In 2018, Jimmy Daly, then VP of Growth at the content marketing agency Animalz, wrote a compelling post titled Your Blog Is Not a Publication.
The post outlined why for companies creating content, a publication mindset was expensive and problematic, and why “library” style content hubs were superior.
But times have changed, and the clearcut argument that Jimmy made isn’t quite as clear.
On a recent episode of our Kitchen Side podcast series, our team had a brainstorming session to explore how we conceptualize this argument about content organization in the modern day.
The definition of a library vs. a publication
When our team thinks of a publication, we picture timely updates that are published on a regular schedule.
It’s content that readers expect on a regular cadence. They likely subscribe to it via email, and expect new, fresh, timely content to be provided each time.
Maybe the content is published in blog post form, but it may also take the form of email newsletters, a podcast, or social media updates.
A basic example of a publication would be an actual news publication like the emails I get from The New York Times.
I get a newsletter from them every single day, but once I read it, I delete it. It’s important, but its relevance has an expiration date. I don’t care about what happened in the news cycle two weeks ago.
In contrast, a library would be a point-of-reference destination for content.
A library is driven by important educational content, not necessarily pure reader behavior.
It’s a catalog of organized and interrelated thoughts on a particular topic. It’s content that I can go back and reference over and over.
The definitions of each are blurry and up for debate. But at the essence, those are the characteristics that we match with each.
Publications create demand, libraries meet demand
To expand on the above, publications and libraries seem to serve two different purposes.
Publications serve to share trending information and incite fresh interest. In contrast, a content library is often a more middle-of-the-funnel resource for repeat visitors.
Says our head of content, Allie Decker, “I think there’s a dichotomy here between establishing demand and meeting demand. I think when it comes to the publication side of things, you’re probably creating demand. You’re sharing maybe original research, you’re sharing a new opinion on a trending topic. Maybe that’s where you, depending on your distribution channel, attract new visitors. And then when it comes to building repeat visitors, that’s when you send them over to your library where you have more evergreen [content].”
The fact that a library “meets demand” implies an important point: you already have an audience.
That’s why if you’re a new SaaS company, for instance, you might want to begin with publication-style content since it’s difficult to compete with more SEO-driven library content.
For example, HubSpot can consistently create blog posts that rank because they are so established. Newer companies can’t necessarily compete on SEO-based pillar pieces.
“HubSpot, they’re going to attack this customer satisfaction angle from all sides. They’ve got a built up website and domain authority that allows them to rank for all that stuff pretty easily, and SEO makes sense as a distribution channel. But if you’re trying to replicate that as a newer SaaS company going up against essentially all these red oceans,” says Omniscient co-founder Alex Birkett.
In today’s landscape, it’s important to do whatever possible to stand out from the crowd. Increasingly, this means compelling publications that are distributed in thoughtful ways.
“My inclination in all those situations is to zag when other people are zigging,” said Alex.
Even Jimmy Daly has revised his stance several years later, noting the publications increasingly have a valuable position in the content world.
Publications create trust
Publications are interesting on another front: when you start collecting emails from people to send them your publication, you’ve moved from people wanting information to people wanting information from you, specifically.
Google is designed to give people exactly what they need, and that’s it.
Publications work to give people what they didn’t know they needed—and they are looking to you for that direction.
“I think collecting emails is when it switches from someone saying, ‘oh, look, I found my answer’ to, ‘I found my answer, but I’m curious about what else you have to say.’ And then I think that’s a huge trust indicator,” Allie says.
Igniting reader interest with publications makes the content less about the exact information itself, to who the information is coming from.
Another perk of publications is that you can get swift feedback on what resonates with your audience. Libraries will take longer to generate a meaningful feedback loop.
“The cool thing about the publication thing is you can learn a lot faster. You’re going to get pretty rapid feedback on whether something’s working or not. Whereas like the library play, the long-form content, the focus on SEO distribution, it’s always going to be a long game,” said Alex.
“You have to strategically say, ‘I know we can win here, and here’s how. And I know it’s going to take a long time, but I’ve got faith, and this is going to be the time horizon to try this in.’ So I think there’s different stages of companies where that would work.”
Libraries broaden your audience
So far we’ve piled merits on the idea of a publication. A publication is also what our own team consciously chose to pursue, over a library format.
But that’s absolutely not to say there isn’t an important place for content libraries.
Building an evergreen library as a valuable pursuit for many reasons. You just have to accept the fact that it may not be a significant driver of traffic for a long time.
“I think you should build a library. I think you should have low expectations. And I think you should partner with other teams at your company to understand how can this serve more of a purpose than just organic traffic?” Allie said.
Until your library and your company matures and that traffic component kicks in, think about how you can use a library of content internally, for your own team.
“If you can work with the rest of your team, understand what your sales team needs, you could kill multiple birds with one stone and then maybe get the perks of the organic traffic down the line. So I would say the library is still a great investment, but I would avoid just coming at it from just what our competitors are doing,” Allie said.
A library serves a valuable purpose, but may not work alone as an effective marketing and acquisition lever.
“It can definitely attract traffic from Google if things are optimized. I think it can serve as an asset for sales, customer support, if you need help with the product or the company. But I don’t think you’re ever going to set yourself apart with just, ‘what is X’, ‘why is this important,” ‘X amount of tools to do this.’ And when I think of a library, that’s what I think of,” said Allie.
For the best result, layer library efforts and publication-style content on top of one another.
A hybrid approach to content is best
A content approach is like an investment portfolio. A certain percent should be allocated to a core library of pieces, rounded out with a percentage of fresh thought leadership and timely topics.
When Jimmy wrote his post about publications and libraries in 2018, it was a time when lots of websites or blogs were publishing content on a particular cadence, just for the sake of getting content out there.
Content for the sake of content isn’t valuable, and maybe that’s why the “publication” concept got a bad reputation several years back.
Now, we have an opportunity to do things differently.
A winning strategy today is a creative mix of content that’s carefully suited to the needs of your audience.
On one side of the coin, you should probably create a core library of content that’s aimed at demand generation and funnel-based content.
On the other side, you should have timely content that is based on trends, research, and thought leadership.
Like any investment portfolio, what percentage you dedicate to each will depend on the maturity of your company, your industry, your budget, and other factors unique to your business.
Content is always meant to serve your business at the end of the day. While you might publish loads of educational content, the ultimate goal is to increase awareness and close leads.
Allow your content portfolio to mature
Most content “portfolios” will evolve and mature over time.
As mentioned earlier, most companies will need to start off with opinion-led publication-style content before transitioning to more how-to library content that can educate a new audience.
There’s a sort of company maturity model where there’s a sliding scale of your content portfolio.
This goes back to the “barbell strategy” that can be used by a new entrant in a saturated or new space.
You need to have strongly held opinions that will start influencing the conversations in an industry, and get people to pay attention to your product versus the existing incumbents. This is the publication portion of your strategy.
As you build that thought leadership amongst the people who are already thinking about the problems that you solve, over time that pool of people is going to get smaller and smaller, because you’re reaching most of them.
From there, you need to start opening up your audience to people who are not as educated on the topic yet. Your portfolio will slowly transition from a large percentage of opinion and thought leadership to more evergreen foundational content.
Like a barbell workout at the gym, a good content strategy shouldn’t weigh you down. It should make you stronger.