How branded content is done: an interview with Tim Moran of CMO.com
CMO.com, an Adobe-owned media play, is one of the most successful branded content titles on the web. It’s also a pioneer in B2B content marketing, with its stated remit of “helping CMOs and senior marketers lead their brands in this new digital world”.
When people talk about ‘owning the media’ (instead of renting it through advertising), this is that they mean.
CMO.com was launched in 2010, and Tim has been the editor-in-chief since the beginning, seeing it grow from a standing start of mostly curated content and paltry page views to a site boasting 50%-plus original content with monthly page views recently passing 330,000.
He came to the role after 20+ years as a hard-core business journalist at CMP Media/United Business Media, most recently as the creator and editor of EE Times Online.
I found myself sitting next to Tim at lunch during the Adobe Summit event recently (we both opted for the salmon). His answers to my impertinent questions were so interesting, I asked if I could interview him for… well, for you. Here we go:
How did CMO.com get started?
What was the motivation, how did you justify it and did it need a senior executive to champion it and get it on its feet?
CMO.com was originally started at Omniture, before it was acquired by Adobe, where it was something of a skunkworks operation. The idea was simply to curate as much content from around the web as possible that might be of interest to chief marketers.
There was no initial justification at all, and I doubt anyone at Omniture really thought it would take off. The original team was me, one marketing manager, and an agency, so there was not a lot of resources being poured into it—more like, “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show” and see who comes.
How has CMO.com evolved since its inception?
Was it very different in its original form?
It has evolved tremendously, and having Adobe really get behind it has been the difference.
It took a while for them for figure out where we belonged in the organization, since the idea of media-site-as-marketing was quite new. We were put in product marketing, industry marketing, and then demand marketing, until we finally found our home in the GMO communications world. That’s where a site like CMO.com really fits.
Now we are work closely with all of those other groups, but are seen as part of the comms operation. And Adobe has seen to it that we are no longer a skunkworks but an integral part of the marketing operation, which includes getting us resources we never had before. So we have been able to grow from the curation site we originally were to a creator of original content and a place for though leaders, both in and outside Adobe, to publish their stories.
What’s the editorial mandate?
You’ve said that you decided to avoid news from the very beginning. Now there’s a news section. Why is that?
Our editorial mandate is, basically, what our tag line is: “Digital marketing insights, expertise and inspiration for and by marketing leaders. Brought to you by Adobe.”
We create and accept content based on this simple idea: The content must be relevant to heads of marketing in large, global companies; it must be devoid of any product or company promotion; and it must be original and exclusive to CMO.com.
We, actually, have had a News section since the beginning, 95% of our news is curated—we do not have a news operation, per se. That’s something that we did not want to get involved in, for a number of reasons, perhaps the main one being that “news” in the B2B world is mostly about products and company goings-on, neither of which we were interested in. So we curate what news we think is worth the CMO’s time to read—and it is all chosen by a real editor, not an algorithm—and spend our time and resources creating insights.
You’re a journalist with a solid B2B tech journal background.
How has it been different to run a media site that’s owned by a brand?
While each editorial job is different, this one is less different than I would have imagined—and is much better in some ways that what is considered “traditional” editorial. All of which is a testament to the marketing management at Adobe, which has left us to find our own niche and to operate as much like a true editorial media outlet as one could imagine.
This is not to say that there are not the occasional pressures or “asks” from within that might not be exactly “editorial” in nature, but the reality is that very similar “asks” were—and probably still are—part of the true media world. We are an Adobe property, after all, and we are not going to go out write an exposé about it—but neither are we going to do that about anybody or anything else, either.
We are here to help busy CMOs figure out how to succeed in this new digital world, and we want them to think of Adobe as a trusted advisor through CMO.com. That we don’t have to worry about success in terms of ad sales is nice in these days, too.
How do you guys establish the ‘church and state’ borders?
What policies do you have to serve the readers while still keeping the Adobe agenda in mind?
We don’t have any official or formal “policies” about church-and-state. The traditional marketers at Adobe have simply come to realize that CMO.com’s job is not to push brand or sell products—there are many other places for that to be done within and around Adobe.
They understand our role as the purveyor of thought leadership and insight and have been quite clever about finding ways to get the Adobe POV across on the site in ways that are perfectly acceptable to our media image. It really works remarkably well to everyone’s benefit.
Why do you think CMO.com has been so successful?
I think CMO.com hit at the nexus of two major sea changes: content marketing and digital marketing.
We are in the process of looking at the site for a redesign and restructuring later in the year, and one of the things we are studying are the backend tags and topics. What we are so surprised at are the number of topic tags that we used 5 years ago and are no longer relevant.
CMO.com fills a need for today’s marketers, in that it helps them try to understand the marketing and business issues that have arisen in our new digital world. Our readers have responded to that. They are hungry for good, independent information, and I like to think we provide that.
But I think we also provide many benefits for many constituencies—freelance writers, agencies, brands, Adobe, Adobe partners, academics, and on and on. All have found a home on CMO.com if they are involved in creating good marketing-related content. Plus we have a great relationship with the others comms and PR teams, which helps. So all of this has combined to help us succeed, I think.
Is there a lot of pressure to measure ROI and show the role of CMO.com in demand generation?
If so how do you do it?
There is no pressure whatsoever. It has been accepted for quite some time that CMO.com is not a demand-gen play. We are a content site, and Adobe has come to see our value in being that, in terms of connecting it to digital marketing thought leadership.
There are ways, however, that we can help in the demand-gen world: advertising. We have multiple advertising slots on the site and in the weekly newsletters, and these can be used for offers and white papers and research and other demand-generation content. We can also, for instance, do a news story or executive summary of a piece of Adobe research and then link to the full report, which might be behind a gate. It all works out rather nicely and well within the CMO.com structure.
What’s the publishing cadence of CMO.com and how big a team do you need to keep it up?
We are a pretty small operation, considering. In addition to myself, we have Gayle Kesten, our managing editor—she keeps the site running day to day and works with all the freelancers—and Giselle Abramovich, senior and strategic editor and our main writer of original content and our lead social media editor.
Giselle, with Gayle’s help, has pushed our Twitter following to above 54,000. Just recently we hired a full time marketer, Neda Stoll, and we all report into Dan Berthiaume, who is a director on our own CMO’s team. We also have a couple of part-timers who help with curation posting and editing. That’s about it, other than freelancers. We have also expanded in recent months to have contract editorial teams both in EMEA and APAC.
Curation is clearly a major source of the CMO.com content. What’s your approach to curation?
Do you use a curation platform?
We are relying less and less on curation and we proceed, but it’s still a useful part of the site. We do not use a curation platform, though. We have 175 or so RSS feeds coming into our content management system—Adobe’s AEM, of course—and our editors scan them every day to pick what they think are the best and most important news stories for our readers. Original, exclusive content is now where our interests lie, but we will most likely continue to curate a certain amount of content—news, mostly—so we can be as broad as we are deep.
What about social media? I see the title has 54,000 followers on Twitter.
What works for CMO.com?
Yes, we have quite a nice Twitter following, which we’ve worked very hard to acquire. As for what works, according to Giselle: pure thought leadership is what works best for us on social media.
You’ll never find a hard pitch for Adobe or Adobe products, because our social media followers have a thirst for knowledge. If they want to buy product or services, they go elsewhere. Our social channels are meant to amplify the thought leadership content that we ourselves produce, our contributors submit for publication, and we aggregate from reputable sources from around the web. In other words, good content works on social as well as on the site.
You’ve got excellent writers on CMO.com.
How good are journalists at content marketing?
Do they chafe at the brand agenda? Are there things you need to train in first?
Since the demise—or, shall I say, implosion—of B2B media, there are a great many terrific writers and editors out there looking for someplace to do what they are good at doing: creating top-notch stories and articles.
And even though we are a content-marketing play, we attract and use freelancers just as I did when I was at CMP and EET and TechWeb 10 and 20 years ago. They are not doing content marketing for me—they are creating good journalism for our readers. And they do it happily and brilliantly.
What would you say to a B2B brand that wanted to try a CMO.com play in its own market?
Any lessons you’d share? Can anyone do it or are there some criteria to meet in order to succeed?
I would warn that, while it is not easy going, it is doable. Start with the idea that you are going to serve the reader—which, one would think would be customers and potential customers—with great, non-promotional content.
Then, he said self-servingly, make sure you get someone with real editorial experience to run the operation for you. There might be some bumping heads here and there with the pure marketers, but, in the end, the entity you create should be closer to media than to marketing if it is to work.
Also, be patient—it’s slow and takes time to build. And, finally, try to get management to go easy on hard ROI. Make yourself useful to the business in other ways that are exemplary and provable and move on from there.
What’s next for CMO.com?
Well, we are going to be doing more of what we already do, only better. We will be working on a redesign for the second half of the year. We are going to continue to expand globally, with more content from and for EMEA and APAC. We want to begin to experiment with different forms of content—short form, video, podcasts maybe, infographics—all in support of our reader and the Adobe business.
Wasn’t that a great interview? Now we know where the openness and generosity of CMO.com comes from.
Here are some things I took away from all this:
• You need protection – the hard part of this kind of play is getting the commitment from someone senior – and buy-in to the ‘long game’ strategy. If people expect too much too soon… you’re dead.
• A reader-first approach is critical – Too many content marketing plays start with, ‘We need content for Solution X, ‘ instead of, ‘Our audience needs to know X.’ Suppressing a sales agenda and starting with the reader’s needs is what works.
• Transparency is key – Branded content can be done with total integrity if the source and agenda are clear. This is a service to prospects and customers not a marketing campaign in disguise.
• Get the size, shape and scope right – Helping CMO’s get to grips with change makes total sense for Adobe. What’s the best shape and size for your audience and your market? Too big and you can’t cover it. Too niche and the return may not warrant the effort. Too popular and everything will be covered better elsewhere.
Invisible reader, what do you think? Any other great B2B branded content sites you know of? (AmEx Open Forum is often, rightly, cited). Do you think you could make this kind of thing work in your market?