In 2016, when Intel iQ boasted 2 million monthly readers who averaged more than two minutes per visit, the iQ team wondered what is the additional value of a returning reader versus a first timer?
A lot, it turns out.
In early 2017, the iQ team borrowed a page from the traditional media playbook – focusing on sustaining loyal readers rather than a “more eyeballs” approach. Luke Kintigh, head of publishing at Intel iQ, shares how they did it.
“Creating content is not the difficult part of content marketing. Distribution of your content, particularly with paid media, is also not that hard to do initially. The true challenge of becoming a successful publisher is sustaining an audience – providing so much ongoing value that they naturally seek out your content and become a loyal reader.
“When this happens, you’re transitioning away from renting momentary audiences one campaign at a time to owning long-term audiences that add real equity to your brand … equity that remains well after your product launch or short-term KPI.”
Rather than chasing volume in the short term by whatever means available, the team committed to earning readership in a long-term relationship – a simple enough maxim but one that eludes many content marketers.
“We can get people to watch a video or read a blog post, but when you take a direct-response approach to content marketing, you essentially start from zero each time you attract someone new,” explains Kintigh. “We wanted to develop and deliver value to our audience over time and think about how to keep them coming back.”
Lay the groundwork for deeper customer relationships
To figure out how to build a longer relationship with the customer, the iQ team defined what it calls a “customer ladder” – the steps someone takes to progress from first timer to engaged subscriber. The most important KPI for the team is the number of email subscriptions – a sign that someone finds the iQ content valuable.
Define sequencing touchpoints
- iQ ad exposure is the “fly by” person – someone who may happen upon a mention of iQ or Intel content but hasn’t slowed down to consume that content.
- First-time readers may find iQ through a native ad, a social media ad, or a shared social post. They stop and read because they’re interested in the content iQ is publishing.
- Repeat readers visit iQ more than once and demonstrate an affinity for the content iQ talks about – from VR/AR and artificial intelligence to robotics and autonomous vehicles.
- Email sign-up readers are the holy grail of content marketers – readers who convert to subscribers. This is a sure sign iQ content is paying off.
- Recirculation readers are a small subset of “fanatics.” About 15 percent of email subscribers are loyalists – people who open and click on more than 10 iQ e-newsletters every three months. This is a particularly valuable group to Intel because they care deeply about the topics iQ shares and can help steer the program’s editorial strategy.
Match tools to touchpoints
What makes the Intel example unique is that the iQ team believes truly engaging quality content is key, but it also knows that to get that content in front of an audience it must leverage data science, technology, and advertising. In other words, quality alone will never win; masterful content marketers exploit technology to maximize their investment in quality.
Predictive tools like SimpleReach help the team optimize the content it publishes. They analyze what has worked, as well as content trending online, and suggest topics, key phrases, headlines, and formats to ensure that iQ maximizes its reach.
Social media management encompasses a host of tools, from Opal, an editorial planning tool, to Spredfast, a publishing tool to manage its social channels (primarily LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook). Social channels offer different values for each audience type. Twitter is effective to drive new audiences, but Facebook is more successful for retaining audiences and converting email subscribers.
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Recommendation engines like Outbrain may grow awareness for some marketers, but the iQ team finds it much more effective to retarget those who had visited iQ at least once.
In-feed native advertising like Sharethrough is used by IQ in conjunction with social platforms like Facebook for multichannel native advertising. Specifically, it shares iQ content to help drive readers to the owned site. Other native platforms like Nativo, Flipboard, and TripleLift fall into this category too.
Marketing automation tools Eloqua and Adobe are used by iQ to automate all the parts and processes of an ongoing content marketing program – from defining key audience segments and third-party overlays to personalizing emails based on content consumption patterns and engagement behaviors.
Intel uses Eloqua for its email service provider (ESP), which allows it to map content consumption and behavioral actions to the content email subscribers receive based on actions and attributes.
Once an iQ reader is in the email database and reads iQ content, the team triggers lower-funnel actions and tactics based on the signals derived from the data. Tools like Salesforce or even programmatic media buys are leveraged to micro-target iQ readers for specific calls to action more aligned to a sales goal.
Think programmatic – designing serial content
In addition to defining an audience development framework and matching the right content to each stage, the team also changed its approach to content marketing strategy. “iQ began to move into a programming mindset,” says Kintigh. Consider how the team treated a series devoted to virtual reality.
When taking on a new topic, such as the future of virtual reality, the editorial team designed a serial approach. In the case of VR, it built a three-part series to dive deep into VR’s use case for retail, software development, and impact on tech startups. Some serial projects included as many as 10 primary stories. The series also included short feature videos interspersed with other content in a splashy presentation on iQ.
Deconstructing the story
With a three-part VR series and accompanying video, the team chopped the assets into smaller pieces for other channels. For example, the video was cut to size for three stories on Snapchat. Users swiped up on the short video to go to the primary story.
And a feature video was uploaded to YouTube. Fifteen- to 30-second videos were used for retargeting ads, leading back to the primary content on iQ. And because of the insights available through retargeting, sequential ads had higher click-through rates.
“Delivering sequential content has been a big win for us,” explains Kintigh. “You have to think about content from the initial hook to the ultimate pay-off, which can span a 15-second video on social to an 800-word long-form article on iQ.”
Glean more advice from iQ
Part of Intel iQ’s success is a thirst for doing better, not necessarily doing more. The team spends considerable time testing and tweaking: studying what the audience wants through the signals it receives, fine-tuning content and delivery to maximize the network effect from social media, and analyzing how best to deploy new tools available on the market.
Rethink the pop-up
Many content-first companies push the “sign-up-for-our-emails” pop-up on a first visit to their site – sometimes even before the visitor had a chance to read anything. That’s a mistake, Kintigh says, because readers rarely sign up for an email subscription on the first visit.
The iQ team determined repeat readers are four times more likely to sign up for emails than first-time readers – so it delayed the pop-up push until a reader’s subsequent visits. And as the team finessed the analysis – looking at post-click data to spot more patterns – it realized someone who spends more than 90 seconds on the site is eight times more likely to sign up. These findings helped the team optimize the precise moment a visitor sees the sign-up pop-up.
Optimize native ad timing
Similarly, the team studied how to use other channels to maximize value. Native ad platforms like Outbrain, says Kintigh, are more effective for retargeting than for growing awareness. And Facebook ads are more effective when displayed to users who have visited iQ multiple times rather than someone who’s unfamiliar with the publication.
Use Agile to fuel approach
“Having an Agile team that’s truly connected to your content supply chain is critical to drive the progression of your audience development strategy,” says Kintigh. He explains that to succeed with an audience-first approach, editors must understand how their content is moving audiences from one stage to the next, and content distribution managers must see how content is being developed and optimized to drive strategic actions.
Pulling off the kind of experimentation described here isn’t for the faint of heart. Kintigh says even with a successful track record, the team knew it could do more. The pivot from emphasizing sheer volume and traffic to focusing on building an owned and loyal audience was essential to withstand the whims of social media algorithms and to build a sustainable content program.
Read how Kintigh describes the breakthrough for iQ that could be your lightbulb moment: “As marketers, we want to believe we can build audiences instantly, but we can’t. Significant trust and loyalty occur over time and happen sequentially.
“At Intel, we researched and refined a strategy that helps us drive first-time readers to become more engaged and take the next strategic action – all of which leads to loyalty and subscription. The strategy isn’t based on a hunch but based on a series of KPIs we measure ourselves against.
“We believe content is not the end goal; it’s a means to an end. The ultimate aim is to harvest and cultivate an audience from the content we create. If done right, your content is merely the cheese to your mouse trap. Simply ‘reaching’ your audience with an ad or headline is not the problem to solve in today’s ecosystem. Moving people to take action, instead of scroll past your ad, is the real challenge.
“Anyone can get an auto-play video ‘view,’ but can you get your audience to stick with the video for more than five seconds? And even more, will they click through to the full story?
“If you’re just after ‘views’ as defined by Facebook, then the answer is you don’t care. However, if you’re trying to build a long-term audience, then think differently about how to create content differently for Facebook. It’s all about how to use Facebook as a means to harvest an audience from its one billion users on to your own platform.
The questions for content marketers should be, ‘How do I get first-time readers back to my site? What else do they want to read? What intelligence can I gather from their behavior and data that we possess?’ All of these ideas and actions are what Netflix and Amazon do extremely well – and as marketers we need to learn from them. They get exponentially smarter about what their users want as they consume more content. That’s the holy grail for content marketers who want to build ongoing relationships through valuable content.”
Please note: All tools included in our blog posts are suggested by authors, not the CMI editorial team. No one post can provide all relevant tools in the space. Feel free to include additional tools in the comments (from your company or ones that you have used).
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute
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