Ask a Content Strategist

Ask a Content Strategist: How Do I Monetize My Content Marketing?

As I sat down to write this month’s column, I decided to do something that I should have done months ago. For the first time, I Googled “content marketing mailbag” to see if anyone else is doing this. It turns out they’re not. No one else on earth is as big of a dork as I am.

It goes to show: You can plan out all the research and intelligent content strategy choices, but sometimes you just make a gut decision that works out. (These mailbags are consistently among our top-performing posts every month.)

I usually advise against making content strategy decisions with your gut. But if you do, surround yourself with people willing to tell you your idea is awful. Or, at the very least, people who make fun of you when you start humble-bragging about your content marketing column with Mac Miller GIFs.


Monetization! You barely discuss how to monetize content. Creating and distributing is all fine, but once you do that, what’s next? How do you start producing revenue off your content? What are the options available and what’s right for me?
—Eyal, Tel Aviv

What’s up, Eyal? Fun fact: I lived in Tel Aviv for the first month I spent running The Content Strategist. I felt like such a badass editor because even when I woke up at 11 a.m., it was still only 4 a.m. back in New York.

The main reason I don’t talk very much about monetizing content is that most brands simply aren’t ready for that yet. In fact, it’s the last step in Rebecca Lieb’s content marketing maturity model.

However, I do think it’s possible for brands to monetize before they hit the “run” stage. Part of the beauty of content marketing is that there are more flexible approaches to monetization than there are in traditional media.

Usually, content monetization falls into three stages:

Attribution: The point at which you can effectively calculate hard ROI for your content marketing. When your CEO knows that if he puts $1 into content, he’ll get $2 out, that’s monetization.

There are a few models for attributing content to revenue. (Here’s the multi-touch one we use.) Remember, though, that direct revenue is just the bull’s-eye in the five rings of content marketing ROI. There are other ways for content to boost your brand, but tying them to concrete dollar amounts isn’t as simple.

Bartering: If your content is killing it, you’ll eventually reach a point when your audience is big and valuable enough for you to barter with other outlets. It’s a great way to get marketing and advertising opportunities for free. Plus, bartering is hip! All the cool kids in Brooklyn are doing it.

Essentially, you’re trading access to your audience for access to another audience. I’ll give you a few examples. We regularly swap ads between CMI’s Chief Content Officer magazine and Contently Quarterly. We forged an editorial partnership with the Digiday Awards. And on Thursday, I’m doing a webinar with HubSpot about executive buy-in for content marketing, which HubSpot has been promoting in its newsletter for weeks. (We’ve also been promoting it to our list of 100,000 email subscribers.)

All of these programs would normally come with a five-figure price tag, but since we also have an influential magazine and blog, we’re able to get them for free.

The key, of course, is finding the right partnerships. Reach out to like-minded companies with similar audiences. You never want to betray your audience’s trust and promote something they won’t find interesting.

Selling ads: Ah, the final frontier.

Over the last two years, marketers have started monetizing their content like traditional media outlets—particularly as brands start poaching folks from media companies.

For instance, David Beebe left ABC to run Marriott’s content program two and a half years ago. Since then, Marriott has started licensing its award-winning short films and TV shows to distributors while beginning to think about selling ads in Marriott Traveler, the company’s travel magazine.

“That money goes toward producing more content,” Beebe said. “If you scale it right, marketing starts funding itself.”

(Full disclosure: Marriott is a Contently client, and Marriott Traveler was created in partnership with Contently.)

This is easier said than done. Hundreds of people work in the ad-sales departments of major publishers. To start, you need at minimum:

  • A media kit
  • A sales rep
  • On-demand talent to produce creative
  • An audience development manager to ensure ad performance
  • Someone sharp enough to produce an ad-performance report

That being said, I think we’ll see more companies monetize their content marketing through ad sales or sponsored content. It just makes sense when you reach a certain maturity, particularly in B2B.

Look no further than Contently. With the analytics tools we use (Contently Analytics, Demandbase, LinkedIn, Google Analytics, Campaign Monitor), we can see that we reach a loyal, high-value audience of several hundred thousand marketers and media executives each month. We know that B2B publishers with a similar audience sell sponsored content packages that start at $10,000. We also know that our audience responds very well to partnerships, as long as they’re carefully selected and provide real value, which is why we’ve started running sponsored content campaigns with select partners. (Email us if you’re interested!)

At a level of maturity, it only makes sense. Especially since, as Beebe said, you can reinvest that revenue back into your content marketing and drive bigger returns for your organization.

How do I create a hero brand on a low budget?
—Philippe, Kinderminster

Let’s start by defining a hero brand since not everyone speaks marketing. I’m fond of this definition from Inc.: “The Hero is tough and courageous, overcomes tremendous obstacles and persists in difficult times. They are most fulfilled when they can rise to or overcome a challenge.”

I think that small companies with low budgets have a lot of advantages when it comes to creating a hero brand. You can lean into the underdog narrative. You can move quickly. And you can talk about your company in a casual and colloquial way without pissing off some brand manager halfway across the world.

The key is that your brand needs a mission. Yes, I put that in italics because I cannot stress it enough. Your brand needs a compelling perspective on the world and a mission to change how things are done. As I wrote last year:

When you wonder what your brand believes in, it’s easy to land on something bland and broad that would sound ridiculous if it came from a person. We believe in happiness. We believe in togetherness. We believe in innovation. These are not things you would tell someone at a dinner party. (So glad you believe in happiness, Bob. Now please pass the Chardonnay.)

If you focus on what the key people in your company believe, it increases your chances of coming up with interesting content. Your CEO doesn’t believe in the general concept of innovation; he believes that very specific things lead to success in your industry. Our co-founder Shane Snow doesn’t believe in content, but he does believe that brands will win if they invest in telling great stories instead of intrusive advertising, and that a combination of great technology and superb creative talent are the keys to actually accomplishing that mission. This belief informs our own content strategy, guiding us in the right direction.

At Contently, having a real opinion and a mission is the key to building our brand and capturing an audience—especially three years ago, when we were just a dozen people and a bunch of dogs. It was glorious, and it worked. This was how I felt when we first hit 100,000 readers:

I’ll never forget that day.

Is it kosher for a writer to accept payment from a client to write a piece and post it on a high authority website (LifeHacker, Forbes, Huffington Post, etc.) without disclosing that payment? I’ve been asked to do this quite a bit and it really irks me. I figure that if I’m posting PR copy under my own byline, it besmirches MY reputation as a writer (I’ve come into copywriting via journalism). Keen to find out if I’m just being naive and that everyone’s “doing this” or if there are some kind of ethical standards to which copywriters should abide. Trying to keep myself nice, here!
—Margaret, Blayney, Australia

Hell no! That’s less kosher than the last 100 pages of Lord of the Flies.

I get emails like this all the time. There are a bunch of shady PR and SEO firms out there that try to juice their clients’ website rankings. They have two tactics: They pay writers to embed links in their stories, or they pay writers to pass off PR copy as a legitimate article to editors. They’re dark agents, taking advantage of cash-strapped writers and paying them to poison the sites they work for.

I understand the temptation. But just don’t do it. If I found that a writer was doing that, I would never work with that person again.

If you have a question for next month’s column, please submit it here. You can also tweet me @JoeLazauskas or tag me in the comments section of this incredibly creepy Facebook Live video from Monopoly.

Image by Getty

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