How this startup is keeping consumers [Von] Content

dustin-blankContent is king. We’ve heard that phrase so many times that it’s practically become a parody of itself at this point. But the reason it’s so pervasive is that good content really is the foundation of marketing. Dustin Blank believes this so strongly that he named the startup he founded Von Content.

Usually related to a noble family line, “von” (and its Dutch equivalent “van”) is a German word that means “of.” So just as eighth president Martin Van Buren’s last names refers to his family hailing from Buren, a city located 40 miles south of Amsterdam, Von Content means that being “of content” is central to the company’s identity.

“One of the goals of Von Content is to take away that surface layer of some accounts who post aspirational things no one can have, or this fabulous life,” says Blank. “With this, people can get the second-layer of content that’s maybe not so pretty or not so fake.”

The way it works is, both a consumer and a brand have to be on the platform. For the consumer, this just means registering and synching your Instagram account. When you like a brand’s Instagram, you’ll get a customized email with more information about whatever was posted.

However, this only works with brand-enabled Instagram posts, meaning that they’re not all triggered for emails. That way, people don’t get tons of emails on account of finding a post amusing.

“We only want the people who want more information to get more information so they’re not being spammed,” says Blank. “We want this to work for the people who are posting in a way that it doesn’t ruin their relationship with the people who follow them.”

Content customization

Blank is the rare native New Yorker. He grew up on the Upper West Side and attended Columbia Grammar and Prepatory School, the prep school founded by Columbia University, where he will earn an MBA next year. He earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania and shortly after graduating, he joined the NBC page program.

From there, he became the assistant to Lauren Zalaznick, the woman behind Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise (The Beverly Hills ladies are Blank’s favorites, by the way) before eventually doing corporate strategy for NBC Universal.

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That strategic background shaped the way Von Content came to fruition. Blank started his company by examining his own online behaviors, as well as those of other millennials.

“A lot of [millennials] have a problem with finding the right influencers. They don’t really know who to follow to get the right information. For them, it’s a real hunger for discovery of restaurants and trends, and getting recommendations from people their own age,” says Blank. “‘Fear of missing out (FOMO)’ is a real thing for them.”

With Von Content, Blank aimed to solve a problem, one he learned about by truly learning his audience. From figuring out what people do on Instagram, what websites they go to and how they like to get content, he discovered that people would prefer to have some say in their marketing.

MarketingSherpa found as much, too. With a November infographic, the marketing research firm illustrated that only 8 percent of consumers hate all advertising; the rest dislike it conditionally. People know exactly how they’d like to be marketed to, with 49 percent saying they’d like to receive emails at a frequency of their choosing.

“[Von Content] is commerce-second. It’s about brand identity first and what they want to communicate with the followers, and not the product they’re trying to push,” says Blank. “It’s not a MailChimp newsletter because in that case, the creator or the brand is pushing out content not when the user wants it, but when the brand wants them to get it.”

Blank thinks customization is going to become a big trend in marketing, even in display and digital video. He sees it as a more sophisticated evolution of targeting, one that will engage more people as they feel ads are truly made for them.

“When things become more targeted, I think marketing becomes a better product. It becomes useful. It serves a different purpose rather than saying, ‘Buy me, buy me.’ It becomes something else that can be a good thing for the user,” says Blank.

Customization and humanization

By taking more of a custom approach to marketing, brands are able to maintain good standing with their fans. Brands are then able to learn their consumers better, something that will help them market to people based on what they like, rather than what the brand would like for them to like.

As a result, brands humanize themselves, which Blank thinks Instagram is the perfect platform for. It’s smaller than Facebook, more personal than Twitter, less cluttered than Pinterest, and easier to search than Snapchat.

Blank thinks of some of his favorite followees. Chloe Coscarelli, the chef behind the restaurant by Chloe in the West Village, comes immediately to mind.

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“She just really speaks to her vegan audience in a way that is just her. Some of the images are really beautiful, but you get the sense that it’s her. Companies that don’t do [Instagram] well, it’s obvious that they’re being generic and targeting to the biggest following as opposed to cultivating a real audience,” says Blank.

Other accounts that Blank likes, such as millennial-focused media company Mic and cooking community site Food52 and even model Chrissy Teigen, have similar personal qualities. They also have niche appeal in common.

Blank thinks that’s where big brands often go wrong: trying to be everything to everyone. It’s not realistic for giants like Coca-Cola or Dell to have the kind of focus groups Blank did, where he talked to his target audience about their likes and guilty pleasures. What they can do is integrate their brands into people’s lives by providing solutions to real problems, rather than being “an anonymous big company” and “trying to force themselves on consumers.”

 What made Blank start thinking this way? Seeing just how good the good ads are.

“When you’re eating bad gross steak your whole life and all of a sudden, you taste Filet mignon, it’s like, ‘Oh, wow,'” says Blank. “When I see some of these ads on Instagram, it makes me feel like I’m learning and being more exposed to the world. When I don’t like an ad, it’s because of how much I do enjoy ads.”

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