Five Maxims For A Successful Digital Content Strategy

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No longer is “we have a website” a sufficient response to the question “What’s your company’s digital content strategy?” Brooks Barnes’ recent article in the New York Times, “NBC Making a Clean Start in a House of Mixed Media” is an excellent case study of the learning curve associated with developing a comprehensive digital content strategy.

#1: More Friends, Fewer Strangers.

“Mr. Wright’s decision to pay $600 million for iVillage — at the time, $41 for each unique user — stunned some analysts. By comparison, the News Corporation had paid $28 for each unique user for MySpace a few months earlier. Mr. Wright’s boss, the chief executive of G.E., Jeffrey R. Immelt, has since said that the company “probably overpaid.””

Without arguing the relative value of these two deals, one thing is clear: The true value of a community is evaluated on registered users, not on raw “traffic” to the website. If you’re still subscribing to the billboard theory of consumer connection (i.e. they drove by, therefore they engaged with us), slow down for a minute.

Markets are conversations. You don’t have true conversations with strangers—at best, you merely have small talk. The value of anonymous “unique viewers” pales in comparison to the registered users of your site.

Even the metric of “registered users” can and should be further deconstructed. Given the number of people who register and abandon accounts online, it is increasingly valuable to understand the active user base vs. the casual user base vs. the idle (or abandoned) user base. Beyond valuing a community, it also goes to understanding which users should be the focus of your conversation.

The value of a user in your community depends, then, on two key criteria: Activity and identity. The more information your visitors elect to share with you (and this is an important distinction), the higher their value in the conversation.

If you’re obsessed with driving hordes of “visitors” to your site, reconsider. You can only build long-term value if you grow relationships. You’re simply burning bandwidth if you neglect to make a few (thousand) friends. The strength of those relationships was a key factor in iVillage surviving the original dot com bust.

#2: Digital’s Invited to the Party Now.

“The Web site’s ad sales teams are now fully integrated with the other online properties and the traditional television operation.”

“More strategic integration with “Today” has been crucial to the nascent turnaround, said Phil Griffin, senior vice president of NBC News. For instance, the hosts of the morning program have stopped parroting the line, “For more information, go to iVillage.com,” he said. “Now we try to direct viewers to the site by telling them what specific three related stories they can find if they go there,” he said.”

Say goodbye to the idea that your “web” efforts live in a silo out on the edge of your media plans. In the past, the idea that “we should throw this up on the website, too” was about as cutting edge as it got. Usually this meant tossing some ill-prepared print collateral to a web monkey in a dark corner office (these were my own simian origins).

The most successful companies invite digital to the conversation early. Rather than treat digital properties as second class citizens, it’s increasingly important that both ends of the media spectrum are woven together. As NBC learned, leveraging the viewership of Today required a content-based pitch with a clear incentive to visit. This is only possible in an integrated environment.

#3: Co-Authored is Copasetic.

“Deborah I. Fine, iVillage’s president, has secured new partners to replace Hearst, including theknot.com, a popular wedding planning Web site, and PopSugar, a fast-growing online community aimed at younger women. Meredith Vieira, a “Today” co-host, has started to blog for the site, and Ms. Fine has created a new weddings section. “I really think we are doing it right,” Ms. Fine said.”

If you’re daunted by the prospect of finding the resources to create content for your strategy, take a cue from the collaborative nature of the web. Don’t approach your content strategy with the belief that you must be the only voice in the room. Instead, identify the editorial tone of your properties and partner accordingly.

Co-authored and aggregated content allows you to provide users with a sufficiently rich experience while activating the many-to-many social aspects of the web. In iVillage’s case, they managed to leverage PopSugar and theknot.com’s own network while expanding their content selection. Combined with exclusive, original content by Vieira and Fine, iVillage is in a much stronger position thanks to distributed content sources.

#4: Curators Welcome.

“One reason for increases in ad revenue is that iVillage has started working more efficiently with advertisers to weave products deeper into the fabric of the site, said Mr. Naylor, NBC Universal’s senior vice president of digital media sales. For instance, when Schick wanted to advertise razors in the context of things that “simplify your life,” iVillage pulled related articles from across the site and aggregated them on one page for the company.”

The “burn and bury” approach to managing web content is a thing of the past. If you’re featuring content prominently for a short period of time, but then failing to manage it beyond initial exposure, you’re missing opportunities.

As iVillage’s experience with Schick shows, knowing and mining your content archives over time will help you discover revenue and reinvent older content in a new context. Within your digital team, you need someone with an archivist’s mind, who can work with an editor in chief to bring fresh perspectives to the table.

Who manages your site’s analytics? Often this person is an ideal candidate, since they spend a great deal of time looking at content in the “big picture” of search engine placement, referring links, and user behavior.

#5: No Failures, Only Results.

“You assume in the beginning that a mention on the ‘Today’ show will drive tremendous traffic, but it’s not that easy,” she said. “We like where we are now, but boy did we have some tough learning.”

Even so, Ms. Comstock said it was unfair to call “iVillage Live” a failure. “The point of the show was to experiment,” she said.

Stop thinking of your efforts in terms of “hit or miss.” People like Hollywood endings and industrial-scale disasters because they’re simple stories to tell. Unfortunately, this leaves little room in the media’s eye for a learning process.

A digital content strategy requires you cut yourself some slack. Run with an idea, and if it’s not working, be willing to put it aside. The value is in what you learn from each experiment, and in this context, there is no such thing as failure.

This also means checking your high hopes with a humble approach. Cease and desist all claims that you’re going to “revolutionize” anything. Each bold claim is a blade you’re sharpening for your critics.

Eric Raymond is a Senior Associate with Patrick Davis Partners, a national brand strategy firm with offices in Atlanta, St. Louis, New York and San Francisco.  Mr. Raymond contributes to the firm’s Digital & Content Strategy Practice, and he is a regular contributor to UnboundEdition.com. 

Compliments of UnBoundedition.com

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