Contently’s mission is to help brands and journalists connect to tell great stories. Can you walk us through what this matchmaking service looks like?
We got into this business because we saw what was happening to the talented, working journalists who were being laid off at newspapers and magazines and not having anywhere to go but freelancing.
Another founding ethos was that we didn’t believe you had to have some sort of legacy to be respected as a credible publisher, nor did you have to have some special status as a company – good content and good stories should supersede other considerations.
Good content and good stories should supersede other considerations.
We essentially have one product with two components to it. The first is our freelancer network, which provides services such as the ability to build a website, to rank for your name on Google and get credit for your work.
The second is for publishers. We have a search tool and an account management team that helps the brand or agency staff up with a go-to pool of freelance talent.
Using the data we have on our network, you can look for writers who (for example) write about horses and live in Nebraska or who write about NASA and live in Sweden or who have Klout scores over 50.
Your publisher list includes a mix of brands like AMEX and Tide as well as media outlets like Gawker and Slate. How do you approach those two types of clients differently?
We try to model our workflow and our software after best practices for magazines, so the software we end up building actually works very well for traditional media companies in addition to brands.
Gawker, for example, are building out sponsored content offerings for their advertisers. A Gawker advertiser might want to sponsor a series of posts and our software makes it very efficient for Gawker to use their own freelancers or our freelancers.
And some media companies just use us for their own editorial workflow, for their internal staff with or without freelancers, which is pretty cool to see.
Is it more of a challenge to create native advertising that has to mimic a publication’s existing voice?
It is, but it shouldn’t be. A brand ought to develop an editorial voice that, if you strip away all of the branding, you still know who it is. A lot of brands are very new to this game. They’re hiring new people. They ought to have an editorial director who is really being the champion of that.
For example, we do a lot of work with Forbes. If Forbes is looking for someone to do some business writing for one of their clients, there are tons of former Forbes freelancers in our network, so it becomes really easy. You get this bar of brand equity.
I recently spoke with the CEO of NewsCred who is doing something similar to Contently. But they are starting to build up an in-house editorial team in addition to their syndication service. What do you make of that approach?
That’s interesting. In the beginning we did half of the editorial internally. It’s just tough when you’re trying to be a technology company but you’re on the hook for services like that on an ongoing basis.
You end up having to think like an agency and a tech company and it’s very hard to do both. I’ll be curious to see how they do. Maybe they’ll be incredibly successful at it, but it will be a lot of work.
Contently is not a media company and we’re not an agency either. We’re trying to be the plumbing and the arms dealer, so to speak, rather than doing the content for anyone.
We would rather not compete with the agencies that might want to take on that strategic or editorial role.
Tell us about your magazine, The Content Strategist. Is that essentially content marketing for Contently?
The Content Strategist started as a way for us to show what our potential clients could do with Contently. We said, “Let’s build a publication, we’ll use freelancers from our network, we’ll use our tools and we’ll show people that you can have a growing publication with lots of readers.”
As our customers have gotten more sophisticated with their content, so have we. Now we use it to fill the top of the Contently funnel for people who may be interested in becoming clients.
Certainly there are a huge number of readers that subscribe, visit and share who have no intention or need to become our customers, but there is a certain subset that do, and we basically establish a relationship with them.
The Content Strategist has made the leap from web to print. That’s a rare thing to try these days. Why bother?
Yeah, initially we thought of it more as a pressworthy thing. What we realized after we’d done a couple of issues is that it actually becomes a fantastic sales tool.
It’s a very visceral calling card of “Here’s what you could be doing.” It’s been very cool and really paid off in terms of cost to print versus customers we’ve been able to nurture and acquire.
We’re at the point now where our readership is big enough that we could charge for advertising. But we don’t really like to because we like the idea of making stories, not ads.
In his own words
Shane Snow explains what’s dangerous about the term, “brand journalism”: