Brands

5 Lessons From Publishing Over 1000 Stories This Year

Sometimes, when I find myself alone late at night in Contently’s SoHo office working on our magazine, I try to make up motivational slogans for myself about the work I do. It’s really embarrassing, I know, but it’s also who I am—about 36 percent corny (Ed. note: That’s on a good day)—and I learned long ago to just accept it.

The other day, I came up with one that I quite like. I’m going to share it with you now, whether you like it or not: The best way to learn about content marketing is to do content marketing.

That may sound obvious, but it’s also true. Since I started as editor-in-chief of Contently a year ago, we’ve published over 1,000 stories, grown our audience by 100,000 readers, and nearly given our CEO a heart attack about half a dozen times. Most importantly, we’ve learned a ton of valuable lessons about content marketing.

Here are my 5 favorites:

1. Data-driven (and consistent) content creation is key.

Like many writers, I got into the arts partly because I didn’t want to be a slave to numbers. I always dreamed that being an editor-in-chief would let me become an absolute dictator over my own creative domain—like Father Knows Best, except with a bunch of writers instead of a cheesy ’50s family.

How wrong I ended up being. For better or worse, the numbers don’t lie. If you pick the right numbers to measure, they almost become prophetic. Early this year, we decided to make a concerted effort to track metrics that truly measure how we’re building a relationship with our audience—things like engaged time, average finish, email sign-up conversions, and return readers. Because we were creating a lot of content, we had a lot of data. And that allowed us to quickly double down on what worked best while cutting the types of stories that weren’t resonating. (For instance, when we talked about journalism ethics, nobody cared; when we talked about content measurement, our audience was hooked.)

Within a few months of starting this effort, we were rewarded with rapid audience growth by every significant metric.

2. Your sales and accounts teams are your biggest assets.

A big part of Contently’s appeal to me has always been that we were founded by a journalist, so our internal editorial team is given a tremendous amount of freedom. We’re truly given the space to tell the best stories possible, without meddling and interference from the business side.

But that doesn’t mean that the business side of your company doesn’t have a tremendous role to play. They’re on the ground every day, hearing the struggles, needs, and desires of people who are either trying to become content marketers or are content marketers already. We hold regular editorial brainstorming sessions with our entire accounts and sales teams, and those meetings have yielded many of our strongest-performing stories. No matter your business, your business-side teams are a tremendous resource of information that you’d be silly not to tap.

3. Your content needs to be newsworthy—and a little controversial.

As my boss, Shane Snow, often says, brands shouldn’t try to get in the news business. Information and entertainment are their sweet spot. While I agree with Shane, I also believe that a brand’s content needs to be newsworthy and contribute something new and unique to the content world—something that sparks conversation.

This year, we released two studies on important issues for our industries. The results weren’t exactly positive for the industry we’re in at Contently. One revealed that 90 percent of marketers aren’t confident in how they’re measuring their content. The other found that most readers have felt deceived by sponsored content. But both were covered widely by other media outlets, introducing our content to an entirely new readership. And, more importantly, we sparked conversations about two key issues.

4. You need to test, test, test.

The idea of A/B testing every aspect of your content isn’t new. It’s a key reason that Upworthy, Vox Media, and BuzzFeed have all built giant audiences in an unprecedentedly short time over the past few years.

I won’t pretend that we’re as advanced as those publishers, which employ large data teams and some of the smartest editors on earth. But we do A/B test every headline on our site, as well as every email subject line and social media post. The result has been small gains in performance that, over time, have paid huge dividends.

5. Print isn’t dead.

As a 21st century media-tech startup, it might seem strange for us to publish the print magazine you’re reading right now. After all, print is time-consuming. It’s relatively expensive. It makes you spend Friday night obsessively checking for typos over and over until you feel insane.

But as a brand trying to establish our thought leadership in the content marketing world, it’s paid off in spades. Maybe it’s the novelty of print in a digital world; maybe it’s the quirky illustrations of bears and conquistadors; maybe it’s even the actual stories. But it’s helped us build relationships with freelancers, media types, and future clients. Our sales reps always tell us about how instead of bringing a one-sheeter to meetings with potential clients, they plop down a stack of our quarterly magazine instead. Indeed, our print magazine is destined to drive millions of dollars in revenue in 2015. I attribute that mostly to the DeLorean on the cover and the bear ads within, but the stories probably have something to do with it, too.

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