Over the past year, I’ve looked at hundreds of successful audience-building organizations. The good news? There is a pattern for content marketing success. It can be documented.
The bad news? It takes time.
And … it all depends on your definition of content marketing. If you think content marketing is creating e-books for lead generation or hoping for engagement on your YouTube videos, this article is not for you.
On the other hand, if you want to build a loyal and trusting audience consistently over time and believe by doing that you can accomplish your marketing goals, welcome, my friend. This is all for you.
I founded the Content Marketing Institute in 2010 using a variation of the Content Inc. model detailed below. In 2015, we identified dozens of businesses (like CMI) that successfully built a massive and/or loyal audience and then drove significant revenue or accomplished unbelievable marketing goals.
I left CMI in 2018 to write mystery novels. The lead protagonist is a marketer. But I digress. Then the pandemic happened. And many of my friends lost their jobs. Some went looking for a new content marketing future. Others sought to become content entrepreneurs. Regardless, the effects of COVID-19 brought me back into the content marketing universe.
Now I have a new book (Content Inc.) and a new content marketing success model.
Seven distinct steps make up the Content Inc. content marketing success model.
1. Sweet spot
You need to uncover a content area on which the content marketing model will be based. You need to identify a sweet spot that will attract an audience over time. This sweet spot is the intersection of a knowledge or skillset (something the entrepreneur or business has competency in) and specific audience interest.
For example, global manufacturer John Deere started its Content Inc. journey in 1895 with its magazine The Furrow. The Furrow’s sweet spot was the intersection between John Deere’s knowledge of agricultural technology and the farmers’ (Deere’s audience) need for information on how to operate more profitably. By the way, The Furrow, still around today, is delivered to over a million farmers every month.
2. Content tilt
Once the sweet spot is identified, you need to determine the tilt or differentiator. Find an area of little to no competition.
Kristen Bor of Bearfoot Theory started a blog and wrote consistently about hiking and backpacking. A 2015 trip changed everything:
I was driving back from a backpacking trip in Southern Utah … passing the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and I had never been there. I was really intrigued … but I was alone, and the weather wasn’t good. So I bypassed it and thought, ‘Oh, I’ll be back some other time.’
And that’s when I started hearing more about van life. If I had a van, I could have stopped (at the Grand Canyon) and explored the next day. That sparked my initial idea.
At the time, there were many media sites, blogs, and podcasts about travel and backpacking, but not many on traveling while living in a van. From that one situation, Kristen found the content tilt that separated her from all the other backpacking sites: van life. Today, Kristen attracts more than a half-million page views per month and has become one of the world’s leading experts on van life.
Once you find the sweet spot and discover the tilt, you choose a platform and construct a content base. This is like building a house. Before you get into the options for paint, fixtures, and flooring, you need a plan and the installation of a foundation. You do this by consistently generating valuable content through one key channel (a blog, a podcast, YouTube, etc.)
Ann Reardon, known now as the baking queen of Sydney, Australia, started a YouTube channel in 2011. Every week she delivers eye-opening dessert recipe videos to her international audience (now more than 4 million subscribers) via the video platform.
Ann is successful because she focused on being great on one platform, not dabbling in many at once.
A warning: Most enterprises diversify too quickly. They identify their content tilt and create a blog, a newsletter, a YouTube page, a Twitch stream, TikTok, Clubhouse, etc. This is probably the biggest mistake in content marketing right now, and it rarely ever works.
Identify your audience, find your content tilt, choose your platform, and select your key content type (audio, video, or textual and image).
4. Audience building
After choosing the platform and building the content base, you can increase the audience and convert one-time readers or viewers into ongoing subscribers. Here, you go from getting attention to keeping attention.
This is where you leverage social media as a key distribution tool and take search engine optimization seriously. At this point, your job is not just to increase web traffic. By itself, web traffic is a meaningless metric. Your goal is to generate traffic to increase the opportunity to acquire an audience.
Here’s how Michael Stelzner, CEO of Social Media Examiner, explains this step in the process:
I knew email acquisition was the key metric and I had decided that we weren’t going to promote (meaning ‘sell’) anything until we had at least 10,000 email subscribers. And we got to that number so quickly that I knew we were really onto something.
Today 2.4 million unique people visit SME monthly. We have 416,000 people that we email three times per week. We currently publish four articles, two podcasts, and three videos per week.
The critical acknowledgment for the audience-building step is that though many metrics analyze content success, subscribers are the number one. It’s almost impossible to monetize and grow your audience without first getting readers or viewers to opt-in and subscribe to your content.
There is no problem with building your base on rented land (i.e., social media), but at this point, you need to make plans to move them to a more controlled media source (i.e., email).
This visual subscriber hierarchy is a good example of wanting to move up the hierarchy toward data you have more control over.
It’s time. You identified your sweet spot. You “tilted” to find an area of content noncompetition. You selected the platform and built the base. You started to build subscribers. Now is when the model monetizes against the platform.
You are armed with enough subscriber information (both qualitative and quantitative) to see a multitude of revenue-generating opportunities. This could be consulting, software, events, or something else.
For Content Marketing Institute’s revenue model, we initially sold sponsorships to cover our costs and keep the company going. Over the next two years, we added webinars, live events, and print advertising to our sales model.
Once you build a loyal audience, you have 10 ways to generate revenue, including six direct revenue sources (like a media company) and four indirect sources (content marketing):
Once the model has built a strong, loyal, and growing audience, it’s time to diversify from the main content stream and create brand extensions. Think of the model like an octopus, with each content channel as an arm. How many of those arms can wrap your audience in to keep them close to you and coming back for more?
ESPN, originally started as a sports-only cable television station in 1979, began with a $9,000 investment by Bill and Scott Rasmussen. Now, more than 40 years later, ESPN is one of the world’s most profitable media brands, with revenues of more than $11 billion, according to Disney’s financial statements. (ESPN is now a part of Disney.)
For 13 years, ESPN directed its attention to just one cable channel for 100% of its audience-building focus. In 1992, the floodgates opened on diversification, first with the launch of ESPN Radio. In 1995, ESPN.com (originally called ESPN SportsZone) launched, followed three years later by ESPN the Magazine.
Today, ESPN has a property in almost every channel available on the planet, from Twitter to podcasts to documentaries. Even though the channels were limited in the 1980s and 1990s (compared with today), ESPN didn’t diversify until the core platform (cable television) was successful.
7. Sell or go big
For content marketers, this is the point where you want to go big through organic growth and/or acquisitions. If you are a content entrepreneur, you have the option to get big, create a lifestyle business, or sell the asset, like The Hustle recently did when they sold to marketing automation company HubSpot.
As an organic example, Matthew Patrick, who created the hugely popular The Game Theorists channel on YouTube, didn’t stop there. Instead, he launched The Film Theorists and The Food Theorists, turning his small operation into a fast-growing media, merchandising, and services company.
As an acquisition example, Fortune 150 company Arrow Electronics wanted to grow their organic startups by building the largest audience of B2B electronics engineers in the world. To accomplish this, they purchased more than 50 media brands a few years back and now boast an audience of more than 3 million. Oh, and by the way, the entire content division for Arrow is a stand-alone profit center.
Warning on timing
Here’s the area that most content marketers don’t want to acknowledge. The Content Inc. model takes time. In our research, from start to finish, it takes about five years to go from nothing to something like Arrow Electronics accomplished. Sure, more budget can speed up the process, but it still takes time to build a loyal and trusting relationship with an audience.
Remember, Red Bull Media House started as a magazine in 2007. They didn’t become the Red Bull Media House we know until about five years later.
If you need short-term results, do not follow this model. If you want to build content assets that will transform your organization and offer revenue opportunities you never dreamed of? Then Content Inc. is for you.
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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute