Photography in Content Marketing, an Interview with the Editor in Chief of Contently Quarterly

Contently is a company that is at the forefront of content marketing today. The company provides software that aids brands to publish their own branded content, and also connects companies with freelance journalists and other content creators. They were founded in 2010, and since then have found plenty of people who are optimistic about the future of content marketing: they have raised more than $11 million in venture capital, and work with brands like Coca-Cola, GE, Google and GM.

For a company in their line of business, it’s only natural that they would have their own content marketing program. They publish a print magazine called Contently Quarterly, and have a robust digital content marketing site as well. 

Joe Lazauskus is the Editor in Chief. In that role, he’s spent a lot of time watching content marketing develop in the last several years, and also has plenty to say about what brands can be doing to get the most out of their marketing campaigns. 

I sat down with Joe to talk about how photography and imagery factor into the recent changes in the content marketing world.

Cover from the first print volume of Contently Quarterly.

Cover from the first print volume of Contently Quarterly.

Are there areas where you think content marketing can benefit more from photography or graphics in general?

I don’t think there’s an area where brands can’t do more visually. Certainly so much of the key to social is the visuals that you’re putting out there, no matter the platform. It’s not just Pinterest and Instagram, but it makes a huge difference on Facebook and Twitter and even on LinkedIn. I’d love to see brands telling more visual stories. Even in terms of blog posts, having huge, beautiful images, or getting more creative with original GIFs or animation.

There’s just such a huge world out there right now for brands to explore, and there are so many visual storytellers who are very hungry for work. And it’s a really ideal marriage when brands are willing to give really talented people the freedom to create things that they feel is going to resonate with an audience and take some risks in terms of new, original art.

I think we’re going to see that more and more. In the global age, the short attention span age, you’re going to need great visuals to keep people’s attention on longer pieces. It’s also going to be the key to that short attention span content that people are consuming.

We’re coming from an advertising space that’s so based around things being conceived and approved and people knowing exactly what they’re getting before anyone even sets out to actually make an image. But even due to just the sheer volume of content that digital demands, you have to have a little more trust in the content creators to do it without a comp or set guidelines.

Yeah, I think you hit the nail on the head. It really is about the shifting models of doing things. I think more and more what you’re seeing, what you’re going to see, is dedicated content groups within brands having the leeway to take X content budget and do with it what they will. It may still need to get approved at the end, but things will actually get created.

I think one thing that’s going to make it a little bit easier, is when you have a few really creative people in the content marketing newsroom—or whatever you want to call it—within a brand, and they get an idea and they commission the work. Once the work is actually done and it’s a possibility that people see it, it’s a lot easier to make publishing it a reality than when it’s just a concept that’s going through a giant RFP with an ad agency and getting bogged down in 20,000 different people approving things 6 months in advance, it’s really hard to get anything cool or creative done. But when you have smaller teams working more autonomously it’s a lot easier.

I think that brands are slowly building out those teams. It’s not going to be all there in 2015; it’s probably not going to be all there in 2016 either. But slowly more and more brands will realize this is the way to go. They’ll invest more resources in it and give a little more freedom to their creative people.

Also, I think the biggest switch in all of this is going to be when the younger digital-savvy people who really are pro-content marketing right now just continue to move up the ranks.

As Editor in Chief of Content Quarterly you're essentially responsible for B2B content marketing. While you guys are an exception, to me, it feels like most B2B marketing is less visual or image based. Do you find that there’s a major difference in approach between B2B and B2C?

One thing that I’ve noticed is that B2B marketers kind of have an inherent advantage when it comes to brand publishing because they have a certain expertise and authority. If you’re Cap’n Crunch, you don’t really have an authority or an expertise to talk about a topic. But if you’re HubSpot, for example, you can talk about inbound marketing in general. If you’re GE, you talk about science and innovation. So there’s sort of an inherent advantage that a lot of more B2B focused brands have over other companies.

That makes sense. Your expertise can be the content. Whereas a lot of traditional B2C marketing is about directly promoting the product.

I think the key for content marketing work is that it can’t be self-promotional. It has to be based on good storytelling. You have to talk about topics that are interesting and really matter to your target consumers. That’s the underpinning of all great content marketing right now. It’s brands that are telling really interesting, well-crafted, original stories about the things that people in their target audience care about and topics they align themselves with and can speak to with authority.

It doesn’t always have to be inherently in the company, though. The hallmark B2C example of content marketing is Red Bull, and that’s because there wasn’t necessarily a direct link in terms of Red Bull having an expertise about extreme sports and music and all that stuff. But they aligned themselves very much with those communities by sponsoring tons of skateboarders and snowboarders and racecar drivers. That gave them a cred and authority where they can really talk about and cover extreme sports.

And from that they’ve built the biggest extreme sports platform in the world, with a magazine that has more paid subscribers than Sports Illustrated, and films that top the YouTube charts. By doing the same with music, they’ve expanded even further, where they have a record label that’s putting out Top 100 artists.

B2B marketing is often about providing information, whereas B2C is often about establishing a certain feeling or lifestyle that a brand represents.

Yeah, definitely. But at the same time, B2B content marketers shouldn’t feel limited by that. Just because you’re talking about great software, doesn’t mean that you have to use god-awful stock photography. It doesn’t mean that your blog can’t have really gorgeous design. If you want to actually capture readers’ attention, you can’t just publish a bunch of information. There’s tons of other people doing that. No matter who you are, you’re always going to have competition.

So it really comes down to the basics of storytelling. Having compelling narratives in your pieces, having strong voices, having personal anecdotes. All the storytelling principles are still the same, no matter what type of content you’re creating. So there’s a lot of overlap.

Do you ever feel that there’s a tension between telling a great story and the stakeholders in a brand who want to make sure that there’s plenty of product placement or an explicit marketing messages.

We work with a lot of people who came over from the journalism world, and a generally creative background, and they understand the value of really good stories and how you can’t mess that up by just plugging in a bunch of product mentions. We know as well, that the moment you start pushing a product in a piece of branded content, trust drops dramatically: by like 30% on the first mention.

And there definitely is this tension right now, because you have people coming from different backgrounds working together. It’s still a weird marriage. You have people who come very much from a product marketing background of just “We need the product mentions. We need the links,” and they can be really focused on that.

We have people who come from creative backgrounds who know that what is going to engage people the most, going to get people to spend time with content, and build bonds, isn’t just pushing a product; it’s telling a greater story.

I think that as everyone works in this discipline more, it’ll be easier to sort that out and get everyone on the same page. But there are things that you can do if you’re on the pro-good-content, pro-great-storytelling side of things. 

There are simple technologies that will allow you to A/B test different images. And you can look at even deeper engagement metrics. You can look at engaged time, scroll depth, and so on. When you have a piece with beautiful imagery and photography or really fantastic, engaging written narrative or video narrative, you can demonstrate that people are spending time with that content.

And then if you’re really at the next level and you’re properly connecting a bunch of different marketing automation systems, you can actually start to show that the pieces of content that you’ve invested more creative firepower in, are actually at the end of the day driving more business results for you. But a lot of that really requires having everyone on board so you can set up those different tracking systems and really accurately measure the success of your content. That’s a broader problem that brands are dealing with as a whole.

So it’s definitely a complex problem – one that will get solved as measuring gets better within brands screening content. Right now, a lot of people are still just doing stuff very blind. But once those numbers start to bear out, I think it’ll be easier for the content-minded people within organizations to advocate for a greater investment in truly good storytelling, and they’ll be able to show that product pushing doesn’t work quite as well.

The whole idea of A/B testing and putting out different forms of content and seeing what performs best is interesting. There was a recent story in Fast Company about how a lingerie company is running A/B testing on photos of underwear models, and creating guidelines for the photographer on how to create imagery based on that.

Do you think that there’s a point where that can go too far? Or as long as you’re increasing performance in terms of metrics, is there no distance too far?

It’s really funny how atomic you can get with A/B testing different pieces of content. BuzzFeed, for example, will figure out from scroll depths and page drop-offs and all those things where they should rearrange a listicle. They’ll A/B test different versions, like “Oh, the picture of the cowboy with a water gun GIF really does well at #6, but it’s terrible at #17.” They’ll see different stuff like that, and they’ll optimize every single listicle accordingly. They also do that with testing the different leads to articles.

I think that kind of application is really cool to me, that you can really optimize every little single part of a piece. I think there’s a lot of creativity that goes into coming up with all those variations and figuring out which is working best.

I think what you’re talking about sounds to be a little more creatively stifling. It’d be like if someone came to me and said “Okay, our perfect blog post is 600 words and uses the term ‘content marketing’ 7 times and uses ‘leverage’ twice,” and really directing every little aspect of it. Because I think that shrinks your creativity when you’re put into that type of constraint. 

Obviously constraints can help your creativity. Like if I said to you “tell a joke” versus “tell a knock-knock joke,” the latter would be easier and probably funnier and more creative. But I think when you tighten that box too small, it’s not a good thing. We’re talking content creators, so yeah, there’s probably a limit where over-testing will stifle creativity. But at the same time, when it comes to matters of editorial judgment or different variations that can work, I think it’s great to be able to test multiple iterations of a piece to see which one is going to pop off the most for you. Everyone who does that is going to be the people that win over the next 5 to 10 years.

Any parting thoughts?

I think the biggest thing is that for content marketing to work, brands really just need to give a lot more freedom to smart, creative people who know how to reach audiences, know how to tell a story that’s going to bring people in. Those brands just need to give those people the freedom to do what they do. That’s going to be the biggest challenge for most brands in the year ahead, and it’s what’s going to separate the brands that are really successful from the ones that continue to struggle at doing this.

And then if you’re a content creator and you’re interested in doing some work with brands – because some of it is really interesting and rewarding – that you look for the brands that are going to give you that freedom. It’s going to just make your life a hell of a lot more enjoyable.

Joe's work at Contently can be found here

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