Recently, one of my marketer friends remarked “Content marketing is the new black”. I couldn’t agree more. Content marketing, or branded content or native advertising—call it what you want—is definitely the latest sweet spot for digital marketers. Everyone’s talking about it and agreeing that it is indeed central to a brand’s digital marketing strategy.
This obsession with branded content was evident at one of our recent Yahoo roundtables, which we co-hosted with Wharton to discuss the emerging trends in digital advertising. Advertisers and agencies agreed that compelling content is emerging as the strongest vector for a brand to build engaged relationships with the online audience. Particularly for those who were integrating their digital strategies deeper with their overall marketing objectives.
With 100 per cent agreement, it seemed like pretty much an open-and-shut case in favour of content marketing. But the discussion also threw up actual execution challenges that bog down marketers as they find their way to establishing their brands in the promised land of content marketing. While the prospects are exciting, the sheer complexity of generating meaningful content, distributing relevantly, ensuring freshness and tackling user feedback can be very intimidating for marketers, as this is different from traditional marketing approaches.
Content marketing is about telling a story that resonates with your audience and finding a relevant channel to deliver it.
Wow, that sounds simple. Doesn’t it? From the time of direct mail packages to whitepapers and webinars, brands have been doing just that. What makes it suddenly so challenging? Well, in its new avatar, the sheer scale and speed at which brands need to engage with their audiences is mind-boggling. The internet and social media have made possible content consumption at a huge scale, with inbuilt attributes of sharing, and thereby the potential to go viral, and at tremendous speed. Few people are going to be excited by a billboard campaign that can take a week to be unveiled. The play today is about updates every minute, feedback in seconds and going viral to thousands of connections in just under an hour.
Not to discount the fact that brands are no longer dealing with a passive audience—individuals and communities are vocal about what they like and what they don’t. The brand marketer most definitely is navigating through a minefield of sorts when it comes to generating loyalty through content marketing.
1. Creating ‘compelling content’: Simply publishing generic content online amounts to ‘noise’. If a brand has to bust the clutter, they need to be the source of original content—which is either useful or entertaining or both. The content has to be relevant, well produced and unique enough to grab audience attention, and make them choose to consume and share.
‘Choice’ has never been as important as now, with brands battling it out not just for a share of spend, but a share of the consumer’s constantly shifting attention. And some brands take attention-grabbing seriously—take for example the new Pepsi MAX branded video of Jeff Gordon taking an unsuspecting used-car salesman on a thrilling ride. With more than 38 million views, this viral hit is a clear illustration of using interesting but unrelated content, packaged with unique creativity to deliver a punch.
2. Idea-driven stories: In the traditional approach, advertising could tell a standard, canned story—controlled by the brand. In content marketing, stories are dynamically formed. A brand can only kick off an idea and set it into motion. If it is powerful enough, then users carry it forward. They react, contribute, act and start shaping something which becomes a brand story. It is almost like a flash mob, which is ruled by users’ involvement rather than mandated by brand.
Intel’s “Beauty Inside” campaign is a perfect example of how users literally shape the story. In a beautifully emotive video, Intel started the story of Alex, who wakes up every morning in a new body, and hence is not able to build a meaningful relationship with anyone. The brand then allowed every fan of the video to play the part of Alex (possible, because he wakes up as a new face every day); and act out his vulnerabilities and identity crisis. Hundreds of fans linked up their webcam videos and got a chance to be a part of this movie, which proudly says “Starring…the audience”. The central idea that got everyone talking is, of course, “What matters is what’s inside?” inspired by “Intel Inside”. The video stories earned 73 million views and more than 26 million interactions.
3. 3Cs – Credibility, Confidence and Conversation: Ask any editor and they’ll tell you that to grow an audience requires a lot of groundwork in building credibility and confidence. It is not easy to earn that authority. For a brand, it is a greater challenge, as the consumer is aware of the purchase-intent agenda at the bottom of the funnel. Consumers are likely to be skeptical until they discover a ‘real’ reason to connect.
What this also means is that there has to be a conversation between the brand and the audience, vis-a-vis a one-way dissemination. Content marketing means being vulnerable to negative feedback, which can go viral in seconds and be recorded for posterity. Brands who have tried to weed out negative comments from a public platform have come in for a real drubbing from consumers. This is of course a marketers’ nightmare. One way to manage this better is to follow what startups do with ‘test-and-learn’ rather than the ‘all-guns-blazing-campaign’ route that marketers would ordinarily prefer.
4. Beyond just the brand: Products and services, even if they are premium, don’t make for a great story. To draw in users, a brand needs to be able to stand up for something which is larger than itself. To give you an example, when Nike ran its Game On initiative, the brand did not talk about the awesome shoes it makes, but showcased how regular folks could get fitter and start running marathons. Users started flocking to the platform to talk about their own experiences and achievements, and ended up creating a community of 8.5 million users.
5. ‘Go where the user is’: It is not enough to have compelling content, one also needs to distribute it fast, across the Web, mobile and the multitude of social networks. There needs to be native coherence to the medium in which it is being showcased. For example, if you take the IntoNow application from Yahoo—it allows a user to surf for relevant content on their tablets while watching related content on TV. Brands can use that to build an interactive module to engage while showcasing their high-quality content on TV.
Delivering content across platforms seems like a simple suggestion, but what it will actually mean is that the marketer is breaking down silos of media teams, and turning them into one cohesive team of storytellers.
So how do we surface content for users to consume in a natural way, at places where users actually go? Native advertising seems to be an answer. It has the ability to complement editorial content with branded content, without compromising advertising ethics on the distinction between the two. According to an eMarketer report, native spending (branded content integrated directly within a social-network experience) on social media in the US alone is set to rise from $1.6 billion in 2012 to $4.57 billion in 2017—a whopping growth of almost 300 per cent.
As a format, native advertising weaves content in context and blends advertising with the digital environment seamlessly and unobtrusively. The result: compelling content for users that is in sync with their particular interest or need. To give you an example, the music site Spotify offers branded playlists as part of its native ad stack. The premise is that since most users are already sharing playlists with friends, they wouldn’t mind listening to—and sharing—music chosen by trusted brands. It offers a collection of songs presented with the cover art image and text from the particular brand. A branded app is also integrated within the Spotify experience to enable it for mobile users.
Highly innovative, with huge potential to offer meaningful brand experiences, native advertising plays along very well with content marketing.
What will tip the scales though is when brands think about content, the way they think about products. Place the user at the centre. Create a vision for content excellence. Use creativity to create a connection, and then take it forward by being relevant, and wow the user with high quality content. Most important, at all times, leverage seamless, non-invasive advertising solutions to keep the content experience immersive and unbroken.
Yvonne Chang is MD of Yahoo SEA and India and head of advertising solutions development for Yahoo! APAC.