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3 Content Marketing Lessons From Big Brands

3 Content Marketing Lessons From Big Brands
Image credit: Our Social Times

Your story is always about the people who use the thing you sell, not about the thing itself. In other words, cast your customer as the hero, rather than you or your product. Tell that bigger story relentlessly and unwaveringly.

Last year Felix Baumgartner dove from the edge of space while 8 million people watched the live stream on YouTube. Some people called the 128,000-foot free fall--engineered and sponsored by Red Bull--a publicity stunt. But it was more than that: The effort was a content-marketing play to get people involved in the Red Bull story on a humongous scale.

Related: 10 Marketing Master-Works

I speak to audiences worldwide about content and marketing. And when I talk about such massive, costly endeavors, I can read the faces of the skeptics in the audience. They're wondering how their small businesses can possibly compete on the marketing front against the sophistication of a multimillion-dollar company with its own content arm and years of experience.

As a matter of fact, there are plenty of ways to compete. Red Bull and other big brands with strong content chops (American Express, Coca-Cola, Google, Nike) might have ambitious programs and the big budgets to fuel them, but even the smallest brands with the most modest resources can work off of some of the same fundamental concepts.

1. Hire a brand journalist.
The biggest mistake I see small companies make regarding their content is that they have no clear understanding of what people might actually want to read, watch, listen to and--this is critical--share. In a world where everyone has the ability to publish, the quality of what you put out is no small matter: It's everything.

So steal a strategy from the big guys: The major brands approach their content programs with long-term commitment, not as a one-and-done campaign. Key to this, they hire dedicated teams of people who are experts at telling stories using words, images and audio.

A "brand journalist" works inside the company, writing and producing videos, blog posts, photos, webinars, charts, graphs, e-books, podcasts and more, all of which can be used to draw people in. You don't have to hire an actual journalist. You could hire (or contract with) a dedicated content expert with some history in storytelling. The larger point is this: Producing content should be a job all its own--don't just charge the intern or marketing communications person with writing an occasional blog post when they have time.

The main reason I'm a fan of hiring trained journalists is that they put the needs of the audience (vs. those of the company) first. Witness the eminently readable corporate-branded digital magazine Qualcomm Spark--two-thirds of its staff are former print or broadcast journalists.

It may seem paradoxical, but a customer-driven (not corporate-driven) approach will serve your company better. Journalists' innate understanding of an audience means that every time they sit down to create content, there's a little voice in the back of their heads reminding them, Nobody has to read this, so you'd better make it good. That kind of pressure can only benefit your brand.

Related: Secrets of the 10 Most-Trusted Brands

2. Tell your bigger story.
Here's another paradox about content marketing: Your story is not about you; it's about what you do for others. Google might be a technology company, but its story isn't about search algorithms and operating systems; it's about the ways its technology connects people and enriches their lives. Similarly, Nike's "Find Your Greatness" theme isn't about shoes or gear; it's about motivating and inspiring the athlete in all of us, even if we are more Eeyore than Seabiscuit.

You, too, can identify your bigger story: How does your product or service live in the world? How does it help people? Shoulder their burdens? Ease their pain? Your story is always about the people who use the thing you sell, not about the thing itself. In other words, cast your customer as the hero, rather than you or your product.

Tell that bigger story relentlessly and unwaveringly: It should be the steel-infused backbone of whatever content or social media presence you create. Make sure everyone creating content on your behalf is looking through your story lens, metaphorically speaking, and asking, Is this content steeped in our larger mission?

Incidentally, focusing on your bigger story helps you communicate what makes you unique. (B-school types might call this your "value proposition," "positioning" or "unique selling proposition.") Clearly communicating what makes you unique helps position you for long-term success.

3. Cultivate community involvement.
The best brands don't just churn out regular blog posts with the heavy-handedness of an orphanage doling out gruel. Rather, they create lasting programs that their communities--including customers, employees and fans--want to take part in.

Last summer Expedia launched a content initiative, "Find Yours," to seek out consumers with compelling travel stories. The effort presented photos, videos and narratives from everyday people illustrating how travel has transformed them, including a poignant video by young filmmaker Joel Ashton McCarthy as he journeyed to spread the ashes of his deceased brother ("Find Your Goodbye"). The Find Yours program was the travel giant's attempt to move away from the commoditization of online travel booking and toward the larger, more personal story of how travel changes people.

Similarly, Ben & Jerry's asks global fans to share their best "euphoric" photos on Instagram by using the hashtag #CaptureEuphoria; the favorites are featured in ads for the brand. It's community involvement in a larger story about over-the-top experiences--not just ice cream. Online retailer ModCloth also involves its fans, by allowing them to post their outfits each day to the company's Style Gallery.

One more example I especially love: Illinois law firm Levenfeld Pearlstein uniquely involved its employees to tell a bigger story--and to differentiate itself as a human and approachable brand amid what can be an intimidating field. Via research from website analytics, the firm learned that its attorney profiles were among the most visited pages on its website. So the firm decided to turn up the spotlight, creating a series of video interviews in which its attorneys answer unconventional questions, like What did you want to be when you were little? If you could time travel, where would you go? What is your most prized possession? The message: You won't find corporate stuffed shirts here; you'll find real people who are smart and value great relationships.

If startups or smaller brands can walk away with one overarching idea from big brands, it's this: The best marketers approach their content not as a task or tactic or channel--not as a way to collect views or Likes--but as a rich, strategic opportunity to engage audiences in new and exciting ways that bring new and exciting results.

Ann Handley is the Chief Content Officer of MarketingProfs and the co-author of the best-selling book on content marketing, Content Rules (Wiley, 2012)

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This article was originally published in the March 2013 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Lessons From the Big Brands.

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