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When Mahlab met Nenad Senic

Content marketing expert Nenad Senic why 'epic content' is undermining our industry.

Vodafone is using human bones to sell phones, impatient marketers are missing the point and the word ‘epic’ continues to undermine our industry. Content marketing expert and print specialist Nenad Senic gives us one hell of an interview.

Mahlab Nenad, could you tell us a little about your career history?

Nenad Senic I never intended to get into marketing. I wasn’t one of those kids who thought “I wanna be a marketer when I grow up”. Come to think of it, does any kid think like that? Anyway, I began my career in journalism. I was a radio newscaster. At the same time, I was teaching radio news and journalism history at a university in Slovenia.

After a few years, I travelled over to the States to study and graduated with a M.A. in political science. I had research published over there and it was all very removed from what I do now.

Upon receiving news that there was a sickness in the family, I returned home. There, I got back into journalism. How the transition came about, I have no idea, yet from there I managed to land a job with a content marketing agency. I didn’t know I was ‘doing’ content marketing at the time, but nevertheless, I was editing a magazine for the Chamber of Commerce in Slovenia. It wasn’t long before I experienced that ‘Aha!’ moment in which the whole content marketing thing clicked. And then, I suppose, I was working as a content marketer. And there I’ve stayed!

M You’re the european editor of CCO magazine. When and how did you land that gig?

NS I left the content marketing agency in 2011. That was my first job. By the end of my time with the company, I was managing eight customer magazines. I just burnt out. I got in touch with Joe [Pulizzi] who I had met at a content marketing event in Slovenia in 2010 and told him my situation, and we started throwing ideas around.

M And since 2011, what have you been doing?

NS This is why I believe so strongly in the potential of content marketing. When I left the agency to go out on my own, I quickly discovered that I was a complete unknown – that was a real shock for me. I’d been working in that space for years, so I kept thinking to myself, ‘They’re going to call!’ and they, whoever they were, never did. I had all this time on my hands, so I decided to put it into doing for myself what I had spent years doing for clients: I began building a content marketing strategy. I set up a Twitter account and a Facebook page, I launched a content marketing blog, and I started creating content.

Month after month, nothing happened, which I knew would be the case, but ultimately it paid off. A friend of mine, who tasked herself the responsibility of spreading the good word about my services, found that upon mentioning my name people knew who I was. I was the blog guy, the Twitter guy; people I had never met knew I existed and considered me a content marketing expert. And today, in Slovenia, whenever people talk about content marketing, even if I’m not present, somehow the conversation comes back to me. That’s something I’m incredibly proud of. The marketing environment in my home country is very agency-heavy, with many agencies boasting huge clients and budgets to boot. That’s what I’m competing against, so to be regarded as a go-to guy in the content marketing industry is just crazy for me.

M You’ve said, “I think patience and common sense are lacking” in the content marketing game. So often, we see businesses trying to emulate the efforts of big brands but to no avail, simply because they’ve lost patience with the process. What is your advice to the impatient among us who are looking to adopt a content-focused approach to their marketing efforts?

NS Here’s what I say to you impatient marketers: It takes time. That’s the key, along with persistence, to content marketing success. There are no two ways about it.

I think we as an industry still have a big problem. It’s not really clear what content marketing is. Of course, to us it’s clear, but I don’t think we’re explaining it as well as we should.

My experience has been that clients don’t really know what content marketing is. They don’t quite understand what it is that I do and what content marketers do, and it takes a lot of time before they actually give it the go-ahead. But when they do, they want results right away. I find myself having to tell clients, time and time again, that a decision to begin the journey is just that: the beginning. The next step is not strategy, platforms, content creation, schedules and promotions. The next step is sitting down and starting a conversation.

It’s often a challenge trying to explain to clients that the initial results – unless they are really lucky – aren’t going to happen in a few weeks or months. It can take years. Some experts say that the first real results take around 18 months. Now, imagine you are a marketer or an agency trying to tell your client, “Okay, we’re going to get the ball rolling; we’re going to do all this stuff, we’re going to put money and resources into this and this, and I don’t expect results for 18 months”. Well, you can imagine the response!

Because of the time factor, many people are very suspicious of content marketing. They think that it’s all jargon, just something for us to charge them for, but when it comes to content marketing, you have to start slow and you have to bring a certain level of realism to the project. Because, again, it takes time.

M Why do you think many businesses remain reluctant to try their hand at content marketing?

NS It’s an interesting thing. We as content marketers have all these great examples that prove content marketing’s effectiveness – we’re not making this up, people! But it still feels so new to so many.

If I’m a real estate agent, for example, why on earth would I write about local coffee houses, restaurants, bars and retailers? Why would I spend time and energy creating content about things other than the properties I am trying to sell? Well, of course, we know the answer to that question: to establish a valuable relationship with your customers, to build up a sense of professional authority in your sector and to create brand value. If people see you as an expert on all things lifestyle in your area, they will surely turn to you for advice on property and location too. But the sad thing is that so many real estate agents will never make this connection, this link between great content and business success. For them, if it’s not shouting, “This house is on sale! Three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a double lock-up garage!” then it’s wasted effort.

That’s our job as content marketers. We need to be able to persuade these reluctant marketers to take the plunge and give content marketing a chance. If you do it the right way and with the right – and realistic – intentions, you will see results.

M Content marketing tends to be perceived as a purely digital pursuit. As a print content specialist, what’s your opinion of this perception?

NS It frustrates me. There are so many knockout examples of successful print programs! In a way I understand the lure of digital – it’s new and we’re all trying to find the answers; the solutions to these new problems. But ultimately, the best content marketing examples I’ve seen have involved a mixture of both print and digital. It’s the integration that’s key.

People are talking about the resurgence of print. I have absolutely no idea what they are talking about. It’s as if they suddenly discovered that there is a thing called a magazine. Did print die and rise again? No, don’t be ridiculous! Google had its own print magazine called Think Quarterly. If the largest and most universally recognised web company in the world has a print magazine, let’s just say there are no words to describe the outrageousness of this attitude to print.

The success of a print-focused strategy is dependent on the problem you are trying to solve for your customers. Sometimes it’s a more viable option than digital, sometimes it’s the other way around.

To find the right balance for your business, you have to ask yourself two questions. Firstly, what are you trying to achieve and secondly, who are you trying to target? Once you have established the whys and whos of the problem, you will find yourself working seamlessly towards a well-mixed print and digital solution.

M What are some of the notable benefits print possesses over digital?

NS The biggest advantage that print holds over digital is retention. Print is a far more personal experience. With every issue, your subscribers have given you the right to enter their lives, their homes, their bedrooms and living rooms. They have given you the opportunity to be a tangible element of their everyday, and that’s something that digital just cannot offer.

With that, and this is something that I’m constantly reminding people of, comes that list of potential, if not already existing, customers. Businesses are so quick to disregard their prospect databases. They’re messy and no one knows where they’re kept, let alone precisely who has them. It’s astounding! This is a list of people who have given you permission to talk to them. I’ll rephrase that: they want you to talk to them, so why would you miss an opportunity to take advantage of that?

We keep forgetting that retention is paramount. We need to be nurturing the customers that we have already earned. You can keep churning out fresh customers, but if they’re not sticking around, ask yourself: am I doing my job effectively? Well, no, you’re not.

M What are a few of your favourite print-focused content marketing examples?

NS How long do you have? If I had to choose only a few examples, first and foremost I would say Completely London. It’s a magazine created for a real estate company by an agency called August Media. Its content spans broad themes. One issue, for example, was all about love, another was about knowledge, each with a focus purely on London. London, of course, from a property perspective, but it’s not just about homes and offices. It’s cafes, restaurants, bars, festivals, prominent public figures and community events. It’s really sharp photography and even sharper journalism. I’ve only visited London twice, yet I’m always itching for the next issue to arrive because it’s so good. And it’s received a wealth of industry accolades too. In it’s first year, Completely London was named one of the top 10 brands in the UK.

Can you imagine being a real estate agent and being hailed as one of the best brands in the country? It’s utterly remarkable. It’s my favourite example because it proves the power of print.

If you want a crazy example, Vodafone Czech Republic has fashioned the craziest, boldest and most outrageous customer magazine I have ever seen. It’s sales-orientated. I feel like I need to reiterate that: it’s a sales-orientated customer magazine; it’s a financial fork-out that brings in revenue. In fact, the company’s sales teams swear by it and argue that it’s fuelling their customers’ buying decisions.

It’s very urban. They want to target the go-getters, the elite, the young people who like to have fun. A recent issue was about being gay in the Czech Republic. Another issue was about stuff that kills people. The photography on that issue featured guns, swastikas and human bones. This is a company trying to sell phones, creating content pieces out of human remains. That’s why I love print – the possibilities are endless.

There’s another example from Austria. It’s a family business, Neuburger, that produces liver cheese – a rather obscure product lacking in, shall we say, sex appeal. So to boost their product’s image, the business began producing a high fashion, high end magazine all about liver cheese. It’s difficult to describe, you really have to see it to believe it!

M Everyone has their preferences when it comes to print versus digital content consumption, but for you, what is it about print that makes for such an enjoyable experience?

NS Print provides an opportunity to go deeper into topics and issues, and to use more photos and more visual material. Visual material on an iPad or an app, for example, can be a nightmare because you can sit on the download forever. That’s a major issue. I have really fast internet at home, yet it takes forever to download image-heavy ezines.

And there’s just something tangible about print, something special. I was looking the other day at Sainsbury’s magazine that is sold in their stores. That’s a fascinating example of the value of print because people not only pay money to purchase Sainsbury’s products, but they actually pay for their content, too.

Ultimately, I think print has a timeless quality about it. It gives you the feeling that you can read it whenever and wherever you like. Unlike blog posts, it doesn’t bring with it a sense of now, of imminency and, in today’s world, that’s quite a rarity.

M Is it possible to create great print content on a budget? What’s your advice to marketers who want to incorporate print into their marketing mix but are lacking the budget?

NS High quality print doesn’t need to be Vogue or GQ. I know we would all be delighted if we were given the budget to emulate titles of this calibre, but a simple eight-page newspaper, if it’s done in such a way that brings results, is high-quality print. A good customer magazine is one that people actually read, and if the content is of a high enough standard, people will do just that: read. It, like everything else in the content marketing game, comes back to knowing your audience.

I’ll give you an example. Much of my extended family lives in Serbia. I visited them around the time that I was editing a medical magazine; a glossy high-end title. I showed it to my aunt. She didn’t open it. The first thing she said was “Wow, this must be really expensive.” Now, if she was my target audience, that magazine would have been a total failure. She was thinking to herself, “I’m not supposed to hold this. This isn’t a magazine for me.”

I’ll say it again, and I’m sure I’ll be saying it until the end of my days, but in this business your audience is everything.

M You say that great content doesn’t have to be epic for it to be a success. What’s your take on the notion of ‘epic content’?

NS This is something that I have had problems with for a while now. I really respect Joe Pulizzi and the entire CMI team, I love working with them and I am so appreciative of the ground they’ve covered on behalf of the industry as a whole, but this notion of epic – I’m just not comfortable with it.

They pitch the idea that content has to be epic; that you have strive to be the best in your field and you have to produce the greatest content around in order to be successful. Tell me, what on earth is epic? What, exactly, is the greatest piece of content ever produced? And what does the best in your field actually look like? How do you measure these things?

If you’re not delusional, if you’re not overly self-confident, that’s when you find problems working within this ‘epic’ mindset. Because it’s the way we understand the words epic, great and best that devalue our content efforts.

It’s why that eight-page newspaper I spoke of earlier couldn’t be considered ‘epic’. The interesting thing is that even if everybody read that newspaper, even if it proves its ROI a million times over, its creators and the content marketing community won’t perceive it as ‘epic’ because it doesn’t have, say, Oprah on the cover; because it’s not a content piece showcasing the hurling of a Red Bull spaceman from a spaceship hovering above the earth’s atmosphere.

This feeling of content not being good enough is one of the major problems that we as an industry have to push back against when clients see our work as having failed because it’s not ‘epic’ enough.

I’m going to start sounding like a broken record in a moment, but who are you doing this for and why are you doing it? Those are the two most important questions to ask yourself. Forget Coca-Cola, forget Red Bull. Remember that your work is for your audience, not theirs, and you’ll be on the right track.

M Having spent 72 hours immersed in the Australian content marketing landscape during your time at Content Marketing World Sydney, what noteworthy observations did you make?

NS I noticed that there’s a huge gap between what I thought was the state of content marketing in Australia and what the most current benchmark reports say. CMI’s 2013 benchmarks, budgets and trends report found that Australian content marketers are confident in their strategic motives and their marketing spend, and they know where their strengths lie. But for me, speaking to delegates at the conference, I found the situation to be quite the opposite. To me, it seemed as though it was just the beginning of the road for these marketers.

Another thing I noticed was just how much Australia looks to the US for content marketing guidance. The conference was dominated by American speakers – which was what delegates had asked for at last year’s conference – and US case studies. But how similar are the two countries’ business environments? To me, they are very different. I’m surprised that you are not looking more at the Brits, especially when it comes to print. They’re so far ahead of the game over there!

M Why do you think we Australians are so eager to emulate the American approach to content marketing? Come to think of it, it’s very rare that one hears much about European content marketers, unless it’s awards season!

NS Exactly. In Britain, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, oh, and the Dutch – my god! Don’t get me started on the Dutch! These are the people who actually ‘do’ content marketing; who are literally practicing it for their clients. Very few have active blogs, only a handful are active on Twitter, they keep their heads down and get the work done. They really know how to implement content marketing and are less interested in explaining or educating the wider community.

I find the American approach to be very self-promotional, and this is a practice I’ve observed in many Australian agencies. It’s the ‘Top 50 content marketing experts’ posts, the ‘Best brains in the business’ posts. These are often created by those who have the loudest voices online; the usual players from the States who produce a lot of content.

Why is this the case? Well, I think it’s because that’s how the American content marketing model works; it’s how these experts make their living. They write blog posts and books, they Tweet and they spend much of the year on the speaking circuit. They’re constantly moving around the same sphere and because of that, we get always the same: the same lists, the same voices, the same topics. It’s all the same.

When I see those lists, I just don’t understand the point. There are so many prominent names that are always missing. I’m reading the same case studies, I’m hearing the same voices. Enough with Red Bull already! We need new voices in this space. We need new ideas and new takes on existing ones. We need to stop recycling content and we need to stop with this me-too marketing mindset.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that the US doesn’t know what they’re talking about, but they take an approach that’s very foreign to the European way. There’s nothing wrong with this American saturation because they’re leading the industry forward and they’re educating, which is fantastic. But it’s important to pay attention to those who are a little quieter in their approach.

M Who are some European authorities to keep a close eye on?

NS Doug Kessler, obviously, who is one of the few European voices being heard on this side of the world. Julia Hutchinson, the former COO for the British Content Marketing Association, Kitty Finstad, the group editor at August Media and Sak van den Boom, a highly-regarded Dutch content marketing expert. He’s an absolute legend.

Nenad Senic is a blogger, content strategist, print specialist, and the European editor of CCO magazine. You can get in touch with Nenad on Twitter or through his website.

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