If the idea of “content marketing” feels new to you, I get it. The idea that every company needs a blog, and that every dentist and real estate agent needs to be publishing, has only been around for a decade or so. But the idea of content marketing has been around forever. We’ve just put a new corporate wrapper around it.
When I ask our readers what they want to learn more about, I often hear “how to build a career in content.” So I was very interested to hear from Joey Campbell, a writer, editor and marketer who has been working in content for 20 years. He started out writing about transportation at a print trade publication in the early 2000s, broke into digital media when it was still very new, took a wild ride working on some of the early digital content giants, and spent time at an agency managing content for Fortune 500 clients.
Twenty years in, he’s developing a new, modern content strategy for a brand that was once best known for printing apartment listings.
He says “content marketing” as we know it now is really an evolution of what came before. He talked with me about the lessons he has learned in his career and how at their core, the best content marketers are A+ storytellers who aren’t afraid to learn something new every day.
You started your career working on trade publications. What was that like?
I worked at a company called Bobit Business Media, and the trade magazines I worked on were in very niche industries like transportation, law enforcement, and security. Eventually, I managed a magazine called Metro Magazine, about urban transit.
Working on those publications taught me the importance of really knowing and serving your audience. The people reading those stories were people who worked in the trade — no one was leafing through trade publications in the dentist’s office or at the bus stop. If anyone was reading what I wrote, it’s because they really, really cared.
For example, when I was at Metro Magazine, I was writing and researching content that was being read by city transportation managers, people who ran bus depots, and railroad engineers.
That meant I had to have my ducks in a row, so to speak. I couldn’t just go off and kind of write anything and hope for the best. I’d get called out very, very quickly by people who were extremely knowledgeable about the business.
I also learned a lot about finding the right audience. We didn’t necessarily need a huge audience for an advertiser to be willing to pay. We just needed the right audience. We had magazines with a circulation of 25,000 people, but all of them were extraordinarily relevant.
What can we learn from those traditional publications?
When you look back, those older traditional business models just aren’t around anymore. Everyone went digital and the revenue models kind of up-ended. But I do think traditional publishers did a much better job of teaching writers, editors and aspiring journalists.
Even a small trade publication like the one where I worked drove home the importance of research and fact checking and all the editorial rigor that goes into a newsroom, which is something more and more companies struggle with today. I’m glad I had a chance to learn those lessons early on.
Then you went on to work for some of the early giants in online content. Could you describe that experience?
I worked for Demand Media, a company that owned a number of web properties, including some you’ve probably heard of like eHow.com and Livestrong.
We were in the early days of using keywords to inform content production, and we did it at such a mass scale that we were able to generate an enormous amount of organic search traffic.
In that business, we were borrowing strategies from traditional publishing models and marrying them with data. Today, everybody’s all about data. But in those days, it was new.
It got pretty formulaic, so that we could attribute a specific value to every piece of content that we created.
We could make really strong guesses by asking, “How many people are looking for this information?” Then we’d know, if we put this piece of content, based on this information, on this website where we have this many visitors, this is approximately how much traffic we’ll get over this period of time, and therefore it’s worth it to spend “X” to produce this article or video.
That’s what drove an IPO in 2011, and the company was valued at more than a billion dollars — more than the New York Times was.
Wow, that’s crazy. But that story changed pretty quickly, right? How did the market shift?
The company was trying to get the scale and the volume right. Creating content on such a massive scale introduced all kinds of problems with quality and duplication. We were creating a lot of content more than once, because we just didn’t have the right systems in place to prevent it.
Then in 2011, Google started rolling out its algorithm updates, starting with the very notorious Panda that took out a lot of small businesses and some bigger ones like ours. Those updates took a hatchet to our business model, because they put in place all these changes that resulted in a massive drop in organic search traffic. Overnight, it changed the way we had to operate and we had to do a lot of scrambling to figure it out all over again. We had to find ways to improve the quality and put more safeguards in place.
We built a huge business, and it was a great story for awhile. But then it ended up being a cautionary tale because the traffic got crushed and the stock price dropped like a rock.
That was a really, really interesting time. It was an opportunity for me to learn a lot.
Let’s fast forward to today. Now you work for RentPath, a large rental real estate company. How are you creating a content strategy there that goes beyond the traditional real estate listing?
Something like forty percent of people in the U.S. are renters, and our ultimate mission is to help renters find their homes.
RentPath used to publish the little magazines called Apartment Guide that you’ve probably seen before at gas stations. We are now 100 percent digital and no longer do the print books, but because of that legacy, people at the company thought of “content” as just real estate listings — photos of apartments and lists of features and amenities.
We’re trying to really broaden that scope. We need to think of content as information and resources that help solve renters’ problems. They have a range of questions around pricing and location, but also about things like lease negotiation, preparing for a move, the best times to rent — a huge range of topics.
We have an opportunity to really solve their needs, and also just to be in the conversation from the time that they think, “Oh, I might want to start thinking about moving,” all the way to the time they’re making friends with the new neighbors. There’s this huge universe of information that I’ve been trying to introduce into the company’s overall content strategy.
How do you build a content team? What do you look for when you hire?
I’m a big fan of trying to find jack-of-all-trades types of people. I like people who are well-rounded and willing to get their hands dirty and jump into anything. I’m not as concerned about where you went to college or what your degree is in.
Here’s one thing I do: When I’m interviewing candidates for an open position I will say, “Tell me what you think this job is. Tell me what you think it’s going to be like on a daily basis. Describe to me what the day will involve and what things you’d attempt to do and accomplish in a productive day.”
The reason I like that question is it tells you a lot about what they’re expecting. But it also gives you an idea of what they think is important. And so if they start talking about, “Oh, I think I’m going to be head-down writing all day or head-down editing all day,” that’s kind of a red flag to me. That’s a traditional journalist approach of thinking about writing and editing.
A modern journalist has to be thinking about data, design, multimedia and other things. If the person has a more open-minded description of a day — looking at some metrics, talking to people on the product or marketing team — if they start throwing some of those things out there, that’s a really good sign to me, because it tells me that they’re thinking on their feet. They’re willing to open up to other disciplines, opinions, thoughts and perspectives.
Everyone who works in content has to be interested in the analytics. Data is a key ingredient to everything we do. That means every person on my team needs to be aware of what’s going on with our traffic. Who’s coming to different pages? Where are they coming from? Which channels are performing? Which channels aren’t performing? What’s resonating with what users? And why?
Every single time we roll out a new product, page or piece of content, we have to QA it from different devices and different screen sizes. It’s simple things, for example, like having a designer go out and design a custom piece of content. Well, once we publish it onto our site, will that content show up on a smart phone in a way that conveys the same value? If there’s a landing page that has a smaller thumbnail image of a bigger hero image, does it cut and crop the right way? How are people interacting with, consuming and sharing content?
What’s your advice to people who are just getting started in digital media?
Go out and learn. The way you can show value to your team is by being a self starter and just figuring things out.
So if you have a problem with data and analytics, go take an online class. Go get Google Analytics Certified. It’s free, last I checked. Go talk people. Find ways to learn.
I’m really big on people who can get stuff done and won’t say, “Well that’s not really my role because I’m not on the data team.” No, actually just figure it out and do it.
Also, learn how to prioritize. The philosophy I always tell my team is, your job is not to do every single thing that comes your way. Your job is to find the small handful of things that you can do every day that make a difference.
So what are the priorities? What is the most important thing you can do today? It might only be one or two things, but those one or two things are definitely more valuable than reading and responding to every single email in your inbox.
You’ve worked in content for 20 years. What has changed since your trade publication days?
Ultimately people want good stories and well-structured information. They want somebody who can clearly articulate information in a way that’s easy for them to consume and digest.
Of course the mediums have changed and will keep changing, but if you can structure the information for the medium, you’re going to be fine. There will always be a need for people like me — or people in the content profession — because there will always be a need for words. There will always be a need to efficiently communicate and articulate ideas.
So to me that’s really encouraging and makes me feel happy, because even if the technology blows by me and I become an old curmudgeon, looking back wistfully and thinking, “Back in my day when when we had these black-and-white newspapers…” — well, it doesn’t matter what the medium is because if you can write a good sentence and communicate a thought, that’s really the essence of any good storytelling medium.
And that goes back to the Stone Age, right? The medium has changed many times, but people always want a good story. They want information to be communicated clearly and in an efficient, well-structured way. And that’s kind of what content strategy is all about, breaking it down into the essential structure.