Audience Insights, Content Marketing, Dumb Pipes – FOLIO: Show 2017 Takeaways

After 6.5 years of having one foot in the book world (via Digital Book World, Team Library, and the ill-fated startup experience) and being frustrated by its inability to fully grasp the importance of audience engagement, it’s been refreshing to be fully immersed again in an industry that prioritizes direct audience engagement. I was particularly excited to attend my first FOLIO: Show in ages earlier this week, and after a slow start that included HTC’s awkward plea for VR content and some uninspired Facebook examples, things picked up with some great presentations from National Geographic, Harvard Business Review, The Foundry, and Revmade.

While I didn’t come across anything particularly new, there were some solid takeaways that I found helpful and heartening.


National Geographic and Harvard Business Review both had a common thread that I loved, emphasizing the importance of a clear editorial mission that guides their respective strategies. For NatGeo, their goal is to bring to life storytelling that can change the world, and their savvy use of various social platforms comes from a belief that “social success drives overall success.” I’ve been subscribed to their YouTube channel, but even though  I still don’t “get” Snapchat, their use of it inspired me to download the app again and give it another try.

HBR had two excellent presentations that really got under the hood and broke down their approach to audience modeling, and using analytics to drive content strategy and product development. Particularly notable was their assertion that mission drives content, and pageviews are only meaningful in the right context. It’s relatively easy to drive traffic these days if you’re willing to sacrifice editorial credibility, but because their primary business goal is to drive paid subscriptions, they monitor six distinct actions that determine someone’s likelihood to convert: newsletter subscriptions; using on-site search within the past 30 days; following a topic; saving an article; sharing an article; adding a product to the shopping cart. While two of those actions can be done anonymously, the other four require registering on the site which is incentivized by granting free access to additional content.

None of that works if they publish crap clickbait purely for pageviews, and having a clear understanding of who their audience is and the various ways their content can have an impact beyond raw pageviews means they have the flexibility to diversify their editorial mix to serve both their business goals as well as the more lofty goal of improving the world by improving business management.

Beyond those two notable examples, there were several other publishers using analytics in more sophisticated ways than simply measuring traffic and ad impressions — including one who candidly noted that “data helps us be realistic about our position in the market” — and I was thrilled to see that’s effectively became a baseline expectation for the industry, even if everyone isn’t there yet.


I spent most of the last day in the Content Marketing track for four consecutive sessions that frequently felt like last-minute additions to the program, but Chief Executive Magazine‘s Mike Winkleman did a great job moderating all of them, pulling various strands together into a reasonably cohesive whole. Among the primary themes were the challenge of traditional sales reps shifting from transactional to consultative relationships (similar to the print vs. digital challenge of the 90s), focusing on delivering outcomes that align with specific goals, and the importance of SEO to any content marketing program.

Revmade‘s Andrew Hanelly argued that publishers are better positioned than agencies to develop content marketing solutions because they can offer relevance, resonance, and reach — the latter being something agencies still depend on “traditional” media for — but understanding a client’s goals and desired outcomes is critical, as is creating relevant products that can achieve them. While that’s arguably the baseline description for a media company in the first place, The Foundry’s Chris Hercik noted that Time, Inc. did “tons of auto business but had no auto brand,” so the mobile-first, millennial-focused The Drive ended up launching as a custom project under The Foundry rather than a “traditional” Time Inc. publication, but they were still able to offer the “relevance, resonance, and reach” that an agency couldn’t.

Possibly the biggest overall takeaway was a simple reminder that audience development is an investment, not an expense, and if your media brand is just a dumb pipe to connect advertisers with eyeballs, your future is bleak.

PS: I highly recommend Content Marketing Institute’s “This Old Marketing Podcast” as it regularly delivers great content marketing insights every week. I’m also hoping to be able to attend their Content Marketing World event one of these days as the biggest thing missing from FOLIO’s effort was perspectives from brand marketers themselves about what they’re looking for, and how they’re effectively becoming publishers themselves as many brands have much stronger “relevance, resonance, and reach” than the media partners they work with. Dumb pipes eventually burst.

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