5 tips for custom publishers

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Custom content should be a no-brainer business line for both publishers and advertising partners. For publishers, custom content is a viable revenue generator, one that provides potentially higher margins and more predictable returns than display advertising. For advertisers, custom media presents an opportunity to associate a brand with authentic, credible content about a topic, a trend, a market or an industry.

Custom publishing has long been a staple of both consumer and B2B publishing, usually in the form of special advertising sections.  But custom content development has evolved far beyond traditional advertorial to encompass everything from sponsored microsites to webinars to blogs.

Here’s the challenge: newspaper and magazine publishers have ceded much of this innovative work (and revenue) to third-party custom media shops, marketing agencies and even to the brand marketers themselves. These days, with so many digital tools at their disposal, many marketers are asking a legitimate question: Why do I need to partner with a publisher when I can reach my customers directly with compelling content?

It’s a valid question, but one that many publishers should be able to answer easily. Think of the assets that publishers should be able to bring to the table: Quality editorial content. Instant credibility in a market. Efficiencies in production and delivery. Measurability of results.

How can publishers turn these assets into new business? Here are five tips.

Treat your advertisers as partners, not clients

Hokey, perhaps, but custom media calls for a deeper level of collaboration  than the traditional seller/buyer relationship. Developing compelling content for a client requires a more thorough understanding of that client’s brand proposition, its business objectives, and its goals for the specific campaign.

“Custom publishing gives you an opportunity to form a unique relationship and bond with a customer,” said Steve Reiss, a vice president with Vance Publishing who heads up the company’s Wood Interiors and Salon divisions. “You have to be working with them at lots of different levels, and really understand their audiences and their strategies. When you’re a custom partner, you’re really an extension of their business.”

Forging a deeper relationship can lead to additional business as well. “When you have that sort of relationship, the customer understands your capabilities much better, which helps them to think of you when they’re looking at other types of business,” said Reiss.

Don’t compromise on editorial quality

This is perhaps where custom publishing has changed most dramatically over the years. Marketers have moved away from thinly disguised sales pitches toward more authentic content.  It’s part of a broader cultural shift away from blatant marketing messages, but the credibility factor really hits home in a custom publishing program.

Think about it: The quality of a publication’s editorial content is very likely one of the elements that made advertisers want to invest in the publication in the first place. For this reason, publishers should lead the charge to produce high-quality content that reflects positively on the brands of both sponsor and publisher.

Providing a platform for advertisers to produce thinly veiled promotional content, on the other hand, will be a frustrating experience for both partners. Readers will see the content for what it is – marketing pablum – and quickly click away, leaving damaged reputations for both the advertiser and the publisher. This applies especially to blogs and other social media, where authenticity and transparency are paramount and anything less is quickly ridiculed by the very consumers or customers you’re trying to reach.

High-quality editorial should be a key part of the very value proposition that enables a publisher to develop a healthy custom publishing business.   

Keep your overhead low and your margins high

Custom content offers a potential benefit that’s increasingly rare to publishers in the current environment: profitability! With smaller staffs and higher-margin products, a custom content business can have a positive impact on the balance sheet.

Joe Pulizzi, founder of content marketing specialist Junta42, provides some pricing parameters for custom content in his e-book, The New Rules of Custom Publishing:

“Most custom publishers strive for a 35% gross margin (not including overhead or pass-through costs) on print projects. … Web projects, such as microsites, e-newsletters and webcasts, generally see 50% or higher gross margins. As technology continues to get cheaper, these margins should more than stay intact.”

He also offers a great tool for pricing out custom projects.

Custom publishing departments have not escaped the budget axe over the past two years. Many shops operate on a shoestring, relying heavily on freelancers to execute programs.

At Vance, Reiss’s custom media group uses full-time staff to manage the projects, but taps into freelance expertise for much of the content development, design and delivery work. “We have contacts with lots of people with particular skill sets – design, marketing, editorial – which allows us to staff up or down as we need to,” said Reiss.

Be channel-agnostic

Publishers should not limit themselves to a particular delivery channel or format – after all, this is custom content we’re talking about. Custom media has evolved into a broad mix of print, Web, mobile and social offerings as advertisers seek out the best methods for reaching their target audience. Publishers should leverage their skills in any/all of these channels to develop programs that will best meet advertisers’ objectives.

“We don’t look at [custom media] as a print business or non-print,” said Reiss. “It’s about audience creation, engagement and development.”

Measure, measure, measure

As online metrics have helped publishers quantify their core business for advertisers, so have they helped custom publishing programs. From tracking leads to calculating transaction revenue, campaign metrics are a key selling point for custom publishers.

Regardless of the platform or delivery channel, publishers have to help their clients draw a straight line to business performance, or they won’t come back. This pertains to social media as well, where more marketers are looking for help developing compelling content. Olivier Blanchard has produced the best presentation I’ve seen yet on determining the business value of social media. It's worth the read.  

 

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