compass magazine - branded publishing case study travel industry

How Compass Magazine sets the bar in branded travel publishing

Brand publishing, an evolution in the content marketing trend, is based on the idea that brands can and should act like bona fide publishers in their own right. As the theory goes, many travel companies have enormous stores of expertise and knowledge locked up in their brand, assets and employees’ heads, and brand publishing allows the more creative among us to unlock that expertise and put it all to work.

compass magazine branded publishing travel industry case studyThe key, and biggest challenge, to successful brand publishing is to approach the endeavour as at once separate to, and yet fully integrated with, wider marketing strategy. When brand publishing is treated as a regular marketing tool it can appear inauthentic and potentially duplicitous. But when divorced entirely from core marketing strategy and oversight it can quickly become an expensive vanity project, a colossal black hole for resources with not even a whiff of ROI.

Finding the sweet spot between the two tensions is the fundamental challenge to successful content marketing. A rare example of getting it right is Compass Magazine, a print and digital magazine published over the last nine years (1 year for the online version) by high-end travel agency Cox & Kings.

Compass would look at home alongside the regular travel glossies on the shelves of WH Smith. It includes travel news and NIBs, feature-length destination pieces from respected writers like Matthew Teller, Sue Watt and many others, alongside interviews and contributions from such household names as Monty Don, Rick Stein and Kate Adie.

With a print edition produced three times a year and digital versions (ebooks & PDFs) available on demand, along with supplementary blog content, Compass has a print readership of 50,000, plus website traffic, a combination of both Cox & Kings travellers and casual readers.

The impact of that audience share on Cox & Kings’ bottom line is impressive. Every feature records a subsequent upswing in inquiries and bookings on the destinations covered and the magazine is particularly potent in generating repeat business from former travellers, with a 15% increase in repeat bookings since the print version was launched.

The company was understandably reluctant to share precise figures but the proportion of leads/conversions that are assisted by Compass content are described as “significant.” This is clearly an example of content marketing that works.

How do they do it?

By treading that infinitesimally fine line between publishing and marketing.

To this end Compass is professionally edited by Jennifer Cox (no relation), a writer, editor and broadcaster with over 20 years experience in the mainstream travel media, and is produced with processes familiar to regular commercial publications; tight schedules of commissioning, editing, design & layout, subbing, proofing, print and distribution.

As with all successful content marketing efforts, the goal for Compass is to create a publication that can be judged as a quality consumer travel magazine in its own right, as opposed to a hyped-up sales brochure.  As Cox explained:

“We aim to ensure that Compass doesn’t look or sound like a brochure. This is crucial for its integrity. When I’m commissioning or setting up interviews, I deal with my professional contacts in the industry: writers or personalities you’ll see in the national press or glossy magazines. This ensures that Compass ‘rings true’; readers engage with genuinely interesting articles and up-to-date news, rather than just flicking through a thinly-veiled sales tool.”

None of that is to say that Compass exists as separate and disconnected to the rest of Cox & Kings’ digital marketing strategy. In fact Compass is a logical extension of Cox & Kings’ brand marketing efforts, supporting the company’s position as a leading and well-established authority in high end and experiential travel, staffed by “tour consultants” with the kind of expertise that is reflected in the publication.

Although Compass follows the usual standards of journalistic objectivity, the magazine prioritises coverage of countries, experiences and hotels from C&K tours and references specific itineraries and products heavily throughout its features.  For instance, a double page feature by Monty Don on a recent trip to India is immediately followed by a detailed reference page compiled by a C&K destination expert, including a variety of related tours and excursions.

compass magazine - branded publishing case study travel industry

A guest feature presented seamlessly alongside branded content

The editorial team relies heavily on this in-house expertise from the company’s regional experts, getting frequent updates on travel news and using them to fact check content on their areas of knowledge.

Here Compass has avoided another pitfall that often frustrates brand publishing: poor communication between marketing and operations teams that prevents access to all that stored knowledge. This is unfortunate as other employees are often the biggest potential source of input and expertise.

But the publication’s integration with C&K’s digital channels goes deeper. As with the best content marketing assets, it can be accessed for free but only after sharing your email address to receive follow-up newsletters and sales messages.

Referral traffic to the Compass homepage is one of the highest sources of traffic for the entire site and the large archive of exemplary content has earned a colossal portfolio of diverse, high quality backlinks which play a central role in C&K’s dominance of multiple organic search keyword groups.

Overall Compass is a classic example of branded publishing done properly: “quality content” that rivals its commercially produced peers, so informative and inspirational to have acquired a true audience in its own right, all without sacrificing its connection to a wider digital strategy that yields clear returns with measurable financial value.

Learning points & transferable techniques

That said it’s obvious that not every travel brand can emulate such an ambitious initiative.  Compass has benefited greatly from C&K’s handsome resources and support, long-established brand recognition and, on a practical level, the company’s efficient in-house editorial and print operation (for large scale brochure distribution).

Although few travel brands can muster such resources there are still some useful and transferable techniques here that should apply to all content marketing efforts, no matter how modest.

Repurpose content: Once a content investment has been made it is imperative to recycle and extend value in as many ways possible. Converting blog articles into a magazine and re-publishing that in ebook stores and as PDFs is an excellent way to extend the life cycle of each piece of content. Content quality aside, investing in slick production also leaves you with a tangible asset that can be used for digital PR and link earning, all contributing to referral and organic search traffic. You don’t need an in-house designer for this, you can find skilled freelancers at very affordable rates on sites like Odesk and

Utilise outsiders & influencers: Compass makes great use of external contributors, either commissioning from credible journalists or running contributions and interviews from well-known personalities. There are many benefits to partnering with influencers, such as lowering the burden on your in-house resources, benefiting from their perceived impartiality and authority and bringing their own audiences and followers to your content.

Where possible curate, don’t create: There’s no need to create 100% of your content from scratch. Industry trends and news pieces can be curated from other sources, while destination and other features can be compiled from a variety of existing content elsewhere. So long as you curate ethically and responsibly this is an excellent way of lightening the load and bringing fresh perspectives (and authority) to your content.

Integrate channel-wide: The final piece for maximum ROI is to ensure your content efforts are fully integrated with the rest of your digital channels. This means making sure your downloads yield email addresses (ideally segmented into interest groups), that content is fully optimised for search, that you’re targeting audiences with effective re-marketing campaigns and, critically, that your analytics is capable of tracking and reporting all this activity in a useful and actionable way.

best made co telling brand story quality travel content

How Best Made Co. produces amazing travel content by living the brand

Ostensibly Best Made Company produces high-end tools and equipment for travel and the great outdoors, but the fact that their signature axe is displayed by the likes of the Saatchi Gallery in London gives an indication of just how high-end, verging on the realms of art, this equipment is.

Founder Peter Buchanan-Smith, a graphic designer by training, hit the big time around 2010 with the creation of his much-celebrated handmade axes and hatchets, spawning a line of beautiful yet manly and functional gear that includes a German-engineered compass ($168), a bone-handled hunting knife ($275) and a brass Davy lamp ($180). You get the idea.

You can almost let aspirational products like these market themselves – the image and price tag alone convey everything you want your customer to know. But Best Made Co. has gone several steps further and built an entire aspirational brand around their gear, fuelled by incredible digital content in their “Adventures” series.

The idea is simple: Buchanan-Smith and a photographer head out into the wilderness to visit revered outdoorsmen in their natural habitat. Destinations so far have included Alaska, remote Idaho and Patagonia, where they spend a few days living, working, eating and drinking with their wise and frequently weather-beaten hosts.

The fruits of these trips are a series of stunning large format photo essays, with a simple introduction to the characters followed by a dozen or so images from the trip.  The photographs evoke the romanticism of life in the great outdoors, and many (but not all) feature subtle references to Best Made Co. products – axes, aprons, enamel cookware, or simply the brand’s distinctive red cross:

best made co. creating travel content by living their brand

best made co great travel content brand story telling

best made co - brand story telling through content

With these photo essays Best Made Co. is able to put a story behind its brand, magnifying the aspirational element and helping consumers connect with their products on an emotional level than would never be possible on a regular e-commerce page.  Best Made Co. already knows you want their products, now they’re making you want the whole mountain-man lifestyle too.

And it works because it never seems contrived: these are just a bunch of guys doing what they love. Or as Jaime Soper, Best Made Co.’s director of communications, explained:

“Our Adventures series is less a “strategy” than a snapshot of what we’re already doing: adventuring. They are just the stories of our products, environments and the people we encounter along the way. For example, we’ve carried Cee Dub‘s book forever and are always talking with him about new camp recipes, but this year we finally had the opportunity to meet him in person & return to the Middlefork, a place he called home for over two decades. As Cee Dub would say, the trips are less about ‘R&D, research & development’ and more about ‘R&D, research & dinner.'”

Learning points?

At first glance it might be hard to see how any of this is transferrable to a “regular” travel brand. Not everyone’s products are quite so extraordinary and who else has time to do all that adventuring? But there are elements of Best Made Co.’s approach to branding and storytelling that you can emulate, even on smaller budgets and tighter schedules:

  • best made co content driving email and social followsPut your content to work, over and over again: This is critical if you’re spending time and money on content marketing – you need to ensure maximum value and extend the lifetime of your content by using it to drive email subscriptions and social follows, which allow ongoing relationships and future marketing opportunities with your prospects and clients.
  • Find alternative sources of content: You might not be able to head for the hills yourselves, but your guests and pax are living your brand for you. Can you find ways of incentivising them to provide the content you need?
  • Tell your brand’s story, don’t sell your products: This doesn’t work when you treat your content as simply another ad or sales pitch for your products and services. Your content ought to emphasise a deeper sense of your brand story and identity, connecting with the audience on an emotional level. In doing so you can create indirect exposure for your product or services, just as Best Made Co. do here.
  • Use your content to connect with influencers: Think about who else might connect with your story and content. If the story is interesting enough there are bloggers and publishers in every lifestyle niche (not just travel) who may be interested in what you’re saying, and be willing to share it with their own audiences.

What’s your brand’s story? Isn’t it time it was told?

Brands that blog well:

Virtually every travel brand on the web has a blog tucked away somewhere on their site, yet given how ubiquitous they’ve become it’s surprising how few live up to their full potential.

For digital brands that have little or no direct contact with their customers, a good blog offers an important opportunity to show some personality, demonstrate credibility and expertise, and provide content that is effective at capturing new audiences, generating revenue and creating ongoing relationships.  Although this is a cornerstone to successful content marketing, many travel brands still have big problems getting it right.

But is a great example of a travel brand that blogs well. The site publishes content from a stable of respected journalists including David WhitelyNikki BayleyAndy Jarosz, among others, writing destination content that is interesting, entertaining and often brilliant.  Contributors cover a variety of cultural and special-interest stories on destinations worldwide, from the favelas of Rio to wombat sanctuaries in Australia, all of which is highly targeted to the intended audience of round the world travellers.

This content tends to perform well on social media, thanks both to its notable quality and the cachet of its authors, acting as a significant driver for new visits to the site. A longer-term benefit of is a gradual growth in long-tail search queries from a constant accumulation of rich content.

And according to owner, Stuart Lodge, there are numerous other payoffs: “It increases our time on site and it reduces our bounce rate massively, both of which aid our SEO efforts. But more than that, it gives us authority: people like it. All those factors drive bookings which is the only ROI that matters.

“I’ve seen a lot of competitors, including some of the major players, that fill their sites with weak content. If I was a customer that would put me off. We know people are smarter than that. They want to read real travel content, not SEO farmed rubbish.”

It’s this reader-first attitude that invariably defines a good brand travel blog and unlocks much greater benefits (including from search) than content that is primarily written for SEO purposes.

Commissioning from professionals is the obvious first step to creating a reader-first blog, but so is trusting them to do their job. Although the temptation may be to work to pre-agreed titles or within a heavily structured editorial calendar, this may not always be for the best. Chances are that as a professional journalist they’re a better judge of editorial standards than you are. A more flexible approach is to simply agree on the destination(s) and then trust the author to file stories that work for the intended audience.

This allows them to produce stories while on press trips or assignments for other publications, resulting in fresh, detailed and lively stories.  It also allows them to write on subjects they’re interested and passionate about, again all contributing to the quality of the finished product.  Or, as contributor David Whitely explains:

“It’s about professional pride and wanting to keep the gig. From my perspective, it’s an admirably brave approach. But there’s a logic to it. I’m a better judge of what’s a good story than he is; I’m also there while he’s sat in an office. It also allows for the content to be genuinely distinctive rather than doing the usual prescriptive top tens and accounts of seeing the main sights.”

As demonstrates, the rewards for getting this right are too big to ignore. Make the step from generic to extraordinary now.