In the world of content marketing, scope can make or break a publication. Carve out too narrow a niche and you limit the potential to grow your audience; tackle too much at once and audiences won’t know what you stand for. For Autodesk, which focuses on 3D printing and engineering software, hitting that sweet spot with a company blog wasn’t easy 1.
But 18 months after Autodesk launched Line//Shape//Space, its main publication is racking up accolades from Digiday, the Webbies, and the Content Marketing Awards.
Dusty DiMercurio, head of content marketing at Autodesk, sat down with me during this year’s Content Marketing World to talk about how the company built such an innovative publishing strategy, what the most effective content formats are, and why content marketing just might save us all.
How does Autodesk define content when it means so many things to so many different people?
Great question, and I don’t know. Content is really anything that can touch the end user and customer, outside of the product experience. Part of my challenge in forming a content marketing team was to explain what content marketing is, which is a very easy question to ask and difficult question to answer. Traditional marketing is oftentimes interruptive. It’s not always mindful of where the buyer might be within their journey. It’s pushy, trying-to ask-for-marriage-on-the-first-date kind of thing, too much. To me, content marketing is really the last hope for marketing. Instead of being interruptive in the ways that traditional advertising has been, it tries to flip that model on its head and be so interesting and relevant that it’s hard to ignore.
I like that answer—it goes really well into the next question. When you were just starting to build this content marketing department, outside of defining content, what was the primary pushback that you got?
We tried to keep it under the radar as much as we could. We looked to find an executive sponsor who could help provide air cover and stuff like that. The primary pushback was that a big company like Autodesk is traditionally siloed—content coming from all sides, and people have their little slices of the pie. Content marketing is a practice, one that integrates so many seemingly traditionally disparate practices: PR, communications, product marketing, and all that stuff. When you start doing that, it’s very disruptive in a big company.
Some of our biggest pushback was actually people internally who were like, “Hey, why are you doing that? That’s my audience, that’s what I’m doing or supposed to be doing.”
How has the editorial mission changed since you started?
We started with a focus on very small businesses, companies with under 20 people. That helped give us focus and get the program off the ground. Get some wind, then start internally evangelizing it to the point where we started to get a lot of interest, recognition, and people wanting to come and play in our sandbox, or have us help them build theirs.
Small businesses will always be in our heart, but we’re not solely focused on very small businesses anymore. We’re looking at companies of any size, so our editorial strategy had to change a little bit too. We have a framework today. Without a framework, we have so many different industries that Autodesk connects with that it could get messy really quickly.
We have an overarching narrative, which is the future of making things. You’ll even hear salespeople talk about the future of making things. Then, in our editorial framework for Line//Shape//Space specifically, we describe it as our head, heart, and hands. The head is about leadership. The heart is success stories—stories of innovation and awesomeness. Hands is the pragmatic, tangible business advice, like how to hire an architect for your firm.
A lot of people find it difficult to get one blog off the ground. You guys have 120-plus. How and why?
Great question. I don’t have a good answer for you. There’s a lot of people who just have their own personal blogs and are rock stars in their own industries. Lynn Allen is a great example. She’s literally the CAD rock star. Shaan Hurley is another one. There’s a lot of individual thought leaders who have their own blogs, and they’re building their own audiences, connecting with their own audiences. That’s probably why there are so many.
There’s a lot of good stories to tell, and there’s not tons of coordination or governance over that. My sense is that will evolve over time, and part of it’s a technology thing—tools and technology to be able to help people better engage with audiences.
Absolutely, and all of them roll up to the statement you had earlier, “The Future of Making Things.” So there’s no oversight? They’re autonomous?
A lot of them are autonomous. The main blog we do is Line//Shape//Space, and that’s probably one of the more well-known ones now. It’s gotten a lot of traction, and a lot of the stories are told through that channel. I like the idea of building an owned property. I think it’s important for brands to own their audience and have direct connection with them. That’s a lot of what we try to do with Line//Shape//Space at Autodesk.
It sounds like not all blogs are created equal. What’s the secret behind Line//Shape//Space?
I started at Autodesk off the grid. I stayed off the grid long enough to build my own grid, then by the time visibility came, it was blessed by some of the senior executives. They get what it’s about, and they’re behind it and supportive of it.
Part of what we did when we started Line//Shape//Space looks and feels very different than any other blog at Autodesk. We were aiming to reach small businesses. We needed a fully responsive platform as we learned most small businesses accessed us via mobile. We ended up going with WordPress as our publishing and front-end [platform]. Small businesses looked at the Autodesk website and were like, “You guys are super high-end. It looks really sexy, but it doesn’t really connect with me. I’m a scrappy dude on the ground trying to build my own business, and I don’t actually know totally what I’m doing, but I’m going to take a go at it.” There were not pictures of people on the site at that time. That’s starting to change.
Appeal is important. What are some cool formats that you’ve experimented with to drive customers down the funnel?
E-books are great, and infographics are fun. Videos drive a lot of engagement. There’s a lot of cool interactive tools out there. Those kinds of things are really exciting to me. We’re very top of the funnel. We’re starting to integrate with the campaigns teams and deliver content that helps them engage their users in the right way at the right time, but we’re not really about driving traditional conversion that you look for at the bottom of the funnel. We’re more focused on getting people to spend time engaging with us. To us, that’s what wins. Those are the goals that we march toward.
How are you capturing that engagement and communicating it internally?
The way that we capture it on the front end is WordPress. Then, on the back end, it’s like a bottomless SQL database. We’re tracking everything that’s happening, anonymously. We have a social sign-in function. We have some more rich assets that we gate (i.e., you need to sign in). Once you sign in once, you have access to everything on the site. All that tracking has created a front end for a lot of that data. That helps us look at the engagement and look at things like how much of the article did they read, return visits, subscribers of our newsletter, and stuff like that.
What’s a story that surprised when it performed really well?
That did really well that we didn’t think? One of the first bylines we worked on with our SVP of industry strategy marketing, Andrew Anagnost. Super sharp guy, really interesting, has tons of background—he’s literally a rocket scientist.
He put together this article that was on the new industrial revolution, bringing manufacturing back to the United States. It was all about local production, minimizing time for shipping, creating jobs locally, and how that plugs into the growing demands of consumers today who expect personalization. It totally blew up, got a lot of traction and a lot of engagement.
You’ve also won a lot of awards at Content Marketing World.
We got some awards for a variety of different things from CMI. We got things like “Best Multi-Author Blog,” “Best Mobile Strategy,” “Best Manufacturing Content.” There were two others, and I’m spacing on them. Huge boons. Then, something we’re really excited about, which is what I have to race to after this interview, is we’re up for “Project of the Year” for the Line//Shape/Space site. Just be acknowledged there is a huge deal.
We also got acknowledged by the Webbies in the “Best Business Blog” categories. The Webbies are the holy grail of digital success. They put us in the business blog category with the Atlantic Business, Mashable, TechCrunch. Mashable won, but to be in the category of TechCrunch and those guys was huge. That happened the last two years in a row. Just amazing.
So what’s next?
I really do think that content marketing is disruptive. It’s a little ahead of its time, but it’s totally needed. At the end of the day, a lot of people put a lot of emphasis on the channels, assets, and things like that. The center of gravity is the story. Storytelling, as an art, hasn’t changed for thousands of years. It’s been the same. You might tell that story differently through different channels, but the story itself doesn’t change.
To me, content marketing is the one area, practice, or philosophy that takes that very seriously. My sense is that content marketing is just going to be called marketing, and it is just going to be considered good marketing. It has to happen, because, again, people pay on their phones to stop marketers from yapping at them. They buy apps so they don’t get ads. It’s very interruptive, and if anything’s going to save marketing, it’s got to be content marketing.
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