Content first with Rob John of The Content Marketing Association

Rob John is a senior manager at the not-for-profit Content Marketing Association. Previously to joining the CMA, he had a stint working in the Middle East, spent six years at Global Radio working on national campaigns for well-known stations such as Heart, Capital, Classic FM and Smooth and worked for an award-winning content agency where he headed up the digital PR department

Most recently Rob joined the CMA to help the organisation highlight best practices in content marketing and showcase them via their membership and awards.

Podcast transcription.

Stephen Davies: Rob, welcome to the podcast.

Rob John: Thanks for having me.

SD: So, content marketing. It’s a relatively new term and relatively new industry so for people that don’t know, what is content marketing exactly?

RJ: We are in a bit of a transition with content marketing and we’re getting over the hurdle because content is everything you create for an audience whether it’s a video or something for an influencer to run with or a microsite that will house FAQs. That would all come under the content blanket so content marketing is something you created for an audience, preferably your audience.

So basically that’s how it has a lot of confusion around it because a lot of people might think, “Yeah we do influencer marketing” or “We do video” but you’re creating content for your audience so you’re in the content marketing industry.

SD: And everything we do in this day and age particularly with online, digital and social is content. Is that part of your role at the Content Marketing Association, to educate the media on what content marketing is?

RJ: Yeah definitely. Even in my brief time at the Content Marketing Association, I’ve been speaking to a lot of people who have been more traditionally in marketing for the last 15 or 20 years whether that be PR, advertising or marketing. What they’ve told me is that there’s been a lot of change in how they come up with ideas. So it used to be a case where the editor or programme controller would give someone the brief and then the marketing team would go away, create a couple of ideas and then come back and pitch to the editor of the programme controller.

Now it’s different, these teams are made up of maybe an editor, a couple of people in the marketing team, maybe a PR team, a graphic designer and these ideas are being shaped from an earlier inception really. And I liken it to a CSR – people always say CSR works best when you get the people who care about the end goal from the beginning. We all know that CSR works best when you’re in it from the beginning and you can actually shape the industry. And that’s what the thing with content is, we’ve noticed with a lot of our members the teams are now made up of a lot more different people rather than the old form really.

SD: Absolutely. You only have to look at what’s gone in the PR, marketing and wider comms industry over the last ten years. More agencies have design departments, they have SEO departments, they have video production departments whereas ten 10/15 years ago that wasn’t the case and everyone was kind of siloed to one particular discipline. But the media has fragmented so much that the old style of thinking and the old model wouldn’t work in this day and age at all.

RJ: No you’re right and also, in terms of a revenue thing as well. Years ago you might have had a video production company or a company that created your infographics and now it shouldn’t just stop there. If you’re creating videos for someone now we’re talking about how are you going to distribute them? It’s not just good enough to create the video, you’ve got to have a team that works on the distribution side of things.

Likewise for influencer marketing as well. That’s such a hot topic and a lot of people withing influencer marketing has asked if it’s PR or not PR. But if you take the influencer out of the equation and put a celebrity in, for years we said working with a celebrity on a product is PR. So influencer marketing should be the same thing. So it’s kind of like that. It shouldn’t just stop at one thing and what we’re noticing is a lot of agencies changing what they do and instead of, as you said, just doing one thing they’re integrating the whole concept of content marketing across their agency and it’s showing some great results.

SD: So in terms of split per PR, marketing and all the other disciplines, what kind of ratio do you guys have as members?

RJ: It’s really difficult to tell in all honesty because a lot of our members have made the transition so they will be PR with a bit of SEO, with a bit of video production so it’s difficult to say. I’d say about 60 percent of our members are content producers and content creators and we’ve also got the rise of PR firms coming int the CMA. We’re noticing that PR companies are coming to our events and putting a completely different spin on things. They’re talking a lot about strategy and a lot more about SEO with the content.

Instead of just creating a great piece of content, how are you going to distribute that? Who are you going to outreach it to? And that’s where we’re seeing a lot more PR members come on board and hopefully this time next year, if we have this conversation, that percentage will be a lot different for our members.

SD: So what’s the Content Marketing Association’s role and purpose within the industry? And you guys work internationally too right?

RJ: Yeah we have a number of international members. To put it briefly, the CMA works with freelance startups right up to large agencies such as iProspect, Wavemaker, News UK and we’ve got production houses like ITN who are members so we really have a wide spectrum of members. What we’re trying to do is, we’re looking to champion content marketing within agencies and when people come to our events they’re seeing what’s happening in other agencies.

I’ve got a great example in the B2B space. Natwest Business created a podcast and housed it on a content hub. So they made a Natwest Business hub and on this they had a podcast and a number of people from the finance sector answer Q&As and they saw a huge rise in traffic to this site which was brilliant. And also they saw a drop in everyday questions that might be a little bit easy but take up time within someone in Natwest and this was all just from listening to their customers and deciding what their customers really want to know.

Brexit was a huge thing in that and had a lot of people asking them how they were going to get past it so they created these podcasts and a great range of content which they all housed on a microsite and they saw it was a huge benefit to their members and that’s exactly what other brands are and will be doing in the future as well.

SD: I think you highlighted there when you said you have to create benefit for your members. You can’t just go out and push your corporate messages, you have to provide something of value. That content has to be valuable either by being entertaining, educational, informal or whatever but it has to have value to the customer, to the receiver, to the recipient.

RJ: Yeah, yeah and you’ll probably be able to say it a lot better than I can about people’s attention spans. I commute every day and I flick between Instagram to Twitter to Wired. As I’m reading an article and if I don’t understand a word I’m flicking over to Google to find out. We’re all doing this now and we’re all consuming so much stuff and there’s so much noise out there. As you mentioned, you’ve really got to create something of benefit to someone.

Whether that’s something funny they can share with their friends for a quick laugh or something that’s super informative that teaches them something about Brexit that they’re going to have to work on because they have European staff but it has to have a benefit for people.

SD: And speaking of noise, as we know we’re in an era now where there is so much content being created online. Whether that’s the media, social media or brands creating content for their customers and so on. With this in mind, are you beginning to see more beginning to see more focus on content marketing and more allocated budget to the discipline?

RJ: Yes, definitely. In terms of budget, we’re definitely seeing more organisations and budgets allocating an internal budget in terms of resources. So we’re seeing a lot more of our members now hiring people. Whether that’s editors or designers for the design team, we are seeing a rise in internal resources so we can only assume and as an educated guess that budgets are definitely being increased for content and, again, this will only go up in the future.

To put this into perspective, we’re currently in awards season and we’ve got our awards ceremony at the end of November. The level of branded content and the branded content being created by brands this year is the best it’s been. I’ve been told by a lot of our other members the stuff we’re seeing is absolutely brilliant at the moment. So many brands are pushing the envelope and are changing with the times and they’re the ones that are doing the best work.

SD: There’s also a mindset shift that’s required when it comes to content marketing because rather than working in campaign cycles you should be creating a destination site perhaps. Whereas my background is primarily PR and that is more about campaigns and cycles and doing something for three months over a certain period and starting something new but when it comes to creating content and building a platform essentially you have to build that platform over time.

RJ: Everybody talks about this ‘always-on’ strategy and with content it really is vital to have an always-on strategy and be creating a hub. Whereas before, if you take a brand like ASOS, for SEO benefits they’d have a fashion blog on their website but it would really be visible and it would be in the corner tucked away.

They would just use it to get their SEO keywords in whereas now there’s a change and instead of just going on there for the SEO benefit – what we’re seeing now is brands are creating great content for their customers to come on rather than just tick an SEO box. Of course, SEO is important and you need it but you also need great content for people to go on.

SD: I spent some time working at PwC which is a global business services company so they’re all around the world. Every day they create and publish more content than the Wall Street Journal. So they’re publishing more business content than an actual business publication. They have experts from all different areas from tax, business, hospitality and so on. They’re creating all this content and putting out there. They’ve got their own internal TV studio, writers, editors so they’re definitely a B2B company that’s embraced the content model.

RJ: Bloomberg is a member of ours. They’ve got of course their terminals and news channels which is their bread and butter but they’ve also got other content like PwC on a daily basis and they’re creating some great stuff like a lot of other B2B companies. A lot of people might wonder if B2B if it really works but it absolutely does because as we all know if you’re the CEO, MD or a junior chances are you’ll be on social media.

SD: Yeah you’re right. Like influencer marketing. It’s currently at a stage where it’s B2C and the two main platforms are YouTube and Instagram and the industries are usually fashion, makeup, health, fitness that kind of thing but it’s broadening out and why shouldn’t it because you’ve got all these experts who are, not just influencers but authorities as well, but they might not be on those platforms.

They might be writing a blog, they might be on Medium, they might be doing a podcast or something like that. They’re essentially all influencers, they’re just not the stereotypical influencers we assume what an influencer is.

RJ: I think that’s the word: stereotypical. There’s a huge thing with the PR industry with it getting away from that Max Clifford or Malcolm Tucker stereotypes but when you speak to people who don’t know anything and you say influencer marketing they think of a young girl sitting on a beach selling laundry detergent when it has nothing to do with the picture.

I think that’s the same with a lot of industries at the moment like influencer marketing but as you mentioned, podcasts are a huge way of influencing people but it’s not seen in influencer marketing that way.

SD: I know it’s crazy because when you look at the podcast stats and the types of people and demographics that are listening to them and the increase of people listening to them it’s a perfect platform. Plus podcasts are very passive so, I subscribe to maybe about 30 podcasts so whenever I’m out in the car, whenever I’m out walking, whenever I’m at the gym I’ve got a podcast in and you can do while you’re doing other things unlike reading or watching a video so, in my opinion, podcasts will be one of the most dominant media moving forward I think.

So there’s a book, I haven’t read it, it’s called Killing Marketing and it’s by Joe Pulizzi and Robert Rose who are well known in the US for content marketing and I think they set up the Content Marketing Insitute back in the day. The basic premise of the book is that they say that content is going to move from a cost to a profit. They cite in the book different companies that have turned their content marketing into a profit.

For example, J&J acquired the BabyCenter platform which is a social platform for expectant mothers and new mothers and they use it as an R&D platform where they test new products with the community. Obviously Red Bull and the activity they’re involved in with extreme sports and so on. So, in your opinion, do you think this is the future of content marketing where you can turn your marketing into a profit centre?

RJ: I would agree with that 100%. One of our members, who won at our awards last year, created a hub which started off as a Facebook page. Based in Australia, it was for single dads and was a tongue in cheek about how to look after children if you’re a single dad. Throughout it was done by a baby formula company and it was about selling the sizzle and not the sausage and there was no pre-roll ads for their own products – it was literally just how to do this and how to do that and done in a fun way. They saw sales skyrocket as well.

Also, it works really well for travel brands we’ve noticed. I’m going to Iceland in January to see the Northern Lights and I’ve been looking at websites to see where to go and what to do over there. Some of the content that’s been created is done well and extremely good and the chances of me buying those particular products increase.

SD: There’s a company in the US that basically set up a blog about survival. Survival is big in the US is quite a big topic but there weren’t that many people catering to it online so this company built a platform showing people how to survive in the wilderness, types of equipment you need and so on. They then started creating and selling their own products to the community. So they built the community first and then looked at what products they could sell to them.

RJ: I came up with a phrase and I’m pretty sure it’s never been used before but, if you build it they will come.

SD: Ha! You heard it here first.

RJ: I think if you build the right product for the right audience, that’s what’s key.

SD: Remember a couple of years ago when Mark Zuckerberg said he envisages a time when Facebook will be all video. So everyone started “pivoting to video” then Facebook had an about turn and changed the model again. Lots of publishers got rid of journalists, brought in video producers and realised that video wasn’t going to be the next totally big thing. In terms now, what kind of trends are you seeing in the content industry at the moment? Is there anything we need to be aware of?

RJ: Yeah, I know when I say this you’re going to be like “obviously!” but podcasts. We’re seeing so much chatter about podcasts. And radio, and maybe because I have a background in radio but if you listen to the RAJAR numbers it’s absolutely massive. Over half of the UK still listen to the radio at least once a week. When people ask if podcasts are the future, I think they are. If I’m on a train on a morning, if I don’t have my headphones in I’m not clicking that video because I don’t know what sounds is going to come out of it.

With a podcast, it’s very passive but also extremely personal as well. When you’re sitting there with your headphones in or if you’re in the house listening – which again will contribute to the number of people listening to the podcast. I read a stat the other day that said in America more people have bought into the smart home devices like the Alexa, Sonos and Apple Music – actual sounds devices – than the smartphone. People are going full force into the smart home and that again will help the podcast industry.

We’re in that kind of Netflix binge phase where you want everything to be there. When people are going to podcasts, they’re going like “yeah that’ll be brilliant I can listen to it on my commute.” and the retention of podcasts is extremely high as well. Even though podcasts are nothing new or revolutionary, I actually think listeners will increase because, whereas with video or infographics, you actually need to do something with them and do them well. As you mentioned, you subscribe to 30 of them and I subscribe to about 10 or 15.

In terms of content marketing, the good ones are doing really well. Instead of just having a pre-roll, brands now introducing dynamic reads and are actually working with the podcaster to actually talk about it in the podcast. They’ll state it’s an ad but they’ll bring it in a bit more which again is brilliant because people want that personal feel and that’s why podcasts work so well.

SD: Podcasts are certainly becoming more professionalised. Certainly in the US. I was listening to one from GQ yesterday. I did a little bit of digging and found that GQ don’t produce it in-house they use a podcast agency. But I also quite enjoy the podcasts that are a bit rough and ready. There’s a guy who I listen to, he has no intro music and just comes on and talks off the cuff but because he’s engaging and charismatic I enjoy what he’s got to say which. Again, it just goes back to, it’s not necessarily how it’s packaged but it’s what’s been said.

RJ: I actually think that could be its downfall. If everything becomes too polished. I agree, I want it to be rough if it needs to be rough and I want it to be polished if that’s what it supposed to be.

SD: So a bit of navel-gazing. Where do you see the content marketing industry going in the next five years? My own opinion is, very top line, brands are going to start developing their own platforms and own hubs. If you look at what’s going on in the traditional media we’re seeing a lot of them are going into administration and they don’t have the same clout as what they used to. I can see brands becoming media companies in themselves. Where do you see it?

RJ: I agree and there’ll be those that do it well and those that don’t. But if you’re a brand you’ve got to make an amazing content hub and you’ve got to house all your best content on there. You mentioned the smaller media companies shutting down. Look at local newspapers, you go on their websites and they’re so painful to read and I actually think maybe try and do that to make you buy the newspaper. It’s so hard to go around the page and the pictures and videos don’t work.

I actually think people will start to care more and brands will create content hubs where they can post their own videos – they’ll obviously put them on Facebook and things for instance and they’ll post 10-second clips because that’s what’s really popular on social media. But then I think people will care more about content and they’ll put it on their website and they’ll want people to visit their website. In the next five years, I think they’ll create content hubs where they can put their own stuff so they don’t have to keep adhering to Facebook’s algorithm. What brands want to do is make a really good content hub for their audience.

SD: Final question and it doesn’t have to be relating to the content marketing industry, what’s your favourite book you think everyone should read?

RJ: This is a book I’m just about to finish and it’s absolutely brilliant. Don’t be put off by the name but it’s called Narconomics. It’s a book written by a guy called Tom Wainwright and it’s a bit about the economy and a bit about government but a lot about business. This is a book about how drug cartels have similar problems to business and they still manage to keep the profits high and the costs low. And it’s a really good book about how you can run your business like a drug cartel – not the illegal side of things but how you can be smarter about HR, how you do your marketing and how little things that make you think, “God if they can do it we can because they’re illegal and they can’t chuck £20 behind a social post.”

SD: So that’s called Narconomics. Well, thanks for taking the time to come on the podcast, Rob. If people want to find out more about you and the CMA where can they go?

RJ: I’m on Twitter as @robjohn0 and at the CMA drop me a line at [email protected] – if you’re looking to join a member organisation or if you’re a brand and not sure how you can do some of this, we’re a not-for-profit that helps people write briefs so when they do go to an agency they’re a lot more well-versed on what they can and can’t do so if anyone needs help with any of their content briefs and plans get in touch and I’ll be able to help out.

SD: Great, well thanks very much for your time.

RJ: Awesome, cheers Steve.

Written by Stephen Davies

I’m an experienced strategist working at the intersection of public relations, digital marketing and social media based in London. You can work with me here or drop me a line here.

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