‘We’re Really Selling Access to Audience’; Holland Offers ACS Blueprint for Creating a Content Studio

“With our publications, we also have the content expertise. I know authentically what is going to engage our audience, and so being able to sit between knowing content development and being able to distribute it across our platforms and channels—and really knowing a lot about our audience data positions publishers to be best suited to do this, even better than agencies.”

That quote comes from Stephanie Holland (pictured), director, advertising sales & marketing, American Chemical Society, speaking during an AM&P Network webinar titled Creating a Scalable Content Marketing Studio.

In May 2017, ACS’s Chemical & Engineering News Media Group launched C&EN BrandLab. The custom content studio develops sponsored content and brand strategies for advertisers who want to reach chemists in a new way: through compelling, scientifically accurate storytelling.

In the face of the pandemic and the cancellation of so many in-person events—meaning finding new ways to engage your advertisers—having a content studio became a huge positive for ACS. And as Holland describes, it could be replicable for other publishers, no matter what size you are. But like so many other revenue initiatives, it starts with knowing your audience.

“We’re certainly trying to scale and offer audience solutions for our advertisers,” she said. “They have buying power, and so I’d encourage you, if you don’t know a lot about your audience, you want to. Because we’re really selling access to audience, and that really takes all shapes and sizes in terms of the content that we produce.

We certainly believe that we’re platform agnostic in terms of what something has to look like. We do native branded storytelling, interactive quizzes, podcasts; it’s just really talking to clients about who they’re trying to reach and what are the best channels and solutions.”

Here are some suggestions Holland offers for those wanting to start a content studio.

Understand your unique selling proposition. “As publishers, we really sit in the middle,” said Holland. “[While agencies] can do research, create content and branding campaigns and such, when it comes to the distribution, they have to rely on publishers like ourselves and associations. So really that’s where the unique selling proposition for publishers and even more so with associations [comes in], where it’s within our DNA to know a lot about the constituents that we serve and have become trusted authorities. We have that tangible member benefit.”

Find the right business model. This may be determined by your size, Holland said. At the beginning, ACS had to rely on consultants like Mike Winkleman and Krystle Kopacz. Her first hire for BrandLab was an editor because she needed a “journalist or science writer who understood how to speak to this audience.” Then came an account manager and half of a marketing manager. “As we started to scale, we had to refine and prioritize—what are the products that we’re going to sell and we started with packages,” Holland said. “But as we’ve gone on, everything tends to be very, very custom. So [that’s when] we brought in an account manager.” She said while the editor came up with the ideas to land a client, the account manager provided the glue to keep them. “That was something that I didn’t recognize right away, but once I did that certainly helped us with renewal business,” Holland said.

An art director and another editor and a production editor followed, as revenue began to come in. There will be ebbs and flows to the business, however, she warned.

Understand your infrastructure and processes. Know your workflow, Holland advised. It was important for ACS to understand their workflows to make sure that they were being as efficient as possible. Where are the bottlenecks? “In the beginning our editorial was really good,” Holland said. But then she saw that they would need developers and art directors, and a handoff to sales at some point. She said that using your own editorial people might be an option for an organization less church-and-state than they are.

Map to margin.  There’s a worksheet that ACS uses now for every project when they are pricing it, a template that tells them what they’re trying to achieve, the goals and objectives, and who’s the target audience. They try to estimate the number of hours it will take to say, edit a white paper, or if a designer is needed, or if the creative will need to be outsourced. “For new projects we will also do postmortems,” Holland said. “Did it feel like we charged enough for that? That helps us to stay honest in our pricing for products that we’re trying to do at scale.”

Provide packages and custom offerings. Charge. For. Everything. For Holland, it’s a cautionary tale. “In the beginning, we gave a few things away and sometimes you have to do that as you’re ramping up, but now we literally charge for everything. For example, there’s a lot of discovery work that you’re doing when you’re trying to figure out what type of content solutions you want to ultimately create, and so we do content audits. In the beginning, we didn’t charge for that; we just did it for free. But that was lots of time that we weren’t actually even capturing on our margins document and so. Now we charge for a content audit. That’s also been a way to offer that to a client who may be on the fence with us. Yes, I want to do a content program with you, maybe even a very lucrative or expensive content program, and they may be a little bit gun shy about that investment.” Holland can then offer that money back to them if they sign on. She warns that if any multimedia project is involved, price accordingly. Doing videos [or anything] interactive can be very, very expensive to do… Then we tell them that the timeline is going to be about 2-3 months in terms of promotion, so they get an idea of what they get that’s tangible. But as I said, most of this ends up being custom; this is just a framework for them to have something to respond to.

Don’t forget distribution and discoverability. Holland said don’t be afraid to turn down work if it’s not financially viable. She gave an example of Xerox only wanting to spend $10,000 with them. ACS could’ve done something small for them, “but we couldn’t do any distribution, so we turned that business down. At the end of the day, they’re going to be looking for return on investment and so without that distribution built in, you will not be able to prove that.” She added that sometimes, if the content is already there, they can just charge for the distribution.

Demonstrate results. While they do benchmark results—it looks great to show 3,100 page views, for example—what does that mean, asked Holland. “So we benchmark it against the articles that our editors are producing organically as well and show them that. By distributing the content, you’re more likely to have a higher range in terms of what we do organically. We also will show them all the promotional assets. How did people get to the site? What were the top drivers? How do they get shares?

Be true to your readership. ACS was doing a custom content campaign that was very large with an article every other month that they shared and distributed across all their channels, including social. But then the client said, “You need to take the word ‘chemicals’ out because it’s a bad word.” Holland paused and smiled. “Well, not to a chemist. So that was something where we pushed back. That was a very good cautionary tale. For me, I will always be true to our audience. I will always produce content that our audience is going to love because that gets the ROI. You need to put your audience first, understand what their pain points are, what the hot topics are that tend to do the best.”

Two business man office workers people characters shaking hands. Vector flat cartoon graphic design

Selling Ideas Is Different Than Selling Products

Editor’s note: Join GovExec’s Frank Salatto and ACS’ Stephanie Holland for a webcast on Thursday, June 24 at 1pm ET as they share How to Build a Scalable Content Marketing Studio.  Free for AM&P Network members, register here.

“I’m looking for ideas. Every time I call a publisher, I hear about their rate card—that’s not what I want. I will never read your rate card.”

That’s a direct quote from Jason Abbate, VP of Strategic Accounts at B2B agency Stein IAS, at a joint publisher/marketer event hosted by AM&P Network and ANA Business Marketing shortly before the pandemic turned the world upside down.

Abbate summarized both the opportunity and the challenge facing B2B media and association publishers. Marketing services revenue—including content marketing, native advertising, advanced lead gen­—has grown faster than digital display advertising for several years now but jumped to the forefront last year as advertisers shifted budgets away from canceled live events to digital solutions.

Now, as events start to return, publishers need to keep the momentum they’ve developed with digital solutions and solve the biggest challenge with building a robust marketing services and content marketing business—the shift from selling products and placements to selling ideas while creating a model that scales profitably.

Strategy Before Story

American Chemical Society (ACS) created a content marketing lab several years ago, which positioned the association well for the pandemic.

Stephanie Holland

“Because events went away, how do our advertisers get revenue and leads?” said Stephanie Holland, ACS Director of Advertising Sales and Marketing, at the recent Reset, Reinvent, Revenue conference. “A lot of our advertisers became publishers on their own. We had to contend with that. With our publishing studio we could partner with them to recoup some marketing dollars.“

When it comes to selling ideas, not products, Holland and her team prioritize four points in making a pitch:

  • Strategy before story
  • Solution-based selling, not tactics
  • Understanding the advertiser’s goal
  • Know what success means to your client

Because costs can quickly spiral out of control, ACS keeps a close eye on project margins, including the development of pricing tools to determine the level of effort required before a proposal is issued and mapping to that document throughout the project execution.

A successful marketing service business requires publishers to break out of the siloes in which they may normally operate. “The projects transcend groups internally,” says Holland. “Our goal is to ensure the scope is clearly communicated before the project begins.”

Marketing Services Driving Overall Growth

Marketing services has always been tied closely to events for GovExec (which recently rebranded from Government Executive Media) but in 2020 came to the forefront by helping customers meet their event objectives when live events came to a standstill (and finished the year with revenue up 43 percent as a group while helping to drive 20 percent topline growth for the overall company).

Frank Salatto

“It wasn’t just about helping customers achieve their event objectives with us but their event objectives writ large,” says Frank Salatto, Vice President and General Manager of Marketing and Communications at GovExec. “Honestly, we were part of the conversation with clients like never before in how to rebuild their event programs.”

GovExec transitioned quickly to an all-digital environment by turning large live events into multi-part integrated digital programs and using content as the connector to drive audience from one touchpoint to another.

“Digital events were part of that but it’s a series of digital events that would allow you to recreate what you would get with a live event but in between those you need additive content that keeps the conversation going,” says Salatto.

Data collection and diverse capabilities helped GovExec keep revenue whole for all but one live event booked prior to the pandemic.

“There is opportunity in the data that you can collect,” says Salatto. “That’s always been a pain point for live events. But in digital we know what customers are interacting with across a much longer time-period and we know more about them including how interested they are and how ready they are to buy.”

Branded websites proved to be a winner for GovExec last year and continue to be a key product in 2021. “That turned out to be a great vehicle for brands to tell their story and drive sustained engagement over time but also a way for us to have a center piece for really large, long term programs and have tack-on revenue beyond the initial build,” says Salatto.

GovExec is looking to capitalize on its stable which includes branded microsites, immersive articles, video and audio, digital event integration and data visualization.

“We believe this is sustainable and there’s room to grow,” says Salatto. “The net of this is that 14 out of our 15 top clients have marketing services central to the program they bought with us. We are not a huge piece of the revenue pie as an individual unit but we are a driver of topline revenue and a significant part of the pathway to bigger revenue programs.”


Neal Award Finalists Offer Replicable and Powerful Examples for Other Publishers

With the Neal Awards celebration set for noon, Wednesday, June 9, I looked through the finalists to see what interesting ideas—it is Ideas Wednesday here—I could find. Well, this might just have to become a series with all of the innovative and exciting work that we’re honoring. It will definitely be worth your valuable while to attend the presentation.

Besides seeing the incredible work that your fellow AM&P Network members are doing, there will be myriad ways to connect at the Neal Awards such as: interactive networking – mini breakouts during intermissions; video booth fun with sponsor Gather Voices – create a video to share your win on social media! #NealAward and @siia; MIRO – contribute to a community-driven art piece by doodling on the #NealAward MIRO board; or just to cheer on your favorite finalists and winners.

Register here. Attendance is free. See all the finalists here. Here are some replicable and effective ideas from a few of the finalists:

Run video interstitials. A finalist for Best Single Article, Teachers Are Getting Schooled on Retirement from Informa’s WealthManagement.com begins with a powerful tale of a Long Island teacher given bad investing advice from a life insurance rep when she was just starting out. “He said he had an easy way for her to save for her retirement beyond her pension.” After the first four graphs, there’s a short video promo for a succession planning discussion they held on May 11 between contributing editor Maureen Wilke and Advisor Group (the sponsor) SVP Todd Fulks. There are ads later in the story, but that short video is a smart way to promote more good content.

Provide tools/content for our audience – part 1. Industry Dive’s Restaurant Dive is a finalist for Best Series for its series of six articles on successive Mondays with the first story titled, Mapping the Rise of Ghost Kitchens. “Dark. Ghost. Host. These are just a few of the names for the budding restaurant segment rising from the economic upheaval of the novel coronavirus pandemic,” it begins. Not only do they go in-depth, but they also created a “ghost kitchen calculator to help operators assess the financial profile and determine profitability of a ghost kitchen before developing their own concept.” We are here to meet audience needs, and this sounds like a big one. Think about what value-add you can give to an article you’re doing.

Provide tools/content for our audience – part 2. For Best Profile, American Chemical Society’s Chemical & Engineering News is a finalist for a wonderful profile titled A Day With Jennifer Doudna: Trying to Keep Up With One of the World’s Most Sought-After Scientists. It chronicles the day she spoke at the University of California, Berkeley campus. “It’s clear that being considered the Beyoncé of science has reshaped Doudna’s life. But has it reshaped how she views herself?” The article leads to a sidebar story titled Jennifer Doudna’s Tips for New Entrepreneurs. “We asked her to share her best advice for budding academic entrepreneurs,” writes Lisa M. Jarvis. One story presents the person, and the second story presents how to help their audience succeed.

Adding diversity – part 1. Haymarket Media’s PRWeek did a great job of enlightenment and outreach during the pandemic with a video series called Lockdown Life—also a Neal finalist for Best Series. You can see from the small photos that accompany each week’s video that there is diversity of all kinds: age, gender, ethnicity, activity—headlines range from TikTok Influencers Overnight? to PR Pros Flocking to Buy Chickens to 3 PR Pros Recall Their Bouts With COVID-19. Showcasing a variety of your members or audience just makes content more interesting. Oh, here’s the best episode: “Your Job Seems Too Boring” – Kids and Partners Observe PR Pros in Quarantine.

Adding diversity – part 2. What an engaging lead paragraph in DTN’s Progressive Farmer from Chris Clayton, ag policy editor, for his Neal-finalist profile titled Grappling With a New Farm – Young, Black, First-Generation American Determined to Succeed as a Farm Owner (pictured above). “Like a lot of children growing up in a small Nebraska town, Zemua Baptista remembers playing with tractors in the living room as a boy—’carpet farming,’ as he describes it.” And later in the story a quote from Baptista: “I still see it when I tell people I’m a farmer and they kind of look at me. For me, to give a face to a minority farmer is a good thing.”

Offer daily engagement. For Best Podcast, Crain Communications is a finalist for its Automotive News Daily Drive. This must be quite an undertaking to produce every day, though topics could be endless. (At least they took Memorial Day off.) They’re rewarded by a strong audience and sponsorships—on the podcast itself (the brief intro of the sponsor sounds warm and welcomed) and with ads on the site. “Daily Drive is our daily podcast series. We speak with industry experts, insiders and Automotive News reporters about events and trends impacting and reshaping the automotive industry.” These are also good avenues to amplify the voices of your editorial team.

Build creativity into virtual events. A finalist for Best New Product is FreightWaves Virtual Events. In a promo video on their site, CEO Craig Fuller says that “the idea of the FreightWaves Live Experience is to bring you into the action, make you a part of the experience—letting you see how technology is going to shape the future of our industry.” They must be successful because virtual events are planned through this year and even into 2022.

Congratulations to all of the Neal Award finalists; it’s well-deserved! Please register and attend the Neals celebration next Wednesday at noon to see the winners and some of the faces behind this amazing work.

Advertising management presentation promotion concept. Vector flat graphic design

‘We Found That This Coverage Was Helping to Convert’; How ACS Uses Metrics to Grow Their Audience

For months, we have heard of excellent COVID coverage from association publishers across the topical spectrum—medical, financial, psychological, etc. But we all knew that at some point, the readership bump that was gained by this coverage would have to be converted into a longer-term commitment.

In a recent webinar hosted by our AM&P Network—titled The New Content Metrics: How Publishers Are Measuring Engagement and Using That to Grow—two editors/digital strategists from the American Chemical Society (ACS) joined two other leading editors from B2B publishers to talk how metrics and engagement are helping retain that bump—and, in general, help grow their organization’s audience.

“When we covered the COVID-19 pandemic, as the science news organization, [we knew] this is part of our mission,” said Sondra Hadden, manager, C&EN (Chemical & Engineering News) audience development, ACS. “We put the articles in front of the paywall so it was free to read. And our site traffic exploded. We had very viral articles routinely, and this helped us.

“Our loyalty report really helped us measure whether people coming from search and social were able to move down this funnel of loyalty, and [we could] convince them to keep reading. We found time and again, month after month, that this was true—that this coverage was helping to convert in that sense. So that was a really good data point to go back to our editorial team and let them know.”

The “loyalty” refers to a loyalty dashboard that they launched early in 2020. This is a completely free resource, Hadden said, from the Center for Cooperative Media. “It’s less about new metrics and absolutely more about categorizing your site user in a different way based off of frequency to the site,” she said.

The different buckets are: casual readers for someone who comes once a month and that’s it; prospective loyalists who make 2-5 visits a month; and brand lovers who visit six times a month. “For us, those are the metrics of the numbers that the report actually came with. It aligns very nicely with our metered paywall article limit, so we didn’t change that.”

This helped ACS measure success beyond the simple page view. It told them who is reading, how are they reading and where they come in from. Still, while coverage of the pandemic brought in so many readers, ACS had to wonder at what point fatigue might set in, and people would need a pause. But it never really happened.

“All of the past year that we’ve been doing this reporting, the coverage is still a top read amongst all these different buckets of people,” Hadden said.

While Hadden painted that overall picture, Dorea Reeser, senior audience engagement editor, C&EN, ACS, presented more of the day-to-day picture from their daily news meetings. Every morning she pulls metrics on how stories are performing on their website, as well as on social media, and collects it in a spreadsheet.

“I collect the obvious things like date, story head links, story type, but the data that I pull also includes social media engagement,” Reeser said. “We have Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts and a LinkedIn one coming. I also take notes on how [stories] rank in terms of page views and where [visitors] are coming from because certain web referral sources are more valuable than others.”

Reeser, and the other speakers, agreed that time on page is another great engagement metric. “The benefit of doing this every day and manually gives us insight into what content, in addition to our viral content, is doing well. That content may go crazy from search, and while that’s great it’s not necessarily high engagement. Not all those people are going to become brand lovers and loyalists.”

All this data helps to inform ACS staff each day on what content to post. Are there any pieces of content that they should resurface more in social media? And is there something that they want to make sure not to overlook for their weekly newsletter? “It’s important that we give them the content that we’ve seen that people want and our readers want in various spaces,” Reeser said.

Aside from COVID-related content, Hadden spoke about one of their large editorial packages called C&EN’s 10 Start-Ups to Watch. It wasn’t getting a lot of metric love, so they wondered if just judging it by page views was doing a disservice.

“Writers were asking about it,” Hadden said. “It’s a huge effort; there’s a nominations component to it, creative, everyone’s involved in this package. By having the loyalty report and being able to drill down into behavior a little bit better, we were able to tell that, yes, maybe it wasn’t a viral article in that sense, but our brand lovers are engaging with us there when it’s released.

“They are reading it and spending time with it, and our brand lovers are members so we’re serving that audience that we as a society [can classify] as a member benefit. So this report did help us do better than the previous concept of defining loyalty, and turning our non-member readership into becoming members.”

These Ideas Spotlight Social, Innovation, Talent and Tech – and Can Be Adapted  

It’s Ideas Wednesday. The American Chemical Society gives a nice twist to the 35-under-35 genre. Copyrightlaws.com gets big audiences with their Zoom On Ins. We like quizzes, and PMMI Media Group does it well and with purpose. And insideARM puts their Innovation Council to good use with a Think Differently series.

Talented Twelve. Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN) has been published by the American Chemical Society since 1923. Subscribers get a magazine, RSS feeds, archives access, a mobile app, tailored newsletters, a podcast—Stereo Chemistry—and a voice product that “delivers daily chemistry news highlights to your Amazon Echo or Google Home smart speaker.”

What caught my attention this week is their Talented Twelve program. “Nominate a Rising Young Chemist to Be One of C&EN’s Talented 12 for 2021. Help us identify early career scientists doing research that will have a global impact.” Knowing this organization you can be sure that this will be a very diverse dozen. The program is presented by Thermo Fisher Scientific, so that’s a nice sponsorship.

Looking back at their 2019 class, C&EN also does a fun, informational page on the group, asking their favorite dish to cook (best answer – Bangladeshi kacchi biryani), number of patents filed (27), languages spoken (9) and surprising skills (wrestling – from Markita – and violin). Each also gets their own profile.

Reach out and learn copyright. Or in the case of last week’s Zoom On In, the relationship between copyright and contracts. Lesley Ellen Harris of Copyrightlaws.com has been hosting these every few weeks for a couple years now—yes even before Zoom absconded with our lives.

Zoom On Ins are free, 20-minute virtual copyright sessions and part of Copyrightlaws.com’s initiatives to make people more aware of copyright law. Harris told me this morning that 200 registered for last week’s session, and 150 attended. That’s a very good percentage, and a smart way to build interest for her paid online courses

“I really nurture [my audience],” she said. “I email them, ‘Don’t forget to come!’ I keep in touch with them—I just want to keep building the copyrightlaws.com community. Actually, I only did a medium marketing effort on this one.” I asked her what other benefits Copyrightlaws.com gets from these.

“Several things. They’re great for my students. In the bigger picture, they’re great for our alumni—they can keep them up to date. They’re great for the public to get information. For us, we can build our list and nurture our current list. It’s good, practical information.”

The sessions are at 1 pm Eastern, and Harris gets attendees from all over the world. “Global has always been important,” she said. “Think about not just what you’re doing now but how people’s habits have changed moving forward.”

Ask Me Another. Quiz: Are You a Social Media Smarty? asks PMMI Media Group. Not only are quizzes proven winners for engagement, but most of us could use help when it comes to social media. So this quiz is particularly well-positioned.

“With email challenged by competition for the inbox, marketers are having to up their game on social,” they write. “Do you have what it takes to succeed? Test your social media smarts with this brief quiz.” There are five questions, and I did not do too well. So I signed up for their monthly Marketing Insights email newsletter “for latest research and tips!”

Another question asks: Which will get your brand in front of the largest group of active prospects? The final question asks us to choose an image that Company X is planning to run in a Facebook ad. I feel better when I see that 82% got it wrong. I am not alone. At the bottom, you see this button: “Learn how PMMI Media Group can help you reach the right audience with your next campaign.” Oh, you can also take the quiz again. Is that cheating?

Other media company quizzes I like: the Financial TimesEducation Week and Kiplinger. And Lessiter Media has a good article titled 3 Ways to Use Quizzes in Your Marketing Strategy.

Good thinking. Innovation is often talked about but not made intentional enough. InsideARM dispels that notion with their ongoing Think Differently series. “Written by or recorded with members of the iA Innovation Council, the series of articles and videos showcases thought leadership in analytics, communications, payments, and compliance technology for the accounts receivable management industry.”

Ray Peloso, CEO of a technology company called Katabat, wrote the first 2021 article. “Great innovation is usually a series of incremental lessons honed through relentless discipline in a rapid cycle environment where “speed to insight” or “speed to fail” is the most valuable objective,” he writes. “Disciplined people, disciplined thought, disciplined action; Identifying and discarding bad ideas on the road to winners is crucial. Shortening the timeline from initial idea to winner is a massively powerful concept that separates great innovators from the rest of the pack.”

A program like this energizes their Innovation Council so it’s a real thing, provides paths to innovation, positions InsideARM as a thought leader and builds engagement.

If you have any suggestions for future Ideas Wednesdays, please send to rlevine@siia.net. Thanks!