The Economist EVP on the power of content as a strategic marketing resource

Tasked with among other things acquiring new subscribers for The Economist via digital channels, he argues that recent technological developments have brought sales and marketing closer with the latter now the senior partner. 

Mark will be at the Digital Innovators’ Summit (DIS) in Berlin, Germany, taking place from 20-22 March 2016 (with the main Summit on 21 and 22 March) where he will talk about using content (marketing) to sell content (subscriptions). If you haven’t booked for the DIS yet, do so today to save with our Early Bird offer.

Here he shares his views on the emergence of content marketing and the centrality of data with Ashley Norris, our DIS contributor.

Why do you think marketing departments are becoming more important to growth? Is this true across the board or especially true for media companies?

Charities and not for profit organisations aside, marketing’s role has always been to sell an organisation’s product or services.  Throughout my 30+ year career, I’ve often thought it was strange that sales and marketing were considered as separate functions and, worse, that marketing was not represented at board level. In my opinion, marketing has a serious and valuable contribution to make to any organisation’s well being and deserves equal representation.  What’s changed in the past decade or so, is that thanks to the emergence of digital channels, marketing’s influence and impact on the sales process has become more transparent and therefore much more accountable.  In due course, this will cause the sales and marketing functions to become one (perhaps with marketing as the senior function) and necessitates closer operational working practices between the marketing and finance departments (reflecting the fact that marketing is, today, evolving to become more a revenue generator than a cost centre).

Why do you think content marketing as a discipline has become so prominent so quickly?

I think content marketing, as in ‘a brand using content to create engaging stories in order to create awareness and preference’, has been around for decades.  Its recent re-emergence has been catalysed by the ability of digital marketing channels to accurately and efficiently target and re-target individuals in such a way that a longitudinal (i.e. over time) content story can be broadcast.  In addition, partly it’s a reaction by brands who want to create stand out and develop relationships with their potential customers in the context of a saturated and fragmented media world.  We’ve seen that content-based storytelling when executed sensitively, most definitely does positively foster brand preference.

Do you think its rise has been fuelled by reader aversion to display ads?

In this, the 21st birthday year of the display ad, at The Economist, we’ve not seen any evidence of ‘reader aversion to display ads’.  Quite the opposite in fact … our click-thru-rates (CTRs) are several hundred per cent higher than the industry average.  As ever, marketing is all about satisfying people’s needs and wants.  If the ad fails in its targeting, placement, and/or message relevancy, then it simply won’t resonate with the audience and people will not engage with it (as an industry, that’s what I think has happened – we’ve been guilty of spamming).  However, just like other techniques, when the campaign is strategically and scientifically planned, it can be highly effective.

How do you think content marketing will evolve in the coming years?

Well, the first and obvious answer to this question is we’ll see more video content used and distributed via mobile channels and mobile platforms.  But, over and above that, the next big change will see an evolution away from broadcast to narrowcast content.  By that I mean the content distributed to a customer, or potential customer, will be personalised and customised determined by what we know about their behaviour  – that’s both transactional and relational behaviours – and moderated by the behaviours of people who resemble our target audience.

What key role is technology playing in the way content marketing is changing?

Technology will enable us to deliver personalised, narrowcast content experiences at broadcast scale and with broadcast efficiencies.

Data is central to how marketers work with content?

Data is absolutely core to marketer’s ability to deliver both the current and future evolutions of content marketing.  For without us knowing the detail about our audience’s profile, how can we expect to deliver accurately targeted and appropriate messages?  There is, of course, a perceived risk — people are understandably concerned about privacy issues and are reluctant to disclose personal information about themselves.  The answer is that brands have to deliver an obvious, transparent and reciprocal value exchange (in an environment that people consider to be trustworthy and secure).  In other words, in exchange for allowing brands to know more about them, audiences expect something of perceived value from the brand in return – this can take many forms including (but not limited to) unique and bespoke content, personalised discounts and product offers, individualised brand experiences, subscriber-only access etc.

Describe the Economist’s content marketing ploys. How successful were they at accruing new subscribers?

At The Economist, we are blessed with a huge reservoir of trusted, respected and admired content — content that is realised in a range of formats (text, graphics, charts, audio, video etc).  Our strategy is a simple sampling one: present the prospective subscriber with samples of our content distributed in places on the internet where they are naturally grazing for news, lifestyle and current affairs content. Over time, and as prospective subscribers become familiar with our content, they become more and more engaged — eventually leading to a subscription event.  Sometimes ‘over time’ can mean that our content is so liked, we convince someone to take out a subscription in the same session. A year ago we set ourselves a modest target of creating c. 650,000 new prospects and converting c. 2,000 of those to subscribers.  12 months down the road and we have successfully encouraged over seven million new readers to visit The Economist’s website and the campaign has (directly and indirectly) been involved in the generation of c 7,000 new subscribers.

At a softer brand level of metrics, and as a direct result of exposure to our campaign, we have positively moved the needle across many important brand measures including trust, relevancy and intention to pay for our content.

It’s not all about the commercials however (although that’s the main driver of course!).  Our clever use of content has been recognised by the international marketing, advertising and publishing communities — this year our campaign has won over a dozen important awards – these include several creative accolades, but more gratifyingly, they also include many presented for digital marketing strategic planning and effective use of data.  This has many halo benefits – not just for our marketing department … it also helps our ad sales teams by reinforcing our position in the marketplace as a heavy hitter in the digital marketing arena.

Do you think content marketing is going to remain platform agnostic or do you think platforms are emerging that will dominate?

We’ve already started seeing increased levels of video-based content consumption on mobile platforms — and I don’t see that trend slowing down.  But the more strategic answer to this question is from a classical marketing orientation i.e. we should remain agnostic but wholly guided by what people demand.

What advice would you give to other media brands on their content marketing?

The creation and distribution of content is not cheap.  Presenting your target audience with a one-off content marketing experience, if not followed up, can be a one-night stand disappointment.  My advice is to be strategic with any toe-dip into the content marketing world. 

The main danger with undertaking content marketing is to treat it as a knee-jerk, let’s do something shiny type, tactical approach.  When undertaken properly, and strategically  – i.e. with a clear articulation of the business problem, with properly thought through analysis as to how it can solve the problem, and with a set of measurable objectives agreed, then content marketing has a clear and effective place in the marketer’s armoury. 

Content marketing is a strategic play and it needs to be approached with due consideration.

Mark will be at the Digital Innovators’ Summit (DIS) in Berlin, Germany, taking place from 20-22 March 2016 (with the main Summit on 21 and 22 March) where he will talk about using content (marketing) to sell content (subscriptions). If you haven’t booked for the DIS yet, do so today to save with our Early Bird offer.

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