Content Marketing and the rise of Brands as Publishers

The value of content marketing for digital brands continues to climb in importance and for most savvy digital brands and agency offerings, content marketing is now considered a key pillar within their arsenal in helping to drive KPI’s such as engagement, reach and brand awareness. Content marketing is also helping brands realise they have a story to tell through engaging with their existing audience as well as entertaining and driving new customers to their product or service.

To help provide a real-life example of what it’s like to operate within the field of content marketing, I caught up with Simon Penson, MD and Founder of Zazzle Media, a leading digital content agency specialising in data driven, content led search and social strategies. Simon shares his thoughts and views on Content marketing and the opportunity that exists for brands to utilise this strategy and help them become experts within their sectors creating a Brands as Publisher model.


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Tell us a little about Simon…

I am a (very) early 80s child and grew up obsessed with the outdoors (strange given my ultimate career choice).  It was the fact that I came from a rural environment, however, that ultimately fuelled my obsession with new technology and media and lust for the ‘next new thing.’ It’s the driving force that has always illuminated my adult life and, alongside a natural flair for writing, pushed me into media. I grew up wanting to be a journalist and let the world know about that ‘next big thing.’


When did your digital career start?

It was reading about the ‘dot com bubble’ that truthfully raised my interest initially. Having worked in print journalism from 1998 I was fortune enough (although it didn’t feel like it at the time) to witness the audience shift in real time, from print to online and as a result I started building my own sites in 2000.

Those sites were content led advice sites based on specific niches and did very well but, more importantly, they taught me the important basics of everything from web development to digital marketing.


Zazzle Media…..sell it to us in a tweet?

We create a grow valuable online audiences through search and social, fuelling that with data informed content.







What was your motivation to set your own business up and step away from the “security” of an in house job?

Working in print put me in a privileged position in many respects as it gave me the ‘crystal ball’ in that I could see that a seismic and structural shift was going on with audiences moving from traditional media to the digital world. Alongside that I had begun working in a new digital team for the publisher I was employed by at the time and part of the work I hired a couple of early online marketing agencies. It was immediately obvious to me that content played no part in their strategies and that was a huge miss, as far as I could see. That really set the seed for Zazzle Media and the creation of a content-led digital marketing agency.

Of course that positioning was a very hard sell in 2009 but we stuck to our guns and gained valuable experience while other peddled more ‘traditional’ online marketing services. We grew very slowly in the first three years but as social grew and search engines became more intelligent brands have become more interested in content again. As a result we are growing significantly now.



Content seems to be at the heart of the Zazzle media proposition. Do you see content marketing as the bedrock to build a digital strategy, utilising the right digital tactics to support content amplification?

Absolutely. Content has always been the conduit that pulls people of similar interests together. It’s how media has always created value. Of course the ability to grow those audiences is now in the hands of brands and that makes the world massively exciting from our perspective.

I’ve  spent time with some of the biggest brands recently and seen, first hand, how they plan to really accelerate the ‘brand as publisher’ model and I can’t wait to see where that leads.



Many brands struggle in justifying a spend to allocate towards content marketing – what recommendations would you suggest to justify such a spend?

There are a few ways of looking at where we are with content right now. Firstly, it is important to understand that this isn’t a ‘fad’. We can see that by looking historically around how all major media channels have evolved. They always begin with the initial obsession with the tech that fuel it but eventually it becomes boring staring at a radio, for instance, and the ONLY thing that keeps us coming back is the content.

Digital is following that same path and those that take up the reigns now will be the same ones that are the leaders of tomorrow and profit from having invested in audience development. We saw it in those that invested in link building early on. They profited from it. The only difference this time is that content marketing is a true marketing tactic and not just a search engine gaming tactic that would always come to an end.

Ultimately if you want to own an audience, content is the only way of doing that for the long term.



What key metrics would you recommend brands monitor and measure their content marketing performance? Is it all about reach or it the industry maturing to more engagement metrics?

The measurement of content value still has a long way to go but it’s as much about education also. Often great strategies fail simply because there has been enough work on expectation setting initially. Explaining that content is not a short term investment seems like a really obvious thing to say but you would be amazed at how few brand truly understand what that means. We work hard on ensuring it is clear that we not only agree HOW to measure success, but over what period of time.

Metrics then depend entirely on the overall objective of the content. If it’s about brand building then ‘softer’ metrics such as engagement, sentiment etc are clearly important and how that shifts over time, whereas if it is more about direct response things like conversion and revenue are obviously more important. It’s very important to look at each campaign separately and tailor KPIs accordingly.



Does content marketing have a role to play for an ecommerce brand?

Definitely – 110%. In fact I would say more than for most, simply because we know that the ‘Brand as Publisher’ model is critical to building targeted audiences of value. Research from Google, for instance, also suggests that we like researching on ecommerce sites more than we do elsewhere so ensuring that kind of content is there to help make consumers smarter is very important. We do a lot of work in this area and it improves all key KPIs.



The rise in content being pushed and the algorithmic changes deployed by Google to flush out poor performing sites and untrusted domains has created an opportunity for brands to create digital knowledge centres becoming go-to destinations for information, content and advice, creating an oasis of trusted, authoritative content that existing customers and prospects will be delighted by. What are your thoughts?

This really links in with my last answer. Building truly exceptional content experiences that entertain and also inform is the future of good digital brand building, and business generally. Increasingly we don’t want to be sold to so brands need to create environments that engender trust and confidence so we feel comfortable converting.



Do you believe brands need to define a USP for their digital proposition to truly stand out from the competition? Are there any frameworks or strategies to consider?

While there are certainly technical considerations digitally the channel is no longer any different to the ‘real world’ from a marketing perspective and that means working hard on audience understanding, personas and proposition. The clever bit is then ensuring that EVERYTHING you produce sticks closely to those core principles. That’s never easy but there are ways of making it easier.  We work with a technology retailer, for instance, which has done very well getting this bit right and their results speak for themselves. When everything is aligned and clearly spelt out to everyone in the business that uniqueness and consistency can be very powerful in beating up the competition!



How do you recommend a brand optimises their content marketing for a mobile audience?

We think about this as part of our content ideation process as it is increasingly important to break content up into mobile-friendly bite-sized pieces. That is as much to do with UX as it is content but simple things like using good article and paragraph structure and really planning that out from the beginning make for a better mobile experience.














Does Syndication play a part in a content marketing strategy?

Yes! Supporting larger campaigns with an element of PR and amplification is critical to success!



What are the skills you look for in recruiting digital talent to Zazzle Media?

We made a few mistakes 12-18 months ago on this by hiring people purely on skill set as opposed to ‘fit’. We learned a lot from that and now look for what we call a ‘voracious appetite for learning’ above all else. If you have that digitally then you will survive and thrive in this fast paced environment.

We also worked hard defining our culture so it was possible for all of our managers to spot those key character traits and, ultimately, help us build a team that works brilliantly together.











What’s on your reading list?

I am trying to read a lot more around UX and design at present (both digital and ‘real world’) at present as it’s clear that experience is playing an increasingly important role in successful digital strategy. Outside of that and the usual industry blogs I actually read little sadly; a growing business and young family makes it pretty difficult!


More information?

Follow Simon on Twitter: @simonpenson

Follow Zazzle Media on Tiwtter: @ZazzleMedia





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