This article was originally published on Forbes.
Today, the battle for attention is brutal. Audiences are exposed to a tremendous amount of content and an unprecedented number of ways to consume it. Traditional media was the first to feel the effect of digital transformation — the shift from print publications and fixed-schedule TV programming to online aggregators and on-demand content consumption.
In SaaS, companies have started operating more like media organizations because content creation and distribution allows organizations to reach larger audiences at a lower cost. The intense competition in SaaS makes it harder for companies to simply outspend their competitors to win mindshare and market share. Content helps organizations differentiate and engage their audiences.
That’s why your company must now master the art of storytelling - including how you create and distribute stories.
Why Storytelling Matters
The only way to build a strong company and brand is by winning the attention of your target audience. But your time-starved prospects only pay attention to things they care about. That means your corporate story must resonate with them. It also means you must cultivate the essential skill of storytelling. It's a matter of survival.
This explains why every company is now a media company. Every organization is in the content creation and distribution business because stories are at the heart of content and experiences that attract, engage, and convert.
Consider this: every company is now a software company because software has penetrated all aspects of our lives and reshaped our expectations. In the same way, every company is a media company because it's the only way to be relevant in an attention-scarce world.
Success Hinges on the Power Duo of Content and Distribution
It’s no longer enough to either produce great content or own a distribution channel. Companies must do both so they can respond quickly to changes in audience preferences. Build expertise in just one of these areas and you risk losing out to competitors with strong content creation DNA and a powerful distribution channel.
Even amazing content needs to be delivered through channels that audiences prefer. Consider the fate of print publications. Print newspapers suffered a sharp decline in readership and ad revenue because they failed to recognize the decade-long shift of audiences from offline to online channels. While the quality of their content hadn't necessarily changed, people’s preferences had – and newspapers were late to recognize this.
The smart companies are adapting. Many print media heavyweights including The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal are successfully transitioning to the online subscription model. In other words, they’ve expanded their focus from quality content to include the distribution of that content.
On the other hand, companies that built their businesses on large distribution channels are investing in content creation. Netflix first started as a distribution platform delivering Hollywood content on demand. However, it’s now aggressively investing in creating its own shows and movies. In fact, Netflix spent close to $7 billion in 2017 producing original content. No wonder CEO Reed Hastings recently described Netflix as more of a media company than a tech company.
Netflix is not the only company to recognize that a powerful distribution channel can be more profitable when coupled with proprietary content. Amazon will spend over $8 billion on content creation by 2022. With Amazon Prime Video subscriptions projected to reach over 46 million people in 2020, Amazon has 46 million reasons to produce original content.
Apple knows it can't afford to fall behind, so it plans to increase its annual budget for original content to $4 billion by 2022 to dress up iTunes.
In the same vein, Google is stepping up spending on YouTube's original content. While YouTube has a near monopoly on user-generated content, original programming provides an opportunity to grow its paid subscription service, YouTube Red.
These tech giants have issued a dire warning to Hollywood industry and traditional cable networks. Yet it would be wise for all businesses to take notice.
Outsourcing content (or product) distribution can mean the demise of any business. Consider that the downfall of Toys "R" Us started with the decision to outsource online distribution and fulfillment to Amazon in 2000.
The prevailing business strategy has been to focus on core competencies and outsource less critical business functions. However, in the current world where almost every company can build a direct communication channel with customers, companies should carefully protect the distribution of content (and product). Distribution is as important as the content (or product) itself. The closer a company is to its customers, the better the odds of long-term survival.
SaaS Companies Must Evolve
This lesson applies to SaaS companies too. They must operate like media companies. They must learn how to tell stories through their content, package that content in multiple formats, and distribute it through a growing number of channels and platforms. IBM is a great example of a company that created its own editorial team and publication. iQ publication tells tech-related stories that often overlap with technologies powered by IBM.
We should get comfortable with the idea of watching the Oracle or Salesforce channel. It could happen much sooner than we think. In fact, it’s already happening. Have you noticed the increase in video content on Linkedin? LinkedIn is even producing its own magazine The Sophisticated Marketer’s Quarterly and TV show with B2B Dinner for Five.
The business model for traditional media companies involved selling ads while for new media companies it involves charging for products and services. Ann Handley, co-author of Content Rules and Chief Content Officer at MarketingProfs, explains this best:
“The key difference between a traditional media company and a new media company is the revenue stream. The former makes its money from advertising; the latter makes its money from product or services sales. In both cases, though, the quality of the content and the audience are key.”
Marrying the Art and Science of Marketing
How companies approach marketing will change as well. The idea is dying that the primary goal of SaaS marketers is delivering a steady stream of leads. Marketing becomes all about storytelling through content creation and distribution.
We all know that marketing is an art and science. For the last decade, we’ve heard plenty about a data-driven, scientific approach to marketing. Still, being data-driven or A/B testing or using the latest "growth hacking" technique isn’t enough. Marketers must master the art portion of the marketing equation. They can do so by learning from writers, film producers, and directors. The marketers of tomorrow will be studying the likes of Steven Spielberg and Stephen King.
Defining Corporate Storytelling
What do we mean by storytelling in the context of software companies? Obviously, SaaS companies are not in the business of writing novels or making movies. Nevertheless, every company has a founding story. What prompted the founders to launch a company? Were they struggling with the problem they are solving with their product or service? What challenges did they face in their company’s early stages? What early insights helped shape the company into what it is now?
Corporate stories typically revolve around one of four main characters: company, customer, market, and company founders/employees. Regardless of the hero, every story follows the universal storytelling framework that describes the hero's journey. For example, a video or an article can describe customer-facing challenges and problems and how your organization or product helped overcome them and what the life of your customer looks like now.
Stories can surface from anywhere. For a media company, all internal or external news is an opportunity to create a story. The same is true within a SaaS company.
Things that happen inside the organization provide an opportunity to build a compelling story that adds to your narrative. For example, perhaps your CEO will be speaking at an industry event, or your company opens an office in Australia. Maybe your team hit an important milestone, or an engineer was granted a patent. Organizations need the skills and infrastructure to capitalize on these important moments by communicating them in the form of stories. Companies can turn around better and more engaging stories if their content teams include not just writer but a designer and a video producer.
Companies must have agile editorial team that includes designers and video producers
At the same time, by jumping on industry and market news, companies can insert themselves into trending conversations. So, whether companies create inward-focused stories or contribute to discussions and news originating elsewhere, they are building their brands. That's why organizations have to insert their senior leaders into important discussions. Furthermore, a corporate brand is tied not only to senior leadership but to every employee.
Every company is a media company and has to operate like one. At a minimum, this means they need:
- An agile editorial team that's not only able to produce quality content on a regular basis and optimize its distribution but can respond to industry and market news in a timely manner.
- To implement review and approval processes that empower marketing teams to turn around content in a matter of hours.
- Own a distribution channel whether it is a publication, a resource center, or a blog.
If your organization is not equipped to operate as media company, it’s time to make it a priority.
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