Voices

Do Content Marketers Need Editorial Independence?

By Sam Slaughter January 29th, 2016

Back in 2013, an email from Joe Coleman, CEO of Contently (and my boss), came with the subject line “Bro stuff,” and only got worse from there. “Guys, why do we need an article on how content marketing can help you pull girls?” he wanted to know. He couldn’t see how this would help our business. You know what, you might as well just read it for yourself:

That morning, Coleman had read a story on The Content Strategist about an online porn company we’d profiled because of its advanced approach to content marketing (really!). Our content team was nascent at the time, and Joe Lazauskas, our managing editor, wasn’t even full-time yet. He thought the story would be interesting to our audience, so he wrote it without realizing the wrath it would bring from the business side of the house.

Both sides were more than justifiable. Coleman was worried about protecting our brand; Lazauskas was concerned with creating interesting content for our audience.

I bring up this anecdote because I think it touches on a big issue that a lot of marketers are still unsure about: How does one protect the business side of the house while still giving the content side room to thrive?

The answer: very carefully.

Content needs independence

If you want to produce good content marketing, it’s impossible to ignore and avoid editorial independence. The best content operations are agile, able to react to news and trends in a timely manner. For people on the brand and business sides, it’s very difficult for people to move as quickly. For one, they’re not accustomed to doing so; plus, they’re busy with their day jobs. By the time they get around to approving content, whatever you’re working on may no longer be relevant.

The key is to set very clear guidelines and allow content teams to color inside them. The team at Contently knows that we cover content marketing, and to a slightly lesser extent digital marketing and platforms. Everything we publish needs to bring readers smart, unique piece insights our audience can’t find anywhere else. We know our tone should be friendly but not flippant. And as long as our editors stay within those guidelines, they’re free to write just about whatever they want. Yes, even porn.

Independence levels vary

Of course, the degree of editorial independence ultimately depends on the size of your company and industry. Less-regulated industries often allow content teams more freedom; industries with lots of rules, like finance or pharma, tend to keep a tighter leash.

However, according to Ryan Galloway, Contently’s director of content services, “Brands that achieve significant ROI on their content are those that give editors and content teams free rein to develop outstanding and unexpected creative output. A brand editor should also be empowered to push back against marketers’ innate desire to pitch products and help keep content objective and brand-agnostic.”

All things equal, I’d argue that brands should allow as much independence as possible. If you focus on empowering your content team, rather than limiting them, they’ll come up with better ideas and be more effective at their jobs. This is also where content technology can help—a tech-enabled approval process can make governance more nimble, preserving some level of agility while also maintaining control.

Organizations should provide accountability

Ideally, each marketing organization has someone who acts as the liaison between the content team and the rest of the business. There are always going to be mistakes and arguments because it’s difficult for the content team to align with the sales and revenue parts of the business all of the time. In fact, I’d argue that they shouldn’t always aim to be aligned since those teams tend to have very different short-term goals.

That’s why it’s key to have someone who can provide air cover for the content creators while diplomatically voicing concerns either side may have.

For example, Contently has a few big focuses this year as a business: ensuring that our technology is the smartest in the industry; proving to the market that we are mature enough to support enterprise companies; expanding our business in the U.K., Europe, and the West Coast; and making the case for content’s utility across the enterprise (not just in the marketing department). My job is to pass those priorities along, not mandate that we talk about them. That’s the province of our editors, who know better than anyone what our audience wants to see, as well as when it’s appropriate to incorporate those big themes.

Guidelines should align with metrics

Independence allows content teams to thrive, but it can’t be at the expense of the business or the brand. One of the key problems with using traditional vanity metrics like pageviews, impressions, and even social actions for content marketing is that they encourage the wrong kind of outcomes. This is the cat-GIF corollary1: Clickbait undeniably drives these kinds of metrics, but clickbait doesn’t help a brand sell more products or encourage customers to trust the company.

A B2B content team may be responsible for unique visitors, but they should also be on the hook for attention time and even marketing qualified leads. For B2C companies, factors like brand lift and email subscribers are more important than Facebook likes. But once you give them the right goals and guidelines, get out of the way as much as possible.

There are a lot of good metaphors for how to manage editorial independence in content marketing, but I keep coming back to the idea of a wind-up toy. You rely on editorial and brand guidelines, key metrics, and broad topics to calibrate said toy, and then you put it down and let it go. After that, you just have to hope it doesn’t end up on a porn set.

  1. Yes, I just made that up.
Image by Tetiana Yurchenko
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