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5 Content Marketing Lessons from Journalism

Everyone knows that the customer is king. Every strategy, every tactic, and every piece of content is designed to engage, convert or retain our audience. One size just does not fit all — and the cardinal mistake that many of us make is thinking that what interests us is what interests our audience as well.

In the two and a half decades that I have worked in newsrooms, I have constantly been surprised by our readers. They are willing to pay for what? They pay us almost three times what they pay Netflix every month – and then spent most of their time reading what?  

Here are five lessons I’ve learned that anyone who produces content should be aware of:

1. What you think is your most valuable content really isn’t what your customers think is valuable.

I am amazed at what our readers take out their credit cards for. Policy-changing investigations that we spent 20 months on? Sometimes. How to sleep better at night? Often. A story on something marginal, obscure or secondary? Good god, a couple of hundred times a month!

We only realized this to be true after we let an AI algorithm that uses Natural Language Processing, which we call Sophi.io, scrutinize all the content that we publish. It turned out that we were leaving millions of dollars a year on the table because we, as content editors, didn’t realize the value of all of the content that we put in front of our readers. We were too busy looking only at the biggest stories that we, as writers, took the most pride in. But readers don’t always share our sense of pride – they just want to be smarter or richer or healthier.

Are you just showing everyone on your site whatever you think is most valuable? Are you just putting your popular content in the most valuable places on your website? Are those popular articles actually the most valuable pieces – do they help you meet your marketing KPIs? The moral here is that a machine doesn’t have our biases and can autonomously curate content objectively and intelligently to best understand your customers and drive growth and loyalty.

2. What brings them in the door isn’t what keeps them as paying customers.

Ok, so now you’ve committed to paying us. Surely you’re spending your time on our site reading thoughtful journalism that helps build a stronger nation.

That’s what we’d like to believe, anyway. Actually, our subscribers like to read a lot of stuff. Our tv critic’s views on three new thrillers on Netflix are right up there at the top of the list, next to headlines on grim COVID news and fretting about the runaway real estate market.

Once you have understood what type of content leads your readers to convert and what kind of content keeps them buying from you, then you can optimize what you present to different visitor segments as we did at The Globe. We decided to experiment with serving two different versions of our landing pages and article pages – one that offers anonymous readers content that is optimized for driving conversions, and another that serves paying subscribers content that is optimized for retaining them as paying customers. We were pleasantly surprised to find that this kind of segmented optimization was very successful.

3. Content placement at scale is something machines do better and faster.

Senior editors used to spend hours deciding which content to place where on our homepage or on our article pages. Then, we let AI make these recommendations and our editors were accepting the recommendations many times a day. Eventually, we got to a point where we turned content curation over to the machine. Sophi now automates 99% of the content across The Globe and Mail’s digital properties.

Sophi can look at all the different ways in which every article produced is valuable, taking into account the role it plays in converting and retaining existing customers. Sophi understands that different visitors may value pieces of content differently and can optimize the page depending on who is visiting. This means interpreting and autonomously acting upon thousands of signals simultaneously, a task that any human would struggle to do efficiently.

4. Accurately guessing which content to place on social media platforms, and when, is hard.

Using complex natural-language processing, technology like Sophi also understands which articles will gain traction on social media (and which won’t). Sophi autonomously posts them to social media networks at the best time of day.

Naturally, you’ll want to set the constraints within which your technology can operate, such as specifying what kinds of content it cannot post, but then let the machine grow your reach and bring new customers in for you.

5. Fresher content is not always better.

When we automated our digital content placement using Sophi, we were surprised by how often the algorithm would surface content that wasn’t brand new. Surely it was broken? But, no: many of our readers actually do want yesterday’s news tomorrow – and sometimes even next week. It could be because they weren’t glued to their computer screens for eight hours a day the way we were. They may have only just heard of something (such as the mystery of why butter is harder in COVID times) and come to our site looking to understand why. Or maybe they stumbled upon it serendipitously while browsing altogether different content, and it’s still interesting to them.

This is why blogs and pages where content is in reverse-chronological order (with the newest at the top) or haphazardly placed according to perceived popularity are full of lost opportunities. A smart algorithm sees this and can find your hidden gems for you.

Sophi.io worked so well at the Globe, that its now being used in industries outside of media as well, and there’s a native plug-in available for various content management systems, such as WordPress. Let our years of learnings help improve your content marketing. Feel free to reach out if you have any questions. I always like to talk about content and how it should be serving business needs.

Sonali Verma is the director, customer success at Sophi.io at the Globe and Mail in Toronto. In her current role, she works with publishers all over the world to help them understand how to use data for culture change and business transformation, and with the Sophi software development team to build tools that solve clients’ problems. She was previously senior product manager for analytics, deputy head of audience in the newsroom and senior editor in charge of audience engagement, overseeing its digital pages as well as social media operations. She earlier worked as a reporter, editor and producer at Reuters, CNBC and Bloomberg News in New Delhi, London, Hong Kong, Singapore and Manila.