I’ve built my career in digital content for B2B media companies and associations. But you don’t have to be a content or marketing executive to know there’s an incredibly high bar for developing valuable digital content. The bar gets higher each and every year. Many of the organizations I’ve worked with have struggled to create effective, valuable content programs. 

I believe the answer to this problem is all in an organization’s ability to effectively capture the power of sponsored thought leadership. This piece shares my perspective on how to create a sponsored content program that drives value for readers and sponsors, and drives revenue for your organization. 

Content Strategy at CyberRisk Alliance

When I first joined CyberRisk Alliance (CRA) as Chief Digital Officer in 2020, one of the first things I did was run an audit of digital content performance. We started looking at what content was most engaging to our readers, the mix of topics across websites, and the ratio of ungated to gated - meaning behind a paywall or revealed after form submission - content. 

One thing I discovered during this process was that CRA’s only gated content was sponsor-supplied. This wasn’t surprising on face value. Sponsors are subject-matter experts, and therefore create great content. However, it was surprising to see that this gated content also represented our highest-performing pieces. It didn’t take long for us to realize that the thought leadership from our sponsors should be more ingrained into the entire fabric of our digital presence.

The thing is, sponsors are just looking to be part of the community and the conversation that associations and media companies like ours are already creating. So the question became, how can we incorporate sponsored content into our broader strategies around community development? And, how can we create a revenue-generating program that enriches both the sponsor experience of working with CRA, and the reader experience of consuming and learning from that content?

We answered these questions with our Centers of Excellence (CoE) program. 

Leavering Sponsored Content in Centers of Excellence (CoE)

As I mentioned earlier, the bar for digital content is extremely high in 2022, and many content-driven organizations like associations, media companies and publishers struggle to keep up. Having a strong sponsored content program allows organizations like these to create more content than they could otherwise, while ensuring high quality and accurate thought leadership in each and every piece.

Before I get into the ins and outs of our CoE program, I’ll share a little background about CyberRisk Alliance’s space: cybersecurity. We share business intelligence on cybersecurity, and we’re mostly made up of b2b media and event companies. Cybersecurity is a really hot, yet underserved space. It’s growing quickly and there is huge demand for new thought leaders.  CRA’s mission is to develop and educate the next generation of leadership in this cybersecurity space. 

Our CoE program is just one way we’re delivering thought leadership to this new generation of cybersecurity leaders. 

Audience-Centered Content Strategy 

Before you can create a revenue-generating sponsored content program, you have to understand what your readers and audience actually want to learn about. For many, the instinct is to start with what the sponsors want to share. We often get “sell sheets” from sponsors listing the content they want to develop. It’s our job as the arbiters of our community to direct them towards the topics and types of content that are most interesting and relevant to our audience. 

There are many ways you can dig into your audience to develop content that speaks to them. Data is at the core of all of these methods. When I was at Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) we developed our audience understanding via a series of custom integrations that knit our systems together to surface unified data intelligence. It was a time consuming and costly solution. With CRA, we’re using a Customer Data Platform (CDP) to connect all of our technology systems and surface the insights we need to understand our customers. 

We use our CDP to divide our audience into segments based on common demographics and interests. These are people with like minded behaviors across our digital properties who have shared interests in a documented set of cybersecurity topics. 

Cra Coe Cover

Developing Sponsored Content Based on Real-Time Audience Feedback

Once we developed these segments and aligned them with various subtopics, we were able to approach our sponsors with a sell sheet of our own. Our sponsor pitch is filled with a topical guidebook of sorts for each segment. Each group has already told us what they want to hear - they told us with their search history, with the content they read and interact with, with the emails they engage with, and with the events they attend. We simply package this information up to help our sponsors know what to develop that meets each group's specific set of needs. 

We sell these engagements as a package of content specifically built to address the interests and needs of our communities. In reality, they present as a series of micro communities or “Centers of Excellence” (CoEs) around specific, but hot-button topics. These communities are owned by CRA, but the content is generated by the sponsors, and the sponsors are credited with the thought leadership shared therein. 


Driving Sponsor Revenue with Centers of Excellence

Our CoEs are driving sponsor revenue from a few key places. 

The first is in the content itself. The sponsors can purchase a package and develop long and short form written content, video content, and more to share in the CoE. This content is developed in collaboration with our team to ensure the quality of each piece, and to make sure it stays in the right lane of thought leadership, rather than sales content. 

The other way Centers of Excellence drive sponsor revenue is via display advertising. Before a sponsor is ready to make a full content package purchase, they may want to test raising brand awareness via display ads on a community microsite. 

Since our programs are powered by data, we are able to report back on metrics like read rate, total engagement, and click throughs to sponsor sites. These reports illustrate the value of our CoEs in real time. 

Where to Go From Here: Create a CoE at Your Organization

At CRA, our CoE sponsored program has driven immense value, both for the sponsors, and for our reader and subscriber communities. If you’d like to develop a similar program at your organization, the first step is to develop a content taxonomy and a related set of topics to inform your subject-matter communities. From there, you’ll need to be able to segment and understand your audience at such a level where you can help sponsors create the right content to serve these groups. 

This piece has been an introduction to our CoE program, but I’ve got more to share about the ins and outs of actually bringing a program like this to life. 

Click here to watch the full hour-long case study webinar where I share CyberRisk Alliance’s process for creating a CoE program. Get inspired by our sponsored content journey and get our actionable blueprint for developing a CoE at your org.