Ryan Singel is the co-founder of Contextly, a digital publishing tool that helps content creators and publications engage readers by providing high-quality content recommendations. The former editor (and co-founder) of Wired’s Threat Level blog, Singel comes from a journalistic background focused on privacy, crime, and online security. In a blog post announcing his career shift, from editor/journalist to startup co-founder, Singel wrote:

“Ten years of writing and editing at Wired, covering everything from the NSA to Y Combinator, has taught me many things: that privacy and transparency matter, that journalism is hard and fascinating, and that, while the future of news and publishing is the Web, the tools for online journalism remain frustrating. Writers must move faster than ever and are now often their own editors, photo desk and publicists — though the tools they use are too often kludgy and inadequate.”

With frustrations and challenges like those in mind, Singel and co-founder Ben Autry launched Contextly in 2012. We caught up with Singel this week to ask him a few questions for our Content Marketing Minds blog series. Check out his responses below, which offer a unique perspective on how journalism, content, and reader engagement are intertwined — and how brands can set themselves apart by practicing authenticity.

MM: What do you see as the biggest challenge for brands in using content to reach audiences successfully / meaningfully?

RS: In a phrase, companies are trying too hard to be cool. I’m particularly not a fan of things like Verizon Wireless’s campaigns on Buzzfeed. Take for instance their back to school campaign: 17 Things You Actually Kinda, Sorta Miss About School. The 10 Stages Of Going Back to School As Told by Emoji.

As my good friend Mike Isaac of the NY Times likes to say on Twitter: Ughh.

That’s just simple pandering — trying to appropriate what kids do on the internet and put a mega-corporation’s name on it.

There’s nothing that’s “Verizon Wireless” about it, other than it’s that company’s money being used to hire cool hunters.

That’s what you do with “content marketing” when your company doesn’t stand for anything.

The hardest part for companies when trying to do content marketing is actually being in business for a real reason, other than just making money. If you can honestly identify that, then all kinds of advertising gets easier.

MM: Do you have any advice for marketers struggling to prioritize goals and objectives in the crowded digital space? How does Contextly factor into that equation?

RS: Think long-term and high-value. And think like your customers. Be mission driven. What’s the purpose of getting Facebook followers? Or Tweeting 20 times a day? Or having a Tumblr or Instagram account?

For companies that have useful and deep blog content, Contextly helps get readers diving deeply. The data shows that people who show up and read just one story are statistically unlikely to return, while those who visit a site and read more than one post are likely to return.

Our mission at Contextly is to help publishers of all sizes and types to build long-term audiences.

We do that by giving readers a great experience, with high-quality recommendations that show up where they are useful, without being annoying. For instance, we will never make a “slider” that pops out from the bottom right of the page when a reader nears the end of a piece. That’s a gimmick and it’s one that interferes with your reader’s flow of attention.

Instead, we surface relevant, personalized, evergreen and trending content, whether that’s video, products, or a blog post. We then show it to readers where it’s useful, making something that’s good for readers, writers and publishers.

MM: There’s so much talk about using data to inform creative decisions — what are your thoughts on putting that into actual practice?

RS: For our publishers, we give them data that lets them see how engaging their content is — not just how many page views it got. We order our statistics by engagement metrics, not by page views.

That fits with our belief that data should be used to enhance a publisher’s mission and business goals, not to determine them.

If you live and die by stats, then you give people good reasons to juke those stats. If your goal is to increase Twitter followers, then you give your team incentives to do things like abuse the favorite button to get followers, or even to just buy fake followers.

Measure what matters, while also keeping an eye on whether your methods fit your company’s missions and ethics.

MM:What do you see as “the next big thing” in content marketing/branded content?

RS: I hope we see more investment in high-value and independent content. Red Bull’s magazine is amazing. The content almost never even mentions Red Bull; the writing and photography are made by media professionals, who are given total editorial independence. BMW just commissioned a design series on Medium. The section, devoted to design, is edited by former Dwell editor Sarah Rich, who’s commissioned fantastic pieces on design, broadly defined. BMW’s branding is minimal and classy.

Instead of paying a content arbitrager a dollar a click to get people to visit mediocre content, why not hire a smart editor, even just part-time, give them a budget to create awesome, non-self serving content and actually stand out and get traffic organically.

Unfortunately, we’re seeing, especially on social networks, that many companies think they need to emulate the worst of the publishing world and that volume and speed is everything. For most companies, you want to be something more like the Atlantic or Consumer Reports or Make Magazine — not the Huffington Post or Mashable.

Dell seems to be investing a lot of money into content marketing, even being the first to have a sponsored piece in the New York Times. Unfortunately, that story was boring; it reads like something you’d find in a small-town newspaper. And the same goes for its new blog Tech Page One, which is just dull. It’s not even clear who it’s written for. The posts seem to be written for non-tech savvy readers, but then navigation sections include acronyms like BYOD.

MM: Who do you see “doing content marketing well”?

As I mentioned, I love the new BMW campaign on Medium. For SaaS companies I like what YesWare and Buffer are doing, though they take very different tacks.

Contently has a awesome blog and puts out a print magazine (it’s good). YesWare is software to help companies doing sales and their content is focussed closely on that. Buffer helps people schedule social media updates (which is a lot of industries/kinds of people) and its content is more broad.

Adafruit sells DIY electronics to the Maker generation, and they post dozens of posts a day — some short how-to’s, some shout-outs to other cool stuff on the web that’s relevant to their audience, and some about their own products. They hold a weekly Google Hangout called Ask an Engineer, where their customers can talk with those who designed the tools they are playing with.

I’ll also reframe the question.

Stop trying to do “content marketing,”… If you think of it that way, you’ll emphasize the marketing and come off as fake. Be a publisher, if publishing makes sense for building your business. Instead of asking what content marketers are doing “content marketing” well, ask what publisher is doing it well and build off that.

Any thoughts on the interview with Ryan? Let us know in the comments and connect with us on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and LinkedIn.

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