Last October Austrian skydiver and BASEjumper Felix Baumgartner plummeted 24 miles toward the New Mexico desert. It was the world’s highest free fall and, in the process of hurtling through the stratosphere, Baumgartner became the first skydiver to shatter the sound barrier. He did it live, in front of a YouTube audience of eight million, wearing what looked like an astronaut suit slapped with logos from Red Bull, the event’s sponsor.
Baumgartner’s jump—called Red Bull Stratos—was one of the more extreme examples of content marketing from a company that has thrown itself avidly into the discipline. The energy drink manufacturer launched Red Bull Media House in 2007, through which the company hosts multimedia content around sports and culture. To many marketing experts, Red Bull epitomizes content marketing in the digital era.
Today the importance of producing content as compelling as Red Bull’s extravaganzas has intensified. Companies need to work harder than ever to get and maintain consumers’ attention through an array of channels overcrowded with marketing messages, both online and offline, and they need to do it by providing material that customers find valuable.
In November content marketing platform provider nRelate, working with research firm Harris Interactive, released the results of a survey on content consumption. According to the study, 92% of U.S. respondents consume content online, reading an average of three to four articles and watching two to three videos per session. Forty-eight percent of respondents said that after reading an article, they’re more likely to click on related content.
So there’s no doubt that consumers want content. And there’s no doubt that content is a growing priority for marketers (a December 2012 survey from the Custom Content Council and ContentWise, a discovery engine provider, found that 79% of marketers say their companies are actively shifting into strategies around branded content). But the fact remains that generating great content is hard, especially when everyone is trying to do the same thing. Not everyone has the resources—or the cool cachet—to be a Red Bull.
But if marketers approach content development and delivery strategically, there’s no reason why they won’t be able to accelerate their business goals. After all, you don’t have to drop a man from the stratosphere to be a content marketing success.
Know your brand, know your theme
“To do content marketing, you need a brand with a strong ideal,” says Hugo Hanselmann, global director of digital connections at Anheuser-Busch InBev (AB InBev), the beer-producing giant whose labels include Corona, Budweiser, and Stella Artois. Among AB InBev brands, Stella Artois is the most aggressive with content marketing, featuring a portal on its website, La Société, devoted to culture, fashion, photography, and food. “You need to stand for something [to effectively do content marketing] and Stella Artois stands for the discerning gentleman, the luxury life.”
More broadly, the reason content marketers need to have utmost familiarity with the brands they represent is because content has to have a theme—without which it would essentially be purposeless—and identification of that theme comes, in part, from staying true to what the brand stands for. Having a strong brand identity and purposeful content is important whether the content aims to increase awareness or to elicit a direct response.
For instance, when Royal Purple, a manufacturer of synthetic oils, launched a YouTube series in 2011 called Outperformer—mini-documentaries featuring individuals in the power sports world—the films adhered to the company’s slogan: Performance oil that outperforms. “[Our creative services agency] came up with this series of people outperforming what they do,” says Randy Fisher, the company’s director of marketing. “We thought it would be a great series that ties in with our tagline.”
Cyber-security provider Sourcefire Inc. also uses content to tell a story that links closely to the company’s core message. Sourcefire sells software to help detect and stop threats in computer environments, primarily in large enterprises and government agencies. Like many B2B and B2G companies, Sourcefire’s products are highly technical and not always easily explained. There’s a lot of potential for the content messaging to go astray or for audiences to get confused.
In early 2013 CMO Marc Solomon and his team devised much of Sourcefire’s content around a major thread: the need for a new model of cyber-security. Articles and videos they produced describe a world in which attackers have changed tactics and know how to surpass current protection measures. Prospects then learn of Sourcefire’s solution to these threats.
“What we’ve done is we’ve created a narrative that resonates with [our target customers] by putting a simple framework together that shows the vision of our new model of security,” Solomon says, adding that Sourcefire looks at an attack in terms of what a company needs to do before, during, after it. “We take that message and we disseminate it through multiple channels. We’ve been using blogs [and] social networks, and it’s all driving traffic to us and driving pipeline.”
Know your audience and its needs
While creating content with a theme is always a good idea, creating content with the wrong theme would be disastrous, which is why content marketers must understand their customers as much as they understand their own brand.
“Sometimes people will create a lot of content and blast it out there,” Solomon says. “What you want to do is understand your audience, create content that’s interesting and relevant to that audience, target that content in a variety of ways, and then track it.” This includes building buyer personas. Sourcefire’s typical customers are security analysts or directors of network security. Solomon wants to better understand the operational models in which these target customers work: what sort of deployment models they work with, for instance, and what’s most interesting and relevant to their needs—as well as to the needs of prospects like them. This, Solomon reasons, will help Sourcefire better understand what sort of materials will be most engaging, and how best to educate customers and prospects on its products. “We want to give [our prospects] content that they can use as they talk internally,” he says.
Sometimes, knowing what customers might want can be as simple as identifying the external events that will affect them. MyMove.com is a website that offers checklists, reminders, and discounts targeting the roughly 40 million Americans who move each year. The website, which launched officially in September 2012, following a year-long beta period, drives traffic via articles (e.g., “DIY or Professional Moves: Which is Right for You?”) that it syndicates through partners, such as the e-commerce websites of Pottery Barn and The Container Store.
While MyMove.com produces content tailored to its various customer segments—for instance, first-time homebuyers versus people moving into their first apartment—it also writes articles specific to unfolding situations that may affect movers (the company uses Adobe Marketing Cloud to manage its output). “Our starting point is to understand what consumers actually need to solve their problems,” says Ada Vassilovski, the company’s VP of product strategy and marketing. “We also want timely content that’s focused on events that are happening.” For example, when President Obama signed legislation in July 2012 to protect citizens from moving companies that hold people’s property hostage, MyMove.com produced a blog post explaining the law and its benefits to consumers, and offered tips that people could use to protect themselves against unscrupulous moving companies.
One of the easiest ways of identifying what customers actually want is simply by listening; for instance, by examining traffic patterns on the website and monitoring comments surrounding content. “We look at what content is playing well on the site, what questions people are asking on the comments of the YouTube page,” says Tammy Gordon, AARP‘s director of social communications, who knows that while members initially sign on for discounts, they stay for the information they get through AARP’s numerous on- and offline channels. Comments and member feedback determine the organization’s future content direction.
When Coca-Cola redesigned its corporate Web page as a digital magazine called Journey, the company kept in mind the reasons people had visited the page in the first place. “[Visitors were] looking for job openings,” says Ashley Brown, Coca-Cola’s group director of digital communications and social media. “All of our career pages pointed there, and it was home to investor relations. Those were by far the most popular sections [of the original site].”
Journey features cultural content articles and videos, but Coca-Cola also made sure to improve the sections devoted to potential investors and employees. “When [the website] moved to the magazine format, those two sections got an amazing facelift,” Brown says. “We also thought about the use case of someone applying for a job. Chances are they already know Coke and love it or they wouldn’t want to work here.” The company ran advising articles for job-seekers like ways to polish a résumé.
While brands should always be mindful of the needs of their target customers when creating their content strategy, they should also be aware of addressable prospects beyond the brands’ usual scope. Iron Mountain, which provides records management services for large enterprises, knew that its classic audience comprises records managers, who are naturally attracted to Iron Mountain’s content (the company uses services from Skyword to produce its top-of-the-funnel content).
“But we also find opportunities in legal and IT [departments],” says Patty Foley Reid, director of inbound and content marketing. “Legal hasn’t been one of our natural audiences. We have to write content so that someone in IT recognizes [Iron Mountain’s] value, or so that someone in legal understands the risk involved in not managing the records properly. And that’s the evolution of the buyer as records managers now report up into legal or IT.”
Know how to spread the word
Great content is useless if nobody can find it. There are numerous avenues for pushing content into the world. Some companies, like Coca-Cola, Stella Artois, AARP, and Qualcomm, follow the Red Bull model, essentially, building a fully functioning newsroom and online destination to host original content.
In 2012 Qualcomm, which produces the guts that power mobile devices, developed Qualcomm Spark, an online destination for the company’s original media. “This was essentially an experiment originally,” says Liya Sharif, senior director of marketing and global communications at Qualcomm and Spark’s publisher. Creating its own owned-media platform and acting as a publisher allows Qualcomm to focus on the mobile industry as a thought leader and engage directly with consumers who are becoming more critical of what’s inside their mobile devices.
Similarly, Coca-Cola’s digital publication Journey allows the company to push its unfiltered messages. “It’s given us an opportunity to speak directly to our consumers without the lens of media,” Brown says. “We can talk directly to the marketplace, and having our own media property gives us the opportunity to have this conversation straight with our consumers.”
But not every brand has the resources to build an in-house media platform or enough name recognition to draw in customers—which is why channel strategy becomes exceptionally important. To accomplish this, marketers need to understand where their customers are, and through which channels they are requesting more information.
Sourcefire’s Solomon knows that identifying key messages and relaying them through the proper channels can be difficult. Some avenues, like blogs, have the potential to reach a lot of people. But the company also uses social channels and search engine marketing principles to boost visibility, such as integrating parts of its content narrative into the landing page.
“We have our email program in which we’re providing ongoing content updates,” Vassilovski says. “We use social media heavily to reach our consumers. And we publish to e-reader marketplaces.”
The topic of content marketing is rich; it’s impossible to cover all its dimensions in a single article. Beginning every Monday for three weeks in July, the Direct Marketing News website, dmnews.com, will feature articles on this topic so you can discover new content syndication strategies, how to design content to push prospects down the sales funnel, and tips to measure the efficacy of your content strategy.