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Before a piece of marketing can have a chance of persuading anyone of anything it needs to be seen.

The necessity of registering in someone’s brain via their eyes has all but been forgotten in the fad for ‘brand publishing’.

I contend that if being seen is a measure of success then there isn't a single successful brand-run content destination out there worth the resources being invested to keep it afloat.

While we can’t know the number of people seeing a given page without access to privately held analytics data, we can use a proxy for this: links and shares.

It’s an undisputed fact proven by the Barabási–Albert model that the attention received by the strongly interlinked set of pages that form a website follows a long-tail distribution.

A handful of very heavily visited and linked-to pages forms the head, followed by an exceptionally steep drop-off that encompasses the rest, with very little in-between.

If a page has few links it isn’t likely to have either been popular or to become popular again as it isn’t sufficiently embedded in the topology of the web.

Ergo the vast majority of pages that exist on the web have zero value for marketing purposes as they are never seen by large numbers of people.

Odd then that a Google Alert for the term ‘content marketing’ turns up dozens of new posts every day exhorting the virtues of being a brand that publishes.

Odder still that I’ve yet to find a post that demonstrates success with actual numbers; for instance the Content Marketing Institute relies on listicle heavy posts unsupported by verifiable evidence.

By contrast my contention can be easily investigated by using a service such as Ahrefs to look at publicly available data to gauge the level of interaction with a given page.

Reviewing any major brand publishing effort reveals that, barring a few outliers, the majority of content published to these sites receives next to no links and goes nowhere, receiving few shares.

Let's put it to the test by looking at several different branded content destinations and reviewing how many times posts have been shared to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+ and Pinterest.

Clearly one can dispute this data but what's important is that Ahrefs collects this consistently.

As such it's useful for making direct comparisons between pages and sites regardless of whether the overall counts are exactly accurate.

B2C publishing examples

FAB Beauty from L’Oreal, a business with revenues of over £17bn a year and over 78,000 employees, received 1,972 shares for its top post followed by an average of only 66 shares per post for everything subsequent to this.

The referring domain data indicates no one is linking here from elsewhere on the web. This site is dead in the water.

Yet here’s breathless marketer fantasyland commentary from Contently:

FAB Beauty is not a commercially-oriented website aimed at advertising products.

Rather, its purpose is to shed light on the professional beauty industry as a whole and build an audience of loyal readers, which can, in turn, have an impact on driving foot traffic and sales to salons.

Traveler from Marriott, a business with revenues of £9bn a year and 200,000 employees, received 1,915 shares for its top post.

The average for the remaining 319 posts in Ahrefs' index is 83 shares. Yet the commentary from Contently (who worked on the site) would indicate it’s the second coming: 'We’re a Media Company Now: Inside Marriott’s Incredible Money-Making Content Studio'.

David Beebe of Marriott claims:

In its first ninety days, [Marriott Traveler] drove over seventy-two hundred room bookings.

How this was attributed is not properly explained. If we took average room price and length of stay and subtracted costs I wonder if what’s leftover could pay for the ‘content studio’ for ninety days.

Referring to YouTube and the two short films Marriott produced recently, Two Bellmen and French Kiss, we can see from the ‘statistics’ below the videos how views take-off like a rocket then completely flatline.

This is usually indicative that paid promotion is behind any 'popularity'.

Here’s the rub: you pay to create the content and then you actually have to pay again to get it seen.

The marketing sector’s narrative around earned, owned and paid media is largely a fraud: the 'most viral video of all time' may have obtained 75% of its views via paid spend.

Beebe says: "We created content, we created community around it, and then we’re actually driving commerce against it." I have reasonable doubts about the 'community' and 'commerce' parts of that statement.

B2B brand publishers

The Engagement Bureau from Mastercard received 3,471 shares for its top post. The average for the rest of the posts in Ahrefs' index is 42 shares.

This business has revenues of £6.6bn and over 10,000 employees.

Open Forum from American Express is a site that's been going for a number of years and has had plaudits heaped upon it.

It manages 17,346 shares for its top performing post but averages a mere 200 shares per post across the 1,310 remaining posts in Ahrefs' index.

I could go on and on.

In the case of each site one or two pieces of content perform significantly better than the rest, but none are exactly stellar performers.

Let's remember that these are instantly recognisable brands with huge numbers of employees who invest substantial amounts in advertising.

Yet the average amount of sharing occurring is utterly insignificant. This tells us that the claims made by social media and content marketing 'thought leaders' about people wanting to 'engage with brands' is utterly fanciful.

Percolate says in its case study for Unilever: “The hallmark of a great marketer is one who produces regular, predictable success.”

The only thing regular and predictable about brand publishing for a client is that posts will get fewer shares than the number of people they hired to create them and be seen by fewer people than they employ.

Brands can publish but that doesn't make them media companies.

By contrast, The Guardian has half a million entries in Ahrefs' index of content and receives an average of over 77,000 shares across the top 1,000 posts.

The Travel section alone gets 4,500 shares on average across its top 1,000 posts.

For a site like Marriott's to compete requires an unsustainable level of quantity and quality in terms of content production, followed by an equally unsustainable amount of promotion; however this still wouldn't guarantee a return.

Real people don’t care about this stuff; certainly not enough to become regular readers.

To publish, or not to publish?

Brands are therefore in a Catch-22. Their sites are at best novelties rather than content destinations in their own right.

If these spaces are little more than holding places for content with the odd popular piece getting shared elsewhere, then all they’re doing is potentially benefiting one of the major social platforms.

Marketers used to talk about 'driving traffic' back to a brand's website from such activity. This doesn't happen.

If the pages aren’t being viewed they aren't worth the investment of resources to produce.

The web is a complex network that follows certain rules. What marketing agencies generally don’t understand, or ignore because it doesn't fit their business model, is that the web consists of niches all the way down.

Each niche, big or small, is dominated by a tiny handful of hubs.

This is highly resistant to any ability to ‘broadcast’ a message and reach a lot of people consistently, quickly, and cost-effectively.

To infiltrate messaging into more than a few niches becomes prohibitively expensive and is usually ignored; display media as a way of doing this performs terribly.

In this winner-takes-all environment where only a few hubs thrive it’s most unlikely any business not solely focused on publishing and promotion could compete for attention.

For this to then be a profitable asset is a virtually insurmountable challenge; despite all those page views The Guardian is losing money.

This post is certain to draw the ire of those with a vested interest in content marketing, so before they start citing the few successful outliers in the comments I’d like to set a bar for anyone who wants to refute what I’ve said.

It’s simply this: if you work for a brand or agency which believes there to be value in these efforts, please compile a list of your top 100 posts from last year that individually received over 1,000 links from more than 100 domains that were shared more than 10,000 times on any combination of social platforms.

Then let us all see the URLs for these posts listed below so we can see what regular and predictable success looks like.

Mark Higginson

Published 20 January, 2016 by Mark Higginson

Mark is the founder of Out To Sea and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter.

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will b, digital at la

Wow, how refreshing to see an honest review of the brand/social media/content/blogging train that everyone has jumped on.
So many companies are quick to rave on their SM success, when they don’t account for the bottom line, ROI in £ terms.
I am sick of the BS that I read every day, churning it out like it’s significant.
Maybe we should be more focused on good old customer service than how many shares we get.
Great work Mark.

11 months ago

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Arjun Basu, SVP, Content Strategy at Spafax

I would say this: print is different. And it's not dead. Ad supported print exists! Still! And in content marketing, brands aligning themselves in the brand space of other brands works (think in-flight magazines, for example). The brand as publisher trope is old. I agree. But most of the posts really are content for contents' sake. And that's another argument entirely...

11 months ago

Pete Austin

Pete Austin, CINO at Fresh Relevance

Great Post! Totally agree. "I like Marks and Spencer clothes so I must go to their website to see if they make movies too" - said no customer ever.

11 months ago

John Galavan

John Galavan, Sales at Juice

Excellent review. The topic is moving steadily digital... the obvious noted... there is enormous value to see, consider what is seen, and to later engage. The "traditional" purpose of advertising will be with us for many more generations but... digital is changing it. How many of us in reading print look for that save, cut, paste button? I sure do and I'm the least among all of you having come from a long career in the analog era.

11 months ago

Ian Harris

Ian Harris, CEO at Search LaboratorySmall Business Multi-user

Great read! The value of content as a lead generation machine is really difficult to prove. If it's difficult to prove it probably doesn't exist. The value of links in a world where natural links are very hard to achieve is still pretty massive. If the content plan has this as a goal then it will deliver measurable ROI. However, it needs a different approach, and one that may not sit easily with the brand/comms teams that typically put these content plans together.

We have plenty of examples of measurable improvements in organic ranking from inbound links from content and that does deliver sustainable revenue.

11 months ago

Richard Taylor

Richard Taylor, Director at Taylor Partners Ltd

Thanks for reminding us all not to get too carried away with what we do. Having said that when did marketing people ever tell it like it is!

11 months ago

Justin Bowser

Justin Bowser, Managing Director, Online Business at HTK

Nice thought-provoking article (all the good ones are). I'm not going to link to it, and I've only viewed once - but it has given me a lasting impression of the author.

So has it worked as an exercise in publishing? Quite possibly.

I'd also argue that there's a "quality vs quantity" consideration in general. If I marketed oil rigs, a handful of views of my spec sheet from the *right* oil company execs would be a good result :)

What irks me is the bandwagon mentality that has taken hold wrt "content marketing" / "inbound marketing", "brands as publishers"... it's like the silver bullet that email marketing was considered to be 10 years ago; people jumped at it and immediately forgot the basics of good marketing.

11 months ago

George Cole

George Cole, Digital Marketing Manager at TN

This is a really refreshing post. As a travel company, we publish content including blogs and tour/holiday product. It's a journey to provide inspiring blog content and back it up with tightly relevant product, that if inspired, a reader could enquire about booking for themselves.

I can measure exactly how many leads and at what value this content plan has generated, but as you say, even with a fairly robust outreach model and an engaged audience - at the end of the day, if you were to invest time and resource in PPC - it would likely be much more profitable.

In other measurements - you can monitor the number of keywords and URLs a site ranks for organically, and content marketing combined with solid SEO should certainly aid your organic position and introduce visitors to your site who you could strategically re-market to.

I think the key is to try to *realistically* estimate how much value your content marketing generates, and balance that against the cost to create. As you say "Here’s the rub: you pay to create the content and then you actually have to pay again to get it seen" - we generate content in-house and probably wouldn't justify paying for content creation AND paying for outreach.

This is certainly an interesting debate - thanks for your post Mark :)

11 months ago

Aidan Cook

Aidan Cook, Owner at Original Online

Wait, you're saying that the Emperor is naked? After he spent all that money on new clothes? Surely that's not possible...

I hadn't seen the Marriott Bellmen thing before, but how in the name of anything ever did someone think "My hotel brand will derive measurable benefit from an action short that features gunmen walking into a hotel and shooting people"?

There's an element of Vanity Publishing to so much of this work. Brands are telling themselves "Look, we made a movie, it's really cool" without asking themselves "Is it?" and "Why?".

11 months ago

Tom Parnell

Tom Parnell, Head of eCommerce at Oliver Spencer

Great article. My own view is that there is still a place for brand-produced content, but under very specific conditions, and with a tight focus. Content should be primarily designed to enhance conversion amongst those who are already engaged to some degree (for instance, long-form articles -- ideally evergreen -- answering questions customers are known (via research) to have, or providing authoritative and in-depth information they are known to want and on which they will trust and value the brand's opinion/insight).

This kind of content should be knitted tightly into the eCom experience (though remaining optional, of course!) An example might be an article on the history of the trench coat and how technology and trends have allowed it to evolve, presented as below-the-fold/linked content from a trench coat product page. Particularly in the luxury sphere, enriching 'hero' products in this way can have a meaningful impact on conversion -- providing a role analogous to that of a well-informed sales assistant in a shop. But only if the content is absolutely relevant and of interest to the customer, helping them to do what they've set out to do (which is generally to research or make a purchase, not 'explore' or 'engage' or any other fluffy actions beloved of mediocre content marketers).

11 months ago

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Paul Smith, MD at Analysis and Actio

As a publisher (including a stint at the Guardian) who has become a search marketer, I think I can offer a slightly different perspective. That is that brands need to think like publishers not BE like publishers. The publishing process really is simple - what content will appeal to my audience. We need to write about stuff our target market is interested in reading. We need to publish this in a format that they want to consume (features, news, video, soundbites, podcasts). Publishers spend a lot of time on audience research (mainly because advertisers demand it) and only remain in business (business model aside) because they retain their audience.
Companies selling products online need to think in exactly the same way - where are my customers looking, what are they looking for, how can we answer their questions etc, instead of just having a set of organisation-centric pages. It's very hard on a decent publishing site to find out much about the company!
But if you start with the customer, audience, market and their interest, of course you can create a content strategy that meets that need. Without good content people won't find you and even if they do you need to help them buy from you (concepts, feelings as well as stuff), so think like a publisher but don't try to be a media business - in fact work with them because they have the audience reach that you'll never get. I'm yet to meet a business that needs more content - but I meet loads who have (totally relevant) content that customers can't find. That's a waste.

11 months ago

Richard Hussey

Richard Hussey, Owner at RSH Copywriting

A much needed reality check. It would be interesting to know how the brands you mention measure the success of what they do. Has Amex, for example, built a top quality email database through the content it publishes so it doesn't have to rely on direct mail so much?

Marriott is a fascinating one. Travel journalism is a crowded space and investing in branded content seems to fly in the face of the reality of how people choose and book hotels. I couldn't get beyond the first minute of the self-satisfied Two Bell-Men or whatever it was called.

Similarly it makes no sense for kitchen appliance makers to invest in cookery videos when there's more cooking on TV than we could ever consume (in any sense).

In my experience content works best when it is associated with an individual rather than a brand (even if there is a brand that wraps around it).

Here's a question though: Is E-consultancy a brand publisher? If it is, why are you doing it if it's all nonsense?

11 months ago

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Paul Sharp, Senior Product Manager at FOODit Ltd

Very sensible appraisal of content marketing. We've also used social shares to judge the worth of B2B content marketing in our space and seen very little evidence of traffic. Our own content publishing experiments have baked this up. Yet it continues to be spouted as a major channel for reaching customers, without evidence.

11 months ago

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Giovanni Ciampaglia, Web Marketing Manager at Global Garden Products

Interesting to see that you are doing content marketing with this guest post that may generate traffic to your agency website that may lead to a new client, new revenues and a ROI (Or Return on Content should I say?) . Good piece anyway!

11 months ago

Mark Higginson

Mark Higginson, Founder at Twenty Thousand Leagues

Thanks to everyone who has commented!

A subtext to this is how as marketers I expect that through our experience we would be inoculated against being swept up by whatever trend a vested interest is putting forward as a solution. Yet time and again it seems that critical faculties aren't properly employed. I find this troubling because as service providers we have a professional duty to put our clients first. Making money for ourselves is an outcome of making money for our clients.

I'm not going so far as to accuse agencies of being deliberately duplicitous but it does seem that a lack of close analysis is convenient when putting agency billings first rather than client needs. Just look at the adtech sector and the rampant fraud that providers appear to have been aware of and have done next to nothing about.

This is how the promise of bright new marketing opportunities get swiftly tarnished which harms all of us and, more importantly, harms public perception of our clients.

@Aidan -- I'd originally called the piece 'vanity publishing'!

11 months ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

Hi Mark, interesting article.

I can well believe that much of this content isn't half as effective as the agencies behind it might claim. Like many people, I don't head to an ecommerce site to read the articles.

However, I'm not sure the low number of shares alone proves your point. As Justin says above, just a few sales of the right product may justify the outlay, while there are potential benefits in terms of branding and SEO. These are harder to quantify, but have value for the brands using said content.

Another point is that content marketing doesn't necessarily deliver instant results. It takes time to build an audience, to understand the types of content which are most effective, and so on. This blog, which is undoubtedly an effective piece of content marketing, took several years to pay off. The FAB Beauty content site only started in November 2015, so it's perhaps a little early to judge it.

11 months ago

David Moth

David Moth, Editor & Head of Social at EconsultancyStaff

Thanks for your comments everyone.

@Richard, funnily enough I made the same point about Econsultancy being a brand publisher in my initial Twitter conversation with Mark.

https://twitter.com/DavidMoth/status/684368043821133824

I think the fundamental difference is that Econsultancy is a publishing business, and always has been. We're not a B2C company that has suddenly started blogging. We have an established audience that expects regular blog articles, and those articles are a natural fit with our existing products and services.

11 months ago

Ginger Conlon

Ginger Conlon, Editor in Chief at Haymarket Media Group

Interesting perspective, and I agree with the idea that marketers should have a sensible content strategy (not a 'vanity' plan, as you note) and track content performance as they would the performance of other channels. There are companies, B2B and B2C alike, that do this well and can show a direct connection between posts and sales. (One online grocery knows, for example, that readers of its blog spend more and buy more often than customers who don't read it.) It's also interesting, Mark, that your site has a blog; so, clearly, you do believe that content marketing works to at least some degree.

11 months ago

Andrew Girdwood

Andrew Girdwood, Head of Media Technology at Signal

I think brands are publishers now, whether they like it or not, and whether they can cope with it or not.

You're calling out some example of brands trying to make magazine-cum-community work. That's just one possible example. Any website live today has been published.

11 months ago

Mark Higginson

Mark Higginson, Founder at Twenty Thousand Leagues

@Ginger -- Yes you're correct; I fought against having a blog and we'll be ditching it in the forthcoming much needed redesign. I also have my own blog, but that serves more as a place I can refer to when I need to point out how long I've sustained this point-of-view for rather than an expectation of having a readership! That's why I occasionally pick a well-read hub and post there :)

You assert that there are companies who can show a direct connection between posts and sales: please can you say who and provide numbers? One of my key points is holding this kind of statement to account with evidence.

@andrew -- I really don't follow you're point. That's a pointless semantic argument. 'Brand publishing' is well understood to involve regular creation of articles, not specifically product focused, in order to gain a regular readership / sharing of posts and requires a team working on such at significant expense. Also every website follows a long-tail distribution pattern to its pages so the point holds up regardless.

11 months ago

Pete Austin

Pete Austin, CINO at Fresh Relevance

@Mark Higginson, @Ginger Conlon

Having a blog is not the same as doing content marketing.

There are many items of company "news" - such as press releases, job announcements, product enhancements and new features - that need to go somewhere - and a blog is one possible place ,

11 months ago

Andrew Girdwood

Andrew Girdwood, Head of Media Technology at Signal

Hi Mark - the very same econsultancy article you linked to explain "brand publishing" makes the point that brands don't have to start churning out content in the magazine format. It suggests brands can learn from the likes of the BBC and the Guardian who publish tailored, interactive, big idea content.

My point is that brand publishing isn't just the regular creation of articles. Game publishers, in particular, wouldn't even recognise that in their business.

Article: https://econsultancy.com/blog/64756-what-does-brands-as-publishers-really-mean/

11 months ago

Mark Higginson

Mark Higginson, Founder at Twenty Thousand Leagues

@Andrew -- That link has been added in by Econsultancy themselves; regardless you're still attempting unnecessary generalisation. I feel you either haven't understood or don't wish to grasp the fundamentals of my post which is very clear as to what kind of publishing is being discussed by virtue of the examples supplied.

I've also made it very clear that NONE of this stuff achieves regular, repeatable success. One-off interest maybe -- but that isn't why brands employ marketers! As I keep on saying: if you can refute my argument publish a list of data-supported examples we can examine.

11 months ago

Ginger Conlon

Ginger Conlon, Editor in Chief at Haymarket Media Group

@Mark -- Thanks for replying. Always good to have your own blog as a subject matter expert! I'm on the hunt for the article we wrote on that grocer and will follow up with the link.

11 months ago

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Joel Stein, Search & Media Manager at Code Computerlove Ltd

"1,000 links from more than 100 domains" - why would a single post average 10 links from each of those 100 domains, and what makes this a meaningful threshold for success anyway? It's also a fact that different types of content attract links vs shares, so asking for a list of posts that have performed so impressively on both fronts at once is disingenuous. And what about content that is driving loads of free, converting traffic from search, but hasn't really achieved much in the way of links/shares - is that not successful too?

Many big, well-resourced brands are failing hard at content marketing. Does that mean "brands as publishers" is nonsense? Absolutely not. Sure, there's a lot of hyperbole and buzzwordism around content marketing, but there are also some brilliant people doing brilliant things.

I won't validate this extended piece of trollitorial with a list of 100 things, but I'll share one...

Here's a quiz we published for a client: http://www.hulltrains.co.uk/blog/for-fun/how-hull-are-you. It took a couple of hours to create. Before we spent a single penny promoting it, it had been taken over 18,000 times. We've put a few hundred quid behind it, and it's now approaching 50,000 completes. It's already repaid that investment in revenue generated on the site.

Just because misguided people are spending big money badly, that doesn't mean great results can't come from small spends. Anyway, I could evangelise all day about this, but all this epic content won't produce itself...

11 months ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

I'd dispute your point that, because pageviews are low (as the social shares stats suggest) the content is useless. It may only need to convert a very low percentage to pay off, or the SEO benefits alone may justify the investment in content.

In Marriot's case, if it did indeed deliver 7200 sales in its first 90 days, that suggests to me it has a good chance of working out.

11 months ago

Lee Stuart

Lee Stuart, Co-founder at Caliber

@Mark Higginson, Nice thought provoking post which has fostered some considerable debate amongst our team (and some client meetings!) today. However im on the fence at the moment, because like @Ginger Conlon we are beginning to join the dots, as our clients attribution modelling maturity improves we are seeing that customers who interacted with hub content prior to making a purchase are spending more and more often than those who didn't visit the hub content as part of their customer journey. That alone gives a certain amount of weight to the business case for further investment and thats before talk about link earning and positive user signals which may help influence natural search visibility (and probably more so in years to come).

11 months ago

Mark Higginson

Mark Higginson, Founder at Twenty Thousand Leagues

@Ginger -- Great, I'd be interested to read it!

@Lee -- Would you post a list of the hubs you refer to as contributing to this effect? Total unique visits received by top 50 posts also would be helpful? I'll run them in Ahrefs too and review the backlinks. Then I can provide a comment :)

11 months ago

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MI Digital, Storytelling For Enterprise Clients at MI Digital

Whilst I do agree somewhat with the viewpoint, this is the same extreme as saying TV alone works or even Social is the ultimate Panacea. It must be remembered that Digital is a great support medium. When you go big (e.g. a 360 degree campaign including TV) than digital and content marketing plays a very significant.

However overall yes we at www.midigital.co are even bracing for a world where there's no free lunch. Digital is becoming like any other medium much like TV, Print or OutDoor. The best approach is be Media Neutral and invest in what drives the most ROI.

11 months ago

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Jonny Stewart, Head of Ecommerce at Elemis

I think if you set up your blog to directly challenge the Guardian's readership (or in your case Mark, maybe Econsultancy itself?), then fair play, that is definitely a moon shot and likely to fail.

However, if you creating content to try and help consumers make an informed decision on a purchase from you, be it service or product, then it definitely has a place.

As a client of digital agencies like your own, I've found agencies before through published content and I've made enquiries off the back off published content. I didn't link or share any of it though.

At the end of the day, you first have to address 'what success means' and build your Objectives, KPIs and Targets around it.

@Lee's example is to do with the effect on sales conversion. 'Number of backlinks' is not a KPI of conversion, but I might be wrong...

11 months ago

Mark Higginson

Mark Higginson, Founder at Twenty Thousand Leagues

@Jonny -- But they are explicitly setting themselves up in this way: "we're a media company now" says Beebe. The hype around 'brand publishing' has never been 'helping consumers make an informed decision' and that isn't what I highlight in the post. That's back-pedalling from everything clients are being told this thing is all about.

My other point is cost of production vs. the return. Sure, you may very well get the odd lead which you may be able to 'attribute' to someone happening to have seen an article. That in itself is only a justification for doing it if the number of leads significantly, measurably and sustainably exceeds the cost of production. A decent 'content studio' to produce at the quantity and quality to stand any chance of competing for meaningful attention is going to be hundreds of thousands, in salaries alone, if not more.

I would really like to not reiterate points already made in the post but I was really clear about what 'success' means in the first instance: an article or whatever needs to be seen. My entire contention is because of the fundamental and observable way attention flows on the web this doesn't happen at the scale required for subsequent revenue-generating actions for the vast majority of web pages.

I wait to hear back from @Lee so we can assess whether the hubs to which he refers really are linked in any way to sales we can observe....

11 months ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

@mark To be a success, this content doesn't necessarily have to be seen by a huge audience. If it's seen by the target audience, a relatively small number of views may be enough, if said traffic contributes to sales.

Also, while social shares may provide an indication of content popularity, it doesn't necessary correlate with traffic. For example, my top 10 most shared posts of 2015 are not even in the top 20 most popular.

You've also skipped over what seem to be very promising early results from Marriot (7200 sales). In addition, Fab Beauty was launched just 2 or 3 months ago, hardly time to build an audience.

11 months ago

Ben Davis

Ben Davis, Senior Writer at EconsultancyStaff

Nothing is absolute, Mark. The nub of the issue is what brands are trying to achieve by publishing.

And I agree with Andrew, we cannot simply define publishing as copying a news model.

Your analysis is based on an old-fashioned predilection for clicks. You say: "... every website follows a long-tail distribution pattern to its pages so the point holds up regardless."

Even Buzzfeed probably sees the same pattern - that's how click-bait emerged in the first place, as an attempt to shorten the tail.

For brands, it's not as simple as clicks. You first made your point to me on social media when dissecting The National Trust's editorial.

Most of that editorial is created with people across the Trust's network. It's as much a part of its work as guiding people around properties. If an article gets 100 views, that's disappointing but how do we know that:

- the content isn't useful elsewhere, both online and off (in printed material, for guides etc).
- these 100 views don't convert into 1 wedding booking.
- the header photograph features prominently in Google image search and improves perception online.
- these 100 views convert to 5 offline visits, with no way of matching up this data.
- a mainstream news outlet picks up detail to embellish a topical news story at a later date.
- this article empowers volunteers and creates a lasting record of a place.

I shan't ramble on. But defining 'a brand', 'publishing' and 'success' is difficult.

11 months ago

Ben Davis

Ben Davis, Senior Writer at EconsultancyStaff

As Andrew said, on the internet, brands are publishers whether they can cope or not.

11 months ago

Tom Parnell

Tom Parnell, Head of eCommerce at Oliver Spencer

@Ben -- I know your comment is addressed to Mark, but adding my thoughts. I think the 'how do we know that...' route isn't necessarily a helpful one -- precisely because we don't know. If an agency were pitching a content hub to me, I'd certainly expect a bit more from them than, 'the National Trust does this, and we don't know that it didn't do X, Y & Z...' Isn't Mark's point that, given the cost of doing a good job on large-scale, content-as-destination-style editorial, we ought to be worried at the dearth of rigorous, commercially sound case studies? Not to mention the number of agencies or individuals who are happy to make incredibly bold claims but oddly reticent about providing examples to back them up.

To me, it's slightly odd that the onus is to a degree on people like Mark to prove that major investment in a 'brand as publisher' strategy ISN'T rational -- rather than the onus being on those arguing that brands should be pouring huge amounts of cash into content to prove robustly that it actually works.

11 months ago

Lee Stuart

Lee Stuart, Co-founder at Caliber

@Mark as an agency owner yourself you know that i'm not going to be able to share client analytics data with you, i also know that you're not going to be able to 'assess whether the hubs to which he refers really are linked in any way to sales we can observe'. I agree with many of your points and a reality check is good, however as with Andrew, Jonny and others its a developing landscape, i will share something publicly via our blog or this site once i have proper sign off.

11 months ago

Mark Higginson

Mark Higginson, Founder at Twenty Thousand Leagues

@Joel -- The reason for those arbritrary performance figures was the vain hope that agency-types who wanted to refute my argument might actually post some data we could pore over to advance the debate; essentially anything to show that multiple web pages they were creating on a content hub for a client all achieved interest from elsewhere on the web.

You've cited one example, which rather validates my point where I repeatedly state that, due to the long tail effect you will generally observe one or two better performing posts among a sea of also-rans. Please do share a long list of your "epic content", perhaps from sites including 'Hull Trains' and beyond we can look at?

As quoted: “The hallmark of a great marketer is one who produces regular, predictable success.”

@Graham -- Thank you for your comments. That's precisely the question I'm asking. If you have to create 500 posts to get one post that generates a positive return are you actually making money? Did Marriott's content really generate 7,200 sales? After costs are taken into account is this a profit? I'm urging clients to examine this closely. If so, then great. But I doubt it for the reasons I give.

@Ben -- Buzzfeed doesn't 'probably' see the same pattern; it's built precisely to take advantage of that pattern! It extends the tail, not shortens it, with the overall effect providing a general uplift when repeated at massive scale.

Also, I'm only talking about links, shares, clicks, whatever, as a proxy for being seen. If a piece on the National Trust gets 100 views then I hope they do see it as a failure! Aim higher!

As to Andrew's comment "brands are publishers, like it or not" this is like saying "all cooks are chefs", "all decorators are artists", "all joggers are athletes" -- it isn't a helpful or useful observation.

11 months ago

Chris Lee

Chris Lee, Founder at Silvester & Finch Ltd.

Jumping in here. Definitely a timely reminder for the industry to hold itself to account. It's prompted me to create a blog post in response. There's a lot of rubbish out there, but - as Andrew Girdwood said further up the chain - brands do publish, and they need copy to rank on search, and inform and persuade audiences.

The question is - does it really serve its intended audience? Here's the post, I look forward to your thoughts http://www.silvesterandfinch.co.uk/content-marketing-best-practice-avoid-content-for-contents-sake/

11 months ago

Ivan Burmistrov

Ivan Burmistrov, Usability Expert at interUX Usability Engineering Studio OÜ

Bravo! Deadly excellent blow to content marketing and social media mafias!

11 months ago

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Nishad Ramachandran, VP Digital Experience at Hansa Cequity

@Mark I think you missed touching upon two big successes of brand created content. RedBull and Volvo . Both of them on YouTube. When I looked last the RedBulll channel had over 1.3 billion views with the top ten videos each having upwards of 10 million views. With Volvo the channel view numbers are in the region of 200 million and their top ten videos easily grossing views upwards of a million each.

One other name that comes to mind when thinking of a brand built around content is Net-a-Porter who tapped on the insight that people liked to buy things off the content they consume, launched a site around this, then had the audacity to launch their own print magazine and now a social networking site. They are a profitable etaling site too (maybe the Guardian's of the world can learn a thing or two from Natalie Massenet and her team ;) )

11 months ago

Mark Higginson

Mark Higginson, Founder at Twenty Thousand Leagues

I've re-read all the comments so far and thanks again to everyone who has written something. Whether we agree or disagree I am grateful people take the time to respond.

@Chris My thoughts are your post is exactly the kind of thing from marketing agencies that I'm railing against. It's the difference between showing and telling. You're telling us what you think is 'best practice'. The point I'm making is that if it works so damn well and if agencies who sell these services have so much experience, as they claim, why can literally no one show us? Your post, in response to what I've written here, was a golden opportunity to say 'here are nine things you should do and here are links to a hundred examples where we did this in the past year for clients that illustrate these points that were provably successful'. It's the web. If you say you can do content marketing please link to you doing it!

11 months ago

Ginger Conlon

Ginger Conlon, Editor in Chief at Haymarket Media Group

@Mark - Here's that article link (finally...): http://bit.ly/1RHowTl. I was referring to Abe's Market.

11 months ago

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Richard Stacy, Owner at Stacy Consulting

I know of one very large international brand with a very big content strategy which maintains it is successful because it has achieved 'cost-effective reach'. However, the reach is so low, not matter how 'cost effective' it is, they are unable to detect that their content programme is actually moving the needle on sales or brand affinity metrics. It therefore cannot scale the activity. It still remains the case that by far the most effective piece of content a brand could ever make is an ad.

How to break this content delusion? For me it had to come down to value creation. Traditional media is (and was designed as) a distribution medium and the way you create value within it is via channel and message / reach and frequency. Social media is a connection medium and the way you create value in it is via behaviour identification and response. You can hardly ever generate significant reach in social media because that is not what is was designed to do, there is no audience there to reach - just individuals. The value of the contacts with these individuals therefore has to be hugely greater than any sort of contact we are accustomed to creating via conventional channel and message / reach and frequency tactics, and hugely more valuable than any sort of relationship you could create simply by pushing content at someone - no matter how 'engaging' this content is.

It is going to take a while before people realise this because no-one wants to let go of something they know and understand – far better to try and make the old thing you know about work within the new media space you don’t yet understand.

11 months ago

Mark Higginson

Mark Higginson, Founder at Twenty Thousand Leagues

@Ginger -- Thanks for the link. I read the piece and do wonder how many people are 'engaging' with 'Scoop' as they put it? We don't know what 'engagement' means in this context but the claim is people who do this are twice as likely to 'convert' -- we have to assume this means complete an order rather than some other conversion. Be absolutely fascinated to know their numbers as the content they produce is low in volume. Worth noting they get almost all their shares via Pinterest -- patterns the same but the resulting activity may differ. Interesting nonetheless!

@Richard -- Thanks for your comment. Absolutely spot on. I think that point about identification and response is absolutely critical to understanding where we take this.

11 months ago

David Lengen

David Lengen, Digital Marketing Director at Skype

@Mark I understand Joe Pulizzi has commented on this article but it's not displayed. Will you be publishing it soon?

11 months ago

David Moth

David Moth, Editor & Head of Social at EconsultancyStaff

@David Lengen, I've checked our CMS and can't see any comments from Joe Pulizzi caught in the spam folder or anywhere else. Apologies, there must have been an error somewhere along the line - we definitely haven't unpublished it.

11 months ago

Joe Pulizzi

Joe Pulizzi, Founder at Content Marketing Institute

@David Lengen/@David Moth...thanks. I posted twice so not sure what happened (I received the confirmation and everything).

Anyway, Robert Rose and I covered many of our thoughts in Episode 115 of our This Old Marketing podcast (https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/pnr-this-old-marketing-joe/id760760485).

@Mark...if you'd like to listen, we'd of course welcome that. You are right that most brands are doing this wrong. Our annual research bears this out. But just because some people do an approach wrong doesn't mean the approach itself is wrong. If we take that stance, then every kind of marketing is wrong because there are always brands that don't do it right. You may appreciate this article on Content Marketing Is Getting Weird (http://contentmarketinginstitute.com/2016/01/content-marketing-weird/).

From the article: "The reasons why marketers are disillusioned with content marketing are varied: Companies focus on campaigns instead of ongoing programs, publish content that’s brand-focused rather than audience-focused, or produce content that’s undifferentiated in any way. Goals like “engagement” don’t connect to long-term results, and the lack of audience building in any way shocks and astonishes me."

You asked for some quantitative case studies - Kraft 4x better than traditional advertising (https://econsultancy.com/blog/65472-kraft-foods-reveals-the-secret-of-content-marketing-roi/), Copyblogger (90% of revenue comes first from email subscribers, who come through the content), TD Ameritrade (subscribers trade 5x more than non-subscribers http://contentmarketinginstitute.com/2015/07/content-marketing-domination/), P&G's BeingGirl.com 4x more effective than ads (http://contentmarketinginstitute.com/2008/02/pg-does-it-agai/) to name a few. My new book Content Inc has another 20+ examples as well. Also see Epic Content Marketing. River Pools & Spas is another great case. You can listen to that one first hand in our documentary "The Story of Content" http://thestoryofcontent.com/.

Hope that helps and thanks for bringing this up. We need more people to think about why they should take this approach instead of blindly just creating content.

11 months ago

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Candyce Edelen, CEO at PropelGrowth

Since when are likes and shares a measure of the ROI for content? That's an old-school measurement from 4-5 years ago. If a content piece from a brand only gets 2 views, but one of them buys a $10,000 product after viewing, has that content failed? In your view, apparently so. But I've never made money from a like or a share or even a backlink. I can, however, demonstrate that 100% of my company's client base has bought after consuming the content we publish.

11 months ago

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Richard Stacy, Owner at Stacy Consulting

Joe, you make a good point in that the spectrum of what might be called a content strategy is very wide. In fact the Kraft example is so far away from the standard 'brandfill' content strategy as to be unrecognisable as part of the same activity. Kraft's approach is basically a big data / algorithmic play that uses content as a stimulus material and a means of creating an owned data pool. Of course it would be possible to do the same thing using other data sources, albeit these could be sources you have to buy-in rather than own (interesting point here re. paid, earned and owned data - as distinct from media).

Looking at some of the other examples you quote, the main justification for success appears to be effectiveness of content versus advertising - however none of them address the scale issue. Something can be more cost-effective than advertising, but unless it achieves the reach of advertising, that doesn't really count for much. The idea that you should use paid to support your content also seems to validate the idea that there is a reach problem with 'organic' content - and in any case I think it is more efficient to use advertising to promote your product rather than promote your content.

As mentioned in my comment above and re-iterated in this subsequent post http://richardstacy.com/2016/01/27/the-content-delusion-why-almost-all-content-marketing-strategies-are-a-waste-of-time-and-money/ I think the real challenge in the social/ digital space is behaviour identification and response (as distinct from channel and message). In many ways this is how Kraft are using content. This is the world of information much more than it is the world of content.

11 months ago

Joe Pulizzi

Joe Pulizzi, Founder at Content Marketing Institute

@Richard - Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

To your point, you can look at any content approach and say "that's a data play, or a lead gen play, or a loyalty play". That's all fine and good (and may work or not work).

But THE holy grail to content marketing, if there is one, is to build a subscribed audience that knows, likes and trusts us...and because of that...they buy, buy more, stay longer, help our bottom line or create opportunities to sell new products.

To do that, yes, we need to develop valuable "content", but not in isolation of public relations or advertising. So many try to pit one against the other. Content marketing is just one approach, it's not an either/or. It should be additive.

Content, in and of itself, is not valuable. The content is the conduit to build an audience. The value is the audience (and how that audience behaves differently because of that connection with us). If you value a media company, you don't value it on the how many of pieces of content they are creating, or how many shares or links they get or God knows what else. You value it on the audience and what that audience does. That's it.

But I get it...I get why so many people on this thread are focusing on "other" things that try to prove or disprove this or that. In the end, none of it matters if we aren't attracting and keeping an audience. The BEST way to do that is through consistently valuable content delivery to the RIGHT audience at the right time on the right device. It's always been that way.

For 60 years we thought this was what the media was for, and we could use their audience-building prowess to reach a broad swath of people . Finally, brands are starting to realize that we don't HAVE to go through a distributor to communicate with our audience and customers. We can actually go direct. But this unnatural for most brands (we have't done this since mass media was created), so it will take time to even get close to mastering this. Maybe we never will. Is it worth changing the game? I believe it is.

Until then, we will see many failures, some successes, a lot of experimentation and lots of pundits trying to tear down the approach.

Not every company will have a content marketing strategy, but every successful company will.

Cheers!

11 months ago

Mark Higginson

Mark Higginson, Founder at Twenty Thousand Leagues

Referring to Joe Pulizzi's comments the P&G 'BeingGirl' example links to a piece from 2008. Joe cites a paper from Forrester Research. Forrester's 'case study' interviewed Bob Arnold, who was repsonsible for the 'BeingGirl' site. This is not research, this is an anecdote as given by a vested interest.

"As BeingGirl.com continues to develop and grow, it will retain its focus on being a trusted third-party advisor to teen girls while looking for new ways to enrich the relationship."

P&G no longer maintain this site! Consider that P&G have attempted to sell products by developing a relationship with teenagers at a potentially difficult developmental stage. And then decided to no longer sustain the 'community'.

Moving on the Kraft example is not a 'quantitative case study'. It's an anecdote from someone who heard someone from Kraft with a vested interest in their work being perceived as successful speaking to a bunch of people who also had a vested interest in perceiving such work as successful. No data is supplied, no links to this work are given.

Indeed, there's a comment from someone who says they were there: "A little disappointing for me was the fact that really (sic) touching on the subject of ROI and results nothing was revealed".

I'm amazed that depsite claiming "Kraft tag and track more than 22,000 different attributes of their audience based on their behaviour and engagement with web content" no one has thought to ask WHAT these 22,000 attributes are. Could we see 1,000 of these attributes? Or even 100? How are they used? Does this actually happen?

The TD Ameritrade example: is this telling us that magazine subscribers trade five times more BECAUSE of the magazine, or that enthusiastic traders are much more likely to want to read about trading? Where does this statistic come from? How is it qualified? Again, basic critical faculties are required and are seemingly not engaged.

Copyblogger, Joe Pulizzi's business and Econsultancy do similar things that requires getting repeat business from a well-defined audience. This requires a motivated subscriber base. If you sell fizzy drinks your business doesn't grow this way. If you sell running shoes it would be more appropriate to do something like creating an app that lets people track how much they're exercising! It's different solutions for different products and services. But if your business is selling marketing advice you have to make this advice seem universal in order to have a scalebale business, hence making generalisations about the applicability of what you do.

The point I'm making is that the research that 'proves' this doesn't exist. Research should be properly referenced and these should turn out to not consist of anecdotal stories. Research should be supported by data that can be reviewed and checked. The method by which the research has been conducted should be detailed. Ultimately, if a general rule is being described, such as: 'every successful company should have a content marketing strategy' then we should be able to test this.

'Content marketing' / 'brand publishing' is being presented as a universal stratagem. Yet literally no one has supplied more than a few examples and all are quite easy to poke holes in.

Thank you all for what has been a fierce debate on this topic and one I'm sure will continue.

10 months ago

Richard Hussey

Richard Hussey, Owner at RSH Copywriting

It strikes me that the difficulty for large B2C brands like those discussed above is in delivering meaningful value to their customers and prospects. Fashion, travel, food... how do you say something that isn't already being said and read somewhere else? Teenagers can go to a host of vlogs run by people they can identify with; they don't need to go to a brand with a clear vested interest to get fashion advice.

Maybe Marriott could use content to add value to a purchase - such as a free city video guide when somebody books certain hotels or classes of room? Who knows? Probably people will still just go on Booking.com and choose what meets their needs based on budget and location.

In the B2B world, particularly where consultative selling is involved, it's easier to see where content publishing adds value and helps to create and nurture leads and relationships. The fact that we're having such a long and lively discussion on the E-Consultancy blog probably tells us something.

10 months ago

Mark Higginson

Mark Higginson, Founder at Twenty Thousand Leagues

I found this piece by Rafat Ali via @baekdal:

'25 Founders On How They Spent The Year Building Long Lasting Focused Media Businesses'.

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/25-founders-how-spent-year-building-long-lasting-focused-rafat-ali

In light of all I've said it's really interesting to look at each one of these diverse examples and think about what it is they're focusing on and how they differ from the brand publishing examples I've cited in terms of their activity and behaviour.

A good counterpoint I reckon?

10 months ago

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Richard Stacy, Owner at Stacy Consulting

@Joe. I would agree with you. Traditional media / marketing was all about audiences. That is what traditional media channels were built to deliver. If you want to get an audience - get an ad. Social media wasn't built to deliver audiences - it works differently. It is a connection medium, not a distribution medium - its the world of the individual, not the audience.

Check out the monthly Socialbakers reports that look at interaction rates with corporate Facebook and Twitter presences http://www.socialbakers.com/resources/reports/. In October 2015 the average interaction rate with a UK corporate Facebook post was 3.9 per 1,000 'fans' - or 0.39% of your supposed Facebook 'audience'. If you consider that your 'fans' will probably represent only 1% of your total target audience (absolute best case), this represents an interaction with 0.0039 per cent of your target audience. This isn't an audience, it is just a handful of individuals - and if you are only 'interacting' with a group of individuals, do something more respectful to them (and potentially more valuable to you) than simply push content at them. Talk to them maybe, listen to them, ask them questions, let them ask you questions.

10 months ago

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Richard Stacy, Owner at Stacy Consulting

@Joe. I would agree with you. Traditional media / marketing was all about audiences. That is what traditional media channels were built to deliver. If you want to get an audience - get an ad. Social media wasn't built to deliver audiences - it works differently. It is a connection medium, not a distribution medium - its the world of the individual, not the audience.

Check out the monthly Socialbakers reports that look at interaction rates with corporate Facebook and Twitter presences http://www.socialbakers.com/resources/reports/. In October 2015 the average interaction rate with a UK corporate Facebook post was 3.9 per 1,000 'fans' - or 0.39% of your supposed Facebook 'audience'. If you consider that your 'fans' will probably represent only 1% of your total target audience (absolute best case), this represents an interaction with 0.0039 per cent of your target audience. This isn't an audience, it is just a handful of individuals - and if you are only 'interacting' with a group of individuals, do something more respectful to them (and potentially more valuable to you) than simply push content at them. Talk to them maybe, listen to them, ask them questions, let them ask you questions.

10 months ago

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Paul Gee, Senior Content Writer at The Kind Consultant

@Will B -

You seem to be wholesale dismissive of the channels you list. What are your views about what *does* work?

10 months ago

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Paul Gee, Senior Content Writer at The Kind Consultant

I think this is a fair analysis that raises some very interesting points.

But, to be *fair*, it seems that many of the commenters have missed the point. One such comment, by Pete Austin, proves this:

"I like Marks and Spencer clothes so I must go to their website to see if they make movies too" - said no customer ever."

This isn't a fair representation of the customer (or reader) journey at all.

There is a lot in this piece about resourcing and ROI. I think when you're an American Express or Marriott, producing content of very high production value, indeed, it's harder to achieve. But I have seen it time and time again, small businesses being 'helpful' to their customers, and reaping great rewards.

10 months ago

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Anna Wood, Consultant at Independent PR Marketing

Hi, it is refreshing to read this - it seems clear to me that those people advocating that brands should create large scale content are the same people who are selling the content creation services - and somehow this became the "conventional wisdom" which no one dared to dispute. I don't believe content marketing brings much result for the businesses I work with, but good content on a website should help their SEO, and a blog can serve two purposes - it shows that you are alive, and it expresses the personality of your business.

10 months ago

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Freddie Ossberg, Founder at Raconteur

I'm so glad I came across this post and its comments - digital publishing at its best!

10 months ago

Ashley Friedlein

Ashley Friedlein, Founder, Econsultancy & President, Centaur Marketing at Econsultancy, Centaur MarketingStaff

Just come across this as it was reference by Mark Ritson in his "Is content marketing a load of bollocks?" article in Marketing Week at https://www.marketingweek.com/2016/10/11/is-content-marketing-a-load-of-bullsht/

Seems like this article is indeed working as a form of 'content marketing' ;)

I think you make some valid points - particularly about how poorly some brands have executed.

I too have some misgivings about 'brands as publishers' although I have tried to defend 'content marketing' more broadly.

The examples that often get given as successes in B2C were people like ASOS and Net-a-porter? In B2B there are many more. Not just Van Damme's Epic Split for Volvo Trucks but lots of tech vendors - Adobe, HubSpot, MOZ etc.

And when you say 'brands' I think you mostly been FMCG types? If so, are there any 'destinations' to discuss shampoo or fizzy drinks? I must have missed them if so.

If you actually mean 'brands'.... well I was certainly seduced into buying an IWC watch with the help of their content/site e.g. see http://www.iwc.com/en/about/museum/ and their 'Experiences'. It's all a con, of course, but I want to buy into that. Luxury brands are starting to get better at 'content' finally.

You say "being seen is a measure of success"? I don't think so. I think selling stuff is a more usual measure of success? Or, online, being *found* not seen is more important?

Links and shares as a proxy for success? No, definitely not. Very dangerous to count volume/quantity rather than value/quality.

The Guardian... great at content but have a broken business model.

I could go on ;)

about 1 month ago

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