My overwhelming impression of the most important trend at SXSW is the unassailable arrival of content marketing.
It's been building for the past year, but the the stuff that used to belong to PR and to the communications department has been hijacked by marketing. Put more diplomatically, there is both a new urgency on marketing's side to develop a story, as opposed to an ad, and an even greater tendency for PR to follow marketing's lead.
I'll have more on this later, but I'll kickstart this theme by relating my talk with Pawan Deshpande yesterday. Pawan founded HiveFire five years ago as curation software, but with a different business model, one based on advertising, but recently rebranded the product as Curata (great name), a SaaS platform that turnkeys a company's blog curation site. Reasonably priced and simple to use, Curata allows the head of marketing for a company to become a publisher, practically overnight. Using a combination of original posts, generated by the company itself, and feeds which are "found" and published as a stream of the latest content, the site creates an information source that is relevant to the company's products and services, thereby providing a steady flow of eyeballs interested in the topic back to the company domain, or in some cases, within the company domain already.
A good example of this is GreenDataCenterNews.org. Owned and operated by Verne Global, the site includes original posts from Lisa Rhodes, Vice President of Marketing and Sales, and then monitors and publishes other posts that relate to energy reduction and sustainability in data centers (a product that Verne Global sells.) The monitoring is acute and timely, and the presentation is clean if not fancy, easy-to-read. While Pawan asserts that traffic to the site is robust, and demonstrated its search strength on the topic of green data centers, he was not able to share specifics.
Curata has many other customers, including Carl Zeiss Meditec, the Economic Development Council of Massachusetts, and The U.S. Army, mostly using the service for external marketing, there are a few which use the service as a sort of enhanced "clipping service" for internal employees. The service to customers and prospects of providing information that is not a pitch, but giving value without a price tag, is a strong tenant of what we now recognize as either "give to get" or "inbound" marketing. Especially in business-to-business marketing, this establishment of company thought-leadership is critical to being seen as a good business partner. Best practices on SEO and other forms of optimization are included, and it usually takes no more than 30 days to be up and running.
Clearly, there is a strong place for "self-publishing" for companies in the growing area of content marketing. According to a recent study from Content Marketing Institute and Marketing Profs, content marketing now represents 26% of all marketing budgets. But as our members may have noted from some of my previous posts, I do have a problem with how a site that is owned and operated by a company is presented. True enough, at GreenDataCenters.org, you can hunt around and in a few clicks be directed to a disclosure statement, which claims, with probably narrow accuracy but some disingenuousness, that the site is "not for profit." But would Verne publish, for example, a post from a competitor? Would it publish anything critical of green data centers? Or of Verne?
According to Pawan, there are examples of customers who do include posts from competitors. "FemtoForum, for example, includes posts about its major competitor, WiFi, on its site SmallCellHub.com. We include as a best practice that organizations include competition in their sites, because a more comprehensive source of information is only a click away."
In the current media environment, there are a lot of flowers blooming all over the place, from Zoey Deschanel's Facebook page to Invisible Children TV. But it also seems that we are increasingly reliant on the business-model-challenged traditional arbiters of truth and trust to authenticate the content that is being marketed. Just as you can sometimes see the strain on search with so much online, the strain on the ever-fewer personnel at traditional media sources must be intense. Further, those authenticators are becoming ever more associated with their personal brands and less with the institutions that pay their salaries.
As Ross Douthat pointed out in the NY Times a couple of weeks ago, this Internet-driven phenomenon is really a "... a return to the way that American journalism was practiced in the 19th and early 20th centuries." The global and immediate nature of news now, coupled with exceedingly low barriers to entry in publishing, would suggest that this is a phenomenon that will be with us a long time. What and how, then, will public demand for trusted sources be matched to a successful business model, such as the one created by Pawan Deshpande?