You’ve identified a problem, need or opportunity and you’ve developed your solution to it as an entrepreneurial venture. You now have a minimally viable product or service. This chapter will talk about how to market that product or service to your target audience in order to find users and customers.
Your Audience: Users vs. Customers
The first thing to keep in mind is that media entrepreneurship is different from traditional entrepreneurship. You may be marketing to two distinct groups–users and customers–and you may want them to take different actions.
Think of a restaurant you frequent. The people who go in to eat are the end users of the product and also the people who pay for that product. The restaurant’s users are also its customers, so it only needs to market to one audience.
Now think about a technology venture like Facebook. Facebook makes its platform free to its users but charges advertisers to market to those users. This is much more similar to the traditional model for content and media businesses in which the core product (news) is given away free to an audience whose attention is then sold to the advertisers.
That’s not to say that as a media startup you can’t charge your users–you might have premium news or subscriptions, branded tchotchkes, events they can attend and hopefully countless other streams of revenue.
Your users may be just users of the product, or they may also be both users and customers to you.
The point is, if your customers and your users are different, you may need to reach them with different approaches and messaging.
For the purposes of this chapter, though, we’re going to focus on marketing your business in a way that attracts and engages an audience that uses your product, because whether that audience is paying you or inspiring others to pay you, without an audience, you can’t monetize.
You might ask, why do you need an audience if they are not paying you directly, or not paying you yet? Traditionally, in media, the size of an outlet’s audience is important because it determines how much it can charge for advertising. Nowadays as a media startup, you probably want to also charge the audience for something–whether that’s a membership, events, a subscription to premium content, or something else. Either way, the larger your audience, the more revenue potential. Even if you’re grant-funded, you’ll want to prove to funders that your work matters and is worthy of more funding. The size of the audience that sees your work is one measure you can use to demonstrate impact.
Quantifying your audience is a measure of reach. The depth of their interest in you (which may be measured in terms of the length of time they spent with your content, whether they shared it, and other metrics) is known as engagement.
When you’re marketing your venture, it’s important to know whether it is more useful to your business goals to get a large quantity of audience members, or audience members who are passionate about your business and engage deeply.
In either case, it’s important to find an audience that is a match for your brand. This is called your target audience. The Customer Discovery for Content and Tech Startups chapter discusses how to identify and target your intended “market segment,” whether that is demographic, psychographic, behavioral, or geographic. It also discusses how to perform market research and develop user personas, or buyer personas.
AIDA Models and Conversion
Ever heard of an AIDA model? The initials stand for attention, interest, desire, and action. The terms were originally used to describe how advertisers moved prospects or consumers down a pipeline or sales funnel from hearing about your product to being interested in knowing more about it, to wanting to get it, to actually buying it. For many businesses nowadays, including content businesses, this journey happens online. It’s called a “conversion funnel” in the e-commerce context.
Even as a journalist, your media outlet has an AIDA funnel that should matter to you. Ideally you probably want readers and visitors to subscribe to the media outlet as their conversion. But even if a user or audience member is not making an actual purchase or if your story doesn’t advance that end goal, chances are there is an action you want them to take (sign up to receive your column in their inbox each week, for instance). That action is still called a conversion even when it doesn’t involve a purchase.
Conversion, whatever form it takes, is a “bottom of the funnel” activity. A user is unlikely to do a bottom of the funnel activity without being aware of your company and becoming increasingly interested first. Sometimes, this does all happen in the span of a moment, in which someone comes to your landing page and converts by signing up to your email list. More often, movement through the funnel happens through multiple contacts with your company over time. For example, someone might see a boosted post from you on Facebook, but not take the action to go to your website. Another day, they might see another post and this time click through to go to your site, an investigative reporting site. There, they fill out the opt-in form to join your email list. They forget all about you for awhile, but now they get your biweekly emails. A few weeks later, they click on a link from one of them to a really good story about something that impacts them directly. In this action, they realize why you are important to them. A few weeks later, they get another email from you with information about a crowdfunding campaign you are running. They click to make a small donation.
Figuring out what conversion means for your organization and how to move audiences through the funnel should be the goal of your marketing.
The great thing about a digital business is that all you need to start off is some talent, a great business idea, some paperwork, a website, a way to transact business, and some content marketing. You don’t have to be rich to start a business nor do you have to spend thousands on advertising to get people into your physical doors. If you sell to people online, you can market to them there too. Content marketing is one of the main ways digital organizations acquire audiences. And content marketing costs only your time if you know how to do it yourself. Content marketing is a common way to avoid needing a million-dollar advertising budget.
Content marketing is the David to advertising’s Goliath. And the Internet is the great equalizer. Today, you as a startup media organization and The New York Times have equal opportunity to acquire an audience because the Internet allows you to reach a niche audience in ways previously not possible.
Content marketing can be even more effective than advertising at growing a digital audience. Think about the advertisements you see–they’re often an unwanted interruption pushing you to want to buy something. Content is different. It pulls you into something you are already interested in, reminds you of your needs and wants, and subtly markets a solution to those needs in an enjoyable, soft-sell package, complete with a call to action.
The type of content you do will be different if you are a news outlet, in which case you will probably rely on amazing news content to market your outlet, than if you are a consultant, in which case you will probably produce content that positions you as an expert in the type of work you do, or if you are marketing a platform, in which scenario you’ll probably do content that helps your target audience solve problems they have that your platform can help them solve.
Marketing Strategy, Competitive Analysis and Content Strategy
Once I’ve said the word content marketing, it’s tempting to take that to mean, “Okay, I just need to create some blog posts.” But that’s going straight to tactics and bypassing strategy, and marketing starts with strategy. You have to first ask and answer the following questions:
- Who are you trying to reach?
- What are their needs and problems?
- What content might you provide that meets those needs?
- Where is your potential audience now?
- How will you distribute it through channels that reach them?
- And how will you measure / know whether your marketing was effective and iterate if not?
NewsCred offers one methodology for content marketing programs. It breaks down content marketing into five steps:
- documenting strategy
- producing and distributing content
- refining based on insights gleaned through producing and distributing content
- converting visitors to leads and customers
- and connecting metrics to business outcomes
Even though some people find creating content fun, that’s not why you’re doing it. You should be doing it to meet the business objectives. Content as marketing inevitably involves research and data to help you with decision making.
How do you decide what type of content to do? After all, if you’re launching your own startup, chances are you have lots of other core things you need to be doing (building the product, building a revenue model around it, etc.) in addition to marketing it. So you’ve got to decide where to put your resources.
Here’s a process that will help you decide where to put your efforts.
- First, develop an overall marketing strategy that takes into account your Goals, Strategies, Measurable Objectives and Tactics, as well as KPIs (key performance indicators by which you will measure success).
- Conduct a SWOT analysis to help you understand your brand’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats in the marketplace.
- Then, conduct a Competitive Analysis of your competitors’ content to see what your closest competitors are doing.
- Finally develop a Content Strategy that shows where you might compete.
Let’s say you are creating a brand-new political news outlet targeted to progressive millennials.
- Your goal might be to become the go-to political news source brand with this audience.
- Your measurable objective might be to get X # of subscribers to your outlet’s daily newsletter.
- Your strategy to do that might be to do things that make your brand prominent on college campuses.
- One tactic might be to do paid social that markets your newsletter signup to a targeted audience on an appropriate social network. Another tactic might be to sponsor relevant events on college campuses and give away cool swag with your brand on it in exchange for on-site email signups.
- Your key performance indicators (or KPIs) in this example would be the number of signups to your newsletter.
Put together a one-page marketing plan for your venture. Include high-level goals for the marketing you do, strategies, measurable objectives (X number of new users, X percent growth each week, X new followers on Twitter, etc.), and the tactics you will pursue to achieve these goals.
Now that you know what you’re focusing on and why, check out what the competition is doing and conduct a competitive analysis. There are two levels of competition here: the peer competitors you know about who do something very similar to what you do (other professional political news outlets in the example above), and the competitors you might not have thought of as competitors, but who are competing for your audience’s attention in search results on the Internet (for instance, a random but hugely popular blogger you may never have heard of).
You can use a program such as SEMRush or SpyFu to compare yourself to the competitors you know about and discover the competitors you weren’t aware of.
Use such programs to:
- Discover which topics in your expertise are popular and what topical niches are not being filled by your competitors.
- Unearth the search terms that commonly land people on your website or blog and your competitor’s.
- Surface other websites that also compete for those same search terms.
- See which variations of relevant search terms draw the highest number of searches.
- See what Google adwords terms your competitors have paid for and presumably find valuable from in attracting an audience.
Knowing the terms that are relevant to your enterprise that a good swath of people are searching for will give you the insights you need to develop a content strategy–i.e., what niche are you going to write about, that people are interested in but that is not already well-served by a similar competing company.
Here are some questions to ask as you approach this:
- What relevant search terms are your competitors ranking for?
- What does that information lead you to believe about what their audience is interested in and the demographic characteristics and interests of that audience?
- How does that match or diverge from the audience you want to reach?
- Which of your competitors’ words do you also want to rank for?
- Which of those are most difficult to compete for? Are they worth it given your budget and goals?
- What other words get traffic and provide an opportunity they haven’t considered or capitalized on?
These and similar lines of inquiry should lead you to some preliminary conclusions about the content that might engage your target audience–what topics do they care about and seek out, what information do they need, and most importantly, which of those are not covered ad nauseum elsewhere. Where can you provide a fresh and needed perspective?
If your venture is a content business, these questions would be used to hone the direction of the content that is your product, and marketing that product would become more of a question of how to distribute that content you’re doing as a product into the right channels to reach people who might be interested in it.
If your venture is a technology startup, this process would help you learn about the needs of the marketplace and where your competitor’s blog is providing value and where there might be a new niche opportunity to compete.
If you’re a freelance consultant providing a service to a certain type of business, this process will help you shape content your target clients might need and want that differentiates your brand and keeps it top of mind.
SEO is the topic of countless blog posts, by countless so-called gurus. What follows is an attempt to give an overview of generally agreed-upon principles that content producers should be aware of, not a comprehensive deep dive into the controversial nuances.
Here are the basics of what you need to know.
There are two facets to getting an audience for your (presumably great) content: distributing it into channels where your audience already is; and ensuring its discoverability in the places where audiences might be searching for it: in this case, search engines.
The first thing to understand is that search engines want to show people the most relevant results for whatever they’re searching for. By doing this, they gain eyeballs and become the most trusted authority, and can leverage that status to monetize their engines through advertising and other methods. So they’ve built a variety of complicated proprietary algorithms to ensure they only show the content they think people will find most relevant. This calculation includes the behaviors other people have had on the content–did they linger or did they bounce; did they share it; did reputable experts in the same topical space link to it?
This means that the best way you can optimize your content to be found is by doing amazing content on a top that people are searching for because they want to know. Ideally your posts will also be so good that influencers–leaders in their/your field with large audiences–will link to them. This is the ultimate compliment as they are endorsing you to their audience, and in a way, sending a quality signal to the search engines.
There are lots of search engine marketers who use “black hat” tactics to fool the algorithms into thinking your content is relevant, but using these is dangerous and can get you demoted in rankings. Two examples of black hat techniques are keyword stuffing, packing content full of irrelevant but high-traffic keywords; or cloaking, hiding such keywords in a way where search engines see them but humans don’t.
Again, the best thing you can do to show up in the search results to the right audience, is to create amazing content that is needed or wanted by that audience. What is amazing content? To start with, that means content that solves a problem or serves a need for its audience, content that’s more than just what you had for dinner, content that’s long enough to be worthwhile, and content that delivers on its promises.
The other thing you can do that is within your control is to optimize that content in several ways.
The first is in your meta description. This shows up in search results and when you post on social, and it may encourage or discourage someone from clicking on your post, so it’s an important component of acquiring audience in the first place. When people engage with your content by clicking or lingering on it, that sends a signal that your content is authoritative.
If you use WordPress, you’ll need a plugin like Yoast or similar to edit this area of your post to be tantalizing.
The next is by making sure you use the terms (aka keywords) your audience is searching for (in a natural and relevant way) when you’re writing.
Remember that competitive analysis you conducted? In it, you found out what people were searching for on sites similar to yours and how many people were searching for various relevant topics? You also found out the many variations of relevant terms, and which were most commonly used. Note that similar phrases might have vastly different search volume–“hiking in Phoenix” might get 10,000 searches a month whereas the variation “Phoenix hiking” might only get 500. Even if something gets a million hits a month though, that doesn’t mean it’s a great thing to build your content strategy around. It may have too much competition.
Hopefully you’ve found some words that have a decent audience, but that your competitors aren’t yet leveraging well, that you can use to optimize your strategy. (These should also help you find your outlet’s niche subject matter.)
Here are some of the places you may want to include the keywords you’ve decided to target:
- in your post URL
- in page titles
- in subheads
- near the top of the post
- in image alt tags, image title tags
- in the metadescription
Of course, you never want to overuse or “stuff” keywords into your content, and you certainly shouldn’t hide them (known as “cloaking”). These are black-hat tactics that will get you penalized by search engines.
But if your post is about a certain niche topic or specific person, it should say so, prominently. Save cutesy or abstract headlines or ledes for print. You should also research which variations of terms people are searching for around the topic and be strategic about which ones you use.
The above description focuses on “text” types of content. Of course, there are numerous types of content, such as video and multimedia, and there are different ways to leverage these for SEO. If you’re doing video or audio, optimize the title and description, and consider including a transcript. Also, realize that video and multimedia formats are great for getting other reputable sites to link to your content. But if you’re hosting the videos on YouTube or similar, you will need to think about how to get people back to your site.
There are also some technical things you can do to your site, especially if you are starting out. These include:
- You may need to install a plugin to help you control page titles and your search and social meta description.
- Avoiding having a bunch of 404 errors on pages that have been deleted. (Redirect any such pages to avoid this. Also redirect pages where you’ve changed the URL.)
- Enable an XML sitemap and submit it to Google Webmaster Tools. This will allow you to see when Google thinks your site is giving people a bad experience.
- Use SSL.
- Have good navigation (breadcrumbs) and URL structure.
You can get far more into the weeds with this (and people do), but following these best practices is a good start.
Types of Content
There are many types of content you can deploy as part of a content marketing strategy. Here are just a few of the types of content that can be used for marketing.
- Blog posts
- Videos, 360 video or virtual reality
- Social posts
- Email messaging
- Events, webinars and conferences
- Ebooks, books
- And more (See Beyond 800 Words: New Digital Story Formats for News for a list.)
Note that content is not always the same as distribution. For instance, you might have a blog post that is designed to be distributed on social, a video designed to be distributed through YouTube, messaging written to be distributed via email, a lecture designed to be delivered at a conference, a podcast for iTunes, an ebook for Amazon, and so forth.
Social media can be a platform on which you create content. But it is also a distribution method for content housed elsewhere.
Each piece of content will be designed to fit the appropriate format for the platform(s) it will be distributed on, leaving lots of room for the same message to be repurposed into different content formats and then distributed into different channels where you can connect with different parts of your audience.
Organic Social Media
The Internet is saturated with blog posts on how to use each social media network to best effect. We will not replicate those here. Instead, we’ll give an overview of how to use social media, generally, in the context of a broader marketing strategy for your venture.
Of course, you can create content that is solely meant to live on a social network. Instagram is a great example of a network that lends itself to this. People post awesome images and links are not clickable by default, which decreases the value of using this network to promote things you’re doing elsewhere.
However, when you’re using someone else’s network to post content, you don’t own your audience.
The social network owns the data about that audience, which decreases the value to you in building an audience on social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter, etc. These are what we call “borrowed channels.”
In addition, these borrowed channels all have different algorithms, some of which are specifically designed to demote content that is too obviously promotional rather than personal.
Furthermore, as a social media manager colleague of mine likes to say, social media is like throwing a pebble in the ocean. The odds of people seeing your efforts here at scale are low (if you don’t have lots of resources to devote to this).
For all of these reasons, in the content marketing context, social media is more often used to:
- Distribute, amplify, and bring attention to content that lives elsewhere on your “owned channels” and encourage people to subscribe to your owned channels.
- Expand the audience you reach on your owned channels by targeting a similar audience that wasn’t connecting with you previously.
- Listen to your audience and find out about their needs so you can serve them better.
- Foster engagement with your audience for your brand.
In my experience, when student teams pitch an entrepreneurial idea, they focus on social media as the main way to market their product. But posting on social media in itself does not comprise a marketing strategy. Social media is but one tactic or tool in a much larger toolbox. And the tools you employ should be tied to your venture’s business goals and marketing strategy, with some eye to the resources you have to deploy.
Paid Social Media
Why pay to reach your audience through social media networks? When you pay, you reduce the chance your efforts will be ineffective. For instance, by paying to advertise on these networks, you can ensure that your content reaches a larger audience, reaches more of the right niche audience or gets the right audience to engage with your content, if that’s your goal. Sometimes, you even get better analytics to track the effectiveness of your efforts.
Social advertising offers important advantages over conventional advertising:
- It lets you target a niche audience. It leverages the social network’s data about its users to show your ad only to the people most likely to care about your product, rather than the most eyeballs.
- It’s usually far less expensive than other types of advertising.
- It often allows you to pay only for the people you reach or engage (depending which you choose to optimize your ad for), so there is less waste.
- It gives you clear data and analytics about how your ad performed and lets you A/B test different variables–paid social will show you everything from the numbers of people who saw it and the actions they took on it to the ad variation they preferred. This allows you to optimize your efforts and minimize your expenses in the future.
Social media outlets typically let you choose which goal to pursue with your advertising, which can include:
- Get people to your website.
- Get people into your physical location.
- Get people to buy something from you.
- Build your email list.
- Get people to subscribe to other content you offer.
- Increase your followers, or followers of a certain demographic.
- Target your competitors’ followers and bring them into your fold.
- Get people to engage with your content.
- Generate leads.
- Target a very specific niche.
- And more.
Across most networks, when placing a social ad, you can choose between goals of reach, engagement or conversion. You will be charged accordingly:
- CPM, the cost per 1,000 views, is a measure of reach. This is great if you care mainly about awareness.
- CPC, the cost per click, is a measure of engagement. This is a better metric if you want people to go to a specific link. However, if your website or landing page–wherever you send people from the ad–isn’t set up well to get people to move down your funnel, this is a waste.
- CPA, the cost for an action that you specify, is a measure of conversion. This could include buying something, downloading an app, signing up, or similar.
When Brands Go Social
Social media has a down side too. Whenever you use it as a brand, you should think, “Who might not appreciate this message I’m going to put out?” And think about how those parties might co-opt your content to put out a counternarrative. You should also ask yourself, “Is there anything remotely potentially offensive in this piece of fun creative content I’m about to do?”
Or Ghost in the Shell’s backfired viral marketing campaign. The movie put out a hashtag and an image generator to encourage fans to make “I am Major” images that identified with the main character. However, people ended up using the hashtag and generator to call attention to what they saw as whitewashing on behalf of the movie, which cast a white woman in an Asian role, and renamed the character.
Testing, Measuring and Iterating
Once you’ve executed your strategy, it’s important to determine whether it was successful, and how it might be adjusted in the future to better meet your goals.
This is where analytics come in to answer questions like which blog post topics or story topics performed better, which brand imagery did people respond best to, and which CTA (call to action) messaging was most effective in getting people to sign up / subscribe / etc.?
Here are just a few things you can and should test on your landing pages, in your marketing emails, on social, and in paid advertising:
- The relative performance of different landing pages
So how do you measure the effectiveness of your content efforts? Read on! The next chapter, Marketing Your Venture: Engagement & Analytics, goes further into depth on how to set goals and objectives, measure success, and decide which analytics make the most sense to track and care about.
- Content Inc.
- Epic Content Marketing
- The Hubspot Marketing Blog
- The Buffer Social Blog
- Yoast SEO Blog
- Growthrocks Growth Hacking Marketing Blog
- How to Use Twitter Ads: The Complete Guide for Business, Hootsuite
- How to Advertise on LinkedIn, LinkedIn
- Snapchat’s Ad Manager: A Beginner’s Guide, AdEspresso by Hootsuite
- Instagram for Business, Facebook Blueprint Course
- Facebook Ads Manager, Facebook Blueprint Course
- Targeting Core Audiences, Facebook Blueprint Course
- Targeting Lookalike Audiences, Facebook Blueprint Course
- Targeting Custom Audiences, Facebook Blueprint Course
Elizabeth Mays is the operations and marketing manager for Canadian nonprofit the Rebus Foundation, which is building a new, collaborative model for open textbook publishing through the Rebus Community. She is also an adjunct professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, teaching its first online course in audience acquisition. Reach her on Twitter at @theeditress.
- Ingrid Sturgis, "Customer Discovery for Content and Tech Startups," Media Innovation & Entrepreneurship, https://press.rebus.community/media-innovation-and-entrepreneurship/chapter/customer-discovery/. ↵
- "Whitepaper: Newscred Methodology: Five Elements of Content Marketing Success," Newscred, https://insights.newscred.com/whitepaper-newscred-methodology-five-elements-of-content-marketing-success/. ↵
- Tristan Ferne, "Beyond 800 Words: New Digital Story Formats for News," BBC News on Medium, https://medium.com/bbc-news-labs/beyond-800-words-new-digital-story-formats-for-news-ab9b2a2d0e0d. ↵
- Anita Balakrishnan, “Dove Apologizes After Social Media Users Skewer Soap Ad as Racist“ Cnbc.com, Oct. 8, 2017, https://www.cnbc.com/2017/10/08/dove-ad-dove-apologizes-after-social-media-calls-ad-racist.html. ↵
- Michelle Jaworski, “‘Ghost in the Shell’ Viral Marketing Campaign Backfires,” The Daily Dot, March 14, 2017, https://www.dailydot.com/parsec/ghost-in-the-shell-viral-marketing-backfire/. ↵
- Jessica Pucci, "Marketing Your Venture, Engagement and Analytics," Media Innovation & Entrepreneurship, https://press.rebus.community/media-innovation-and-entrepreneurship/chapter/marketing-your-venture-engagement-and-analytics/. ↵
- Joe Pulizzi, Content Inc., (New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015) http://contentmarketinginstitute.com/content-inc/. ↵
- Joe Pulizzi, Epic Content Marketing, (New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2013), http://epiccontentmarketing.com/. ↵
- The Hubspot Marketing Blog, http://blog.hubspot.com/marketing. ↵
- The Buffer Social Blog, https://blog.bufferapp.com/. ↵
- Yoast SEO Blog, https://yoast.com/seo-blog/. ↵
- Growthrocks Growth Hacking Marketing Blog, https://growthrocks.com/blog/. ↵
- "How to Use Twitter Ads: The Complete Guide for Business," Hootsuite, https://blog.hootsuite.com/twitter-ads/. ↵
- "How to Advertise on LinkedIn," LinkedIn, https://business.linkedin.com/marketing-solutions/how-to-advertise-on-linkedin. ↵
- Snapchat’s Ad Manager: A Beginner’s Guide, AdEspresso by Hootsuite, https://adespresso.com/academy/blog/snapchat-ad-manager/. ↵
- "Instagram for Business," Facebook Blueprint, https://www.facebookblueprint.com/student/home/show_enrollment/43448847. ↵
- "Facebook Ads Manager," Facebook Blueprint, https://www.facebookblueprint.com/uploads/resource_courses/targets/340588/original/build/index.html. ↵
- "Targeting Core Audiences," Facebook Blueprint, https://www.facebookblueprint.com/uploads/resource_courses/targets/339376/original/build/index.html. ↵
- "Targeting Lookalike Audiences," Facebook Blueprint, https://www.facebookblueprint.com/uploads/resource_courses/targets/340891/original/build/index.html. ↵
- "Targeting Custom Audiences," Facebook Blueprint, https://www.facebookblueprint.com/uploads/resource_courses/targets/341016/original/build/index.html ↵
- Rebus Community, https://about.rebus.community/. ↵
The audience are the people who see your work. The audience is generally larger than your customer base and may include some of your customers.
A company’s overall high-level business goals.
The specific, measurable metrics you will track to know if you have successfully executed your strategy. (You could say, our objective is to attain X percent user growth in a certain time period, for instance.)
The actions a company takes to meet its agreed-upon objectives.
Someone who works independently to provide a service to a client. Typically consultants have control over how, when and where they perform the work. They are not considered employees. They are also subject to additional taxes that an employer normally pays.