Mix And Match: The 3 Types Of Content You Need To Know
Updated: Oct 26
By Neil St. Clair
This article was originally published on Forbes.com (January, 2015)
So you've smartly decided that you're going to be a content marketer--creating a content-rich site and campaign. You realized the benefits to your brand, your overall traffic and your bottom-line. You're not creating ads, but true thought leadership (i.e. opinion or education), you know the topics you want to cover, the audience you wish to target and the goals of the investment.
But before you embark on this wonderful journey, there's a more fundamental decision to be made: what kind of content are you going to utilize and what's it admixture? This is an even more basic question than what type of media you'll use (i.e. video, written, animated, audio, list/quiz, microsite, white paper, infographic, photo, press releases, book, etc.); what distribution platforms you'll engage (i.e. digital, print, broadcast, OOH, social, podcast, book etc.); or how you'll market and analyze (paid v. unpaid backlinks, social media, adwords, etc.).
So before you get into the tactical and strategic you need to make a decision on the substantive. Do I want to create original content? Licensed content? Or user-generated content? Or some variation therein? Here we'll briefly discuss the pros and cons of each and likely confuse you more, but we'll at least give you the tools to make an informed decision.
Pros: The biggest benefit is that original content is just that. Original. It's completely custom and tells the type of story you want, from your point of view, in a timely and on-brand manner. You control the rights, and can insert it into the most meaningful part of your campaign (likely behind an opt-in wall) that will ultimately engender lead generation, brand building or any other goal you seek. Additionally, creating meaningful original content can make you a resource for media outlets seeking an "expert," further enhancing your search discoverability and backlinks.
Cons: Original content is tough to reproduce. Irrespective of whether it's video or the written word, producing original content can get expensive if outsourced. If you're doing it in-house, the amount of personnel or mindshare can get overwhelming.
Variations: While most marketers will create original content anywhere between 1 and 50 pieces/month, the biggest concern should be quality and consistency of production. Depending on your goals and budget two original content variations that may accomplish this are:
1) The Brand Newsroom: This requires a significant commitment to production, and should be taken on primarily by larger or rising brands that want to completely own the conversation in their space. You'll basically be hiring an in-house team to work as pseudo-journalists and researchers and become the voice of your industry through media, white papers, video, infographics, etc. You can create direct thought leadership or indirect content that dovetails with your brand (e.g. Red Bull Content Pool tying sport to their energy drink). Newsrooms are a great option to generate leads and build a stellar brand reputation/following.
2) Pilot Fishing: Pilot fish are scavengers that hang around larger predators to eat their scraps. What does this have to do with you? Well, there are thousands of pieces of original content reported each day by the big fish in media and industry. It's usually fine, with proper attribution, links and compliance approval, to take small excerpts of this content or re-write some it and publish it on your own site (DO NOT plagiarize). The content isn't wholly original, and it takes some time to source, but it's a low-cost way to get started in the content space. N.B. This is not "article spinning," which is a blackhat SEO practice.
Examples: Brian's Truck Report (Volvo Trucks); CMO.com (Adobe); Top 10 Payment Trends to Watch (Vantiv). The goal should be entertainment and information that masquerades a bit as editorial content. Your brand should be present, but the "sell" must be subtle.
Bottomline: Irrespective of whether you've got the cash, people or time, original content is a must. This is the fundamental base of your content pyramid and should constitute between 50 and 75 percent of your content mix. Start small and targeted and expand as you are able. Overall, original content is the most effective for discovery, engagement and bottom-line-moving conversions.
2) Licensed Content--There are a lot of content creators out there looking for someone to license what they do. In decades past this would have been cost prohibitive to do at scale for most companies, but now a proliferation of marketplaces are bringing all manner of licensed content to businesses large and small.
Pros: Licensing excellent content from third-parties can help your content plan get to scale quickly. Using sites like Newscred, you're able to source and find on-brand photos, videos and other type of content to fill your editorial wheel. Aligning with credible publishers can also add to your brand credibility and increase your overall engagement/awareness.
Cons: As with most content this can get expensive. At the same time, you'll be having an "approximate" rather than "exact" conversation as compared with original content. This may sometimes mean fitting round content pegs into square audience holes that simply don't align. And if your goal is lead generation/conversion with timely RoI, licensed content may not live up to expectation.
1) Syndication: Licensing content can get time-consuming if you're having to source and curate through hundreds of publishers. Syndication is the term of art I'll employ here for instances where a brand might approach an editorial publisher and purchase rights to all or part of their content. Similar to where Friends was produced by Bright/Kauffman/Crane productions, but syndicated by NBC. If you find a publisher with content that would be consistently interesting to your audience, this might be the way to go.
One small quirk to throw in here is entering into a content arrangement with an expert, influencer or celebrity to give your syndication a bit more heft, and developing a more unified face/brand voice. It's expensive, but they're already bringing an audience with them that can help lower acquisition cost. A similar tactic can also be employed for original content.
2) Curation: This is licensing without paying for it, which may seem a contradiction in terms. The upside, of course, is that aggregating a variety of links, embeddable videos and small attributed excerpts on your site can build massive spokes of SEO-friendly content with you at the hub (e.g. Upworthy). The downside is that this can get legally dicey if done incorrectly (you really don't want a copyright lawsuit), and even when done correctly, you're encouraging people to click off your site. But if your goal is simply to be seen as a one-stop-shop resource or newsfeed for the best and brightest of your industry's trends and chatter this can prove effective.
Examples: Pulse Microsite (Pepsi); The Customer Edge (SAP); Content Loop (CapGemini). When done right, licensed content should still tell your brand story and blend seamlessly into the overarch of your look and feel. Microsites are a great way to ensure that there's a proper wall up between the informative bones of your primary site and your content marketing.
Bottomline: Licensed content is a bit more of a mixed bag. It can be excellent for driving traffic, social engagement and awareness, but has somewhat limited upside for opt-in lead generation and conversion. However, it is an effective way to supplement your original content creation and should be up to 25% of your content mix.
3) User-Generated Content: Also known as UGC, this is an excellent and effective type of content if you can get it. Here your audience will be creating the content on your behalf, typically at no cost to you. But in many instances, it's a bit of an El Dorado--worth pursuing, but ultimately elusive.
Pros: It's usually free or little cost. What more do you need to know? It also helps provide a degree of social proof to your company, which any Marketing 101 class will tell you has the biggest influence on purchasing decisions.
Cons: It takes time and money to build up a large enough audience to even consider a proper UGC marketing deployment (i.e. you'll need hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of audience members that you can easily reach as a starting point. And remember you should expect 1% conversion to your UGC request or less). Once you've built up this newsletter, blog or social database you need to present them with a meaningful enticement or strong enough sense of attachment to your brand to want to create content for you. Beyond this, you've lost a bit of control with what the content will be and if it will walk lock-step with your brand voice and goals. And generally, UGC can only be done in short-bursts around a specific campaign. Making it repeatable and sustained is extremely difficult.
1) Media: Marketers and c-suite executives often forget that the media is part of their audience. This can be the largest and most cost effective echo chamber you've got for telling your brand's story. As "users" they should be creating content for you, but that means you need to engage them and give them reportable moments. So throw an event, a conference, make an announcement and hire a PR firm to bring it all together.
2) Employees: As opposed to the royal "we" brand voice that will likely create your company's original material, employee-generated content should also be part of the mix. If you've done your job, they have a good sense of your brand and tone and can replicate this through their own social channels and audiences. Again, you run the risk of controlling the message or creating an employee monster that develops a personal brand too large to contain. But, getting your SVP of Marketing to write articles on the company blog or your CEO to pen a piece for Forbes can be an effective way to generate original content that's not done by committee.
Examples: Aside from YouTube, several companies have run effective UGC campaigns: Ice Bucket Challenge (ALS Association); Show Us What You've Got (GoPro); White Cup Art Contest (Starbucks). UGC has one of the best chances of going viral. And keep in mind, it doesn't need to be straightforward. Also, assume people are lazy and a bit self-interested. They're unlikely to write an essay or produce a mini-doc on your brand. But with the proper enticements (i.e. rewards), contests, art/photo competitions, experiential videos, testimonials and related lower-hanging-fruit content can be easy to come by.
Bottomline: If you can get this, great. It takes a lot of effort and a galvanized and engaged audience to pull off with efficacy. When available, this can help round out any gaps in your content mix, but should be thought of as a short-term, campaign-based scalpel, rather than a long-term, continuous broadsword.
Before we part, I wanted to offer one final thought on a special type of content variation: micro-content. These are your 140 character tweets, Instagram photos and 6-second Vine videos. Micro-content almost solely lives on social media and crosses the boundaries of all the content types described above. Typically, whatever content you produce will also live in some reduced or modified form as micro-content. And you may also create, license or request from users micro-content that stands alone.
As with any type of content, make sure you have a strategic execution plan, optimization outline and goals in mind before getting too deep into micro-content. It can be great for engagement and awareness, but I remain dubious of its value to the bottom-line as noted before: "How Social Media is Choking Your Business to Death."
Whichever content mix and strategy you choose, I wish you luck, and congratulate you on your boldness and foresight as you tread the heady plain of content marketing.
Neil St. Clair is a respected social entrepreneur, journalist, and philanthropist. He is currently CEO & Founder of social change consultancy, NES Impact as well as fear-focused venture studio, Notimor. An advocate for children and gender equity, he founded and chairs The NextMen Foundation.
Follow him on IG @neilstclair