Don’t Bore Your Customers With Content


Content marketing’s virtues read very much like a golden child’s report card:

?+  Helpful

?+  Engaging

?+ Doesn’t interrupt, but is always there when you need it

?+  Makes others want to learn more

It’s not just marketers who believe in it. Content is such a winning strategy because what customers prize most is to be engaged and informed. “In our direct marketing work we always test offers with consumers, and the offer to provide more information always beats out other offers, including monetary offers,” says Donna Tuths, global lead, digital content at Accenture Interactive. “You don’t have to offer a coupon, a check, or a free toothbrush to get people to opt in to a program.”

Content tells a story that a brand and its customers can share—and you don’t need to sell fancy cars or fabulous destinations to make a splash. Intriguing content can create perceived value for even the most commoditized or mundane products and services.

Consider the problem faced by Vintage, a division of PR Newswire that provides corporate compliance services to publicly traded companies. The division’s director of marketing, Bradley H. Smith, readily admits that one vendor is very much like another in this space, because the result—compliance with securities regulators—is an all-or-nothing affair. “It’s not like typical public relations where there are always new strategies and entities. The compliance customer is not excited,” Smith says. “There’s never anything new.”

Yet Smith is also a believer in the power of content marketing to make his brand stand out from the crowd. A prolific industry blogger, most of his posts are straightforward updates about US Securities and Exchange Commission activity, but others are designed to provoke and intrigue the audience. Posts such as “XBRL Tagging Advice From an Alpaca?” (XBRL is a standard for formatting financial data) and “Pump-and-Dump and Revenge Porn: Twin Trolls of Different Mothers” do not follow the dry, generic template of the compliance world. “I use content marketing to differentiate us and show that we can be better, different, and more human,” he says.

The second provocative headline was a deliberate piece of clickbait—something Smith says isn’t a bad thing, so long as the message still feels genuine to the reader. Pump-and-dump schemes are anathema to investor relations and compliance professionals, so connecting them with something wretched struck a solid note for the readership. “I’m an insider in the industry,” he says, “so I know how to use the right clickbait.” 

Get serious

Content doesn’t need to be sexed up or sensationalized to be effective. PotashCorp worked with gyro Chicago to create a content hub that would prop up sales. That hub is eKonomics, a polished, professional portal that offers tools and research supporting the consistent application of potassium-based fertilizer by farmers. It’s not a topic with obvious buzz appeal, to say the least. But by delivering high-quality articles with professional visuals, the supplier has attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors.

Still concerned your brand doesn’t have enough to say about a workaday product or service? Step back and think about a different type of relationship-building. Singles commonly illustrate online dating profiles with images of action, adventure, and intrigue, from nights out in exotic locales to skydiving. This gives viewers the reassurance that a prospective match is more than just their home and their work, and provides rich fodder for conversation.

So, if your firm doesn’t do anything worth bragging about in a blog post, brochure, or Vine, the solution is simple: Go out and change that. DX Agency worked with a hearing aid supplier to move beyond the typical messages from physicians and audiologists by steering the brand into work with a cancer charity unrelated to hearing loss. This provided a natural opportunity to talk about participation in local events and to help spread cancer survivor stories. “That content helped show the brand in a different light and facilitated the message they wanted to send of being a caring company,” says Michael Dub, DX Agency partner.

Take a fresh perspective

What if your business is already fascinating, but your content just doesn’t click? Sometimes you need the right collaborators to put the right spin on a brand. That’s what New York On Air discovered when it revitalized its struggling aerial photography service. What had been a helicopter service for fine art photographers and was just barely scraping by financially has become a social media darling. The key was the introduction of the “Instaflight,” in which a widely followed Instagram contributor is taken aloft and given free rein to aim, focus, and shoot. “We brought a level of healthy irreverence to the aerial photo world,” says Vin Farrell, NY On Air board member. “When you have people who are not trained aerial photographers shooting the city, you get a different eye, and you reach a new generation.”

At year’s end 2013, before NY On Air started the Instaflights, it had about 1,000 Instagram followers. Today, that number is up to 340,000 and is still climbing. The core content—beautiful aerial photos of one of the world’s premiere cities—hasn’t changed. But the way that content is created and distributed has been radically altered. Better still, business inquiries are up 600% and revenue is up by a factor of 10, year-over-year. “Old marketing is about showing an image and telling customers how to feel about it. We’ve let our audience help define our brand,” Farrell says. “We curate the feed, we still decide what goes on our Instagram, but now there’s a much deeper connection because it’s our audience and contributors showing how they feel about us.” 

Push the limits

Content marketing provides a safe haven to build awareness when legal or commercial considerations put conventional advertising channels off limits. Manufacturer Organicix walks a very delicate line with its DaVinci brand of handheld vaporizers. Such vaporizers are typically used to vaporize and inhale (in casual parlance, “vape”) medical marijuana and recreational substances such as tobacco. In the mainstream, DaVinci is promoted as an aromatherapy device for vaporizing essential oils and other over-the-counter substances—but the brand readily admits that this is a flimsy story. “There are a few people that do vape green tea, but they are really hard to market to,” says Shauntel Ludwig, Organicix director of marketing.

The obfuscation is necessary because advertising to its core audience is by turns difficult and illegal. Even in states where medical or recreational marijuana is legal, federal regulations make advertising paraphernalia strictly forbidden. There are fewer legal complications in advertising to tobacco users, but many publishers and digital ad networks shun tobacco-related ads of all kinds. “We want to be involved in the conversations about medical marijuana, but we can’t directly talk about it,” she says.

Organicix’s safe harbor is content marketing. A recent three-part series by Boing Boing editor Xeni Jardin chronicled her fight against cancer and the role cannabis played in her fight and recovery. The DaVinci brand sponsors the posts but leaves the storytelling to Jardin. This keeps the brand out of trouble with regulators even as the product’s true applications are being discussed. “It’s been fruitful, but it’s not easy,” Ludwig says. 

Spark an evolution

Software vendor Unify, like many of its peers, once relied on traditional content marketing programs of whitepapers stored behind registration walls. Flagging enthusiasm for the old ways caused the organization to rethink that approach. “The businesspeople we talk to today are much less happy to put their details on contact forms and digest reams of content,” says Mark Smith, Unify’s senior director of social media. “But they are willing to engage in a variety of content if it’s curated and under one banner.”

To shake up the formula, Unify published a hybrid Web- and app-readable portal, dubbed The New Way to Work. The portal’s articles are selected to prompt discussion about the changing face of enterprise communication and collaboration. But of the dozens of articles, only three were directly written by Unify. The rest are links to independent publications and provide context and discussion fodder for the changes in enterprise communication and collaboration that Unify promotes.

Unify wasn’t satisfied with a single approach to spreading the word. So, the company commissioned a series of 40-second videos set in an office seemingly taken from a 1990s sitcom. The campaign, staged around the hashtag #emailfail, shows common workplace mishaps caused by poor email practices. There’s even a laugh track.

The #emailfail episodes have averaged more than 8,000 views each. In its first three weeks of publication, The New Way to Work attracted a similar number of visitors. “That doesn’t sound like a huge amount, but we’re getting visitors from the mover-and-shaker space, so that’s a really good result for us,” Smith says. Fifty percent of visitors to the curated portal click through for more information about Unify or its products, a strong result for the firm.

Mix it up

Successful content marketers think constantly about ways to apply multiple content channels to the same mission, and to produce multiple pieces of content from a single creative effort. “Whenever you create a piece of content, you don’t want to think in terms of just one piece. You want that content to take different shapes depending on the channel, and you want to be able to slice and dice for social media,” says Anne Buehner, manager of social media for agency Red Door Interactive. Red Door worked with shoe brand ASICS America on a series of social and content marketing efforts for the New York City Marathon.

ASICS wanted to maximize the exposure from its 2014 race sponsorship. Red Door designed a campaign to boost awareness, which included several blogs, videos, and photo streams. In building an infographic about marathon culture, Red Door polled both ASICS Facebook followers and influential runners with blogs for quotes and insights to incorporate in the infographic. Quotes that didn’t make the cut were held in reserve and published in social updates to help promote the final product.

The infographic gave ASICS nearly 17,000 Web visitors and realized another 38,000 social engagements, through a combination of organic and paid results. More important, viewers spent nearly five minutes on pages with the infographic. Those are the customer outreach numbers that matter most to the shoe brand. “We’ve grown more toward digital and away from traditional channels, and are using these educational tools to promote the product and let people know what differentiates us from our competitors,” says Peter Malecha, digital marketing manager at ASICS. 

When in doubt, focus on fun and fast

If your content marketing strategy still seems stuck, pare down to basic principles and prioritize speed and simplicity. Rather than building complex interactive videos or long-form eBooks, try establishing a steady stream of fresh, brief updates on your own site and your social networks with the greatest reach.

PR Newswire conducts an ongoing survey of investors, asking straightforward questions about how they filter investment opportunities. The answers are published as a fortnightly infographic to Smith’s investor-relations followers. “This mitigates survey fatigue, and ensures that we have new content every two weeks to bring visitors back,” Smith says.

Every brand can afford to experiment with new content media. The fact is, no one can reliably predict exactly which content channel an audience will favor at any given time. It’s best to be diverse, and not overcommit to any single item. Even the most gravely serious brand can try to share something novel and light that tells a story, whether that’s an impromptu podcast or a simple, whimsical game. “Create things that have you laughing around the office,” says Adam Padilla, cofounder of agency BrandFire. “If you like it, chances are other people will like it too.”

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