Marketing is not a real science and marketeers produce so many hypothesis everyday that need to be verified. I read nice hypothesis on Moz’ blog that was referring to a debate about the future of content marketing, I jumped to the source mentioned – to Buzzsumo to understand the counter arguments and read the author’s hypothesis there as well as many others’ on the comments section. Finally I made my way to the original debate-starter post on Readthink and stopped there. I was tired, in my opinion, trying to make a generalisation in an equation with too many determinants is pointless. There can be no formula, when there is no ceteris paribus.
To summarise the debate: will there be more content in the future or less content with more quality? So in another words: Will marketers target to a greater mass or greater engagement with less quality content or will they focus to the long tail with much more content? Since the discussion is based on the content on digital media, authors share a lot of data about how poor the current engagement scores are, how much content is being consumed every day, how Washington Post surpassed NY Times and BuzzFeed with their new content strategy, when is it better to have short content, why we should stop to act like publishers but marketeers, etc. etc.
When we are talking about marketing communications, I believe the same rules apply in all media. There is no one single right strategy, there is no one single best medium, there is no one single definition of the right sort of content… Depending on your goals, organisation’s strongholds and capabilities; first you should build your master plan: a strategic road map and a guideline for future tactics to help you on the way. It is the easiest part. If you are good content strategist, you can easily set the plot, define your protagonist, set the ground rules and proceed. Your strategy will give you the principles to follow, but other than that no need to have more taboos. No need to hold back and say: I need more content, I need high quality, I am not a publisher, I need shorter content… You can try, test, learn and improve on the way. Do not wait to make sure, because the rules are changing anyways. We are living in beta mode.
As I said I do not think that any type of content is superior to another one in any case. Content is the tool you express yourself. And every context requires different manners. The most import thing is to have the coherency. Keeping the persona consistent and sticking to your own values no matter what.
However, since the content creation is not the only function in marketing communications. Building a common language to explain why and how you pursue is critical. For your own sake, you should not define a “best” and make people stick to it, but maybe have a segmentation to explain when to use what type of a content. I have my own humble segmentation. My segmentation bases on three determinants; the drive of the expression (the problem/the goal), the circumstances (the context), expected outcome (desired response), the conversational power (campaignability). Here are the four segments that I defined:
1. Interruptive content to create buzz/traffic – aka.”Hey, look at me” content:
When you want to direct the attention to your brand, you simply make a noise! As a part of an ad campaign, or as a part of your real-time content creation strategy, or simply to be heard… Independent from the context you just jump in. For the audience, your content is delivered usually unintentionally. Like a new summer hit you hear in a supermarket. You cannot run away but be exposed.
To plan such a communication, you can focus on a distinctive content pool that has a hero content and many orbitals, you can go after the hero and push it to make it spread. Once you define the best strategy to create a conversation path with a very neat contextual story telling, you will hit it. People will follow your hero content, get engaged and keep following you until they unfollow.
It is easy, it has to be catchy, entertaining, fresh and preferably with good quality. Today, most of the brands are still after these “viral” content, or to create talkability as the old school says. Since it is a fast way to score and a low hanging fruit, especially Brand Managers push hard to create one to show off. Because most of the professionals do not have years to deliver results. They have annual business plans, job rotations, ambitious career targets… They have no time to waste (?). Therefore this type of content is still the most demanded one and the most popular one.
However, when you shout in a crowd and make people look at you, something relevant should follow. If not, people will turn their faces back and may not look at you again when they hear you saying “Hey! I said look at me”… Better to have some relevance!
So it is simply an action of hiring attention for a while, the engagement will obviously fall down gradually and then your effort will be forgotten. It cannot be ideally used as a sole content strategy, since it requires continuous investment and it has a short shelf life but it is a wonderful tactic to become famous for 15 days.
Brands may use this type of content to kickstart a new long term strategy, too. When you try to do that, you have to engineer your communication and build a very strong brand link. So when you shout and people look at you, you’d better have a very persuasive message that would lead to a product consideration.
The best example of the decade can be Old Spice. The brand was forgotten until Isaiah Mustafa said “Look at me”… Then the content pool was amazingly entertaining, authentically product focused and brilliantly strategic. Nowadays the campaign loses its peek, it does not matter, because the mission is accomplished and Old Spice is young again and maybe even cooler than Axe.
In terms of conversational power, this content is meant to ignite a branded conversation. So it can make all social media metrics jump in an instance, too. However, since you are an interrupter, the conversation would not be all positive. The people will start talking because you simply are too loud and they cannot avoid you! Therefore the conversation is likely to be shallow and may not effect the sales figures. The awareness organically effects the consideration and then the preference, but if the buzz lasts too short and with no relevant associations, you’ll see no business results but only some coverage on ad blogs.
2. Thematic content to create contextual relevance – aka. “I have something to add” content:
This is another easy win. You use this content in an existing context, so the main principal to seed this content is: “Fish where the fish are”. These content are linked to a certain theme, a conversation topic, an event, a special occasion or a hype that grants a relevance point. They are like baits you put in context to hijack the attention. Some are called native, some are called editorial, some are called sponsored, some are called occasion building, some are called ambush… They help you to jump on a wagon full of buzz and meet with new people on the way.
To be able to create a thematic content, you need to learn to listen well. If you are not capable enough to get the best insights around that theme, your effort will not resonate. However if you hit the spot, the bonding will follow. Among many speakers who have a say around that topic, you will be the one to be remembered. And it is mainly about managing the expectations. For instance, if you are Nike and using a football content during World Cup, it is an expected effort. No wonders that they believe that you are one of the sponsors. So for Nike it is much harder to surprise the audience and be the most remembered (and they do it damn well). But if you are Beats by Dre and you have a football content during the World Cup… Hmm, that is fresh.
So you can hit the spot with one distinctive content and be noticed by the interested ones. Since they are willingly there and engaged already, they are captivated in a way. So with much less effort than you put for an interruptive content, you will be seen, heard and accepted. And since you are communicating about a theme they are interested in, they will tend to like you and feel closer… But please do not forget to keep in touch… buddy!
Again, the downside of creating a thematic content is the possibility that you’d be promoting the theme itself instead of your brand. Praising a theme, celebrating its values are nice but not enough. You have to find your brand a role within that theme and manifest it. If you have nothing to add to the conversation, just don’t waste money to repeat the things people already knows. As a best practice, I can recall John Lewis’ Christmas ads: since 2007 and among all competitors, the brand successfully finds a fresh way to make you feel very good about Christmas time.
This type of content has its social power from its context, and your content enables you to join an existing conversation. Of course that conversation will not be about you to dominate, and you’d better be smart to make people appreciate your effort to add a value onto that conversation, and “like” you or “share” your content.
3. Descriptive content to give information – aka. “Let me explain” content:
This type of content are usually abundant and rarely relevant. It requires a specific audience’s interest to be consumed. Most of these content do not aim to be really famous. Because the content’s success bases on its persuasive power but not its entertaining assets. That makes it very hard for brands to create content that gives information and is still attractive, but it is doable. All product launches, innovation announcements, PSAs, corporate news, tutorials, manuals, reputation content, FAQs, unboxings, financial reports, etc. are basic examples of this type. They are most likely to be found when they are searched, and rarely pushed when the message should be spread immediately: Like Samsung’s Galaxy 7 Note recall or VW’s apology about diesel gate.
The effort that companies put to create these content is usually poor than its fairshare. Brands that do it well can change the brand’s/company’s destiny, simply this type of content is directly linked to the product’s/company’s reason of being. The most common mistake in creating Informative Content is being didactic. Though, think about Air New Zealand’s Safety Videos… It is an amazing example to show that nothing is destined to be boring and dull. Also the way Ikea communicates, Apple, Google and many more brands are very efficient and persuasive without becoming didactic.
This content is designed to make people start a conversation about you or your product. It is really tricky, because you need to make sure that the conversation is not about the advert but the brand and/or company. So pushing the creativity too much may create a shadow over the message that you’re trying to make and then your attempt will belong to the first group mentioned above and will be forgotten soon. Despite the high ad awareness scores, understanding will be low, the persuasion will be limited. On the other hand if you push hard on being understood, your effort will not be seen and will not be talked.
To give you a very good example for this type of content, here is Dumb Ways to Die:
When you try to design some Descriptive Content, you have to define the need throughly. All people that would be reached, the ones that can be ambassadors, the ones that will be challenging you… The content pool will be shaped accordingly. For instance if you’re VW and trying to make a better ranking for your content on Google search, you’ll need a huge content pool. But if it is just a naive FAQ content, then a simple text or a picture or a tweet would do it.
4. Prompting content to lead you to an action – aka. “Do it” content:
This type of content has a strong call to action or a provocation. It can be used to change perceptions or behaviours as well as to make people play a game, send an SMS and simple buy a product on sales. No matter what they target, they all have a provocation against a common enemy and call to get an action to beat it: all shampoos are expensive, buy our affordable one; are you bored, just play this game; global warming is serious, do not waste water; our children really suffer from online bullying, it is nothing mild as you think…
So briefly, compared to other types above, this content type is very distinctive because it directly talks to the audience and puts a stress factor for the person to get a stance or move. So the content addresses you as the responsible, it gives you a role and asks you to do something. The previous ones are all about self expressions, the audience is there to watch and the brand/company is on stage to perform… But on this one, the audience is included in the content and addressed to do or say something. And the success depends on that.
This participation requirement makes it hard for you design the best Prompting Content. Nobody cares about the awareness or engagement figures, you have to make a change! And changing people’s states and/or state of minds are not that cheap. If you spend all your resources to have a very persuasive offer, like an 100% off promo, you would be left with no money to make it be heard! Or if you will ask people to make donations against a cause, and the money you invest into the communication would be higher than the donations you’d get… Most of the companies are very aware of that and they try to optimise the effort they put in and the outcome.
In my opinion, the utmost thing to do first is to define the critical audience to reach out. Sometimes it is not necessary to try to make everyone aware yourself if they’d trust other more than you. So when you’re trying to create Prompting Content, you’d make a very good stakeholder communication plan. Communities are stronger than brands when a social change is expected.
The most common mistake on creation of this type of content is underrating the importance of call-to-action. It may sound simple, but people needs to understand clearly why, what and how to do. If it sounds complex, they will not do it. If it is not well designed, many people will lose their ways in process and get angry. Most of the agencies, think call-to-action is a thing like a pack-hot or a blinking message or a simple V/O. Nope. Call to action should be at the heart of the communication. The whole campaign should lead to an action from the very start and with all content and media strategies.
One of the best examples that comes to my mind is definitely the Ice Bucket Challenge. It is a perfect example is to drive awareness and create a movement. A perfect example of how to create participation.
It has been a really long post. So I’d quickly make a last comment and give two last examples. Bare with me.
Think these content types as overlapping circles. There are and will be overlaps. However you can always define the type of the content depending on the design intention. For instance, Dollar Shave Club looks like an Interruptive one, but sounds like an Descriptive and has a call to action as a Prompting Content. For me, the interruptive characteristic of the content is very dominant. However, it fulfils all the positive aspects of three and this quality made it a real deal.
As a last example, here is one that is in the sweet spot. Interruptive, thematic, descriptive and prompting… Therefore -for me- it is an epic one! Very well-thought and very-well engineered.