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Everybody Likes to Hear a Good Story

By Laurie Hileman

In 1895, John Deere launched a customer magazine, The Furrow, which continues to this day with nearly 1.5 million in circulation in 40 countries and 12 languages.

In 1904, JELL-O published a free recipe book that led to sales reaching $1 million by 1906. Then there were the original soap operas of the 1930s and the G.I. Joe comic books of the early ’80s.

The idea of reaching out to customers with authentic, relevant information is time-tested, marketer-approved. So how can you put the power of custom publishing to work in your organization?

It’s all about content

First, let’s understand the semantics. According to the Custom Content Council (CCC), custom publishing, “… marries the marketing ambitions of a company with the information needs of its target audience. This occurs through the delivery of editorial content—via print, Internet, and other media—so intrinsically valuable that it moves the recipient’s behavior in a desired direction.”

But as marketing strategy, custom publishing is in a state of evolution, accelerated in recent years with the explosion of various online channels, such as blogs, social media, video, and apps. Today, you hear terms like custom content, content marketing, custom media, and branded content being bandied about in marketing and communications departments everywhere.

Content is the key word. And content is now king.

U.S. corporations spent a record $47.2 billion on branded content in 2009, according to a survey by the CCC. Respondents also reported that 32 percent of their overall marketing, communications, and advertising budgets was dedicated to content marketing. And it keeps on growing.


Because successful business is built on customer relationships developed over time. People do business with people they know and trust. Consistently providing useful custom content to your customers earns you their business loyalty.

Here are a few strategies to keep your relationships with customers strong and profit-bearing using custom publishing.

Be a good storyteller

Everybody likes to read a good story. Stories engage the hearts, minds, and souls of the readers.

Simon Kelly, COO of Story Worldwide, explained it best in his article on the importance of storytelling for AdWeek: “Stories define us. Since early cave dwellers left their graffiti in Lascaux, listening to and telling stories have moved people. Stories are powerful. They give meaning and context to what would otherwise be a collection of easily forgettable facts.”

Custom publishing allows you to move beyond the forgettable and engage your audience with meaningful communication across a variety of channels, whether it is a bi-annual magazine, a monthly e-newsletter, or weekly blog post.

However, crafting meaningful communication requires more than standard marketing fare. The days of pasting your firm’s capabilities brochure in an electronic format on your website are long gone.

“…CMOs need to be rethinking their brands from a narrative approach, rather than rearranging logos, taglines, and color palettes, which is akin to arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic in beautifully orchestrated reds, greens, and aquamarines,” says Kelly.

Narrowing in on your brand’s narrative requires a clear understanding of who you are and where you want to be. It also requires a deep understanding of your customers—whether they are clients, members, constituents, or donors—and what makes them tick.

Getting to know your customers

The purpose of any custom publishing project is to become a valued resource instead of just another noisy voice competing for your customer’s time, attention, and money. Stay in tune with the lifestyle and information needs of your targeted audience, and tailor your content accordingly.

Focus on creating accurate, original information that delivers real value. Today, consumers are in control of the information gathering process, particularly when it comes to digital media. They determine when, how, and what information they want to receive. It is our job as marketers to find the opportunities to connect well with consumers before they’ve entered the buying cycle.

Be helpful. Be entertaining. Be authentic. Make your branded content something your customers want to share with others.

Once you’ve identified your customer needs and how you can address them, craft an editorial calendar with an overview of the planned content in a given timeframe. You may want to consider two calendars, a master overview and another with the breakdowns for specific activities. The calendars help keep your content consistent and relevant, making it easier to see opportunities for repurposing content across different communication channels. And, it also keeps your team on the same page and is an easy reference for management.

Selecting the right approach.

In the age of social media, blogs, websites, apps, email, audio, and video, many marketers are left to wonder, is print dead? After all, newspapers and subscription magazines are in a state of rapid decline and the cost of print publishing and the subsequent distribution needs are noteworthy.

However, the beauty of custom publishing—with carefully crafted content aimed at a very specific audience—is the uncanny ability to wiggle into the hearts and minds of your customers. Print literally puts your brand in your customers’ hands. They can feel it, appreciate it, and spend invaluable time with it.

For many marketers, print remains the centerpiece of their branded content strategies. Consider these statistics from the British Association for Publishing Agencies:

  • The average time a reader spends with a custom print magazine is 25 minutes.
  • On average, companies that produce custom print magazines see an 8 percent increase in sales from those readers.
  • Custom print magazines increase brand loyalty by 32 percent.

For example, when a Midwestern regional CPA and financial services firm needed a way to connect with its clients and prospective clients, it turned to a custom-published magazine as the focal point in its overall marketing strategy.

Published three times a year, it delivers industry-specific, story-driven articles that position the firm as a source for thoughtful, insightful perspective on the important issues affecting their clients. And it also features fun, informative items like a business book review that helps owners and managers sort through the hundreds of new titles hitting bookshelves every month. The magazine is an integral part of a broader content-marketing strategy that includes e-newsletters, social media, articles, seminars, and video.

Finding the right team

Connecting a customer to your brand and maintaining the relationship long term requires a continuous flow of relevant information. However, the task of creating such content—continuously—can overburden already stretched-thin marketing departments and the subject matter experts within your organization.

How do you balance the need for relevant and valuable information with the limitations of your existing staff?

First determine what you can and want to do. Perhaps you have the experts, but aren’t sure of how you are going to produce reader-friendly content. Or maybe you just don’t know where to begin, so you need help with strategy and process. You also may be one of those companies that just needs help with it all.

Many organizations are turning the task over to turnkey solutions, companies offering editorial, design, photography, ad sales, print, circulation, and distribution. These solutions allow for quality content and delivery without getting mired in the details of managing the publishing process.

Regardless of how much is outsourced, for your custom publishing efforts to be a success your organization must actively participate in the process and commit to it. You’ll always be needed for input, thought leadership, and authenticity.

Remember: Whether you call them clients, members, donors, subscribers, or constituents, they are your most important asset—your customers. And it’s been shown time and again that your customers are significantly better informed and influenced to make their buying decisions—to join, to donate, or to purchase—after reading branded content. So, what’s your story?

Historical examples excerpted from the “The Power of Story,” opening video at the 2011 Content Marketing World conference.

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