Author Archives: Ken Dowell

The Future of Sponsored Content: 3 Scenarios for Success

According to this study, audiences are as likely to read sponsored content as they are to read editorial content.

According to this study, audiences are as likely to read sponsored content as they are to read editorial content.

Sponsored content appears to be undergoing a renaissance. Called native advertising, brand journalism, or whatever, it is back in the conversation for marketers and PR professionals.

Sponsored content is decades old, it’s just the tactics that are changing. lil tweet In the past, sponsored content may have taken the form of advertising sections in newspapers, infomercials on TV or custom publishing.  But with new names, new advocates and new tactics, we are going to see and hear a lot more about sponsored content in the near future. Will it stick? Will it become an increasingly important part of marketing? Or will it go the way of banner ads, a bandwagon everyone jumped on then decided it didn’t work?

At the heart of the issue is how marketing and advertising transitions from traditional outlets to digital outlets. While that migration, from print and broadcast to the Web happened, it didn’t happen at the revenue level the media wanted and it didn’t produce the response the advertiser wanted. Though one may question whether the widespread perception that the value of traditional forms of marketing and advertising has declined is a really a function of better measurement tools. Has the value declined or has it been meager all along and we just needed better visibility to realize it?

Native advertising is the latest handshake agreement between publishers, who need money, and content providers, who need visibility. The publisher offers access to its audience, the content provider pays for it and they both agree that the stuff won’t look too bad, won’t be blatantly commercial and will somehow fit with the other content. The party that is not privy to this handshake, though, is the reader and it is the audience that eventually will decide whether the sponsored content is welcome, whether they want to see it, or whether it is too blatantly commercial.

Publishers pursuing this path tend to be a little queasy about it. So you see pronouncements about how vigilant they are going to be in labeling sponsored content as just that. But in fact there is a prevailing air of deception about many forms of sponsored content. Ask for a definition of native advertising and you’ll usually hear something about how it is commercial content that looks like the “native” content of the outlet where it is published. What really matters though is not the look but whether the sponsored content is of the same level of interest to the outlet’s reader as its own originated content.

What sponsored content and display have in common is that they are both dependent on what I referred to in a previous blog post as “diverted eyeballs.” The reader isn’t looking for your content, he or she is looking for something else and by placing your content (or display ad) next to that something else, you are hoping that the readers’ eyeball get diverted to your content. I think this is an approach which is on the decline as most media properties are seeing their traffic coming more from search or social referrals rather than visitors browsing their site as a destination.

So who will be successful with the new wave of sponsored content and how do you put yourself among the winners? The simple answer, oft repeated as it is, is to create great content and put it on great sites. Sounds good but, sorry Google, the Web is full of great content on great sites that nobody ever sees.

Here are the three scenarios which I see as potentially successful for sponsored content.

  1.  As with all communications activity there will be an elite group that produces excellent content and buys space for it on premium properties. They will be the role models that all the advocates for sponsored content will point to. But as role models they will be deceptive because they will most likely represent a brand whose status and visibility is well beyond that of most and they will also likely have made an investment in the production and placement of content that is beyond the means of the average brand. If Apple for example could achieve success by placing content on the Wall Street Journal that’s all well and nice but doesn’t mean a thing for the rest of  us.
  2.  I think there is a real opportunity for sponsored content to be successful on niche media properties that have cultivated a very specialized audience. For example, you are likely to find a much, much larger audience on a consumer travel site than you are on a trade site about utilities. But how many travel sites are there? Tens of thousands? The utility news site might be lightly trafficked but it also might be the go to resource for the very limited audience that is interested. That audience will likely include individuals at utilities who make buying decisions so if you happen to be in that business, that’s your customers. Good content about changing technology in energy generation or the impact of government regulation is going to play really well on the site.
  3. Content providers who are experts at marketing their content, using search, social, distribution and media to drive traffic to the content. These folks may not really need to buy placement to drive an audience to their content but there are some advantages to the third party placement that will supplement the content providers own promotion efforts. For one thing, the media site that the content is placed on may have a better search ranking than the provider’s owned media properties, thus may bring in more search traffic. The domain name of the publication may be an advantage since it is likely to be perceived as a more authoritative source. And the media property may supplement your content marketing with its own efforts to drive traffic to its site. (Related reading:  Driving Content Discovery)

Sponsored content is not going to be the savior of media outlets trying to recover lost revenue. Nor will it to any large extent retire more traditional marketing and advertising activities. But under the right circumstances, it can be a pretty successful tactic.

Follow author Ken Dowell on Twitter at @kdowell.

There’s No Excuse for Bad Content

Image via Velocity Partners. Click to access a great deck about content quality.

Image via Velocity Partners. Click to access a great deck about content quality.

Content marketing is the outgrowth of a number of long-terms trends in the communications business.  The ability of anyone to be a publisher.  The shrinkage of traditional media.  The questionable effectiveness of online advertising.  The changes in search.

But ultimately it is about producing content that is exactly what your audience wants to read.  Exactly what they are looking for.  The answer to their search for information.

Commercially produced content has rarely been any of the above.  Traditionally it has garnered views by trying to be in the right place at the right time so that the viewer/reader sees it in spite of the fact that he or she is really looking for something else.

Sponsored content, advertorial, paid content, pre-roll, whatever you call the output of marketing  and PR it has no doubt been considered B-list, isolated from the somehow purer editorially-produced content or the presumedly more valuable organic search result.

So content marketing is about moving up to the A-list.  Not trying to hitch a ride on the coattails of the seemingly more popular.  It’s about being the destination, not hanging around in the same neighborhood.

Which brings us face-to-face with the issue of content quality.  It is the prerequisite, the precursor, the minimal requirement, the absolute starting point for content marketing.  Because, let’s face it, marketing content traditionally just hasn’t been that good, focusing as it has on tweaking the reader’s wallet rather than his or her interest.

I’ll be the first to admit that I think journalist-produced content written for independent publishers is going to be better and more interesting to me than something that comes out of any organization’s marketing or PR department, but there’s also no reason that has to be the case.  Good writers aren’t that hard to find, and neither the number of opportunities nor the salaries paid by the media are going to make them inaccessible.  Photos, videos, and other types of images are easier to produce than ever.

And when you have good writers, good photographers, good videographers, you have to turn them loose.  Carefully-crafted, on-point, closely controlled organizational messaging isn’t going to work in content marketing, just as it doesn’t work in social media.  Take advantage of the diversity of voices and styles within your organization, don’t squeeze them.

And finally, produce content for your reader, not for your boardroom or your attorneys or for the search robots.  Create stuff you’d want to read, want to see.  Or…go back to buying banner ads.

Author Ken Dowell is PR Newswire’s EVP of social media & audience development.

Got some good content?  We can help you do some interesting things with it.  (And if you don’t have any, we can help you with that, too.)

SEO is Dead! Now Let’s Optimize!

top rank seo cycle

The heydey of SEO is over!

As a discipline it found a prominent place in the psyche of Web publishers because of the critical role the search engines played in driving traffic to Web sites, which in turn played a critical role in monetizing those sites.

But SEO was a victim of its own success.  That success led to excess and with that excess came a threat to the efficacy of the very search engines it was intended to attract.  Perhaps more importantly it caused publishers, marketers and various other content producers to lose the plot.  They stopped writing for their audience and focused instead on producing stuff that only resonated with algorithms, not with people.

Let’s take keyword search as an example, because that is SEO at its most basic level.  It was a pretty rational idea to try to identify what keywords were most commonly being searched for and then include those keywords in your story.  And add them to the headline.  And then add more and more of them.

Then the spammers joined the SEO party and put those keywords into content that had absolutely nothing to do with what the unsuspecting Web user was actually searching for.  In fact whole businesses grew up based on generating traffic by matching keyword queries and directing traffic to shallow, low-cost, low-value content.

So, 200 or so algorithm tweaks later, Google shuts this down.  The use of links is following a similar escalation to oblivion pattern.

The goal of Google and every other search engine is to have quality rise to the top (unless of course you’re willing to pay to be on top).  So naturally their advice to Web authors is “write great content.”

But the search engines can’t really identify quality.  What they do instead is first of all associate the quality of the content with the place it appears (e.g. you’re more likely to come up with quality on the New York Times than on eHow,) and secondly, try to predict quality based upon robotically identifiable characteristics of the content.  For example, it may be true that 400-word stories are more likely to be of higher quality that 200 word items.  But they can’t deal with the fact that you could say something brilliant in one graph.

Post-SEO Optimization

If you’re a marketer or a PR professional, if you’re the digital guru of your organization or one of the new breed of content marketers, you can’t afford to just write something good and say “Here you go, Google.”  What you need to do is to optimize in a post-SEO world and here’s some advice on how to do that.

  1. First of all your content needs a good home.  Just putting it on your Web site isn’t enough, you should have an online newsroom as part of your site.  That becomes the landing page where you drive traffic to your content and the place were you use some best practice SEO for Web sites in order to capture searchers.  Make it interesting.  One of the biggest challenges with search engine traffic is getting them to click on more than one document.  Use photos, use video and if you don’t produce enough content yourself bring some in.  Add a Twitter feed, YouTube videos or Flikr photos.
  2. You should also have a blog, whether as an individual or as an organization.  A blog is one way to personalize your content.  Take advantage of the unique writing styles and perspectives of individuals within your organization.  De-institutionalize your content and provide another path to your online newsroom.
  3. You are not going to maximize your audience with search alone.  Use social networks.  Every new piece of content should give rise to several tweets with interesting excerpts from the document and links back to your online newsroom.  One tactic that can be effective in building an audience is to not only use an organization account but also have individual accounts of thought leaders in your organization.   This personalizes the messaging and makes it more social.  (If you haven’t built a strong following on Twitter you can use PR Newswire’s Social Post to reach followers on our curated vertical Twitter accounts.)   For B-to-B companies in particular, LinkedIn is becoming an increasingly important place to share information.
  4. It’s important to hit every social network you can think of that’s relevant to your business or your brand.  However, quality beats quantity – it’s better to focus on a couple where you can really concentrate on building a following.  By learning what types of messaging draw the most likes, or follows, or shares, you can refine how you use each network.
  5. Placement is another way to get lots of readers.  I’m not thinking about the classic and expensive ad network type of placement.  There are many innovative alternatives in the market today including recommendation engines, keyword buy options and sponsored and preferred placement on mobile and social networks. A cost effective approach for placement is to use a commercial newswire service like PR Newswire that has a robust syndication network.  This can enable you to reach many targeted sites that may have a very selective audience specifically interested in your content.

So optimization is as important as ever, but not for the practice of SEO that’s all about keywords and links and gaming the search engines.  Optimization has a broader meaning that starts with good content and good places to put it and then drives readers to that content through search, social and syndication.

Author Ken Dowell is PR Newswire’s executive vice president of audience development & social media.

Image courtesy of Flickr user  TopRankOnlineMarketing.

3 Ways to Capture (& Keep) Audience Attention

Emerging naked from a roaring fire with a baby dragon on your shoulder is one way to get people’s attention. (Thankfully, there are some easier ways to capture your audience’s attention, which we discuss here today.)

Yesterday we published part one of this two-part post on capturing audience attention.  Today, author Ken Dowell offers thoughts on approaches that rely on utility and relevance, rather than diversion, to garner the attention of your organization’s constituents.

Creating great content that will capture attention and truly engage audiences is a new imperative for communicators.   But how exactly do you do that? One approach is to be so brilliant that you can produce staff that is so good an audience will congregate around it.  Since that option isn’t open to most of us we need to think of quality in terms of who it is we want to reach.  You can, for example, be writing on behalf of a accounting standards organization and you know you’re stuff isn’t exactly going to go viral.  But quality in this example means producing content that will be informative to the professional accountant audience who you’re trying to reach.

If you don’t have something that’s of interest, it isn’t going to much matter how you distribute it.  But the definition of what’s of interest is in the hands of the audience and your job in distributing information is in finding the appropriate audience, positioning your content to be discovered by the very people who would find it valuable.

The 3 S’s of content strategy

To do that you need to take into consideration the three S’s of modern content distribution:  search, social and syndication.

Search is still probably the ultimate consumer tool to filter out the noise and go directly to what you want.  In fact a whole industry has been built up around SEO.  And SEO practice became so prevalent that the search engines, led by Google, tweak their algorithms almost weekly to neutralize the practice of manipulating headlines and keywords and links, etc.  What would Google advise?  Create good content and post it on good sites.  Not a bad option.

Social replaces the diverted eyeball approach with the implied endorsement of being recommended by friends, followers or connections.  It’s a kind of discover mechanism that does for content what talking to your friends and acquaintances does for say restaurant recommendations.  My advice here is similar to what it is for search.  Worrying about “optimizing” through use of hashtags or optimum time of day or repetitions is not going to be nearly as important as producing content that your audience is going to want to share.

Syndication is perhaps less commonly thought of, but it’s a powerful content discovery tool that needs to be considered in determining how you are going to distribute your content.  Specific interest is trumping general interest for information consumers and syndicators that address that need are going to get you where you want to go.  (For example the PR Newswire widget that is deployed on hundreds of Web sites and blogs worldwide delivers to each site only the content that meets their description of what their readers want to see.)

New media, new devices, new tools have opened up new opportunities in marketing and public relations to be publishers and talk with audiences instead of at them   But there’s a crowd of others doing the talking and the listener is more and more fine tuning the message stream.   Only good content available in the right places will get through.

Author Ken Dowell is PR Newswire’s EVP of social media & audience development.

Image via

The Diverted Eyeball Strategy: Why It’s Not Working

Professional communicators have traditionally based a lot of their activity on capturing what I would call diverted eyeballs, putting content under the noses of an audience that only sees it because they were really looking for something else.

Most advertising works like this.  You’re reading a story in a magazine and when you have to turn the page you get, not the continuation of your story, but a glossy full color photo of a bottle of rum.  Or you may be watching October baseball and in trying to focus on whether that long fly ball clears the wall, you may or may not notice the name of the beer brand painted on the wall.

PR placement is a little more subtle but nonetheless based upon the reader sort of accidently falling upon the mention.  Maybe that involves an inch or two of commentary embedded in a larger news story or a couple of sentences rewritten from a news release that fills a hole in a newspaper page.

The diverted eyeball strategy was justified by some audacious claims as to audience reach.  That one graph short on an interior page of the local newspaper raised claims of an audience equivalent to the circulation of the newspaper.  Score a TV placement?  That means millions right? Because however many viewers Nielsen projects to have watched that station during that time period potentially saw the snippet of video or comment that you snuck in front of them.

Still working?  Not so much.  While the theory of diverted eyeball distribution made the migration from traditional media forms to online, it’s not quite the same.  Because the claims of audience reach are based upon a concept of a passive news consumer casually taking in whatever is hoisted at him (or her).  It’s about starting the day by paging through the newspaper at the breakfast table and ending it sitting down with the family to watch the evening news.

That’s not what today’s news consumer looks like.  Paging through the morning paper now might be scrolling through headlines from 10 news sources on Twitter.  Casually perusing what’s on the next page is less likely than searching directly for the information you want.  So with more paths to get information and more devices to access it, the role of editor or gatekeeper has in many ways passed directly to the information consumer.

What that means for the communicator?  You’re not going to be successful riding the coattails of someone else’s quality.  It’s up to you to produce the content that captures an audience.

Author Ken Dowell is PR Newswire’s executive vice president of audience development & social media.

Image via

What is Quality Content?

Content-is-King-1-300x169Virtually every discussion of modern public relations and marketing practice will at some point refer to the importance of quality content.  It is the absolute baseline for brand publishing, content marketing, social media messaging and just about any other way that an organization communicates.

The need for quality applies across the board whether the content you are producing is called a press release or a white paper, sponsored content or a blog post.

Quality transcends category.

But what exactly is quality content?  Often that question is answered by what it is not:

  • It’s not spam.
  • It’s not jargon.
  • It’s not solicitous.
  • It’s not laced with tricks to attract search engine algorithms.

The don’ts are easier to point out than the do’s.

If we’re going to define what constitutes quality, let’s start at the simplest level.  Quality content is well written.  That means it’s concise, clear and grammatically correct.  I can’t recall reading anything that was so brilliant I could overlook the typos, mismatched tense and run-on sentences.

Secondly, quality content is honest.  It is honest about what it is and who is writing it.  If it is sponsored content, that is made clear, as is the author or authoring organization.  If someone else’s ideas or someone else’s research is referenced, that too is appropriately attributed.

Beyond that it gets a lot more subjective.

The Google Webmaster Blog talks about “unique, valuable, engaging.”  Other attributes that are cited by various Web authors include useful, relevant, well-researched, credible, and easy to read.

I suggest that good quality content has to be either interesting or informative.  Entertain or educate.  Great quality content does both.

There are many ways to be interesting.  For example, your content can be funny.  Photos and videos can be interesting in ways that are hard to replicate solely with blocks of text.  Great writing, especially if it is in a style and tone that is unique to the author, can in itself be interesting.

Content can be informative to a very broad audience, such as when NASA discusses some new information about the nature of neighboring planets, or to a very small audience, such as information about an innovation in industrial design.   Quality content doesn’t have to be brilliantly original, never-before-heard wisdom.  It can add context or insight to information that is otherwise widely known.  But it has to add to the conversation.

How good is your content?  Try asking yourself whether it is the kind of stuff that you would be interested in reading and why.  If your answer is affirmative, you’re on the right track.

Author Ken Dowell is PR Newswire’s executive vice president of social media & audience development.

Does your content need some fine-tuning?  We have some resources that can help:

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Can Google Slay the Dragon It Spawned?

Google is believed to make something like 500 changes to their search algorithms a year.  In August and September there were 65 updates.  The widely discussed Panda update has been supplemented another 21 times and the more recent Penguin update has already had two follow-ups.

(Related: Algo Hunters)

All this is to improve the user experience.  To deliver to the user through Google search the best quality, most authoritative and most extensively researched answer to their query.

If you think all the way back to Web 1.0, that’s pretty much what we went for.  We went to sites that we trusted, that were widely known and popular.  We used our computers quite literally as if they were electronic libraries or newsstands, choosing the publication and then looking for what we wanted.

It is really the search engines that changed all this by offering a path directly to the information we sought, an answer to the question we asked.   Leave the browsing to Google!

But some funny things happened along the way.

Our query about a medical condition was not always answered by a doctor or a reputable medical organization, but rather might have prompted a couple shallow graphs from a freelance writer who got paid a few bucks by one of the so called content farms.

Our keyword query might in fact yield some document that was full of instances of that keyword but had no real information about the subject being asked.

We might get an answer that is written by a journalist who works for a reputable news organization but maybe we only see a couple graphs of that story that were extracted and “curated” onto a different organization’s site.

All of these are symptoms of SEO (search engine optimization), which might also be called GG (Gaming Google).  It is the promise of SEO and its widespread adaptation that in fact screwed up the viability of the search engines and produced the need for Google’s 500+ tweaks a year.

Because while Google was offering the user a shortcut to the information it was indirectly offering the diverse world of content providers shortcuts as well.

It certainly seemed a lot easier to game your way to the top of search engine results than it did to build a reputation as an authoritative source.  And some code to capture trending keywords and tag content with them seemed a quicker solution than finding great writers and giving them the resources to do extensive research.

So Google is now all about fixing the mess it was at least partly responsible for making.  The search giant is now talking about good content, good sites, good sources.

I hope they’re successful.

Need some ideas on how to make the content you publish really work for your organization – across traditional media, social networks and search engines?  We’ve collected a raft of posts focusing on content optimization and strategy.  Here you go:

Author Ken Dowell is an executive vice president with PR Newswire, and oversees audience development and multimedia services.

Image courtesy of Flickr user  Go Local Search.