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‘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.”