Jay Sharman: Welcome to Brand Story Inc. I’m your host, Jay Sharman. Every week, we sit down with smart folks to talk about innovative ways they are creating content to connect with their audiences. I’d like to say every company can be a media company, and this conversation hopefully helps you understand why. Today, we welcome Simon Owens to the podcast. He hosts The Business of Content, a podcast about how publishers create, distribute and monetize digital content, and he’s a content and social media marketing consultant. Simon, thanks for joining us.
Simon Owens: Thanks for having me.
Jay: I’m excited to dive into the business of podcasts. You can see your passion for it coming through in some of the guests that you’ve had and, obviously, in the toolkit of content creation. You were there in 2005. It seems like most people just got on the bus in the last 24 months. We’re going to dig into that a little bit. I’m excited to do that.
Jay: Take a step back. As a day job, you’re a consultant, right? You’ve written for everyone from The Atlantic to Nieman Lab, New York Magazine, and the list that goes on and on. Now, as a consultant, you get this unique inside look across a wide range of businesses and industries. How are you seeing the C-suite embrace or maybe not embrace the connection between content creation and bottom-line results?
Simon: Yeah. I mean it’s hard to get a look at the entire industry because a lot of these companies are private. It’s hard to know the inner workings at a mass level. I can only really speak to the clients that I’ve worked for. I see a range in terms of executives really getting the importance to it to other people just kind of giving it lip service. You work on the brand content side. I’m sure you have a lot of people that you talk to, in terms of the sales cycle, and they talk about how excited they are about getting into creating content and doing all that, but then they hear the price tag and then, all of a sudden, they start ghosting you and stuff like that. I think that if you talk to anyone within the C-suite, you talk to any executive, any kind of business, they’ll give a lot of lip service to things like social media, and content, and video, and podcasts and stuff like that, but I think it’s definitely still a much smaller percentage who are true believers and who are willing to make that kind of investment.
Jay: Yeah. I mean I think I’ve seen a little shift. We started our company TeamWorks Media back in 2000, so we’ve seen a pretty significant evolution. It’s kind of gone from that C-suite level of people not knowing why they need to be in the game to being in the game, but not really sure where to focus their efforts. It’s a lot different conversation now, especially with so many brands that are getting Inc. and Digiday and other places for having in-house agencies and the amount of investment that they’re making. It’s interesting at the smaller to mid-size businesses where they may not have the resources, and so that starting point is, to your point, makes folks… There’s still that leap-of-faith effort, it feels like, from people despite how many case studies you show them.
Simon: Yeah. That’s where I usually operate. You guys are probably operating at the Fortune 500 level, but most of my clients usually are… either they’re mid-level or small companies or I’m being subcontracted by a larger brand when I’m working with a larger company. For instance, one of my clients is Politico, and I work on their advertising side on their brand content, so they’ll connect me with their blue-chip clients, everyone from like Wells Fargo to Delta, all these huge brands, but that I’m working as like a subcontractor underneath Politico for that kind of stuff.
Jay: Well, that’s maybe a good jumping-off point. I appreciate you because I think we can learn a ton from the small and scrappy. I think, even if you’re a large company, you can learn a lot from them. I’d love to get your take on just some of the basics from a day-to-day perspective. How do you go about building a content strategy for a company?
Simon: Yeah. You’d be surprised at how many companies actually try to skip [building a content strategy]. They’ll approach you and they’ll say, “Oh, I want a white paper,” or, “We’re looking for someone to write articles for our website or our newsletter or whatever.” They’re ready to even start assigning you articles, and you’re just like, “Well, what is your strategy? What is your goal here? If you’re just going to throw a bunch of content out there, you’re going to basically get disappointed and think it was the content’s fault and not the fact that you didn’t have a strategy.”
When a client actually approaches me and wants me to come up with their strategy before we launch into it, it really is a step-by-step process where the first time I meet with them after the contract is signed is I’m sitting down with them for three or four hours, and I just have a detailed list of questions where I ask them anywhere from:
- who are the stakeholders
- questions about their product
- their sales cycle
- how are they selling their product
- their marketing efforts so far
- how they sell their product or service
- where most of their customers are coming in through.
That’s going to help you really determine what kind of content is going to attract that exact kind of buyer. Then I put a lot of emphasis on studying their competitors. That’s a huge part of my research is saying, “Okay. Who would you say are the top 5 to 10 competitors in your field?” Then, from there, I will go and look at:
- the website
- the social media accounts
- any piece of content that their competitors are creating
- look for things that they’re doing right (so that we’re not reinventing the wheel every single time)
Then, after that, I’ll basically write a document that’s anywhere from 5,000 – 10,000 words that includes:
- identifying their reader,
- suggests lots of different kinds of content they could be creating on a regular basis – everything from thought leadership articles to interviews with influencers within their field.
- showing examples – if I see that a client or a competitor of theirs is doing something really interesting on Instagram, I will actually include screen captures in reports, and they can see exactly what I’m suggesting that they do.
Jay: It’s interesting. I think, actually, you and I are almost an example of what I’m about to say, and I think that is, to me, when you’re doing that competitive research, the thing that jumps out and it gets our team excited is really finding the niche within the niche. You’re doing the Business of Content podcast, which is definitely niched into a specific audience, and we’re almost like a subset of that. We’re talking about folks that are actually creating entertaining content within that continuum of the Business of Content. I’m curious. We tend to see people skip that step, that they kind of tend to go right down whatever their product or service is in terms of trying to connect with people on that as opposed to maybe finding an area that might be some white space or blue ocean depending on which business cliche book you want to use. I’m curious what you see. A lot of the brands that don’t get their content strategy right, are there themes of what you see that they do wrong?
Simon: Yeah. I mean one of the biggest themes is they make it a little bit too much about themselves and they don’t really understand thatwith a really good brand content strategy, you’re basically trying to mimic what the mainstream media is doing.
With a really good brand content strategy, you’re basically trying to mimic what mainstream media is doing.
You’re basically trying to create your own version of The New York Times or The Atlantic or name your favorite film studio or radio lab or This American Life. You are, first and foremost, trying to create a piece of entertainment. If you create something that is basically just a glorified ad, consumers and users are going to able to smell that right away. Your ultimate goal is to get them to share it, so you might trick them into watching or reading whatever the content is, but the second that they realize that they’re reading or watching an ad, they’re not going to then go email it to their colleague or share it on social media. I think that’s one of the biggest mistakes that a lot of companies make when they’re thinking about content strategy.
Jay: Well, let’s stay there. Branded content and that line between branded content and real journalism, how important do you think it is to hire experienced journalists for branded content campaigns?
Simon: Yeah. I mean I think it’s incredibly important. If you wanted to today, you could go on a site like Upwork or Fiverr or any of these freelancer sites, and you can find someone who might have some basic copywriting or blogging experience. They will go out and they’ll use Google to search for terms similar to whatever you want them to write about, and they’ll write a serviceable blog post. Really, the best kind of branded journalism is someone who knows how to talk to sources, how to find sources, how to convince them to get on the phone with you, because that’s a huge undertaking in itself because you’re not paying these sources. They have to want to get on the phone with you. Interview them and then really figure out… ask the right questions and really distill, from their answers, something that could fit into a larger narrative piece. Someone that you’re hiring off of Upwork or Fiverr is just not going to do that. The person who can do that is someone who’s spent years creating content for magazines or newspapers or, if you’re a video artist, actual studios or whatever that have, through trial and error, created content that millions of people have consumed over time. That’s a skillset that you can’t just learn off the cuff. It takes real time to do that.
Jay: One place where your pod and ours overlap, the crossover is really these brands who aren’t media companies making that media mindset transformation, that shift into really understanding at a big level. I went through some of your recent podcasts over the last 12 months, picked out a few. I’d like to talk about a few of those and ones that you’re seeing, people you’ve talked to on your podcast. I thought folks would enjoy hearing about Allstate’s The Renewal Project, which you just talked about.
Simon: Yeah. The Renewal Project is kind of the gold standard of branded journalism in the sense that you barely even realize that Allstate’s creating that. It has its branding on the website, but it is so focused on leaning journalism-forward, leaning content-forward that Allstate is almost just a side character, a sponsored-by entity that isn’t fully forward. I think that’s really the best of brand content. The reason that they’re able to create such good content is they’re actually working with Atlantic 57, which is a side autonomous company that’s a spin-off of The Atlantic the magazine, and so they have access to some of the best journalists in the world. The person that I interviewed for the podcast, she was a very experienced editor and journalist, and she’s editing that publication. She has a real budget that she can utilize to hire freelancers and on-the-ground people. For that one, Allstate is really trying to connect with local business owners, community members, people who might someday be its customers and purchase its insurance. It’s basically featuring these community members all across the United States with really engaging storytelling that is designed to be shared and read and consumed.
There’s not a lot of brands that really, A) have the resources to create content that’s that good, but B) also are willing to release some control to people who actually know what they’re doing, how to create really good content.
Jay: I think that’s the nuance you talked about earlier, and that is this. It’s really hard for a brand of reputable size, especially of an Allstate size, to have a branded content play where they’re giving up control and the average person consuming the content would think that you’re just a sponsor of it because the content’s that good. There’s no manipulation. There’s no, “And yes, you like this and buy a policy,” baked into the journalism. I see that as one of the hardest things for brands to wrap their head around still. Do you see that, or is that just my perspective?
Simon: Yeah, because who is hiring for the brand is the marketing department. A) those marketers, for the most part, are journalists and, B) they have very strict guidelines about messaging and branding and everything like that. It’s incredibly scary for them to basically hand of over the reins to someone who isn’t necessarily want to adhere to that branding.
Jay: Who else that you’ve talked to really peaked your curiosity on this topic?
Simon: In what sense?
Jay: That mind shift to becoming media companies like Allstate. I mean I think I heard Aging Media Network was one that was on your podcast that seemed to be similarly doing things like that. Are there other others that come to mind that are doing it well?
Simon: Yeah. A few companies that are doing it well are in the podcast space. One of my favorite branded podcasts that I listened to within the last year was created in collaboration with Gimlet Media where they were hired by Tinder to create a podcast. I can’t remember the name of the podcast off the top of my head, but if someone Googles just Tinder and podcast, they’d be able to find it.
They basically took Tinder, which is for matching up with dating. They found singles who would sound really good on audio, very kind of engaging extroverts, and paired them with the data scientists at Tinder who could look at the vast streams of data and see what made Tinder’s profiles more successful or more likely to get swiped left or right. I don’t know which way it is when someone accepts it. You can tell I started dating my current wife before Tinder came out. Then, well, actually, following them to the date with a microphone, you could see how that crates really amazing content. Yeah, it was like the Tinder branding was on it. You knew Tinder was creating it. Tinder was featured in the podcast, but you didn’t care because it was basically like a reality TV show, like a dating show, and it was really just fun and engaging. When you think about the gold standard of branded content like that, that really is up there.
Jay: Well, I mean this is something that’s a passion of yours. You cover this extensively on your podcast, the business of podcasts, right? From bootstrappers to book publishers, you’ve covered it all, and so I’m curious to stay there for a second. How do you see podcasts in the toolkit of brands either starting or building upon their content efforts, just like you talked about that example with Tinder? Where do you see that in the bigger picture?
Simon: Yeah. I mean the most important thing to know about podcasts is, unless you have a billion-dollar budget, any brand has to accept the fact that their podcast, to begin with, it’s going to have almost no listenership. Podcasting, unlike other mediums like articles, like text-based content or image-based content or video-based content, it doesn’t go viral. In order for someone to listen to a podcast, someone has to hear about the podcast, then turn on their phone, go to their podcast app, search for that podcast, and download it. Because there is that much friction, podcast growth is much more linear. I keep very close analytics of people who read my articles or who read my newsletter and share it, and it spikes all over the place because a single article might go viral and be shared by hundreds of people. If you look at the analytics from my podcast, it’s almost a straight line because it’s so linear. The reason I’m saying all this is you have to condition the brand to have patience and be in it in the long haul because, if they’re looking for, basically, the equivalent of a viral YouTube video that you launch, put a little bit of ad spending behind and, all of a sudden, it has millions of views, that’s just not going to happen. You really have to really condition them that podcasting is about intimacy. You’re in somebody’s earbuds. It’s probably the closest connection that you will ever have to your audience. It’s okay if that audience is smaller as long as the connection is strong. I wrote an article a few months back where, basically, I argued having 5,000 podcast listeners is better than having over 100,000 Twitter followers because the connection’s just that much stronger. I think that’s important to communicate to the brand.
Jay: Yeah. So often, especially if you’re talking to brands like consumer-facing brands that spend as national advertisers, I think it’s just such a good point because they’re all about scale, scale. Well, it’s like, “Well, that’s great. You can shout out to the world, but you have to rethink that.” I mean those people are loyal, to your point. It’s like folks listening to this. If you’re going to invest 30 minutes talking to us talking about niche parts of content, if it’s a couple thousand people, that is very valuable audience, and it’s reframing how to think about those super fans of your brand, if you will, in a different way as opposed to looking at them as just consumers. Right?
Simon: Exactly. Other than TVs or TV or movies, what other medium are you going to get to be spending an entire half an hour with someone? You know what I mean? Podcasting, other than someone sitting down and watching a TV show, podcasting is one of the only mediums where you’re going to have that person’s close to undivided attention for that long. That is just so much more… provides so much more value than someone watching a three-minute video while they’re scrolling through their Facebook feed.
Jay: All right, so I’m going to change mediums here for a second and talk about email newsletters. I still think they’re one of the most durable direct-to-consumer tools for the content strategy toolkit, but most companies creating any consistent content seem to have them. It seems also that, with the increasing flipping of algorithm switches by the different social media platforms, whether that’s Facebook or Twitter, they’ve become more valuable or somewhat publisher-proof, if you will. You recently interviewed Ernie Smith about this. Tell us what you learned.
Simon: Ernie Smith, he speaks, he runs this Facebook group for newsletter creators. He’s a newsletter writer’s perfect person to go to for any kind of advice because he just knows so much about the field. He doesn’t just know the writing part, but he’s also good for the design. He knows all of the best email service providers. He really knows all the technical aspects of email. One of the parts that really drove home when we were talking our discussion on my podcast is newsletters are probably the gold standard for having a direct relationship with your readers. It’s because it’s distributed through email to a completely decentralized network. It’s not governed by an algorithm like you’ll see on Facebook or YouTube or virtually any other social media. People guard their inboxes. They’re very judicious about marking things as spam or unsubscribing to things they don’t want to get, so you don’t have to compete with as many other pieces of media. Someone who’s following you on Twitter, and you tweet something out, your tweet is going to get buried in the feed so quickly that less than 3% of your audience will actually see that tweet whereas, when you send out an email, close to 100% of your audience will, at the very least, see the subject line. If you have a decent open rate, you might get as high as 30 or 40% of them opening it. I think that’s a really important relationship that you know you shouldn’t abuse.
Jay: Which is funny because I think you’re seeing, a lot of work communication, email seems to be on the decline if you look at a 10-year projection of how people are using Slack and other different types of communication vehicles. Again, kind of the same thing we talked about podcasts, it’s almost tribal, it seems, with the email subscriptions. You do become to be part of that community which has a value that is far greater than the number of people actually in that email group.
Simon: Yeah, definitely. When I write my articles or share my podcast or something like that and I tweet it out and I’ll share it on my Facebook group and on LinkedIn and everything like that where I actually, in total, have a lot more followers, and yet my email list is a fraction of my social media following, and yet it’ll drive way more views to my podcast or whatever article I publish just because, yeah, it’s a relationship that can’t be compared to anything else.
Jay: Very cool. We’re taping this in early February post-Superbowl. Just today, Digiday put out an article on Morning Brew getting $13 million in revenue on their email newsletter and how they’ve doubled revenue. It just sparks conversation on Twitter like, “Holy cow. Email newsletter is still fighting strong.” It seems to be almost counterintuitive, but I’m a big fan of them myself, so let’s-
Simon: I don’t think it’s that counterintuitive. I think that the death of email is always being written, but it’s never actually realized. Obviously, there are platforms like Slack and stuff that are replacing some aspects of email, but I think people are still mostly slaves to their email. It’s probably the only medium that has 100% penetration, and I don’t think it’s going away anytime soon.
Jay: That’s fair. Let’s talk about your podcast, The Business of Content. How’s it going? Curious to hear, as a listener of yours, what key topics you’re focusing on for the next three to six months.
Simon: Oh, wow. It’s going really well, like I said. I’m actually writing this article right now because I’m actually about to launch a paid subscription newsletter. I was noting in the newsletter of I’ve been seeing this linear growth, and now I’m just reaching this point where I’m actually getting emails from listeners on almost a weekly or sometimes daily basis. In fact, it was kind of funny. As I was writing those sentences, two separate emails came in from people who were basically writing in to compliment me on my podcast. It’s really gratifying because when you first start doing podcasting, you feel like you’re just sending it out there instead of… yeah, because it’s not like a social network. You can’t see people liking it or listening to it or commenting on it or anything like that because it’s a more old-school type of media that way. At first, you don’t know if anybody’s listening. You see the number of downloads, but you don’t know how many of those people are actually taking the time to open up their podcast app and listen. It’s been gratifying now that the audience has been growing to see people remarking on episodes online or actually tweeting at me or actually emailing me. I just received a really long email I haven’t read yet, but from a listener, so that’s been going really well. In terms of what I am going to be doing over the next few months for my podcast, I’m just looking for awesome people to interview. Next week, I’ve got the tech editor from Axios on. That was a really good interview. I’m looking for more video practitioners. That’s something I’m a little bit light on. It’s hard sometimes to get YouTubers who have built really sustainable businesses onto the podcast sometimes because they’re kind of… Because they’re kind of semi-famous, they’re just inundated with so much email and social media interactions that I think I get lost in the ether, and I just sound like this random person asking them onto the podcast, so they kind of ignore me. I’m definitely looking for more of that. I’m always fascinated in newsletters, so I’m constantly trying to get people who have built sustainable businesses off of newsletters. Yeah, so that’s what I’ll be focusing on over the next several months.
Jay: Awesome. We’ll look forward to seeing what comes down the pike in that regard. You just mentioned something,I think one of the most underrated things in the business of content is the value of curation, and it’s because it’s this intangible. It’s one of the underlying reasons on why you may sign up for, for example, The Wall Street Journal CMO, which I get in my email inbox every day, somebody who you trust who’s going out there and taking a bunch of different content from different places and putting an opinion on it and saying, “Hey, you’re part of this community. I think this is something of relevance to you.” That’s what you’re doing in The Business of Content. I’m looking at you and saying, “Hey, what is Simon following? What’s he talking about? What trends is he seeing?” I’m curious about how you go about your daily business content consumption, not necessarily news or sports or whatever you like from an entertainment perspective, but more the brass tacks of publications you follow, emails you subscribe to, industry trade sources. What are some of the things that you’re going through to piece all of this together for your podcast?
Simon: Yeah. I’m lucky because I’m a freelancer. I have a lot of flexibility on how I structure my day. The very first part of my day, I’m actually spending a significant time reading through newsletters. The go-to newsletter for me is obviously Digiday. If you work in the content business and you’re not paying to subscribe to Digiday, I would question, “What the hell are you doing in this business? Get out.” It’s just such a good publication. It only publishes the original content where they give you deep insights. It doesn’t do that daily churn of just reblogging whatever news is breaking. Everything is original about what they’re doing. They get the top executives at the top media companies to basically share their secrets.
Jay: You’re making Brian Morrissey swoon right now.
Simon: Yes, definitely. You have that. In terms of a more independent newsletter, I read Hot Pod. I don’t know if you’re familiar with it, but it’s a podcast industry newsletter run by a guy named Nick Quah. I’m actually a paying subscriber in that. I’m a big believer in paying for content, so I mean I always encourage people do that. The Nieman Lab newsletter is really good. I’m really fascinated not just with journalism media companies but also the big streaming companies like Netflix and Disney Plus and stuff like that and Spotify. For that, there’s a Bloomberg reporter named Lucas Shaw. He has a great newsletter that he sends out once a week. I forget the name of it, but if you Google Lucas Shaw newsletter, you’ll find it. (*Editor’s note: here you go). Tubefilter, I don’t know if you know of that publication.
Simon: It covers online video. I love that newsletter. Yeah, so there’s… and the big tech publications like Recode and stuff like that. Although, for some reason, Recode has stopped publishing its newsletter recently. I have no idea why. Yeah, that’s how I start my day. I’m a huge Twitter addict, so I’m always going through that, although because we’re in the Trump era, that’s always flooding my feed, and I think a lot of good tech and media stuff gets buried, and so I can’t rely solely on that. Also, because I have the flexibility from being a freelancer, I go on a walk every day and listen to podcasts. I probably had over 100 different podcasts to listen to, but media-wise I really love listening to the Recode Media Podcast, which is hosted by Peter Kafka, and the Digiday podcast and-
Jay: Don’t you love Brian Morrissey trying to get his guests on Digiday to cough up real numbers and not talk about percentage growth? I email him and be like, “Keep going. One of these days, someone’s going to…” I think Sean Griffey’s the only guy who I’ve ever heard tell the numbers and pull it back. It’s so funny to hear him try to pull people off of their marketing speak and get into the details like you do.
Simon: Yeah, yeah. He’s good at interrupting his guests whenever they’re talking with marketing speak and asking them the real questions, for sure.
Jay: That’s great. Well, Simon, really appreciate your time. Simon Owens, content and social media marketing consultant, host of the podcast The Business of Content. Where should we send people besides their podcast place to download The Business of Content? Where can they follow you? Where would you like to be connected with folks?
Simon: You should really subscribe to my newsletter. It’s not just the curation of links. I go really deep into case studies and write these long, 1,500-word pieces that people in the industry really value. It’s at simonowens.substack.com.
Jay: Awesome. Simon, thank you so much for the time, appreciate you joining us, and look forward to seeing you soon.
Simon: My pleasure. This was a lot of fun.
Jay: Thanks for listening to Brand Story Inc. We’ll be back next week with another conversation digging into the ways companies are becoming like media companies. Be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, and give me a follow on Twitter @_JaySharman and on LinkedIn.