Content Marketing in Research Publishing: An Introduction

Content marketing has become a vital element of promoting any brand. Briefly, content marketing is a strategic approach to creating and distributing engaging content to attract and retain a clearly defined audience and ultimately drive profitable customer action. Recently, universities have been effectively using content marketing strategies to meet their organizational goals. Academic publishers are not fundamentally different from any other branded enterprise; thus, publishers also need a content marketing strategy to effectively reach and engage their target audience of researchers, institutional leaders, and other stakeholders in the scholarly community.

Here, I will discuss some of the key benefits and challenges of content marketing for academic publishers and provide some best practices and examples to help you craft and implement an effective content marketing strategy.

Why content marketing matters for academic publishers

Academic publishing has never been more competitive and dynamic than right now, with even giant publishers wondering how to overcome the many challenges such as declining library budgets, changing user behavior, increasing open access mandates, and growing competition. To stand out from the crowd and build long-term relationships with their customers, academic publishers need to adopt a customer-centric approach that focuses on delivering value beyond their core products and services.

How a content marketing strategy can help academic publishers

Meet the needs of researchers and other stakeholders

Content marketing allows academic publishers to create and share content that addresses the career challenges, daily concerns, and interests of their target audience. Many researchers want to maximize the impact of their research, and often grapple with difficult questions such as how to conduct research effectively, how to publish in high-impact journals, how to secure funding, or how to manage research data. By providing useful and relevant information that helps their customers solve problems or achieve goals, academic publishers can demonstrate their understanding of their customers’ needs and build trust and loyalty.

As one example, Elsevier offers Elsevier Connect, a portal with a great deal of information relevant to researchers and other stakeholders. Their offerings include news, opinion pieces, and practical guides that address the key issues and questions that the research community faces.

Establish thought leadership

A thought leader is an individual or firm recognized as an authority in a specific field, who presents innovative ideas to influence others. Establishing thought leadership is already becoming an important consideration in higher education. Content marketing enables academic publishers to showcase their authority and credibility in their field by curating high-quality content that reflects their editorial standards and vision. By sharing insights, opinions, trends, and best practices on topics related to their discipline or industry, academic publishers can position themselves as thought leaders who not only inform, but influence and inspire their audience.

While the term “thought leader” is often applied to individuals, many major publishers are also acting as thought-leading organizations by amplifying voices within academia through new media channels. One example is the way that Nature Publishing Group has brought attention to many social issues in science with their Nature Careers Podcast or their extensive offering of opinion pieces on the problems that the world faces today.

Harnessing the power of open access

Open access publishing has challenged the old publishing paradigm and the push toward open access shows no signs of abating. Content marketing can help academic publishers leverage the opportunities offered by the growth of open access. Open access content may increase the reach and visibility of published content, as it can be accessed by anyone without barriers or restrictions. Moreover, non-restrictive open access licenses can generate more engagement and interaction from the audience, as their contents can be easily adapted and shared by other researchers or platforms.

As one example, Frontiers has been one of the major forces driving the open access movement, becoming one of the world’s most-cited publishers overall. They have made the most of this position by drawing attention to open access policy, which they have even made the topic of their most recent Frontiers Forum.

How to measure and analyze content marketing success

Content marketing is not a one-off activity, but a continuous process that requires planning, execution, evaluation, and improvement. To ensure that content marketing efforts are effective and aligned with organizational goals, it is crucial for research publishers to measure and analyze their content marketing performance using various tools and platforms, perhaps as part of a structured planning strategy like an OODA loop. Some of the key metrics to consider and how they may guide your actions include:

Traffic. How many people visit your website or platform? Is it coming from organic searches, social media, or other links? Do your readers tend to use desktop or mobile devices? Which countries are they accessing from? By assessing this, you can better target neglected markets within your field and assess how successfully you are making impressions.

Engagement. How much do people interact with the content? How long they spend on the page or platform? How many pages do they view per session? How many comments, likes, and shares do they leave? By understanding what gets the most engagement, you can tailor your content to maximize returns.

Conversion. Are your viewers taking the action that you desire, such as subscribing to a newsletter or blog, downloading a white paper or report, or registering for a webinar or event? Conversion rates allow you both to offer more relevant targets and to assess the efficacy of how you promote these targets.

Retention. What are the bounce and churn rates (percentage of visitors who leave after viewing only one page or who stop using a product or service, respectively)? How many customers remain active within a given period? By eliminating common factors that affect retention, such as slow page loading times or intrusive advertisements, you can boost retention and improve chances of conversions.

Impact. What is the impact of your content marketing on revenue, return on investment (ROI), and customer lifetime value? Looking at how your content marketing activities affect these metrics can help you further optimize to maximize impact metrics.

There are various tools and platforms that can help academic publishers measure and analyze these metrics. Google Analytics is free and offers powerful and simple-to-implement monitoring of traffic and engagement. HubSpot offers an extensive suite of tools for content marketing and measuring or improving conversion and retention. Finally, Altmetric is research-specific and can be used to see where the research you publish is making an impact.


Content marketing helps academic publishers connect with their target audience and deliver value beyond their core products and services, or even maximize the impact of their core offerings. By creating and distributing relevant content that meets the needs of the scholarly community, academic publishers can establish thought leadership and ultimately drive profitable customer action. Using the many analytic tools available on the market, publishers can react to changing trends and create bespoke strategies to offer better and more relevant content.

David Burbridge

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