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 Freelancer.com.

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.

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