Like the newly converted, marketers are going all in on content creation. And for good reason. With growing numbers of consumers opting out of digital advertising, brands have realized that simply selling to people is not enough. The new mantra is creating media that audiences actively want to consume.
It’s a tantalizing vision that has played out with a predictable result. Brands that were once flooding consumers with ads are now flooding the market with content. The more content that’s out there, the harder it is to stand out. And the harder it is to stand out, the more content that marketers have felt the need to produce.
The result? Consumer engagement with brand content is falling. In fact, while brands increased content marketing output 35%, according to a 2016 TrackMaven report, engagement dropped 17%.
Yet with consumers clocking an estimated 5 hours and 43 minutes of digital media consumption per day according to eMarketer, the demand for entertaining and informative content remains enormous.
For brands, the trick is figuring out how to cut through.
Finding the Balance
The essential tension in branded entertainment lies between what a brand wants to communicate and what consumers want to see. Marketers being marketers, brand content has an unfortunate tendency to skew towards the advertorial. Or more bluntly, a lot of branded content isn’t very good.
Part of this comes down to the inherent difficulty of creating quality content. Hollywood studios produce bombs all the time. So the fact that, say, a consumer products brand isn’t killing it with their YouTube videos shouldn’t be all that surprising.
But the other, correctable issue, is that marketers too often begin at the wrong place, taking what they want to communicate as the starting point in their content efforts. While this may be useful in a traditional advertising context it can be toxic for producing great content.
Instead, starting from a place of what consumers are interested in and then working backward is more conducive to success. Red Bull has been a master of this approach, building the brand through high-energy (get the connection?) action sports productions that resonate with its young audience and capture the ethos of the brand with the product itself taking a back seat.
Giving them what they want
By using data to understand their audience, and I mean really understand their audience – going beyond simple demographic and descriptive segmentation, brands can identify what actually drives their consumers and create content to match their needs and desires. With consumers curating their own digital experiences rather than relying on traditional media editors to do the job for them, brands have ample opportunity to break through with the right content.
It may sound facile, but giving consumers what they want can be an incredibly effective form of communication. The fake news explosion in the run-up to last year’s election offers a compelling, if nefarious, illustration.
The takeaway is not that brands should become tabloid-like confabulators. Simply that content does not need to be expensively produced nor from established sources to resonate with audiences.
A flip side to this democratization of content development is that the competition is enormous. In a world with no gatekeepers, brands must vie for attention against Hollywood studios, major news brands, social influencers and your neighbor’s wedding photographs. Plus, of course, against other brands who are following the same strategy.
Find great storytellers and great stories
Finding great storytellers and great stories is key. As well as being nimble enough to jump on opportunities as they arise. When rapper Rick Ross bought a Checkers franchise in his old Miami neighborhood, the fast-food brand recognized an opportunity to build a compelling narrative that would entertain and inspire while boosting affinity for the brand.
The resulting three-and-a-half-minute documentary finds Ross revisiting old landmarks and talking about his experience growing up in Miami’s Carol City neighborhood. Halfway through he describes making $30 a day at a local car wash. There was a McDonald’s next door and a Checkers across the street. Ross went to Checkers. The price was more affordable.
It’s the kind of relatable and authentic moment that successful brand content thrives on. Because the digital experience is intensely communal, successful content isn’t something people just want to watch, it’s something they want to share as a way of signaling their values. In this dynamic, content serves as a vehicle for a person to tell the world about themselves. Or, as a way to earn social currency with their peers by sharing something inspiring, hilarious, unique or new.
Don’t let bad content poison the well
Ultimately, the largest issue is one of quality control. Because the ad industry (like all industries) tends to celebrate its successes, we hear about the amazing brand content being produced. And there really is a lot out there. But there’s also a selection bias at play. With some high profile exceptions, no one’s writing about the mass of awkward, boring and forgettable efforts that surface and then disappear (mostly) without a trace.
And the more lackluster content that’s out there, the harder it is for the good to succeed. Just like too many bad ads fueled the adblocking explosion, too much bad content can similarly poison the well. The challenge for the industry is to not make the same mistake twice.
James Chanter is associate media director at m/SIX. He tweets @rjchanter