5 content marketing lessons from Grantland’s shut down

Four years after it first burst on the scene, and sixth months after its founder’s messy divorce from its owner and patron, Grantland—the ESPN-owned, thoughtful sports-meets-pop-culture love child of Bill Simmons—was unceremoniously forced into an early retirement.

The story of Grantland—a sterling example of compelling, long-form storytelling that many brands emulated and aspired to with their content marketing—and it’s all-too-early death contains valuable lessons content marketers can’t afford to ignore.

1. Have a content mission statement

While Simmons and his editorial team delivered on Grantland’s vision (a smart antidote to the web’s clickbait cancer) from the opening whistle, it became clear ESPN’s executives never bought into any mission beyond “keeping Bill Simmons.”

Remember, ESPN founded and funded Grantland to keep one of their most successful talents on their roster.

As ESPN president John Skipper put it after shuttering the site, “This was never a financial matter for us. The benefits were having a halo brand and being Bill Simmons related.”

Any attempt to produce content marketing, be it snackable bits for social media or long-form, Grantland-inspired storytelling, must be centered on and filtered through your organization’s content marketing mission statement—a clear, concise definition of who your audience is, how you will connect with them and what behaviors you intend to drive.

Which unlike ESPN, hopefully extends beyond keeping talent off a competitor’s squad or collecting cultural cachet for vanity’s sake.

Treat your content marketing efforts as their own product, with a defined mission that helps you accomplish strategic and measurable business goals.

2. Keep content in context

Regardless of the quality of your content marketing, your efforts need to contribute within the context your existing mission, business model and audience—injecting energy to pump up your strengths and addressing weaknesses.

At best, ESPN saw Grantland as a glamour project to earn the admiration of the media/literary elite (it did), which they figured if all went well might attract a well-read, ie. wealthy, audience (it did) to which they might one day sell lucrative advertising packages to luxury brands (they didn’t seem to try).

While Grantland built a loyal and engaged audience (7 million monthly uniques, capturing steady but unimpressive growth for a mass-market digital publisher), garnered the respect and praise of the exact groups they targeted and drove countless discussions—it never moved the heavy needle inside ESPN’s empire.

As an enormous, mass-media force, ESPN’s identity never jived with building a niche site—not even a hugely successful one which consistently produced an outsized cultural impact.

Compelling content outside of the context of your core competencies and existing business model might earn you cultural cachet, but making it fit your business is another story.

3. Leverage your existing audience and platforms

Perhaps because of the misalignment, or the lack of a defined mission or strategy, ESPN failed to leverage their unquestionable strength—their existing platform (the biggest brand in sports, 200 million monthly web visitors, a television network beamed into the homes of 100 million Americans)—to grow the reach, and/or monetize, the high-quality, compelling content Grantland produced.

When embracing content marketing and investing in crafting high-quality content, multiply the power of your content efforts by embracing all of your existing strengths—starting with the audience you already earned, your brand’s unique story and the aspects of your organization that work best.

Because the last thing your content marketing should do is neglect your reliable, existing audience in a vain attempt to attract an audience you find more flattering.

As a content marketer, your most valuable resource is your current customers. Ask your customers what they want to know (and wished they knew before finding you), how they feel and what they fear and most importantly—listen.

By engaging with your best customers, you can build lasting relationships while unlocking the secret recipe to baking up the best content for your target audience’s cravings. Done well, and you just might find a team of empowered advocates eager to distribute your compelling content across social media.

4. Share ownership and cultivate advocates

Creating compelling content for a publication, much less building a culture of customer-centered, mission-driven content marketing, requires more than a talented team and a visionary leader.

At the least you need ownership from your executives, or better yet, a committed advocate among their ranks. Without either, your content marketing efforts (compelling or not) run the risk of being neutered, or worse, axed.

The best content marketing is never one person’s baby, but instead an organization-wide cultural commitment to serving their customers with high-quality, relevant content. Unlike ESPN, compelling content shouldn’t be an effort (or campaign) to executed, but should be lived out across the entire organization, not just the marketing team.

5. Personality works—ensure it’s your brand’s personality and not one person

Bill Simmons is living proof that In a crowded, cluttered content landscape, unique personalities cut through the noise, drive discussion and attract passionate audiences.

Grantland’s demise is a stark reminder to avoid anything even slightly resembling a cult of personality.

Simmons was the energy, heart, soul and driving personality of Grantland.

Instead, embrace your organization’s unique culture, values and story to establish a memorable personality which invites everyone—your team, coworkers and customers—to get involved with  your content marketing.

Avoid relying on one person’s voice, reputation or following, no matter how talented they might be (even if they’re your founder). Should they leave, instead of ripping out your content marketing’s beating heart, the culture powers on while staying true to the personality they helped establish.

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