Considering the democratization of publishing tools online, this should be the Golden Age of Brand Publishing. People should be bonding every day with brands that understand their needs and help them solve problems. Instead, the brand landscape on the Web looks like a college-campus telephone pole: Poster after poster, slapped atop each other for years, secured by rusting staples.
Too many brands are “posting” without “publishing,” in search of overnight miracles. It starts with a good idea: “Let’s tell people about warthogs, because people who care about warthogs are the target for our gourmet warthog food.” Freelance writers turn out large volumes of words at low costs, creating a collection of articles about warthogs – each with a section about why our brand is the best warthog food, woven into the story in a contextual way, because the whole point is to move product.
Then the search-optimization experts rewrite it. Every article now has a headline with a key phrase (“8 Sexy Warthog Grooming Tips”) that’s repeated at least three times in the first three paragraphs to make sure Google knows exactly what the article’s about. Sounds funny, but you want people to find it, right?
Next, this miraculous bundle of e-commerce activation needs a home. So it’s posted in a section of the company’s Web site. Or on a new site built for the occasion by an agency eager to show off its Flash skills. If the people behind the campaign are lucky, the brand spends some money publicizing it, maybe with search-keyword ads that appear next to every online mention of warthogs.
A month later, the vice president asks to see the results. How much warthog food did we sell? What’s the return on this investment in words and Flash and ads?
The return is often disappointment.
To succeed with content, the brand must approach it like a publisher. That means putting a seasoned editor in charge, someone who can make the words wonderfully compelling while striking the right balance between search success and readability. Someone who’s constantly surveying the landscape to decide what to cover, how to cover it and what people want to know. Some of the words can be about the brand, but most should be about things people actually care about; the brand wins by getting credit for providing the solutions. Betty Crocker’s 1920s radio show was about cooking, not flour.
It means making a long-term commitment, so the program is active for enough months or years for people to find it, like it, share it and decide to return to it regularly. Publish a steady stream of content, with new stuff every day, to become the authority on a topic and endear the site to an audience that comes back regularly for more. Yes, that’s a lot of hard work, but it’s hard work that’ll make the program succeed. Add newsletters and RSS feeds and Twitter updates and Facebook conversations and other ways for people to get hooked. Shell published dozens of Answer Man booklets over the years, all designed to help people become better drivers and understand cars.
Publishing also means joining a community. A successful new publication is like the dinner-party guest who’s brought in by a friend, brings a nice bottle of wine, and listens for a long time before deciding how best to join the conversation. American Express grew its OPEN Forum by partnering with people who were already known as small-business experts and were leading active online conversations of their own. (Disclosure: Federated Media works with AmEx on the program.)
Publishing does not mean ignoring the company’s goals. If the goal is to sell more warthog food, provide smart ways to drive those sales. Write honestly about important topics, but then offer a second layer that drives to the marketing goals. Maybe a box at the end of each article helps people find relevant products or solutions. Maybe a white paper offers more detail when the reader submits contact information and becomes a lead. Maybe a list on the side says, Amazon-style, “if you liked this, you might also like these related offerings.”
With the right content and commitment, let the Golden Age of Brand Publishing begin.
Neil Chase is svp of editorial and publishing for Federated Media Publishing, a provider of conversational marketing programs and partner to Web content creators. Follow him @chaseneil.