Don’t Just Check the Box on Content

Beware of buzzwords.

Social. Mobile. Viral. Real-time bidding. Optimization. Engagement. And now, content marketing. Content marketing isn’t new – brands have been doing it for nearly a century, from soap operas and product placements to advertorials and microsites.

Today, every brand wants to be a publisher. And for good reason: content drives engagement and can drive brand loyalty, product sales, and evangelism. That is, when it’s done thoughtfully and correctly.

Content Is the Fuel of the Web

According to a study we did at AOL with Nielsen & D&MC, 53 percent of the time spent online is spent with content. What’s more, a full 30 percent of time is spent on platforms where content is shared – email and social networks. As I’ve told many audiences over the past two years, “Content is the fuel of the web.” So it’s only natural that marketers are using content to insert themselves in the consumer conversation.

But many marketers I meet these days are rushing to churn out posts, tweets, whitepapers, podcasts, and videos to share with their community of customers – regardless of whether there’s user demand for what they’re producing, and often without an editorial plan. Don’t just check the box on content marketing. After all, as Kyle Monson, chief creative at Knock Twice recently told Ad Age: “There are a few really great content campaigns out there, and loads of terrible ones.”

Pre-Flight Checklist for Content Marketers

Before you embark on any content marketing strategy, here are some questions you need to ask and answer:

  • What’s your goal? Content marketing works great for upper-funnel engagement; it exposes potential customers to your brand in a non-disruptive way, pulling them in. If you’re marketing a diet supplement, for example, maybe your strategy is to create and distribute exercise videos. If you’re a financial services provider, maybe it’s offering users a savings calculator or budgeting tool free of charge.

    But if your goal is driving direct sales in a hurry, there are better tactics out there, from CPA display campaigns to search. Use them. (Check out my last column for more on how to set effective campaign goals.)

  • What would success look like? At a media company like AOL, we knew how much each page view was worth, so we knew how many clicks, views, and shares were needed (and how much we could spend on content creation) in order for a campaign to succeed. Consider your brand’s own KPIs and set benchmarks ahead of time for the quantity of content produced and shared within each channel (direct mail, email, blog posts, webinars) you need to succeed. Then look at the results and tweak over time.

    Eventually, content marketing should help users move down the funnel – so ask for an email address the third time someone’s downloading your whitepaper or accessing your savings tool, or run a study to see if your brand awareness or Net Promoter Scores are actually rising as a result of your efforts. If they aren’t, it’s time to reevaluate.

  • Who will own it? Most companies now have official and unofficial content marketers in their ranks. Every employee who tweets about the company is a content marketer of sorts. But content marketing doesn’t work when it’s sporadic (imagine a blog where the latest post is three weeks old), inconsistent (one day pushing products, another day unbranded and edgy), or lacks a clear voice. Social media agencies like VaynerMedia can help you with this, but the bottom line is: you need to treat content marketing like any other form of marketing. You must have a plan and a calendar with clear goals, topics, channels, and owners.
  • Who will see it? In subsequent research we did with Nielsen, we found that 23 percent of all posts to Facebook and tweets on Twitter included links to content. That’s an astoundingly high number, but unless you’re Red Bull, I don’t recommend relying on your consumers alone to carry your message forward. The reality is you may need to devote some budget or barter assets to content distribution in order to ensure your content gets seen. From platforms like Outbrain or informal traffic-exchange deals to running cost-per-view (CPV) video campaigns or doing sponsored blog posts on sites with huge traffic like The Huffington Post, there are many options that can help you garner momentum.

So Who’s Doing It Well?

Here are three examples of great content marketing, and why:

1. GoPro: don’t be afraid to showcase the product. A surprising number of experts caution against including product information in content marketing efforts. I disagree, and here’s why: sometimes content is the best way to bring your product’s story to life, as in this example of GoPro. GoPro uses footage submitted by customers, and creates some of its own, to show how great its product is.

2. Xbox “Jump In”: treat ads like content. Long before Red Bull garnered a monopoly on “adventure,” savvy marketers like Xbox were using content to drive brand association – even with their ads. “Jump In” is from 2006. It’s straight-up cool content. You wanted to watch it, you wanted to share it. Users didn’t even know it was an ad (let alone for Xbox 360) until the very end, and it didn’t matter. Seven years later, it’s still terrific.

3. Whole Foods: use content to create direct connections. Whole Foods’ content marketing helps the brand build direct connections with individual customers. They’re sharing recipes, tips, deals, and hosting forums, all within their own existing platforms. Whole Foods does a great job highlighting user submissions and feedback, and manages its social channels as a CRM tool – in a 24/7, consistent way with a voice that’s true to the brand.

Checkbox image on home page via Shutterstock.

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