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When Jonélle La Foucade was a contributing writer for The Edit, she committed the internet’s cardinal sin: criticizing Beyoncé. The singer’s sixth studio album, Lemonade, had just dropped, and La Foucade was over the buzz and ready to speak her truth. “I’m not really a huge Beyoncé fan, so I thought it would be fun to write an article: ‘Beyoncé is Overrated AF,'” she said. “Too many people, they just idolize and worship this woman, I think for no reason. People need to realize she is nobody, really.”
Now a journalism graduate student at Georgetown University, La Foucade had to convince her editor, who was afraid of potential backlash, before she got the go-ahead to write the article. “I was hoping it was going to get a lot of clicks,” she said. “I was like, a lot of people are going to have stuff to say, and I don’t think it’ll all be negative. I’m sure some people will probably agree with this opinion.”
They did not.
“It was getting more views and more clicks than any of our articles before. Then the criticism just started rolling in,” La Foucade said. Within a few hours, more than 200 comments came in. After The Edit’s partner company, Unidays, expressed concerns about the piece, La Foucade’s editor pulled the article from the site one day after it was published.
What La Foucade experienced firsthand was the whiplash reaction to the warped cousin of a hot take: hate clicks, defined here as content angled to intentionally rile up an audience so much that they have to spend time with your content.
The evolution of ‘takes’ culture
In 2014, John Hermann lamented the necessity of the hot takes in a tongue-in-cheek piece for The Awl that remains depressingly relevant. Takes, he wrote, “represent the “we should have something on this” news impulse stripped to its barest form, left unspoken and carried out as a matter of course. Endless minimalist Takes, obviously duplicative from the producer’s side but not necessarily from the other, all drawing energy from a single glowing unit of information.”
Hate clicks, then, fall under the umbrella of the take. They spring from the same impulse to comment, but the genre is less tied to current events than it is to flouting the prevailing opinion for the purpose of provocation. You know this kind of clickbait when you see it. It often comes in the form of an opinion or statement so jaw-droppingly wrong you can’t resist reading beyond the headline.
Although this is not a new phenomenon, with articles dissecting the impulse to court hate clicks predating Hermann’s musings, it’s a practice on the rise with today’s frenetic news cycle.
Take, for instance, the article that ran in The Cut in early December that proclaimed Priyanka Chopra “a global scam artist” for wedding Nick Jonas. The story received an influx of hate clicks and negative feedback, both on social media and in published rebukes from the likes of The Washington Post. The author, Mariah Smith, apologized via Twitter and The Cut removed the article, replacing it with a statement that said “the piece missed the mark” and chalked the mistake up to “human error and poor judgement.”
Days later, INTO published an essay that dubbed Ariana Grande’s ‘thank u, next’ music video “surprisingly anti-queer” and cited elements of the clip as examples of “transmisogyny, heterosexual pride and blackface,” which started another firestorm of criticism. The site pulled the piece the next day as editor-in-chief Zach Stafford issued a lengthy apology.
And on February 3, Bloomberg got a taste of the hate-bait action when they tweeted out an article, aggregated by news editor Maria Kolesnikova from a report by The Guardian, about the perils of keeping an art collection on one’s superyacht.
Though Bloomberg and Kolesnikova did not become subjects of ire, a tweet promoting the article received more than 2,700 responses, the most popular of which featured pictures of guillotines and other graphic allusions to violence against the ruling class. (Smith declined to comment for this piece, and neither Stafford nor Kolesnikova responded to requests for comment.)
Some outlets even seem to offer up targets for derision on a serialized basis. Whether these come in the form of the oblivious rich kids who populate Money Diaries, the “desperate” lovers who send in their Sex Diaries, or the First-Amendment-defenders who operate a certain newspaper of record’s op-ed section, stories from particular sources are virtually guaranteed to garner outrage-fueled attention.
But just because publishing vitriol-inducing content can lead to traffic doesn’t mean it’s a smart strategy.
The diminishing return of hate clicks
Una Dabiero’s first job after graduating college was at Babe.net, a publication she said thrived off of provocative exaggeration (note: I previously worked with Dabiero at Babe). “I’ve never written something that was completely false or completely falsified my opinions on things,” she said. “But I have been asked to use language that incites a strong, emotional reaction from people.”
Although most of the articles Dabiero wrote for Babe weren’t purely inflammatory, her first foray into the world of hate clicks was memorably negative. The piece was a takedown of a viral video posted by a Youtuber, in which a young woman gets a tattoo that says “Chipotle” on her inner lip while a friend films. Dabiero said she initially intended to critique the spectacle of the tattoo, but throughout the editorial process, things got more personal.
“The headline turned into something along the lines of ‘Look guys, I found it, the dumbest person on the Internet,'” Dabiero said. “I never said anything worse than ‘Oh, this girl’s kind of stupid because she got a Chipotle tattoo for clicks, isn’t that kind of apocalyptic?’ Which, I guess you could argue, but why is it my business as a writer to be looking at this girl and using a public platform to write about [her]?”
Eventually, the article made its way back to the subject, and a mutual acquaintance reached out to Dabiero to let her know how upset the story and subsequent negative attention made the Youtuber. In response, Dabiero asked her editor to alter or remove the article, who refused to do so.
“I was basically told to grow a thick skin and to understand that this was the job,” Dabiero said. “I feel absolutely horrible about it. And I should feel horrible about it. That was absolutely wrong for me to do.”
Dabiero has since left Babe. She currently works as an editorial associate at Fairygodboss, a career services site where she produces content aimed at “educating and empowering women in the workplace.” She commissions and edits articles from staff writers and freelance contributors, and said that it’s more than just her current brand’s mission that prevents her from assigning stories similar to the one she wrote last year.
“So much of a writer’s career is their clips, it’s what they’ve said, it’s how they’ve said it, she said. “I wouldn’t ask someone to align their entire personal brand with an idea just because I think it will get a lot of clicks.”
She also stressed that for her, the difference between an article written for hate clicks and an article she’d feel comfortable assigning to one of her writers comes down to substance.
“Are you attacking someone for who they are, are you saying something hateful, or are you raising an intelligent, well-researched point?” she said.
La Foucade also hasn’t steered away from stirring the pot since the Beyoncé incident, but she does prefer to do so through another medium—radio. She hosted her own show on her university’s student station, and she said she often used that platform to share her contentious views on pop culture icons.
“When I ended up getting my radio show for a year, I started doing more controversial topics,” La Foucade said. “The Beyoncé one again, other celebrities like Michael Jackson, we talked about Apple.” To La Foucade, radio is a superior forum for sharing unpopular opinions because it’s more conducive to creating an actual dialogue. “We allowed callers to call in, so you could hear their actual views on why they said that and then you could counter it to see, ‘Okay, what’re they gonna say next?’ which was fun,” she recalled.
But although it might be amusing, albeit in a nihilistic way, to use a platform for the express purpose of disturbing the masses, hate clicks aren’t sustainable. The gimmick becomes predictable unless it escalates, and critique morphs into empty vitriol unless it skewers a worthy target. And most of all, it’s a trick that becomes tired. To paraphrase The Incredibles, if everything is outrageous, then nothing is.
“So often now, I see someone shares [a screenshot] and people are like, ‘Oh, don’t even give this your clicks,'” Dabiero said. “I think a brand that’s based on hatred and inherent shock value is not a brand that people will keep coming back to. You won’t really retain an audience that way. Maybe you can, until you say something that they disagree with. Or until they realize it’s all ethically shady.”
Glassdoor currently lists 1,753 open content marketing editor positions in New York City alone. Of course, that number doesn’t include all the companies looking for branded content editors, content managers, marketing editors, and managing editors. Traditional media outlets may have fewer opportunities for writers and editors, but on the branded side, content marketing jobs are still on the rise.
Still, it can be challenging for brands and the right candidates to connect. Content marketers and journalistic editors may share skills, but their day-to-day tasks won’t be identical. As more media professionals move into content marketing, explaining that common ground is important.
We asked our associate editor Emily Gaudette, who previously worked in magazine writing, to break down her day. Below, she compares her daily Contently tasks to the tasks she completed at previous jobs, offering what life is like for a content marketing editor.
My alarm goes off. While still lying in bed, I check the top headlines on the New York Times app.
While I brush my teeth, I read emails and my Google alerts. I set up alerts for certain terms like “content marketing” and “content marketing software” to stay current on any news that could spark a story or help me in a meeting.
I’m on the subway listening to a podcast about arts and culture (Alright Mary) or communication (Clear and Vivid) while looming over the person who looks most likely to get up soon. Fidgeting and getting their bags together is a dead giveaway.
I also fire off some irreverent tweets from my personal Twitter account. Now that I’m not an arts reporter anymore, I have to put my thoughts about TV and movies somewhere.
I’m at my desk with coffee. Before anyone talks to me or sends a Slack, I check Buffer for high-level social data and Tweetdeck for anyone vying for attention in Contently’s mentions.
Next, I put together a draft of our email newsletter and shoot a test email to the editor-in-chief. If I forgot to link an image to something, he’ll send me a note, and I’ll go in to fix it. Once it’s ready, I schedule it to go out with an A/B test for different subject lines.
Typically, the marketing department comes together for a team huddle one morning a week. I’m on the editorial team, but marketing also encompasses the design team, product marketing, and corporate comms. Each team has projects they own, but there’s also plenty of overlap that calls for collaboration. The goal of the meeting is for each team to give an update so we can prioritize pressing projects and give employees clear instructions.
By now, I’m knee-deep in a blog post for The Content Strategist. One of my professional goals is to write two posts each week, in addition to whatever else is on my plate. Usually, I work on some kind of industry thinkpiece I can tackle on my own plus and a reported feature that requires interviews.
I aim to get a first draft on my boss’s desk by mid-day. If I need to use concrete examples of branded content to prove my argument, I might Slack someone who’s client-facing and ask them to hook me up with the right contact. Otherwise, I’ll do some digging online for exemplary content from brands.
Someone else in marketing has copy they need edited. I edit for clarity, leave a few comments, and sprinkle in commas where they’re supposed to be. I also vary their sentence length. Finally, when I notice the writer is calling a facet of our software by a name we phased out a few months ago, I “find and replace” that term with the new one.
I almost send the doc back, but when I look over it again, I notice I only left criticisms. In my experience, professionals can be a little precious about their own writing. It can feel personal, as if an editor wanted to critique your character or your unique point of view. For this reason, I usually highlight a passage they wrote well and give them a compliment.
I get my second cup of coffee and start in on the highest priority marketing assignment. Depending on the day, that could mean copyediting a 30-page e-book, putting together a short client case study, or approving an event program. It’s a juggling act, for sure.
Speaking of juggling acts, I’m of two minds when I’m writing and editing in this job. While one half of me belongs to marketing, with all its jargon and data and adherence to business objectives, the other half belongs to editorial, which is a hybrid of journalistic practice and artistic flair.
Another part of my job is ghostwriting op-eds for executives, which I truly love. Interviewing an expert about their mindset and then sitting down with my notes to essentially do an impression of them for 800 words is my bread and butter.
At this point in my day, I’m coaxing one of my boss’s bosses to tell me what they care about. I encourage them to say things a few different ways until a nice phrase pops out and the narrative starts to click. I take notes on any rhetorical devices or specific references they use but also record the interview for backup.
I’m in an edit meeting with my boss, another marketing professional, and whichever guests we’ve invited to pitch us from other departments. I present a single, fleshed out pitch for the week ahead, and I adjust the story idea according to everyone’s notes. Then we put a due date on it, and I weigh in on others’ pitches.
The only thing I hate about my job is having to stare at a laptop screen for hours on end. This is why I always leave the office by myself for lunch.
Sometimes I go to Washington Square Park to clear my head, call my mom, or meet up with a writer friend who’s looking for a traditional reporting job. I say something like, “Yeah, I guess I’m in marketing now, not media,” and they say, “Well, hell, at least you’re in something.”
My editor is done with my first draft, and he has a lot of notes. But that’s what I prefer.
When an editor hands you a mixed bag of rhetorical questions, devil’s advocate arguments, and requests for clarification, it feels like they’re gently pushing you away from your weakest impulses. Having an editor who cares enough to challenge you is such a gift.
I shoot a second draft back to my boss, and he hands me rough copy from a different writer that needs to be shaped. I do a final proofread of that blog post and nudge it from our CMS into WordPress. There, I choose a header image from the options the design team sends over and put the piece out into the world.
I finish a first draft of the executive ghostwritten byline and send that to my editor. He says, “Okay, let’s trade,” and hands me back the final draft of my blog post from earlier in the day. I get that sucker in WordPress too.
Somebody in marketing has a question about a dangling modifier. These quick requests for comment remind me of the language section on the GRE; you just develop your ear to the point where things feel right or wrong.
Additionally, design needs someone to snip eight words out of a case study, and that person is me. This means I remove all the adverbs, regrettably.
Our PR team wants my eyes on the press list they’re building. I go into my Twitter feed and pull out the names of all my friends and mutuals who work in business reporting, and I add those people to the doc.
I check Tweetdeck for anybody who slid into Contently’s mentions and answer emails. Typically, I’m reviewing pitches from freelancers and forwarding the good ones to my boss.
I reorganize my to-do list for tomorrow and set a Slack reminder for 9:30am to look into marketing events.
I also keep a couple documents going with notes on aspirational projects I think Contently should launch. I add my new thoughts on a branded podcast and a video series to the doc—I’ll try to pitch them and plan them out when there’s time.
I’m out the door at exactly six. On the subway, I use Pocket to read all the magazine features I saved throughout the day. One of those might spark an idea that I can turn into my next story.
On Super Bowl Sunday, 33 people sat in a California bar watching a boring football game. Some watched intently; some focused on their food and drink. These weren’t ordinary fans, though. They had been recruited by Dr. Paul J. Zak, the director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, to partake in a study about Super Bowls ads.
For the entire game, each person watched the broadcast with a band wrapped near the crook of their arm. The sensor, created by Dr. Zak’s company Immersion Neuroscience, is called the INBand. It measures the neurochemical oxytocin, which scores how immersed people are in stimuli like movies, TV shows, and Cardi B Pepsi commercials. According to Dr. Zak’s research over the last decade, higher levels of oxytocin increase empathy, help people recall information accurately, and encourage them to take action. For a brand spending $5.25 million just on airtime, that has huge implications.
Dr. Zak’s goal is to separate opinion from objectivity. “Feelings are flimsy,” he told me a few days before the Super Bowl. “I don’t really care that you like an ad. I don’t care about good. I care about impact in the marketplace. And if something has a big enough impact on your brain, it’ll have an impact in the marketplace.”
That’s an important goal because most of the discussion about Super Bowl ads gets stuck on arbitrary creative preferences. Publications like Adweek, Ad Age, The New York Times, and even CNN wasted no time throwing up their immediate takes on the best and worst spots of the night. USA Today posts data from its long-running Ad Meter, which may be a bit closer to the truth, but that’s still just a compilation of people rating ads on a scale of 1-10.
But to Dr. Zak’s point, just declaring something “good” doesn’t make it so. In my opinion, the best Super Bowl ad of my lifetime is “The Force,” Volkswagen’s spot from 2011. It’s cute, clever, economical, and connects to the product. It includes a distinct beginning, middle, and end. There’s no dialogue, which gives it a refreshing simplicity. I’d easily rate it a 10, but I can assure you, I have absolutely zero desire to buy a Passat after watching it, mostly because I never plan on buying a Passat.
So in the spirit of truly ranking the impact of 2019’s slate of Super Bowl ads, here are the winners and losers, according to Dr. Zak’s neuroscience study.
A brief methodology
The INBand registers a few different scores:
Immersion Quotient (inQ), the most important metric here, calculates how immersive an experience is to someone. The higher the immersion score, the more likely someone is to take an action or make a purchase.
Peak Immersion Experiences (inP) looks at the length and depth of the immersion. As Dr. Zak told me, “It correlates with memorability.”
The 33 people picked by Dr. Zak represent different ages, races, and genders. Per Immersion Neuroscience, the predictive accuracy of inQ ranges from 82 percent to 95 percent, depending on the experience and the outcome measure.
The Winning Super Bowl Ads
Mint Mobile: “Chunky Style Milk”
Chunky Style Milk? That's Not Right | Mint Mobile 2019 Super Bowl Ad - YouTube
Ad Age panned Mint Mobile in its recap for “a lazy gag that goes for the gross-out factor—and has nothing to do with the product actually being advertised.” For what it’s worth, that’s a fair point. I wouldn’t call it lazy or the worst ad of the night, but a chunky milk spoof is pretty weird.
However, the neuroscience data does not back up that conjecture. Mint Mobile received the highest immersion score—4.75—out of all 86 commercials that played throughout the game. Perhaps the simple message and deal from an unknown company influenced the result. Its peak immersion experience of 3.3 is actually below the average of 3.6. That might explain why bloggers found it to be subpar or unmemorable. But on the bright side, that score of 3.3 would still beat the Rams.
Michelob Ultra: “Pure Gold”
The Pure Experience | Michelob ULTRA Pure Gold Super Bowl 2019 - YouTube
“Pure Gold” is all about tone. The ad features Zoë Kravitz whispering about organic beer surrounded by a lush forest. It’s possibly the first ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) Super Bowl commercial, and it finished third in immersion overall.
The public reviews seemed to be mixed. Adweek did an Instagram perception roundup, and Michelob got 50 percent thumbs up and 50 percent thumbs down. Whichever side of the fence you stand on here, I think it’s reasonable to say this was one of the more unique ads from Sunday, and its immersive quality shouldn’t be a surprise.
Amazon: “Not Everything Makes the Cut”
Not Everything Makes the Cut – Amazon Super Bowl LIII Commercial - YouTube
Amazon turned to a risky gameplan: calling out the negative implications of its technology. The spot features a lovably gruff Harrison Ford and presents a clear narrative, but it also associates Amazon with problematic products their consumers can’t control. Nonetheless, this resonated with the study’s subjects, ranking 13th in immersion. For a company that has had image problems over the last few years, that counts as a victory.
T-Mobile: “We’ll Keep This Brief” & “We’re Here for You”
T-Mobile aired four different commercials during the broadcast, one per quarter. Each spot showed a text conversation on screen. In the first and third quarters, that strategy resonated. In the second and fourth quarters, not as much. (More on that later.)
The first quarter commercial ranked 20th in immersion, and the third quarter spot came in at eight. T-Mobile differentiated itself with a text-only story and bright copy. People had to read the screen to figure out what was going on. Naturally, this also led to above average peak immersion scores that other brands with traditional approaches lacked.
The Losing Super Bowl ads
Doritos: “Now It’s Hot”
Doritos® | Chance the Rapper x Backstreet Boys Super Bowl OFFICIAL VIDEO #NowItsHot - YouTube
I happen to like both Chance the Rapper and The Backstreet Boys, but this one played like celebrity Mad Libs. Putting famous people together isn’t a good creative strategy on its own, especially if those people have nothing to do with each other.
Like every other ad, if you look hard enough, you can find it on a best-of list (Wired, if you’re curious), but according to the data, this had the second lowest immersion score of the night at 3.98. For what it’s worth, The Backstreet Boys shouldn’t get too down if they’re reading this. That same day, they found out they had the top album in the country for the first time since 2000.
Stella Artois: “Change Up the Usual”
Stella Artois | Change Up The Usual | 2019 - YouTube
This commercial ranked 77th out of 86 for immersion. So ditto to everything I wrote above about putting celebrities together for no reason. The only real difference is neither Sarah Jessica Parker nor Jeff Bridges have a hit album this week.
T-Mobile: “Dad” & “What’s for Dinner?”
Dad?! | Big Game 2019 | T-Mobile Commercial - YouTube
For T-Mobile, the difference between winning and losing is, well, nothing. The brand managed to do both on Sunday. Its second quarter commercial promoting free tacos from Taco Bell didn’t sit well with the group. That spot came in at 81st out of 86 for immersion. The final clip, about an oblivious dad struggling with his smartphone, didn’t fare much better at 70th.
T-Mobile probably suffered from too much exposure. They had the most Super Bowl ads of any brand and could’ve benefited from scarcity—saving millions in the process.
WeatherTech: “Scout” & “CupFone”
Scout: WeatherTech Super Bowl® Commercial - YouTube
Per Dr. Zak’s data, only Jared Goff had a worse night than WeatherTech. The company paid for two ads that finished fifth-last and dead last in immersion.
For those who watched, the commercials seemed out of place. They brought an infomercial style to an arena that always tries to push marketing boundaries. WeatherTech’s one creative flourish was including a cute dog in “Scout,” but that didn’t mesh with the tone or content of the clip. It’s an instance where the media and the scientific data aligned.
When you’re thirsty, do you order a soda or ask for a Coke? If you have a cold, do you ask for a tissue or a Kleenex? Sometimes a product gets so popular that the brand name becomes synonymous with whatever it’s selling. This is brand awareness in action.
Brand awareness can seem like a vague force that’s hard to measure. But just because it’s trickier to track than a sale or a conversion doesn’t mean spreading awareness is without value. Building your brand through top-of-funnel content establishes a connection with a new audience. It can even change the way the existing audience perceives you.
Without that awareness foundation, it’s harder to achieve other goals down the marketing funnel. Why would someone buy something from you if they have no idea who you are?
At Contently, we wanted to get a better understanding of the biggest brand awareness challenges, so we turned to our own customers to find out more. When we set down to review the data, the same few challenges popped up over and over. Here’s how you can address them before they hurt your marketing efforts.
1. When your content ranks low on search
When you give SEO proper attention, you’ll see the effects on all of your content, old and new. Marketers trip up, however, when they plan branding and SEO efforts separately. By integrating the two, you effectively use organic traffic to increase brand reach.
The first step is identifying which keywords are right for your brand and realistically attainable. If you rank high for the wrong keywords or aim for keywords out of your reach, you’ll just continue to struggle.
Google Keyword Tool is a great (free!) tool that generates a list of keyword suggestions based on what users are searching. Simply click on “Search for a new keyword” and enter the main topics that you’re looking to cover. Once you have a target keyword list nailed down, you’re ready to take further steps and seed those keywords into your content.
We also have a content audit tool that provides recommendations for infusing the right SEO strategy into your content program. While many content marketers fall victim to keyword stuffing, we prefer to only use target keywords when they’re relevant—search engine “spiders” like to rank sites with content that sees consistent engagement. This verifies keyword relevancy. Auditing your existing library of content to identify high and low traffic keywords will help guide your keyword strategy.
When it comes to implementation, optimizing your website with technical SEO can help search engines access, crawl, interpret and index your website without any problems. By getting your front-end code in the right state, you’re effectively inviting Google to come in and look around to see what it likes.
Diagnosing and treating your site health can boost your brand’s reach with each small step. Optimizing title tag and meta description length is an easy fix—the earlier you can use a keyword in the title tag, the better, for example. Once you make those fixes, you’ll see your content start to climb up the rankings. And higher rankings will mean better reach.
2. When you have trouble getting the word out
It’s not enough to create great content—it has to be seen. Getting your content in front of the right people is important at any stage of your content program, but it’s especially important in the early days. That new infographic you created could be rich in information and beautifully designed, but you won’t see high ROI if no one knows where to find it.
To reach your audience on the right platforms, you have to understand their media habits. Blog posts and video, for example, are usually good fits for Facebook and Twitter because they tend to be quick and sharable. Guides and webinars, on the other hand, are better suited for LinkedIn’s audience of curious professionals.
When you analyze the interplay between these channels, it’s crucial to map them to different parts of the marketing funnel. The way you distribute content and connect with your audience should evolve down the funnel. If you choose the most opportune ways to distribute your content, then you’ll compel your audience to take the right action at the right time.
For Cardinal Health (a Contently customer), paid distribution has been incredibly helpful for learning more about what resonates. A/B testing across various channels with different formats is one reason why the company hit its primary awareness goals. Starting with a mix of social channels and content discovery platforms, such as Outbrain, Cardinal Health zeroed in on Facebook and LinkedIn as the top performing primary channels for their paid program.
3. When you aren’t reaching the right audience
Metrics like social shares get overlooked, but they can serve as a proxy for understanding audience preferences. They speak to how the audience engages with different content types. If your content underperforms, it may be an indicator that you’re not getting it in front of the right people.
As a strategist, I use a suite of SEO and social listening tools to first define who you should be talking to and then evaluate that audience’s engagement through a combination of metrics. We use social shares, number of keywords, backlinks, and more.
Let’s say, for example, that infographics receive the most social shares from your audience, while longform articles get the lowest share. This data is an important indicator that your audience has an appetite for visual content that’s easy to digest. In this case, I’d recommend adjusting your strategy to prioritize more multimedia and shortform content. It’s your responsibility to give the audience what they want.
Reaching a target audience can become extra challenging when you have regional and language considerations. For one international finance company, segmenting content in different global markets posed an additional obstacle. A good first step is finding what you can repurpose. Look for similarities across your audience segments. What unites them? What makes them unique? This will help you identify the potential content pieces for transcreation.
4. When your brand isn’t perceived correctly
If you polled 100 prospects, how many would be aware of your brand? Remember that number. Now, how many of those people have an accurate idea of what your brand offers? Did your number change?
For one major electronics company, this discrepancy was a major obstacle. The marketing leaders noted, “we’re struggling to reach the right people at scale and to educate them, but it’s hard to make a real impact at scale [and] change their perception of the company.”
Although it may seem like a massive branding problem, there’s a content-driven solution for adjusting perception. Our strategy team measures tone to set a benchmark for the way the public feels about certain topics . Is your audience looking for more emotionally charged language and opinions? Do they want to read about topics that make them feel conscientious?
By going through this process, you can shifting that perception by adjusting your tone and/or the topics you choose to cover.
5. When you have low share of voice
Imagine someone hands megaphones to you and your competitors. These megaphones are fairly uniform, except each one has a volume setting that’s a bit higher than the next. You turn on your megaphone and begin to speak, but no matter how hard you try, the person next to you is so loud that it drowns out your voice. Annoying, right?
With so much great content out there, it’s important to track how you stack up against your competitors. You do this by monitoring your market share.
To get an idea of where you stand for organic reach, measure the total number of keywords you care about as well as the traffic being driven from those keywords.
The bad news is, moving the needle on market share doesn’t happen overnight. You’ll need to have a strong understanding of what your audience is hungry for, and you’ll have to identify opportunities to own corners of the market by developing a unique perspective. A good starting point is to do some quantitative research by visiting your competitor’s content hubs. Educate yourself on their mission statements and identify opportunities for future angles and topics.
Let’s suppose you want to learn about Brexit. You could go to a legacy news outlet like the The New York Times and search the archives. If your preferences skew a bit more modern, you could take your question to an outlet like Vox, which specializes in SEO-friendly explainers. Or you could compare both to see two places cover the same topic in very different ways.
The first approach yields a timeline of newspaper articles, which you can piece together to create a full story. The image below reveals what you get when you plug “Brexit” into the New York Times app, which is coincidentally the first thing I look at every morning. Notice the articles pop up out of chronological order. (It’s not clear what order they’re in.) You have the choice of listening to a podcast episode, reading an op-ed, checking breaking news, or digesting a collection of quotes from European citizens on the subject. In this view, you get nuanced pieces to a puzzle, but you never get the whole thing.
On the contrary, if you route to an outlet like Vox and search the term “Brexit,” you’re greeted with this:
The upside of Vox’s style is that the audience is spoon-fed important information framed around questions the new stories inspire. The downside is that Vox rarely breaks stories, so its information is mostly aggregated. Aggregation is an old practice in journalism, and digital transformation has only encouraged it. But Vox is often credited (or blamed, depending on whom you ask) for heralding the modern explainer format.
On the whole, digital media doesn’t just tell stories anymore; it answers questions and anticipates follow-up inquiries, delivering explanatory content on intricacies you might have missed. Gone is the impetus to build a narrative from disparate headlines that once fell on readers. But who molded the media landscape this way?
A quick explainer on explainers
Vox launched in 2014, around the time ESPN acquired FiveThirtyEight, the data-explainer site run by Nate Silver. That same year, The New York Times launched The Upshot, the Grey Lady’s best attempt at a Vox-y project.
When all three websites came to life, The Guardian‘s James Ball penned a nervous op-ed about it. “It’s worth thinking about what we actually want the standard fare of our data journalism—or explanatory journalism, if you prefer that more marketable description—to become,” he wrote. “And how much is too much—are we being over-served, under-served, or have we now hit the Goldilocks point?”
It’s not just accusations of bias. Critics say explanatory journalism can be patronizing, simplifying complex stories for readers who ingest most information on their smartphones while doing something else.
To counter, Vox founder and editor-at-large Ezra Klein believes the explainer is the only logical format for a modern media company “where everything is archivable, where it’s all linkable, where it’s embeddable, persistent, and length isn’t a problem.” He described the Vox mission to The Content Strategist and other reporters at a recent press event.
Of course, Klein couldn’t simply write explainers for his readers on request, and when he began to amass a team around him, he realized journalists weren’t always the right hire. “Obsessives first,” Klein said. “That was the thing. We hired a lot of people who were not journalists. In fact, a lot of people who are at Vox now or have come through Vox, who are the absolute best at the job, weren’t hired out of journalism.”
Vox assembled professionals at the top of their fields by asking them to explain what they did to capture a curious audience. “I can teach you to report. I can teach you to pick up a phone,” Klein said, “but what I can’t teach is that obsessive passion and interest in a topic that will make you seek out the updates and teach yourself about it, and read the reports on it, and read down into the footnotes, whether or not anyone is paying you to do so.”
Vox pays creators, of course, and hiring curious people and letting them off the leash led to a big part of Vox’s content strategy: the explainer that beats a reader to a question. Some of Vox’s best straightforward explainers in the last few years include this infographic visualizing data on Earth’s biodiversity, a piece on psychedelics, and this article on impeachment. You’ll notice the latter is broken into sub-questions that Vox assumes might arise when one asks, “Can we impeach President Trump?” Some of Vox’s coolest explainers answer questions you may not have been curious about until you saw the link, like “Why do rappers talk about Grey Poupon so much?”
Why rappers love Grey Poupon - YouTube
Andrew Golis, Vox general manager and VP of network development, said some of the best explainers answer questions that haven’t occurred to readers yet. Or, as he put it, “The ones that make you say, ‘Oh, I’ve never really thought about that before.'”
Golis believes Vox’s editorial viewpoint reflects its internal culture. “Vox was born at a moment of wild change in the American machine,” he said. “It is amazing to me how much the culture of data consumption, reader attention, and optimizing in a thoughtful way, is baked into the brand.”
The post-Vox explainer
Did the Vox experiment, an entire media brand based around explainers, ultimately work out? For Vox’s investors, sure. For readers? Well, it depends on who you ask. Today, explainers coming from Vox, FiveThirtyEight, and The Upshot remain the format’s gold standard. But, these publishers swim upstream in a river full of cheap imitations.
At the event, Klein clarified that a great explainer adds context to a simple question. “There were explainers before Vox, but they were fundamentally pretty different,” he said. “The audience they seemed to have in mind was somebody who wanted to know about an issue, but didn’t want to know much. It was like we all imagined a reader who’d say, ‘Tell me about Obamacare, but very little about it.’ It was like three paragraphs, right? Like definitions. News for kids. And that wasn’t my experience of digital media audiences at all.”
Klein bet his audience was smarter than that because he had listened to reader feedback as a young reporter. “When I would get e-mails from readers, and when I would talk to people, their question was never, ‘What happened today in Obamacare?’ or ‘What’s going on today?'” he said. Instead, he’d get emails from readers drilling down into specific sub-topics. They’d ask, “how do premiums work in the new health care act?” or “What is the individual mandate?”
He grew frustrated without any useful resources to send his readers.
“I would think, ‘We do such good coverage of this. Why don’t we have anything for this person? Why is it on them to know that six and a half months ago, we broke one article explaining the foundational questions about what we’re doing?” He searched around, discovering there was a huge gulf between news and encyclopedic information. “What, they could go to Wikipedia? That’s it? That’s what the entire news industry had for them?” Eventually, Klein gathered the funds—$40 million—to launch Vox as a remedy.
Vox’s team used (and still uses!) search engine data as a loose inspiration for their editorial calendar, but they nix any story that doesn’t add anything to a simple query. “Search is a very easy thing to be inspired by,” Klein said. “It’s whatever people are asking about today in the world. That’s the viewer centered answer.” However, content that follows this equation…
Popular Google search term + aggregated information from other sources = viral content
…quickly stifles both creators and their audience. Writers and video producers don’t want to churn out formulaic faire, and readers can’t develop an emotional attachment to the brands that generate it. As a result, media becomes homogenous and boring when it’s saturated with lazy explainers.
Are explainers the future of content marketing?
After Vox set up this content model, it was easy to expand into an explainer podcast, a Netflix series, a YouTube channel, a Snapchat Discover content, and brand-sponsored projects from its content marketing wing, the Vox Explainer Studio. The latter, founded in 2017, has already created explainer content for Google, Microsoft, MailChimp, the Gates Foundation, and Walmart, defining how content marketers can muscle in on the explainer format and use it to their advantage.
The explainer format is especially conducive to content marketing because it positions the writer as an authority figure—or, as marketers put it, a subject matter expert (SME). The educational aspect also helps brands avoid reporting on conflicts of interest or criticizing their own industries. Just like Vox, a B2B brand that’s committed to content marketing wants to educate and entertain a captive audience by writing about the industry they occupy. If you’re explaining why your brand offers the best product or service in the game, you need to put that claim in context. For example, a bank would do well to publish explainers on all the financial topics they can counsel clients in: retirement accounts, playing the stock market, investing, cryptocurrency, whatever.
The goal is the same, whether you’re a brand selling a product or a digital media company commodifying attention. You have to educate, entertain, and own your audience. Explainers are an easy way to do all three.
If a brand listens to its audience’s pain points, concerns, and curiosities for inspiration, but constantly digs deeper for audience-centric angles, it will, like Vox, find a unique editorial voice. Producing truly great explainers won’t just elevate that brand above its competitors; it could place it among top tier digital publishers.
If you ever click a news story about a “widespread controversy,” do yourself a favor and verify the claims inside. If the only angry quotations in the article come from sources like Twitteruser573037, it’s not a story worth telling.
Look no further than Gillette, which recently released a new commercial decrying toxic masculinity. It was a play on the razor company’s long-standing tagline, “The Best A Man Can Get,” beginning with shots of young boys getting in fist-fights and older men grabbing at women’s bodies. “Is this really the best men can be?” the clip posited, riffing on gender studies talking points from “boys will be boys” to 2017’s #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. The powerful piece of socially conscious marketing immediately made an impact and inspired good discussion on social media, but only a specific reaction made headlines.
We Believe: The Best Men Can Be | Gillette (Short Film) - YouTube
Typically, an advertisement like Gillette’s would only receive coverage from the likes of Adweek, Digiday, and AdAge. However, the social justice angle gave national publications a foothold. The brand was taking a stance on gender, which meant somebody was going to react negatively.
Several large news outlets published stories about the “controversy” it had kicked up. According to NPR, CNN, Business Insider, FastCompany, and Time, the internet was torn asunder by a widespread movement to boycott Gillette’s products, a siege led by untold numbers of men who felt insulted. Thing is, as journalist Agri Ismaïl pointed out on Twitter, the controversy was almost entirely fabricated.
A dude is presenting demands to end the boycott. The demands are the apology video and also that all male employees have to read some mra bullshit, like it’s mao’s little red pill.
I encourage you to investigate yourself. Click the links each news outlet provided as sources. Most of them are non-verified folks with fewer than 10 followers—users who make up what’s often referred to as “local Twitter,” or the people you went to high school with who still tweet things like, “Just enjoying a peanut butter #sandwich and watching #TheBachelor! #Yum!”
The angry customers who inspired so many articles weren’t organizing by the thousands outside Gillette’s corporate office; they were posting low-res photos of their toilet bowls, showing off the Gillette razors they tried to flush. The most high profile figure to complain about the Gillette ad online was Piers Morgan, noted conservative malcontent and beleaguered baby boomer. And man, Piers Morgan hates everything.
News outlets reporting on “controversies” by gathering three angry tweets is a toxic pattern. It’s fake news by definition, creating a story where there is none just to generate clicks. Entertainment outlets do it when they “report” on fan theories, and political pundits were guilty of commenting on a non-story like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez having danced once in college. You trace these stories back to their origin points and you find, well, nothing. Before long, once a few publishers create a narrative about a backlash, there’s a backlash to that backlash, and then we all have to spend weeks clicking through content that’s unproductive and misleading. It has to stop.
Publishers need to exercise caution when empowering individual Reddit and Twitter users, and treating them like experts. If you take a stance on any issue or topic, there will always be someone who disagrees. That quest for false balance is one of the reasons people have trust issues with the media. Think of it this way: If a media outlets like BBC had never labeled this a controversy, would Piers Morgan have even cared?
If there is a lesson for brands to learn here, it’s not to be afraid of backlash for socially conscious marketing. Advocating for a good cause, as long as it’s integral to your company’s mission, is important. If you get negative feedback, chances are you’re just hearing the voices of an angry minority that might not even be in your target audience.
As New York Magazine writer Jesse Singal wrote in 2017, “What risk-averse executives and social-media managers often fail to realize is that the subset of people who use social media do not represent the broader world, and further, that the subset of people who get extremely mad on social media don’t even represent the subset of people who use social media.” It’s all an illusion. And the more we expose the way this cheap trick works, the easier it’ll be for everyone to focus on what’s actually important.
According to the article, roughly half of traffic and engagement is fraudulent. As if that wasn’t damning enough, Reddit’s ex-CEO Ellen Pao shared the article on Twitter, adding, “It’s all true: Everything is fake.” For many of us who make a living analyzing web metrics, it was a confusing time. I stopped checking Twitter for a full week, sitting in my kitchen like Dr. Manhattan on the moon, asking myself why I didn’t just go to law school.
You remember that panel from Alan Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen, right? Actually you shouldn’t, because just like half of the internet, from viewer statistics to monthly uniques to Twitter followers, it’s fake. It’s a Frankenstein, hack-job meme that many people just assume is a panel lifted from the comic because it’s so ubiquitous online. Freaky, right?
Now that I’ve had some time to reflect, I realize that great content marketing only becomes more important to the online ecosystem if most vanity metrics are so bloated. Let’s say that Pao is correct, and most sites like Reddit know that the number of mobile readers they attract every month is vastly inflated. And let’s assume that brands and publishers with thousands of social followers are actually posting content for an audience that’s full of bots and underpaid employees at Chinese click-farms. Those brands are houses built on sand, and the brands that rely on false metrics will never see conversion. Eventually, they will disappear.
However, when a company invests in content that actually resonates, they’re protected from the empty engagement. It all comes down to valuing trust over reach. Sure, having a big audience looks great, and it does carry some value, but honestly, your most important signals of success are the metrics that lead to action. Stats like newsletter sign-ups, webinar attendees, downloads, and lead generation. These metrics further your relationship with an audience instead of just boosting your ego.
Focus on telling good stories and building actual relationships, because that’s where the value of content is hard to fake. Anyone can chase clicks or jump on a relevant news story, but brands that invest in good content can rise above all that.
There are dozens of success metrics that you can point to, but this story was an important reminder to take some of them with a grain of salt. I’d caution any content marketers who blanched at the whole “the internet is fake” thing to take a breath, remind yourself of your mission and purpose, and aim higher than vanity metrics. Deep down, you’ll know if you have a real connection with your target audience. They’ll engage with you in a way that a bot never could.
Before I became the editor-in-chief of a marketing technology company, I was a tall and lanky basketball player. Armed with only average athleticism, I got my edge on the court by being smarter and more skilled than opponents. I may not have been able to jump over anyone, but I was the best shooter on my team and didn’t make many mistakes.
With that kind of intro, I could make some vague marketing connections about teamwork and competition and playmaking, but those are all corny. There is, however, a much more interesting parallel between basketball and blog posts that could impact the way creators talk to their audience. It all comes down to data and analytics.
Even if you don’t know anything about the NBA, you’re probably familiar with the concept of analytics. Access to good data helps us make smarter decisions, regardless of the field.
Basketball went through an analytics revolution over the last decade that changed the way teams play. The gist of the evolution comes down to simple math about which plays offer the most value. Layups, dunks, and foul shots are easy and usually net two points. Hitting a three-pointer is harder, but it’s worth an extra point. The most inefficient play in basketball is a mid-range jump shot because it’s hard to make yet still only counts for two points. So teams stopped taking those shots and replaced them with more threes and layups.
The last few years, I’ve had this theory that the same type of thinking took over publishing and marketing. Companies found that longform content—typically defined as anything over 2,000 words—drove more value than middling posts, even though most digital articles fall under 1,000 words. Those 800-word posts became inefficient. A BuzzSumo study of 100 million articles revealed that longform content gets more shares. Per CoSchedule, there’s a similar correlation for search engine rankings. A joint report from BuzzSumo and Moz also found that longer stories received more referral links than shorter posts.
The takeaway was very clear: The longer the content, the better.
There’s nothing empirically wrong with this data. Based on what we know about search and social platforms, their algorithms have picked up on these signals that favor longer word counts. I, like many other editors, adjusted accordingly. I pushed our marketing team to think long or short. Short posts were still easy wins. We could write 300 words about an infographic in an hour and get decent traffic. A long reported story might take a week or two, but the SEO payoff would be worth it. At one point, I started telling new hires and freelancers point blank: Don’t turn in anything between 700 and 1,000 words.
But what if these algorithmic signals missed something?
In December, we surveyed 1,024 people in the U.S. to find out about their media and marketing preferences. One of our questions dealt with preferred word count when reading online. According to the survey, 75 percent of the public prefers articles they read to be under 1,000 words. Only 5 percent prefer articles over 2,000 words.
When I saw the data, this was my reaction:
The more I thought about it, the more both points could coexist. The average adult reads about 200 words per minute, which means longform articles take at least 10 minutes to complete. Most people can’t dedicate that much time during the day. But they can find four minutes between meetings or during lunch. At the same time, if I wanted to thoroughly learn about a topic, I’d much rather shell out 10 minutes to read a definitive source than piece together knowledge here and there from a bunch of 800-word blog posts.
As an editor and writer, this made me rethink my hard stance on word counts. It makes sense that people would validate the best longform content on search and social even as they typically stick with the mid-range blog posts. That doesn’t mean every longform post is good. In fact, plenty of them are worse than Ben Simmons at the foul line. Some stories work best at 850 words, regardless of what Google prioritizes.
But now I have to wrap it up. I’m over 800 words, and I don’t want to force a longer word count for no reason. As my old basketball coaches would say, sometimes it’s best to take what the defense gives you.
The fact that 100,000 people voluntarily signed up for a brand newsletter may surprise some. For GE, however, it’s the culmination of a decade-long commitment to content marketing. The company sits at the intersection of some of our most crucial sectors, like technology, energy, and transportation. As a result, the brief brims with journalistic rigor, pulling in stories from GE Reports, the brand’s main content hub, where employees across the globe explain new research and innovations by focusing on ideas instead of products. But the newsletter also contains worthwhile content from around the web that has nothing to do with the brand.
In other words, spam this is not.
“The time your audience spends with your content is really a transaction,” said Tomas Kellner, editor-in-chief of GE Reports. “You have to give them back something of value. If the content becomes too promotional, too self-serving, you will lose your audience very quickly.”
GE has managed to take brand awareness to the next level, turning its distinct point of view into something that every company wants: leads.
Building a database of 100,000 people doesn’t happen by accident. Chances are your company already has a newsletter or some e-books. But like brand awareness, lead generation requires a comprehensive plan. You can’t just slap a form on your website and expect thousands of potential customers to fill it out.
As the stakes increase, the value your content provides needs to rise as well. A great blog post can establish trust, but is it really worth someone’s contact information? Probably not. Inspiring your audience to take action calls for more substantial content.
Taking the lead
In our first playbook for marketers, we covered how brands should develop a content strategy to build awareness and establish thought leadership. We also went over the top of the marketing funnel, typically reserved for blog posts, infographics, and other types of shorter content meant to educate and entertain.
As a prospect moves down the funnel toward the engagement and consideration phases, the same strategic principles still apply. You still want to study your audience to understand their preferences and pain points. You still want to refer to your gap analysis to see what content topics and formats are fresh. And you still want to develop a distribution plan to increase the chances your work gets the attention it deserves.
Now, however, you have to do it on a bigger scale.
A lead is anyone who shows interest in your brand by taking a deliberate action to hear more. This could mean filling out a form, signing up for an email newsletter, or answering a survey. Lead generation is just the practice of influencing those people on a regular basis.
That definition may sound simple, but generating quality leads is complicated. (We’ll explore how to judge the quality of leads later in this playbook.) The experts and practitioners we spoke to for this series pointed to lead generation as the toughest part of their jobs. Brands get excited about flexing their creative muscles with awareness content, and they’re usually comfortable talking about their products and services at the bottom of the funnel. But balancing both of those instincts in the middle is where things get tricky.
“We work really hard to set a standard in terms of quality and voice,” said John Fox, athenahealth executive director of content and communications. “There’s a sense of integrity and credibility. Pivoting from that into more of a sales message requires some art so you don’t lose that. You don’t want to lose them on the next click.”
[Full disclosure: athenahealth is a Contently customer.]
On athenaInsight, the brand’s main publication, creators explore healthcare trends, speak to issues affecting physicians, and unpack the latest medical data. The content carries a helpful tone, breaking down complex topics into blog posts that fall under 1,000 words.
For lead gen content, other members of Fox’s team work on webinars and longer whitepapers that run upwards of 10 or 20 pages. Take this paper on replacing electronic health records (EHR). It’s stacked with data and sidebar panels that incorporate reporting and storytelling. Over 12 pages, there are only a handful of brand mentions woven into the narrative.
At GE, Kellner operates with a similar philosophy. He makes sure every newsletter is “not all about GE.” By focusing on topics instead of sources, GE conveys authority without puffing out its own chest too much. Subscribers can come to learn about robotics or machine learning without feeling the pressure of product placement. According to Kellner, that’s one of the key reasons the GE audience comes back for more.
“The content universe has exploded over the last five, ten years,” he said. “It’s getting bigger and bigger, it’s like the big bang happening in the content space. Individual people, brands, and old media companies are all producing content. But the day is still only twenty-four hours.”