A client asked me this question a few months back during one of our webinars. I, of course, gave the only answer one gives in this situation — it depends. But, the truth of the matter was I didn’t really have an answer. In preparing the analysis for our website benchmarking handbook I certainly saw just about every format and model for delivering content, but to be honest, I’d never thought much about what the right model might or might not be.
I’ve seen A/E firms delivering all their thought leadership through one main portal (for a great example see thoughts.arup.com). While most consulting firms tend to have one main content channel, accounting and legal firms often have a combination of article repositories and upwards of 8-10 different targeted channels (see the BKD Thought Center for an example). Sometimes these channels are subpages on the main site, other times they exist on separate, targeted domains.
So, what’s right for your firm? Well, after thinking about this for a few months, my answer’s still the same — it depends.
Are You Running a Single Network or a Collection of Networks?
The good news is there are plenty of examples out there to draw analogies from. In fact, one of the best examples has been testing and refining models for at least 30 years — cable television. The proliferation of cable channels has largely been driven by a desire to target very specific programming (content) to very specific audiences. While groups of channels may share the same owner (and often share some content), the channels themselves are increasingly designed to target viewers based fairly narrowly on their demographics (SpikeTV for 20-something males) or, more frequently, on their interests (TNT for drama). No place is this more clearly on display than in the collection of brands within the Turner Network:
- TBS for comedy
- TNT for drama
- CNN for news
- TRUtv for reality
- TCM for classic movies
While a single viewer may have interest in one, many or all of these channels, it is easy for them to know what types of content they will find on each and they can move from one to the other.
So, Seriously, Should I Have Multiple Channels For My Content?
Ultimately, the easiest way to think about this is to think about the diversity of your audiences and the diversity of their interests. Some questions you might want to think about:
- How many different, discrete client types does your firm serve?
- Are their business needs and challenges diverse, similar or overlapping?
- How broad or narrow is your expertise?
- Do you provide different services to different functions of your clients’ businesses?
In simplicity, the more diverse your audiences, the more diverse their interests and the more diverse your expertise, the harder it becomes to deliver all your content through one channel. If Turner had just one channel, we’ll call it the Frankenstein Network, that served up a Tuesday night prime time of the Big Bang Theory, Law & Order, Anderson Cooper 360, and Storage Hunters I’m pretty sure viewers would be largely confused. The same holds true for your content and your audience.
An Example from Consulting
While the cable analogy is useful, I know a real world example is probably more helpful. Because it’s a client I’ve worked with on and off for over 10 years, I’m going to use the firm that submitted the question. The firm is an HR consulting and outsourcing firm. It has about 150 employees spread across 3-4 offices.
When thinking about the issue of content channels I think the best place to start is to map out the various client types in relation to the firm’s mix of services (which will serve as the basis for the types of content we will ultimately develop). Then, look at the places where services and client types intersect. Below is an attempt to do that for our example client.
Now, I’ve probably grossly oversimplified this — surely I’ve missed services, buyers and influencers. But, when you look at the collection of client types (both sizes and titles) you can quickly see a huge diversity in the types of services we expect to appeal to our client types and, then presumably the likely issues it would make sense to develop content around. Some of the challenges a small business owner might be looking for advice on could be:
- How do I comply with the new healthcare legislation?
- Should I still provide health insurance or pay the fine?
- Am I in compliance with prevailing labor laws in my state?
- I need to lay a few people off, how do I do it?
By contrast, some of the challenges the Chief Talent Officer in a large corporation might be looking for advice on could be:
- Many of my senior managers are approaching retirement, but our middle management is rather thin. How am I going to transfer this knowledge and replace this lost experience?
- We attract good young talent, but we’re struggling to retain the top performers, why?
- We’ve studied employee engagement in the past and found that roughly 30% of our workforce is highly engaged and only 6% is highly disengaged. How can we improve on either or both of these numbers?
I think we can quickly see that most of the challenges facing small businesses owners look practically nothing like those faced by our hypothetical Chief Talent Officer. Logically, if we’re producing educational content to attract both of these potential clients to our firm, it’s going to be quite difficult to do it through one content channel.
While a subset of small business owners may find some of the latter content interesting, chances are they can’t readily apply it to their business. If they’re subscribed to our newsletter, they’re much more likely to become disengaged from our content as articles arrive that are less and less tailored to their needs. Does this sound anything like our made up “Frankenstein” network?
Ultimately, I’d suggest that this firm probably needs anywhere from 3-5 channels for its content. Off the top of my head, I could quickly see channels that address the following audiences and interests:
- Small Business Owners – Interested largely in specific advice to fairly tactical HR and compliance issues.
- Benefits Administrators and HR Managers – Interested largely in issues that impact employee benefits, employee wellness, employee communications and best practices for administration of human resources functions.
- Culture Officers and Leadership – Interested largely in issues related to how to better engage the workforce, how to attract, inspire and engage the next generation of leadership and how to guide their companies through organizational change.
Some of the reasons multiple channels might make sense for this firm:
- Each cluster of prospective clients are likely to be more engaged with the content because it’s more relevant and useful to them.
- Each content channel can focus on its own set of high level topical issues.
- Easier to connect users with relevant expertise and experience within the firm related to the content they consume.
- Easier to compare and contrast the effectiveness of its content marketing efforts within the context of its key client segments.
Couldn’t You Do All This Within a Master Content Repository?
Can’t it all just be centralized? After all, it’s fairly simple to tag content and allows site visitors to see clusters of related content isn’t it? While this may be true, do users really want to sift through sections of unrelated content to find the content that is most useful to them? Will they really hang around if they can’t make sense of the content repository quickly? Finally, it’s infinitely more difficult to connect content with specific services and expertise the more broad the content of a platform is.
Ultimately, this fundamental challenge is why I tend to be so outspoken about the need for firms to be more focused in their marketing efforts. Every firm should be able to describe the single, ideal client they’d like to walk in the door today. This doesn’t mean that one client type is the only one we’ll market towards or even attract, but it does mean that we’ll significantly increase the likelihood of attracting that absolutely right client to our practice and we’ll weight more effort in developing thought leadership that is most useful to them.
This article was written entirely from the point of view of the web visitor (the prospective client). I should note that this was not intended to be a technical discussion — is there more search value in splitting off different types of content into microsites or sub domains? Maybe? Maybe not? This topic has been written about many times in the past on sites everywhere so I’ll let these articles speak for themselves:
- Creating a Content Channel Plan by Joe Pulizzi at the Content Marketing Institute
- Do You Really Need a Microsite? by Paul Boag