Todd Wheatland: on Mining Silver Linings

Transcript from keynote address delivered at Walkleys CommsDirect in Sydney on August 7:

Let me start with a story, it is about a guy who thinks he has it all, he has managed to convince two women that he loves them both, they both know about each other and they don’t mind. Let’s give him a name, let’s call him a publisher.

He really does love woman number one, who we will call ‘the audience’. He tells her everything she wants to hear and sometimes he tells her what he thinks she should know.  At the same time, he really, really likes woman number two, ‘the advertiser’ and feels giddy with excitement every time she calls. 

However the love that woman number one and woman number two felt for the publisher was based on familiarity, he was safe, predictable and there wasn’t much choice in town when he became their love interest – the barriers to entry were high.

This was until a new breed of super-men entered town and showed ‘the audience’ and ‘the advertiser’ that they could not only have freedom of choice, but influence the market as well. It took a little while for him to comprehend just how unattractive he was compared to other options, but when he did, he realised that the power had shifted from himself, the publisher, to the audience. I think you know how this story ends… 

The shift of power

The publisher, who was in the middle of some form of vertical or tactical execution of what it is to be a traditional publisher, suddenly finds out the barriers have fallen away and they’re competing in an environment where anyone can publish – and reach a significant audience. Not just that, but the people who were giving him the money to facilitate his success are able to go direct to their audience, by publishing themselves.

Brands are actively embracing the concept of ‘brand journalism’. They are diving in and seeing an opportunity here, an opportunity to build an audience themselves.

The objectives of ‘brand publishers’, in terms audience engagement, are virtually identical to traditional publishers. The thing that is fundamentally different is their business model. The money, and the power still sits very heavily with brands. Power as most of us know and recognise (or perhaps live everyday), has been shaken up dramatically in the publishing space.

The rise of the brand publishers

Over the last few years, forward-thinking brands have invested a lot of time and effort trying to work out this whole ‘what does it mean to be a publisher thing.’ There have been great successes and horrible car crashes along the way.

Once you really start investing time and effort to truly understand what it is to produce content and you are able to produce it at scale and with consistency, you hit this other challenge…

If you are currently investing time and money, and your content is working, do you decide to multiply what you are currently producing by ten or is it more cost effective to invest that money to get your content in front of a specific audience?

Amplification – the saviour of the publishing world

This is what has driven the rebirth of the ‘amplification’ sector, which is where the evolution and the innovation is occurring in the content space. There are all these terms and tools: native advertising, content discovery engines, content performance tools, content analytics tools.

The publishing industry is throwing a lot of energy into finding a model where they can make money and transition the traditional media and publishing spend into something that takes advantage of the ‘brands as publishers’ trend. I’ll come back to native advertising, in particular, later.

Publishers like NewsCorp, Time Warner Inc, Tribune media and Gannet (USA Today) have, in the last few months, jettisoned their print division, splitting it from their television and digital properties. A sign of the recognition that maintaining an industry and a format in decline is an insurmountable challenge. The focus, tools and techniques needed to maintain an industry in decline and try to revive it are very different from the growth opportunities and the energy that has been put into other digital formats.

Native advertising

This month also saw US satirist TV host, John Oliver’s, little rant about native advertising, a huge discussion in the little, insular goldfish bowl in which I live.

The fundamental failing of offering native advertising and the consensus among those who don’t have a vested interest in this space, is that publishers are running the risk of destroying what is left of their brands in the search for revenue. The search for alternative ways of making money is really punishing because the power and the money still sits with the advertisers, with the brands.

In combination with the power and competition from other publishers, this is resulting in a lower standard of native advertising execution, a fact that is increasingly evident, even in the last six months or so.

What used to be spoken of as “sponsored content”, a premium product where the publishers’ journalistic resources were put to custom content creation specifically for a client, has now morphed into its uglier cousin “sponsor content” which is unchecked, invalidated content created by the sponsor themselves and left to run on site in context of “news”. This context has created the implication for many consumers, that this content actually has some validity or brand association with the publication which they are viewing.

At the same time, as someone who has come from the corporate side of this, I can assure you that most companies do not get this at all and their natural instincts will be to abuse it. This is going to be a very messy situation for native advertising in the next six to twelve months. There is going to be a lot of great success stories, with a few companies doing it extremely well, a few publishers doing it extremely well and a lot of others that will have a lot of challenges.

Challenges for traditional organisations

A lot of companies and almost every industry sector has covered content marketing in one way or another. But, if you take, for example, a big B2B technology company, trying to sell their services to other businesses – this kind of company, traditionally, has a very defined sales model. They get a lead from a trade show, or someone calls in or someone is foolish enough to fill in a form online and, within ten minutes, a salesperson will be on the phone.

With the internet, the buyers of those services are no longer reliant on speaking to a sales person. In fact, the last thing they would ever want to do is to talk to a sales person because in a day of online research, the buyer can often become more of an expert on that product or service than the person who is going to try and sell it to them.

So the power in this discussion has really moved to the consumer, they can educate themselves and so traditional education-bit of the salesperson is void. It is this online void that has increasingly become the role of marketing to fill and become the voice of the product category, because if you are not the person educating your potential clients in this space when they’re educating themselves, then someone else is.

So the risk for a lot of organisations who have been operating in this way and have been dragged into the ‘content marketing moment’, is that brand journalism has become a slave to the need to generate leads. Every other piece in the marketing mix and every other bit of the journalistic integrity of this mission is subverted by the fact that there is a sales team who expect 1000 qualified leads a month.

The other big challenge for organisations is that they are not really designed to talk between silos.  We have public relations, we have marketing, we have sales, we have ‘X,Y,Z’ and those silos are protected by turf, by budgets, by structure, by any number of things. In a lot of cases, these departments have spent decades building barriers to make sure that they have own little patch of turf.

Even if someone new comes in, or even if the light goes off, or a competitor starts doing something that forces the companies to act differently, it is often seen by those silos as a virus, as something that should be squashed out and it is a very, very fragile process within organisations. You often find marketing leaders who see the light and understand the objectives of true brand journalism, when they leave or are pushed out of roles, the organisation reverted back to form and going back to the old methods.

The biggest challenge for companies I think in embracing this model has been that we have been taught for generations that if you have the opportunity to tell people how awesome you are, then you should take that opportunity. The old-school model would be for me to get up here and say “Hello, my name is Todd, I work at King Content, this is what we do, we are really awesome you should buy our stuff, oh and by the way, let me tell you something you might be interested in”. So I then have to try and rescue you from your boredom and deliver some value. This technique and attitude is still inherent in the culture of many large organisations.

So there is a huge gap between ‘copywriter’ (that is, writing from a company’s perspective, to persuade someone of the benefit of the brand) and ‘brand journalism’ (actually having a focus on the needs and desires of the audience).

There is this continuum between genuinely thinking from the perspective of the audience and what is in the audience’s interest, versus what is in the brand’s interest i.e. “We want to sell shit”, this is the tension that is so inherent in so many organisations.

Very few companies are able to get the two balanced correctly, to really leverage their economies of scale and capitalise on this gap. Ultimately that is where the opportunities obviously lie.

Another thing too is that organisations are used to buying because have become accustomed to acquiring services from a publisher or from a publishing eco-system and used to buying content and promotion on a campaign basis. They will habitually default to the thought process that goes something like: “We need to hit our September numbers, we have a Christmas campaign coming up, February is really hot for flowers, let’s pull our levers, let’s buy our ads and let’s get a result. We understand how much it costs us and what we are going to get back.”

This is a totally different mindset to the concept of understanding an audience and hitting them with consistency, and frequency and authenticity and having them recognise that you are actually in it with them for the long haul and not just diving in, in an exploitative way, trying to extract some money through a transaction.

There is also this continuum between “can we do it ourselves or do we have to go outside to do it?” The decision to outsource is usually made around three parameters: 1) you can do it a lot cheaper somewhere else; 2) you can do it more quickly somewhere else; but the one that is most inherent in this part of the mix is 3) access to skills and talent that you don’t have within the office. In a previous role I had a large creative services department, a large group of in-house writers, and when I started getting serious about content marketing I didn’t use any of them. Because, when you have grown up within an organisation used to communicating about the organisation from that sales mindset, it is extremely difficult culturally to make the shift with the speed and the integrity quickly enough to really be able to connect with the audience.

A lot of organisations are in a similar model. To move at speed and to actually break outside of internal company think, they use outsourcing maybe for a strategic piece, maybe for a pilot around some execution, so there can be some learning. One of the biggest growth areas for my company at the moment is actually helping implant an external team in that organisation of journalists, or writers, or editors of whatever the resources required may be and then transitioning that group of people longer term into that organisation’s culture over time. That can be one or two years away. The natural reaction of an organisation to something so fundamentally different is to reject it. Learning the processes and making sure that it is not just a fragile decision of one or two key stakeholders in a company is a very big challenge for people to actually make this a long term commitment.

Another thing that companies struggle with, and there is a reason why they make movies about editors being horrendous people, and the fact is, in companies, this is how marketing, or audience, or ‘brandalism’ is often seen, is that because there is a person, and there has to be someone who has the political clout to call bullshit when something is about to be put out which is not speaking to the audience, in the audience’s interest. Without that then the trust, the relationship with a potential audience can be very easily broken. Because, again, someone in a company will want to sell something and will want to slip it into a communication channel and it is going to have a negative impact on the audience relationship. Having the person at the top somewhere, you don’t have to call them an editor, it can be whatever role you want, but that person who has the power to say this is not going out is what is fundamental to this model working in the longer term.

The demand for authenticity 

Another thing that is not just related to this topic, is that social media has driven the demand for greater transparency over the last ten years. Each year, the expectation of transparency and authenticity from companies has grown. Again, this is a huge challenge culturally for a lot of companies. Anyone who has touched public affairs understands that we have actually created whole departments to make sure the truth doesn’t get out.  The message is controlled, planned, and scheduled. It is a huge cultural schism to change this, which is why so many companies struggle and flail with actually truly engaging in, say, social media channels – because it inherently conflicts with the concept of controlling and actually managing the message.

Another thing that has driven a lot of this, is that people wake up and check their feeds immediately before they talk to anyone, before they have breakfast, some of them before they even go to the bathroom (for some people, they check it at the same time as they go to the bathroom). You are then competing in that moment for a very limited opportunity, for real estate with their family, their friends, and you need to be just an entertaining. This has also driven a blurring between what is traditionally called ‘business to business marketing’ and ‘business to consumer marketing’. You will hear other terms like ‘people to people’ marketing or other colloquialisms like that. The fact is that entertainment has become a fundamental plague in the way businesses have to compete, because they have to have relevance and make it seem at least an interesting as that update from a girlfriend.

Storytelling, logically, is a final extension of this (I will come back to storytelling at the end). Part of the saving grace of the move to the volume of content, and this communication channel that has been opened us, is that the role of storytelling and its place in this mix is becoming increasingly paramount.

Another big fact here is that in the new reality, the roles of the individuals who work at brands and publishers are increasingly differentiated. If you are an organisation with 10,000 employees, the power of harnessing those employees to co-create content, to share that content, to evangelise that content is significantly greater than anything you can invest in, in terms of paid advertising.

Similarly, a lot of the new publishing ventures that are coming up, a lot of the more innovative audience led models are based around promoting the star journalists and the star writers with equal parody to branded stuff. This is the opposite of the BuzzFeed model, the writers are irrelevant, relatively. It is all about the mechanism. It is about understanding the mechanism of how content is shared online and writing for a very specific tone, a very specific audience and making it shareable, clickable. As opposed to an integrity position around the quality of the writers or the individual personalities of the writers that people can relate to. But the power of this, is the defensive mechanism that traditional publishers and large organisations can use and that smaller new organisations are exploiting straight away to differentiate from the race to the bottom, in terms of must acquire more traffic.

Ultimately within organisations that are doing it very successfully, content marketing is being seen as a philosophy rather than a department or function in its own right. It is something that actually in the longer run sits at the centre of all of marketings functions. It is seen again by relatively few but a growing number of companies who have been investing a lot of time in this space, who have built out teams and realigned their internal resources accordingly. It is seen as a great way to break down the internal the silos and to align the various functions of an organisation around similar messages.

What brand publishers have discovered in the last few years increasingly, as more and more content gets creative and the statistics are off the planet obviously in terms of the sheer volume. Once something works then people are going to keep throwing energy into it until it is broken and that is exactly what will happen, but increasingly you are a brand and you are trying to claim the space you want to create content that is for loyalty not just for unique browsers. Everyone is crazy about traffic, this whole buzz feed effect but the reality is for a longer term play you can not compete against that form of exploitation. You really need to wrap yourself around understanding an audience as niche as that may be and becoming something that is very specific.

Storytelling and high value content

Content that speaks very specifically to an audience and shows an understanding and an empathy that is what companies need to be able to engage and that is where the greatest opportunities are going to lie for creatives.

My final thoughts on the future

Twenty years ago I was writing long-form journalism, doing documentaries, and I was wondering how on earth anyone ever made enough money to survive doing this stuff. My company now, we employ literally dozens of journalists and editors. We employ close to 2000 writers and creatives in the marketplace, both here and now increasingly in Europe and the US. There is a huge opportunity both on the business side in terms of new start ups, but from a pure journalistic trained perspective there are huge opportunities, both in start up and agency environments like the one that I work in. But, also in terms of the teams and the scale that corporates are investing in, in their own organisations.

I think ultimately, the biggest challenge if you take the whole blend of content marketing the biggest opportunities that are only just emerging is really being able to have a true business conversation and see content and journalism as a part of that solution. So taking an audience specific mindset to a business challenge is increasingly where content is, anyone can create content, if want 10 blogs, 20 blogs, 50 blogs, the number and the existence of stuff doesn’t make it part of an actual plan. The connection between a strategy and the output is becoming increasingly key.

Fundamentally, and again this is something we all know now, but the understanding the connection: resisting the traditional church and state, the black and white, and the “this is the way that it has always been”, and embracing the fact that the world has changed for better or for worse and there is a key benefit in getting a bigger picture view of what is at play, what is the business outcome we are trying to drive. How does editorial and technology fit into that piece? Getting that higher end view makes you increasingly more valuable because everyone is struggling to work this stuff out at the same time. I think in finishing up here, the biggest opportunity that is going to keep this driving and why this is going to be such an exciting space for the next three to five years is that we have incredible growth in the consumption of all of us. The amount of news of update stories, the content consumption rate continues to grow, obviously it will hit a natural plateau because we can not all turn into robots and consume content all day. But there is actually a much faster rate of growth, at the same time the actual moment content has been created. The opportunities increasingly will float the differentiation towards the top of this pile.

Q What is native advertising?

A: Native advertising is essentially the placement of sponsored content in-situ.  It may be an advertorial in an old print property, but increasingly in online you will see a lot of blending of these terms and a high degree of confusion. The example I used before was sponsored content versus sponsor content, there is a lot of massaging of realities, but the fact is, there is an element of causing confusion. There is a large number of people who don’t understand that the different between an advertisement that comes up in Google search and an actual search result. If you take that as a starting point, a lot of tricks that publishers are using to disguise the sponsored content (whilst you can brand it whatever you like) the fact is, a large majority of people are not going to understand the difference between that content and what  true editorial content is on the same property.

Q: Have you got a great example you have achieved in your company, something real to tell us about?

A: Let me talk to a model that is incredibly popular right now. It is not new, the method is five or six years old, but there is a huge boom in micro-sites, or what we would call “content hubs”, which is where a brand like American Express was one of the first proponents of this sort of method. It is where, rather than have a website where you say here is our .com.au address and here is all our stuff including what we sell, it is where you say, well, rather than all that, we really need to attack the small to medium business market. Let’s create an editorial vehicle with another brand, so maybe brought to you by, or sponsored by, but it will have its own brand integrity, a clear but unobtrusive brand presence, but true editorial integrity. But the content will not mention brands, will not mention products, will not mention anything but is written for an audience trying to solve their problems. So it is listening to the audience. You are trying to attract an audience, so if that audience is going online saying “how do I…” that’s what you want to write about. The tolerance, if you are writing genuine content, the tolerance for advertising around that is relatively high. If you are not writing genuine content in the first place, if you are clearly trying to plug your product or something then you won’t achieve either objective. You won’t get a subscriber or someone joining or reading that content, because it is not real. And you won’t be able to then drive that into some sort of subscriber or other sales objective related point. That is a huge area of growth and there is going to be a lot more of that happening in the next 12 months.

Q: I would like to add to that question in a way it is hard for journalists to write copy. If you are going to get authentic content it can sometimes be critical of the content that it is about. Can you get an organisation to accept that somebody is going to write something critical about the space that they operate in, because that is one of the real problems with content, it seems so ingenuine. When you look at a newspaper article it is going to try to take a balanced view.

A: Great question, one of the most effective methods, and it is so effective because so few companies are willing to do it, no company wants to write about pricing online, no company wants to write about their competitors online, no company wants to write about problems with their products online, but they are the three things that everyone searches. So be really genuine about trying to solve people’s problems and understand what they are searching for and you will be rewarded immeasurably by writing about those topics, genuinely and bringing in an audience and being exposed with an authentic voice at that point because no-one else is willing to have this discussion.

Q: Have you actually been able to convince a brand of that … really who?

A: Yes absolutely. The showcase example of that right now is a very large, this movement started a few years ago with a big pool company in the US, and I won’t speak to any specific examples right now because it actually is an incredibly powerful tactic, but I assure you that that is .. So here is the big challenge for companies this stuff works great for challenger brands, nothing changes until the paid of not changing becomes too great. If you are a big successful company with lots of fat and huge departments it is harder for you to feel the pain of missing out, of understanding. You have got so much going on, who knows what works. It is very easy for things to get buried in the complexity of what is going on within an organization. It is the smaller companies, those on the edge of receivership and have nothing to lose, who really go “let’s try this”. Once they try this in an industry, all of their competitors think “we better do some of this stuff because we are getting pain”. So that is a big part of the role of content marketing. When I first started getting into this, all the people I followed and tried to understand what they were doing, none of them were marketers. The people who worked this stuff out were not marketers they were business people, entrepreneurs who went “how does this stuff work, how does the web work?” That is where the learning has come, it has been those people who were probably doing things far too extreme for a corporation to really embrace. But you can take the essence of the principles and apply that. It is all about understanding an audience and trying to give them something they want.

Todd Wheatland is a recognized authority on content, B2B and social marketing. He is the head of strategy at marketing agency King Content, and is the immediate past VP of Thought Leadership & Marketing at Fortune 500® workforce solutions company Kelly Services. He is the author of The Marketer’s Guide to SlideShare.