The future of independent content brands

SevenC3’s Head of Business and Luxury Jon Watkins dives into one of content marketing’s big questions for 2018 – is there still a place for standalone branded content channels?

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One of the best things about working in content marketing is the challenge of creating a new content brand. GrowthiQConnected Thinking and 360º are among those I’ve spent beer-and-pizza-fuelled evenings mulling over, stress testing and defining – to help business brands build an identity for their content, a credible voice in their market and, ultimately, an audience.
 
Recently, we’ve seen a spike in clients – both B2B and B2C – asking whether such independent content brands should sit on a separate website or within their existing corporate site.
 
It’s an interesting question. Not that long ago, our advice would almost certainly have been to host your content brand – a dedicated area, with its own name and strapline, housing all your organisation’s content in one place so you can have a consistent industry voice – on a separate site. The notion was that audiences did not overtly want the opinions of brands. Separating your content from your corporate site gave audiences the sense they were engaging with something ‘independent’, even if the plan was for them to make the connection to the brand and even push through to the ‘mother site’. It certainly helped build audiences.
 
However, a number of changes in audience habits mean that hosting your content brand on a separate URL may no longer be necessary – and may even have a negative impact in some cases.
 
Changing habits
 
The first shift is that, as consumers of content, we have become far less fussy about where content comes from. We’ve become happy to receive content from brands and we accept many brands as publishers. As long as the content is valuable, useful or relevant to me, I am no longer as sensitive as I used to be about where it comes from. Therefore, I am also less sensitive about consuming that content on a corporate site.
 
The second shift has been the explosion of social media, which has overhauled consumption habits. A YouGov survey for Reuters last year revealed that social media had overtaken TV as young people’s main source of news, with nearly a third of people citing social media as their main source.
 
That means people are far less likely to type your URL into their browser and far more likely to ‘find’ your content in social. In many cases, they’re not even aware of where that content is sitting or who has provided it. The quality and relevance is what attracts them. All of which makes a strong case for focusing on distribution rather than building a separately hosted website.
 
Simplifying the journey
 
Of course, content marketing strategies are about building an audience to drive leads – about moving people through a funnel. Like many agencies, we create quality content for clients and distribute it through a number of channels to engage people and drive them to a brand’s site – so we can then further move them through the funnel to the point of purchase or conversion. Making a separate site part of that journey can sometimes complicate and lengthen that process.
 
Take member bodies looking to acquire new members, for example. Driving potential new members to a separate content site will of course show them the value of that organisation. But every time you extend the customer journey, you will lose people. Therefore, driving people to a corporate site to register, sign up and pay – in a world where they would be just as comfortable accessing that content within a section of the corporate site – unnecessarily lengthens that journey.
 
For some businesses, hosting on an independent site of course remains valuable. Businesses that are trying to build relationships and brand awareness/advocacy over long periods of time, through high volumes of rich, quality thought-leadership content, will benefit from having a destination to send their audiences to and from which to send email campaigns. Take the sites we produced for Fujitsu (I-CIO) and RS Components (Connected Thinking), for example. These are designed to create long-term relationships with targeted audiences looking for niche industry knowledge. These are much more likely to become destinations that people will return to on a regular basis for industry updates, so there is value in setting it aside from the corporate site and company detail.
 
But for those trying to convert audiences much more quickly and for lower-value, more frequent purchases, there is value in shortening that journey.
 
Protect your SEO
 
Aside from changes in audience habits, there are other more practical reasons for moving your independent content brand to your corporate site.
 
One is of course SEO. In simple terms, the more content you have on your site, the better your SEO will be and the more traffic you will obtain. So why would you divide that between two sites? In more complex and forward-thinking terms, as the world evolves, traditional search will increasingly evolve into voice search. That will mean content will have to be much more closely linked to the brand if it is to surface, so tying it to your corporate site will help that.
 
One thing I am definitely not advocating is a move away from independent content brands. Quite the opposite: 90% of young consumers prefer customised, engaging content from brands compared to advertising (Time Inc survey). So it’s what audiences want and having a content brand remains invaluable when it comes to shaping what you talk about as a brand, how you position yourself and how you demonstrate your knowledge and expertise in your market. It will help ensure your content talks to your audiences’ needs and keeps you relevant. And, of course, it delivers your content with more flair and more freedom.
 
But, in an era when fake news and ‘trust’ in content are such hot topics, hosting your independent content brand within your existing corporate site might just remove some of the smoke and mirrors of marketing and show your brand to be focused on openly giving your audience what they need. Audiences today want transparency. They don’t want to feel duped.
 
And given that audiences are happy to receive content from brands anyway, that may just allow you to focus instead on creating truly great content and distributing it to exactly where your audiences are.