Shane Snow is the co-founder and CCO of New York based agency Contently. We feel a real affinity with this American cousin here at Southerly as we both share a belief that great content and brand communication should be about great storytelling. I caught up with Shane for a chat about how he got started, what it takes to create quality content and the companies that are nailing content marketing in America right now.
I read that when you were looking for investment in 2011 you were told that content was a terrible business – did setting up Contently feel like a leap of faith? What had convinced you that you had something good to offer the marketplace?
I finished grad school in 2010, and along with virtually all of my peers, entered the job market as a freelancer. The economy was struggling, and the media landscape was becoming a place where content farms were exploiting writers, paying them $5 for crappy articles made for SEO robots.
At the same time, Contently CEO and co-founder Joe Coleman was running another company where he was unsuccessfully attempting to hire freelancers to write for him. We realised that there was a growing demand for the skills of well-trained journalists, and we saw the opportunity to build a marketplace where we helped our fellow freelancers find work and get paid fairly. So in December 2010, Joe, our friend Dave Goldberg, and I quit our lives to start just that.
Yes, we knew it was a bit of a leap of faith, but we saw the need firsthand for what we were trying to make, so we thought we had a real chance. We owe a lot to Eric Paley, the managing partner of Founder Collective, who is the first person who believed in us.
Back when we started, we knew we wanted to make the media world better, but it took some time to figure out how. At first, the idea was a simple marketplace where publishers could offer paid gigs to freelance writers. As Contently grew, we started building software – we saw the need to connect freelancers who tell stories with brands who need their stories told, and we shifted fully to a software company that provides the tools for brands to create, approve, and publish content.
You started your career as a journalist and still contribute to a number of titles, including Mashable and Wired. What do you think journalistic practices bring to content marketing?
Content marketing is taking the toolkit of journalism – finding and telling good stories – and applying it to brand communication. The key is to tell quality stories worth talking about, or the literal definition of “remarkable.”
Stories are fun and not salesy, which is great for readers
Who is doing great content marketing in the US at the moment?
It took a few years for the market to catch up to itself, but there are a lot of brands doing great content marketing right now. One of the early adopters was Red Bull. They’re still creating great content consistently.
A new one that I keep hearing about is the mattress company Casper. Their publication, Van Winkle, is beautifully done and has engaging content about everything from sleep deprivation to the science of dreaming. It’s an ambitious project for a relatively small and new company.
One of my favourite recent campaigns that we at Contently were a part of is Marriott Traveler. So far, this magazine has taken readers behind the scenes in Chicago, Orlando, and New Orleans, with interesting local stories that include a lot of gorgeous multimedia. The stories are fun and not salesy, which is great for readers.
I read an interesting report recently that said 71% of European marketers are creating more content than ever before but most of them rate their content as ‘basic or inconsistent’ – that suggests to me that far too many people think they’ve got to ‘do’ content marketing without really thinking about strategy or quality. Is that something you recognise as happening in the US? What’s the answer?
It’s a fairly young industry, but over the past year or so we’ve seen a jump in the number of brands doing content marketing well on both sides of the pond. Still, a lot of brands are just creating content for the sake of jumping on the bandwagon. I think marketers are still having trouble evangelising content to their own leadership. Without executives on board, it’s difficult to create quality content at scale. It requires time and money, and a lot of brands just aren’t as willing to invest yet. When you look at American Express, GE, Red Bull – the all-stars of content marketing, really – they each had early executive buy-in.
Are there any industry trends you see happening in the US right now that you could share? What’s exciting you at the moment?
One thing that’s exciting is we’re seeing companies taking more pride in branding their content, for the simple reason that hiding or downplaying your brand doesn’t work. There are fewer of the obnoxious clickbait headlines that leave readers frustrated, and better content being created overall. Content marketers are increasingly looking at metrics that actually show if a reader cares, like how long they’re engaging with the content. I think that’s going to be great for the industry.