Snapchat. We realize at Journey, we’re competing with your stories. We need to go to where our readers are and create content that’s made for that network.”

Whether you’re Doug Busk or Bernie Sanders, that’s the kind of populist message everyone is going to have to get behind.

Image by Jonathan Petersen
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