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The 3 Gifts of Content Marketing

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.”

The Gift of Emotion

Not all brands have budgets the size of Barbie’s Dreamhouse. But even brands with a small budget can drive big results when they leverage emotion and the right channels. Womenswear company Wren proved this to be true when it launched “First Kiss” on YouTube in March.

Video has been a marketing mainstay for Wren. Traditionally, the brand created character- and plot-based productions that specifically targeted fashion communities, explains Melissa Coker, Wren’s founder and creative director. The company would upload clips onto video-sharing platform Vimeo, distribute them within fashion communities, such as Style.com, and then publish them on YouTube about a year later without promotion.

But after watching BuzzFeed’s and Upworthy’s growth skyrocket—the publishers report 130 million and 50 million monthly uniques, respectively—Coker wondered if she could replicate their success by following a formula for sharability.

“Both of these content [companies] are built on sharable content,” she says, “with the hypothesis that what makes content really sharable is that it’s engaging and emotional.”

Making a (subtle) statement

With a new goal in mind, Wren’s marketing team produced a film for Style.com’s fall 2014 Video Fashion Week documenting the reactions of strangers—all in the brand’s clothing—kissing for the first time. Coker considers “First Kiss” to be engaging and emotional because viewers can relate to moments in the film. “Some are sweet, some funny, some awkward,” she says. “Some probably remind us of moments from our own lives.”

Coker’s casting was strategic. She asked people she or colleagues knew to appear in it for free. But instead of casting random friends, she selected influencers with prominent followings within music and fashion communities who would share the video with their followers.

Additionally, Coker aimed to put the content directly into the hands of core prospects (18- to 35-year-old women), as well as broader audiences who might influence them. So, in addition to uploading the video to Style.com, Vimeo, and social channels as it had previously done, Wren went straight to YouTube.

“Part of being a very, very small team with a shoe-string budget [is that] it forces you to be nimble, creative, and [to] experiment….Sometimes things work, sometimes things don’t,” she says. “This worked beyond our wildest expectations.”

Sealing it with a kiss

“First Kiss” cost $1,500 to create and was uploaded to director’s Tatia Pilieva’s YouTube channel on March 10. By March 13 the video had 42 million YouTube views, according to The New York Times. Today it has close to 84 million. Wren also experienced a 14,000% sales increase a few weeks after the video’s release compared to the same time period the year before.

However, not all chatter around the video was favorable. Some viewers didn’t realize the video was an advertisement, even though it included “Wren presents” at the beginning. “To me that was so surprising,” Coker says. “It was almost like…they felt confused [because] they’re used to ads being something that they don’t want to watch.”

Yet, Coker says being a part of the conversation—whether positive or negative—kept “First Kiss” in the limelight. “You have to make something worthwhile if you want to truly reach people,” she says.

The Gift of Relevance

Myriad consumer brands are known for their creative content. But B2B can be just as engaging. Many of the same principles, like leveraging different story aspects to appeal to different audiences, are also applicable to B2Bs. Volvo Trucks learned this lesson in its Live Test series campaign.

When Volvo Trucks launched its new 2013 truck line, the company wanted to appeal not only to its target audiences of truck drivers and enthusiasts, but also to the general public. “We have great channels in reaching already loyal customers….But we’ve had more problems reaching prospective customers,” says Per Nilsson, director of public relations for Volvo Trucks. “We also realized that there are a lot of influencers for business-to-business buyers that influence a purchase.”

So, Volvo Trucks launched the Live Test series campaign on YouTube in August 2012. The campaign comprises six stunt videos demonstrating the truck line’s features, as well as behind-the-scenes clips and interviews with the dare devils who participated.

In addition to driving awareness, Volvo Trucks wanted prospects to take further actions, such as contacting dealers or seeking more information. So the company included links to its launch site in the video descriptions.

While the first five videos all generated between approximately one million to 9.7 million views, it was the company’s grand finale that garnered the most attention. On November 13, 2013, Volvo Trucks uploaded its sixth Live Test video, “The Epic Split.” In the video actor and martial artist Jean-Claude Van Damme performed a split between two trucks reversing in parallel to show the precision and stability of Volvo Dynamic Steering in the new Volvo FM. Within 48 hours, the video had 10 million YouTube views. Today it has about 73 million.

Different audiences drive different stories

Nilsson attributes a few factors to “The Epic Split’s” success. First, it leveraged Van Damme’s celebrity—making it appealing and sharable to influencers invested in Van Damme, pop culture, and stunts, in addition to truck and automotive enthusiasts, Nilsson says. The company even reached Enya fans, he says, whose song Only Time plays in the background.

“There are many levels of stories to tell,” Nilsson says. “It’s easier to get the impact if you have more resources to preach the word.”

Along with spreading word through those influencers, Volvo Trucks promoted the videos through PR and social. Nilsson admits that Volvo Truck’s previous stunts helped grow its media presence and a fan base by the time “The Epic Split” was released. For instance, Volvo Trucks had about 3,500 YouTube subscribers in June 2012, before it launched the campaign; now it has almost 95,000. Volvo Trucks also ran a teaser for the video a few days before it aired.

“Damme” good results

But did “The Epic Split” help the company sell more trucks? Nilsson says that the campaign’s main objective was to raise awareness and that it’s “impossible” to determine whether the video led to a direct increase in sales. Other factors could have impacted sales. Not only were the promoted trucks from a new line, he says, but a new emission standard was put into effect for January 2014—leading many people wanting to buy cheaper trucks with earlier emission standards.

“2013 was a very, very good year for us,” he says. “Hopefully, we created some extra demand.”

It seems like Volvo Trucks did just that. The company conducted a survey of 2,200 truck owners—half of whom own Volvo Trucks, half of whom own other brands—who had seen the campaign videos and found that 46% were more likely to purchase a Volvo Truck next time they bought a truck. In addition, 50% of the truck owners said that they took further steps—such as contacting a dealer—after watching the videos.

Splitting content between on- and offline channels

Volvo Trucks uses more than video to capture customers and prospects’ attention. The truck manufacturer also relies on traditional channels, like its customer magazine—available in digital and print—to share technical information and customer stories.

Integrated marketing is important, Nilsson says, because customers want engaging content regardless of channel.

“The actual communication of face-to-face will always be the best way of communicating,” Nilsson says. “However, it’s when you…have a great mix, [that’s] really the best part.”

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