The 3 Gifts of Content Marketing

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Content brings dialogue, emotion, and relevance to the brand-customer relationship.

Content may come in many forms, but the only content that counts is the content that customers and prospects care about. Whatever the format that content takes, telling stories that achieve company objectives while delivering value to those who consume it is where marketers often struggle, notes Mark Josephson, CEO of link shortening and tracking service Bitly.

“You can't assume that what matters to you matters to your customers,” Josephson says. “The best marketers understand that they have to provide value to their customers and [that] it's a relationship that's a give and take.... If you're not providing that value you become irrelevant.”

To Melissa Rosenthal, director of creative services for online publisher BuzzFeed, content is anything that contributes to brands' overall narrative. It should do so across multiple touchpoints and throughout the customer lifetime, she says, to build awareness and brand affinity.

Rosenthal describes BuzzFeed's content as a “gift” that provides its readers with value, such as humor, inspiration, and utility. If customers deem the value of the content great enough, they'll share it with their circles. In other words, when marketers give the gift of value, customers reciprocate with their own gifts: purchases, referrals, and loyalty.

Here's how three companies leverage content marketing to deliver value and give the gift that keeps on giving.

The Gift of Dialogue

Engaging “brand” content doesn't always have to come from a brand itself. In fact, customer stories often are the most appealing. Mattel brand Barbie recognized this, so it featured parents' and children's perceptions of the famous doll through “The Barbie Project.”

The Barbie Project originated in December 2012 when Lori Pantel, VP of global marketing for Barbie, came across a Huffington Post article entitled “Barbie Angst.” In the article, writer Tracey Stewart discusses her fear that Barbie would influence her daughter's body image or self-esteem. Stewart's husband encourages her to trust her daughter and let her play with the doll and, in doing so, Stewart uses Barbie to talk to her daughter about topics like what it means to be pretty and how to be kind to others.

Pantel wondered if other parents shared Stewart's brand perceptions—and she had good reason to. The doll has a history of media and societal scrutiny for her body proportions and influence on girls. To help put an end to the criticism, Pantel wanted to convey Barbie through the eyes and imagination of children.

“What we're trying to address is [that] there's a lot [about Barbie] that doesn't get talked about,” she says. “We believe, and always have, that Barbie inspires girls' imaginations.”

As a result, the Mattel brand spent about a year and a half developing The Barbie Project to start a conversation around how parents and kids view Barbie differently and remind them that, with Barbie, anything is possible.

Sparking conversation is hardly child's play

Starting a dialogue with parents meant that marketers for Barbie would have to reach them in the channels in which they play. So the company contacted eight mommy bloggers at the beginning of this year—most of whom were “pro-Barbie” or neutral, Pantel says—to talk about their children's and their own Barbie experiences. The company published the women's posts on Barbie's Tumblr page where people could repost, like, or comment on them.

Additionally, Barbie's marketers produced a series of mini documentaries—uploaded to Tumblr and YouTube starting April 8—that show how adults perceive Barbie and how children view her during play. For instance, in one video, moms Susan and Brandy said that they forbid their daughter Sophia from playing with Barbie because they considered the doll “ditzy” and lacking substance. After watching Sophia play with Barbie the moms—although not completely converted—reexamined their opinion. Featuring parents who oppose and support Barbie helped spark conversations from both sides and encourage participation, Pantel says.

To avoid seeming too commercial, the brand is only promoting the campaign through social using #BarbieProject. And although Pantel insists that The Barbie Project is “not an ad campaign,” it's worth noting that Barbie's North American gross sales dropped 12% in 2013 compared to the previous year, according to Mattel's 2013 Annual Report.

Is life in plastic truly fantastic?

So far the campaign has received “unbelievable response,” Pantel says. But has it changed skeptics' minds? Social monitoring company NetBase examined social sentiment around “Barbie” from April 30 to May 30 and found 86.9% of it to be positive. Also, “creative” was one of the most popular social attributes. However, it's unclear whether this sentiment directly correlates to the campaign, especially given that #BarbieProject wasn't trending, according to the analysis.

Yet, Barbie's emphasis on pink—from her wardrobe to her townhouse to her convertible—raises the question of whether the brand follows its own advice and allows kids to perceive the doll as they wish. But Pantel argues that Barbie is more than just the color that she wears. “Yes Barbie is pink,” she says. “[It's] part of the heritage of this brand [and] a wonderful color, and it's all girl.... There's nothing wrong with appreciating things that are girly.... That is not the only thing that defines any individual and same with Barbie.”

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