Channel partners looking to grow their businesses through client acquisition and retention are getting on board with advanced content marketing like never before. It’s a rapidly changing — sometimes amorphous — science that’s as vital as it is confusing for IT providers that concentrate much of their business development efforts on technologies and solutions sets.
To understand the state of content marketing and peer inside the strategies of its key players, Channelnomics Editor-in-Chief Chris Gonsalves sat down with CEO Matthew Petersen and CMO Keith Sedlak from content marketing powerhouse McMurry/TMG. Our exclusive interview comes as the firm approaches the one-year anniversary of the merger between McMurry and TMG (formerly The Magazine Group Inc.) which created a market leader with 280 employees in four U.S. locations.
While not every channel partner requires the services of a large firm like McMurry/TMG — a $100 million company with blue-chip clients that include 75 of the Fortune 500 — the insights these content marketing thought-leaders provide in multi-channel and integrated marketing programs, real-time content streams, and the judicious measurement of program effectiveness are valuable to any organization looking to juice their brand and ride the content marketing wave.
Matthew Petersen: Oh for sure. In some manner or form it’s applicable to just about every business out there, but there are certainly degrees of permission where you’d be allowed to do more with it. Not everybody needs a large, comprehensive content marketing strategy, but everyone needs to have a strategy.
Keith Sedlak: That’s right. There’s varying degrees of how comprehensive the content solution should be. There could be folks that just need parts of it who we also do programs for. It could be less comprehensive and focused only on the channels where they need to increase their exposure. They might just need a blogging strategy to help them earn ambassadors to spread their content and the value proposition of their products and services. They may or may not need video, webinar, site development — it’s always unique to the client and their goals.
CN: So say I have a company and I need a content marketing program. What do I need to know about myself first? What homework should I do before I come to you?
MP: We run across this a lot. People don’t know how to get started, or they’ve put stuff out there but haven’t thought through the metrics and various delivery channels. They may already have content they don’t even know is content. We have a proprietary strategic process called IO that we employ to get to a recommendation and implementation plan that we can then deliver. But it can be a fairly intense engagement that often depends on how far along they are in their thinking.
KS: They can start by asking a lot of questions: Do you understand your demographics? How do groups within that differ? What messaging will resonate with them? What platforms are they consuming content on? What research do you have on what’s working and not working on how you’re moving your products? All of that rolls up to the question: Where do you need to deepen the relationship? We take that and figure out your retention strategy through content, which may differ from your acquisition strategy. So you can have multiple strategies in your content plan by virtue of what the ultimate KPIs are.
The process is very strategic. We spend hours interviewing stakeholders, getting an understanding of how the business works. The more you share, the better the plan is going to be that we’re going to put on the table.
MP: We also give you a competitive score. We look at your competition, then we give you a score against them with regards to content marketing initiatives. In the beginning you may have a terrible score, but having the right content marketing program is a big differentiator. You’re taking the high road to position yourself as a thought leader.
CN: Where is the marketplace in all of this? Are organizations starting to really get it when it comes to advanced content marketing?
MP: I’d say, from a CMO standpoint, there aren’t many out there [that don’t have] content marketing on their minds. People are at varying stages of it, of course — some are behind the curve and others are quite advanced. Our job is to be the most strategic. Content marketing is growing up pretty fast, and we think that, for it to be successful for brands, they really need to take a strategic approach to it and think about it in a multi-channel fashion. Content is pervasive and needs to work in concert to be effective.
CN: Who are the executives that are among the advanced group you mentioned? Is this a generational thing? Do young business leaders have an advantage here?
MP: I don’t think so. It really depends on the organization. There are CMOs really embracing content marketing. They understand it. They get the network effect. Others are less bullish, but more and more I’d say there is a broad and growing enthusiasm for it. We’re seeing that take shape in many ways.
CN: You do a lot of work with consumer products. How much more difficult is it to do content marketing in a highly specialized area like vertical industries or technology?
MP: That is something we actually thrive on. We’re not vertical-centric. Our experiences with CDW are a good example. It really comes down to how well versed you are in that subject matter. You need to develop the right content teams to execute initiatives for these types of clients, and that applies to almost any category.
We love the fact that we’re in the B2B world and helping medium to large enterprises connect with their most important customers. The most important team members to have on staff are those that become extensions of the brands they’re working for. They become the filter — the voice — that creates the content that is going to be relevant, and really connect and engage with buyers.
CN: McMurry/TMG has created some impressive content brands — the WebMD franchise comes to mind. What’re your thoughts about these kinds of sub-brands versus traditional branded content?
MP: I really think there’s a place for both. For one of our association clients, we have a content brand called Associations Now. It includes a magazine, a micro-site, a daily e-newsletter and an ongoing program of real-time content creation. It’s a real and effective sub-brand. We put real journalistic content in it and treat it as very objective. It’s there to promote thought leadership and position the client as relevant. It’s extremely effective. It attracts new customers while retaining existing ones.
Packaged goods brands are doing this a lot. A good example is Home Made Simple, a brand launched by Procter & Gamble and born out of its home products division. It’s about helping the Chief Home Officers of the world run a better house, and keep it clean and terrific. That’s a content brand enabled by a number of the brands within it. You see a similar thing happening with CDW with its FedTech, StateTech and LocalTech brands. And UPS does it through its Compass brand to help SMBs with logistics.
The most important thing in all of these is that it’s clear the content brand is brought to you by the supporting company. Some are more apparent than others. The philosophical angle here is that we really believe brands have an opportunity to create great content experiences to engage directly with their customers. One of the key metrics you use in this case is measurement of that engagement. Customers know good content from bad. They know advertisements from journalism. So we believe in quality, and we push that to the highest degree we can.
CN: Speaking of metrics, how good are we at measuring the effectiveness of all this great content and the channels employed to deliver it? How do you make sure there’s ROI?
MP: We’ve actually trademarked something we call Return on Content. It’s a dashboard we create for every client. It has some common elements from one engagement to the next, but it starts with client objectives which we try to define up front in any relationship and then evolve those on an ongoing basis as new opportunities emerge. When we think return on content, I put it in three buckets. One may be brand perception develop through thought leadership and being authoritative through content. Another is another audience development and engagement. And the third is direct ROI where we can, with data, determine what the effects the content we’re creating and the channels we’re using are having on the conversion and sale of products and services. So there are KPIs that can get down to that granular level and others that are mainly around audience development, awareness and engagement.
That’s important because, in my opinion, the sales funnel looks more like a trombone now. Think about when we develop content marketing programs that have a strong need for brand visibility through search. You’re not only attracting new customers, but that’s obviously intended to engage with existing customers. Content is expected to serve multiple purposes. It develops relationships and promotes understanding of the brand and ultimately through content, that brand becomes more of a solution that a seller products or services.
CN: McMurry/TMG has a relatively new offering called Content Velocity, a real-time content monitoring and creation engine that looks almost like a media newsroom. Tell us about that.
KS: Content Velocity creates a brand that is always on and engages folks in the areas where they are looking specifically to engage like search. People are always out there searching for new products, new brands, new solutions. Consumers want two way dialog with their brands. To satisfy that, you have to be able to feed content in real time as well as gather data to answer their question and address their needs. The Content Velocity desk is a way to listen and analyze what’s going on out there and respond accordingly through all of the platforms, creating relationships with relevance. Let’s face it, if it’s not relevant consumers lose trust in that brand.
Our folks have bylines that are on behalf of those brands. They are portraying those brands out in the marketplace. In terms of effectiveness we’ve seen clients quadruple website visits through this aggressive approach. They are rapidly increasing Facebook likes and their fan base. There’s a number of KPIs we’re watching that allows us to refine content offerings along the way in response to what’s happening in the market.
CN: Was this created in response to something specific you saw happening in the marketplace?
MP: Absolutely yes. As we are helping our brands develop audiences, we found that real-time brand newsroom approach to be critical. The goal for brands to create their own media ecosystem so they are having direct conversations and engagement with audiences while bypassing traditional means.
CN: How much of a role has the ubiquity of mobile and social tools played in this kind of next-generation content marketing approach.
KS: A lot. This is out answer to that. You need to create content that always findable and flexible to all sorts of platforms now. One topic needs to be distributed on the Web, on a phone, on a tablet, on a Facebook page. You can no longer siloed with content channels and think that you have a good content marketing strategy.