Everything is becoming 'content'
"Everything is becoming content, from big movies to small dramas," said Tsuyoshi Suganami, president of Amplifi China. “In China, everyone is switching to OTV and watching video content whenever they want to, so you cannot sneak in timings for ads. This is completely different from a traditional advertising strategy. The biggest difference is timing."
Suganami said that in the past, brands and agencies could select the timing of communications, but that no longer applied to content.
"Disney is in a very enviable position: we have four brands under us that produce a lot of great content," said Carol Choi (蔡志行), vice-president of marketing at The Walt Disney Company, adding that the company's definition of content went far beyond the obvious concept of articles.
"A lot of young people are constantly on their phones, and we are adapting successful content from overseas to the local market," Choi said. "For Qixi (七夕节)—Chinese Valentines' Day—we delivered a set of Mickey and Minnie Mouse dating emoticons. These went down very well… with over 60 million downloads".
"Everything on digital platforms is a piece of content, and all content is marketing," she added. The threshold for content is lower in China than elsewhere. “It may be something quickly put together”.
As for the best content format, Juan Zhang (张涓), founder and chief executive officer of Duitang (堆糖), recommended short-form videos and GIFs. "These are much more influential than [static] pictures," Zhang said.
Francis Liu (刘展术), head of strategy and operations for Audi, said introducing content marketing had been effective in helping the brand's appeal to female drivers.
"When female consumers buy cars, their decisions may have nothing to do with technology or horsepower, but may be influenced by the storytelling of the ad," Liu said. They are easily attracted to good content, he noted. That is the key reason for Audi to use content marketing.
When the Uniqlo fitting room incident happened earlier this year, despite conspiracy theories, the brand did not intentionally create this ‘content’, said George Li (李希翔), VP of data solutions at Miaozhen (秒针系统), but other brands jumped on the hot topic to create their own, often hilarious, content spinoffs.
Some have it rougher than others
But content marketing has not been such smooth sailing for all.
"For media platforms, content is our lifeblood, otherwise we wouldn’t even exist," said Shawn Cheng (程杭), chairman of Hupu Sports Media (虎扑). "So we don’t rely so much on marketing. Our sports content will market itself.
"However, we have had some problems. Our major product was hupu.com. When we established our Weibo and WeChat accounts, we saw the trend of content readership moving from our PC homebase to numerous mobile pages. But all our clients are putting their ad inventory on our PC version," said Cheng. Content consumption has moved on to the next level, but advertising has not.
In some cases, the consumers have not caught up. Audi’s Liu was surprised when Chinese customers thought the German brand was 20 or 30 years old when in fact it has a history of over 100 years. “We think we have to keep retelling our story”.
Also, Cheng was not optimistic about making good content. “That is a very old question. I don’t think we are any smarter than our ancestors. As a collective effort, we have better tools than our ancestors, like AI, AR, VR," he said, explaining that content marketing would only work when those tools were employed to their best advantage.
Before Cheng’s team managed to figure out how to use those tools, they found themselves outsmarted by the platform’s readers. When NBA megastar Kobe Bryant announced his retirement—huge news in the sporting world—Hupu wanted to propose some creative solutions to some advertisers to remember this event.
“After a couple of days drawing up fancy ideas, we discovered that one college student drew a Kobe Bryant portrait on the snow-covered basketball court in his area. It was so beautiful it created a huge fuss online,” he said. “We need to realise that technology empowers more and more people to share good content”.
As sports-focused media, Hupu was used to a workflow that meant going to the FIFA Arena at certain times of the year and broadcasting to millions of fans. “Yes, this is premium content, but right now in the internet age, there is equality in uploads and downloads. Some of the most explosive content will come from these millions of fans,” pointed out Cheng.
Amplifi’s Suganami echoed that finding the people who produce good content is “really hard”.
Most people will see through you
Tony Chow (周保华), director of creative content and marketing, Marriott International, said that the key to success in content marketing is to tell real stories.
A family left a teddy bear behind in one Ritz Carlton hotel room once, and the father called to ask if the hotel staff can mail the bear back to the US where the family came from, he recounted. Chow's team maximised the impact of this real-life story on social media, by placing teddy bears in different venues of the hotel and mentioning the personal accounts of the family members. The message of 'The teddy bear is having a holiday and is soon going back to the US’ was shared and reposted because "people saw the sincerity and authenticity of the brand".
"If you are too hard-sell, consumers will reject you," Chow warned.
Case in point was Evolve Consulting’s founder and CEO Anthony Tsang’s (曾冠雄)personal experience: he received “too many” messages from an unmentioned wine brand’s WeChat account. “Every three hours or so, a message was pushed to me selling some wine from somewhere with some 20 per cent discount. It is too aggressive and pissed me off”.
“Never turn off an always-on consumer,” advised Marriott’s Chow.
The Chinese market has lots of opportunities, but how you pick or feed content is really important, added Amplifi's Suganami. "If you try to fake it and manipulate the story, the consumer is wise enough to find out".
The “really rich” consumers are especially hard to target as they are unresponsive to any form of content marketing, be it good or bad. It is difficult to pinpoint their exact user behaviour, said Major Lin (林明展), managing partner at OMD China. “This group of people doesn’t interact with brands—they just watch; they won’t click on your banners; they won’t play with your HTML5 ads”.
While in general, sales conversion from content marketing is a frequently asked question, Chow concluded that “as long as it has certain positive effects, even if it does not directly promote sales, wait for the results as it will not show overnight”. A refreshing pointer from a marketer who is not as hard-pressed to deliver short-term (and often short-sighted) ROI, we say. “Many people think the goal should be ‘revenue-first’, but I think a content marketing strategy should be customer-first, and eventually sales will pick up”.