3/7/2013: For years now, just about everyone in advertising has been trying to "figure out" social media, one way or another. While we're still really not there yet as a whole, we do know one thing for sure: Users want content that offers them some kind of value. It's really not that big of a stretch of pure logic to get to that point - users are increasingly investing their time on social media sites and engaging with content, and now they want to have that investment rewarded in the form of something, well...valuable.
So, welcome to 2013, the year that content advertising and content development really take hold as a core discipline. But, first, we should probably provide a realistic definition of content marketing.
It's not just shoveling pages and pages of the same old content through social channels and hoping that users enjoy it. Chances are, they won't. Even great blog content can get monotonous if it's too lengthy. Content marketing is a disciplined practice by which marketers and advertisers need to truly understand what their audience values and begin offering the audience whatever that is. For instance, let's use a major soft drink brand as an example. Hypothetically (and while I have no hard data on this, I don't think it's too farfetched), let's say that Soda Brand X finds out its consumers are really big into trying crazy recipes to make tasty meals and snacks cheaply (full disclosure: I once experimented with Mountain Dew and Doritos cupcakes. Success!). Why not offer online video content like "In The Kitchen with Soda Brand X." A series like that has legs, and could even go so far as to get a celebrity chef (Epic Meal Time's Harley Mortenstein, anyone?) to host the series. And just like that, Soda Brand X made interesting content to offer its followers that could even be re-purposed for broadcast, created the potential for a long-running series that will draw viewership, and even found an innovative way to feature its product. That's a big win, all from content development.
But what does it take to discover the right type of content? First and foremost, a deep understanding of the demographic. Soda Brand X's consumers may have wanted interesting, funny recipes, but that's obviously not going to be one of Financial Services Brand X's customers' most sought-after types of content. Take the time to act like an ethnographer and understand the people that interact with your brand. Get data both qualitatively and quantitatively to determine what your existing fan base wants from your brand and even learn what you can about your market as a whole. If you're Financial Services Brand X, it's likely that your customers are hungry for the latest information on new financial regulations and how those laws might affect their financial futures. So give them just that, but make it easy for them to digest. Don't just throw together a long blog post, complete with financial services jargon. Grab a video camera and a microphone and put together a sit-down interview series with the top financial experts that your brand has to offer. It gives the audience a valuable piece of content to consume and gives the brand the chance to get its messaging and brand platform out into the world without necessarily having to pay for media inventory in prime dayparts.
One slight drawback to content marketing, however, is that in some cases, it can be a little more resource intensive than other practices. For example, online video requires more resources to produce than a blog does. Here's the good news, though: As a worst case scenario, many of the tools you need to put together a piece of rich content are probably already in your pocket. Literally, in your pocket. Realistically, a combination of a smartphone and any computer produced in the last five or six years allows for a great start in producing video content. It can seem a bit daunting at first, but once you get into it, it's just like picking up any other new skill: practice makes perfect.
Although these certainly are not advertising-centric examples, I'm actually most impressed with two video game-based production companies when it comes to creating extremely engaging content: Rooster Teeth and Rocket Jump. Rooster Teeth Productions is perhaps one of the best content production companies that I've ever come across. That's not hyperbole: They crank out extraordinary amounts of content, ranging from recordings of group video game sessions to fully-animated series that take place within a video game environment. Flat out, these guys have major, major skills.
Rooster Teeth made their name with the Red vs. Blue series, a video short produced entirely within the Halo video game and through 3D animation. They now produce between three and four hours of online video content per week. Many of their videos receive several hundred thousand views on YouTube. They know their demographic incredibly well and produce content accordingly. They're also not afraid to take some risks when it comes to branching into new content genres, recently partnering with Geico to produce a video game reality show and venturing into anime, among other new directions they're exploring. RT's philosophy is simple: They try to figure out what viewers want and then create it for them. If something fails, they shelve it. If it proves wildly successful, they continue producing until it stops bringing in viewers.
To me, this is the epitome of what content advertising should be. It follows a pretty inarguable train of logic: Fans follow brands expecting some kind of value; deals, entertainment, etc. In exchange, fans willingly expose themselves to messaging from the brands they follow. Good content is how a brand repays its social fans for their continued followership. And Rule #1 here is simple: Give fans what they want. Let the fan commentary and viewing data guide you. And, if all else fails, just directly ask fans what they want to see.
Rocket Jump is another video game-inspired production studio (or at least that's roughly how I view them) that does an incredible job producing excellent content, but more importantly does an amazing job making the actual production an interactive experience. Their extremely popular Kickstarter-funded "Video Game High School" series should be a case study in and of itself into collaborative content development. In their first season, the show became a massive success, funded solely through Kickstarter. Its second season, in development now, broke the platform's record for the most funded production of its kind. The rewards on Kickstarter for Season 2 are really quite amazing and could be harnessed by many big brands to create truly collaborative and innovative experiences for social followers and brand evangelists alike.
Perhaps the coolest perk for a high level sponsorship of Rocket Jump on Kickstarter is the "VGHS Yearbook." In essence, it's a behind-the-scenes art book (described that way by the show's creator, Freddie Wong) that masquerades as a high school yearbook: However, sponsors who have donated a certain amount are actually placed in the yearbook, head shot, name, and everything. Rocket Jump's designers produce the yearbook, gathering the behind-the-scenes photos and sending the completed book out to whomever has reached the appropriate pledge level. This sets a really high bar for true fan engagement and interactivity, and it's just plain cool to see.
2013 will be a year in which the focus on rich content increases by leaps and bounds. Jump on the bandwagon now and start putting together your strategy for creating interesting, meaningful content for your brand.