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General Mills

The Big Know brings brands and education closer together


By Doug Zanger, Americas Editor

April 12, 2016 | 8 min read

Video learning is not a new concept. Ever since the advent of YouTube, people have been imparting their wisdom to an unseen digital audience on everything from auto repair to cooking the perfect steak. But finding a wide audience for those learning videos takes more than just pointing a camera and shooting.

So how does a new voice in the video realm find an audience in an audience-fractured world? GoKart Labs in Minneapolis, a digital innovation shop founded in 2009 that works with brands including the Mayo Clinic, Target and National Geographic, saw that many of their clients were wondering how to gain more consumer attention. As an incubator shop, GoKart looked to leverage digital assets, and since they also do work on the education front, they saw a ripe opportunity, which eventually became The Big Know, a digital learning platform launched in October 2015, built to change the way brands interact with consumers, bypassing academics and basic curricula to provide fun and engaging content.

At present, the site’s content and courses are focused on wellness/well-being and “personal betterment” — and is underwritten by brands such as United Healthcare, AARP and Blue Zones. One such course is "Staying Alive," a look at productive habits for a longer, healthier life, presented by New York Times best-selling author and National Geographic fellow Dan Buettner.

“We were really fascinated and curious about the explosion of informal online learning that’s been happening with primarily massive open online courses, like the kind coming out of Stanford and Harvard. We started to do some research and it became clear that a lot of consumers are taking classes now outside of academics, or outside of a degree program, just because they love to learn. It’s a great use of time and it’s a great way to advance their lives,” said Don Smithmier, founder and CEO of GoKart Labs and The Big Know.

Smithmier, who started his career at Capella Education Company, saw the love consumers had for online learning, and also saw how brands had tons of expertise in their lines of work, so he looked for a way to bring them together.

“The moment of epiphany was actually leaving a meeting at General Mills,” he said. “It occurred to me that it would be really interesting if Betty Crocker was teaching a massively open online course to consumers on cooking, and preparing recipes. As we did more research and evaluated the idea, we realized that no one’s solving this right now – the world’s best companies are not teaching and they should be.”

Mark Addicks is on the board of directors at The Big Know and is the former senior vice president and CMO of General Mills. He had experience working with brands on both the promotional and teaching ends, including going back to what might be considered the original native or branded content.

“It actually started in 1927. Betty Crocker was created because of Gold Medal Flour and they were getting all kinds of mail at the time, of people wanting not just recipes but wanting to know how to do things, how to make things, how to prepare for holidays and ideas…I used to [say] that Betty Crocker was the first social brand. She had communities on radio. She had communities through mail. There were the communities through the cookbooks. You look at this and say, from a big brand standpoint to a small brand standpoint, you can be first at actually helping your consumer. This is very seminal to my interest in The Big Know,” said Addicks.

The challenge for Smithmier and his team was to find a way for modern brands to connect the same way Betty Crocker originally did with its original audience.

“Brands have always wanted to have a relationship with the consumer, but mostly all that was available to them was a transaction,” said Addicks. “What’s here today is you can more meaningfully have a relationship, and you have a platform here that allows brands to actually be helpful to people.”

Addicks was reminded of a humorous story about the Fiber One brand in how the buzz of a brand can spread virally.

“Fiber One was high-fiber twigs that your grandparents would buy. It was this funny little brand, but every year it would grow 5-to-9%per cent. We discovered that there were all these communities in Fiber One that had figured out how to use the brand in unique and funny ways. There was this Fiber One brownie recipe, and I found out it was at Weight Watchers. I went to visit somebody at Weight Watchers and they said, 'Yeah, that’s our number one recipe.' Lo and behold, eventually we came out with Fiber One brownies, which just by itself was a hundred million dollar business. It’s a no brainer. We were so stupid. There’s 25 million people probably in their program and they’ve probably seen it and probably tried it,” Addicks chuckled.

Addicks hopes that The Big Know can have the same viral impact. He went on to say that brands are usually just a part of the solution for consumers. Taking the next step is being seen as an ongoing resource.

“As brands can step in – a healthcare company, a financial company, a cooking company – and start to answer a broader set of questions that they know the consumer has — they can help consumers get to a higher level or satisfaction of happiness. This is a really big idea from that standpoint.”

What also makes the videos on The Big Know work is the fact that the branding is not overt.

“The branding is really very subtle if you go through any of our courses. It’s clear that these are presented by these brands, much like you would expect on a podcast or PBS documentary or something like that. Then, during the course, to the extent the brand has resources or tools that are relevant to what a person’s learning right there, they get presented. But it’s contextual to the learning in a way that’s helpful. It’s not an interruptive advertisement,” said Smithmier.

Another hurdle to overcome for The Big Know team moving forward is the credibility of the presenter. Those presenting the content need to have knowledge and present it in informative, credible and fun ways – no easy task for sure, as those who have nodded through a dull college course can attest.

“I think the profile of the instructor is going to become really interesting, and that’ll be a great thing to test,” said Addicks. “What I think it comes down to is it’s got to be the right combination of expertise and teaching ability. You can be a top expert and be incredibly boring to learn from. We’ve got to have people that you can really enjoy watching on screen. The content credibility has to be there too.”

Aside from creating good content, The Big Know wants to ensure that viewers are engaged.

“We want to make sure they’re learning but we want to make sure they’re having a good time doing it. I think we’re achieving that. We’re giving people the opportunity to say, ‘Hey sign up, go through this course, you’re going to have a great experience, and at the end, you’re going to understand this topic in a totally different way.’ I think people really respond to that,” said Smithmier.

He sees the audience for The Big Know as wide-ranging, cutting across age groups, demographic and geographic boundaries.

“Online learning is definitely a global phenomenon and we really want to put together a global network of both brands and consumers. There are certain pockets where courses are more popular. They’re very popular with Millennials, they’re very popular with Boomers. What we’ve been clear about with everyone is these are courses. It’s about brand engagement, it’s about consumer engagement, but people are going to learn.

Addicks summed up The Big Know experience for both brands and consumers.

“I do think one of the things that we have seen is that somebody takes one course and they’ve had such good experience that they start looking for other courses. I think that’s a really strong early indicator that the courses aren’t interruptive; they’re contextual, they’re meaningful. That’s pretty exciting to me, because if I’m a brand, I may not have your interest in my topic area, but because I’m on The Big Know, you’re now going to explore some of the places that I can engage with you.”

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