Content strategy matters and a new set of optics

Content marketing book launch panel

Demand for Content Marketing continues to grow at a great pace as it offers media a major new revenue stream it has been crying out for in recent times. The science behind the art of what constitutes success in the field is still discussed and debated however as the sector matures.

At the launch last week of the new ‘The Definitive Guide to Content Marketing’ book co-written by Xoogler Lazar Dzamic and Justin Kirby, The Drum’s editor Stephen Lepitak moderated a panel to discuss its key themes, hosted by Mark Nohr at Fold7’s London offices.

Vince Medeiros, co-founder of TCO, makers of Little White Lies and Huck magazines, and Verity Messett, head of content at Fold7, joined the authors on the panel to discuss best practice and trends they were seeing in content marketing.

Lepitak was interested to hear more about whether brand understanding has matured and the challenges surrounding distribution and delivery. To kick things off, however, he threw down the gauntlet and asked the authors how there can be a ‘definitive guide’ to something that’s so poorly defined, cuts across everything and is still very fluid.

The shift to the ‘why’ of content rather than just the ‘how’

Dzamic jumped in first to point out how they had noticed that the ever growing number of books about Content Marketing are predominantly focused on the ‘How’ rather than the ‘Why’, creating a clear need for one that looked at the missing ‘strategic’ considerations given the babel of executional intricacies being covered every day online.

He also explained that writing the book had been a journey for them that started as an unbiased look at a solution or approach that many are claiming is a better promise to interruptive advertising, but they had arrived at a very different place having spoken to extensive list of leading academics and industry experts including those rejecters with a manifesto of justified criticism.

That’s why they now see Content (with a capital ‘C’ to denote the principle rather than just the stuff being created), as part of wider and more human-centred philosophy or ethos than just a communications solution, and one that could be seen as a liminal transition phase in marketing’s evolution to whatever is next on the horizon.

Kirby added that their intent was to help map out the territory and to write a ‘guide’ to the dynamics, debates, concepts and challenges that the approach creates, with a nod to the best ones in history – Thomas Cook’s or Michelin’s, the grandfathers of Content.

Mapping the content maturity model when it came to answering whether brand understanding has matured, the panel discussed a number of important vectors. Messett was first up. She described a sea-change where two years ago clients were asking for content to be better defined. That’s not something she has been asked of late and although the ‘what is content?’ question still hangs in the air, clients are now more focused on the business problems they are trying to solve whether it be shifting more product or opinions:

“What strikes me when I look at the work we do for clients in very different sectors, with different customer journeys and experiences, is what they all have in common is a particular attention to measurement in terms of real business results and working backwards from there. The shapes of what we do, content and otherwise, is very different but very much based on looking at what drives a particular end or outcome," she stated.

For Dzamic, the answer depends on what is meant by working well and he cited evidence via Scott Donaton at DigitasLBi about whenever they compared content with other approaches across the customer journey Content always performed better:

“Understanding why you do what you do across customer journeys helps set the KPIs and objectives, but also helps frame the actual experiences that are delivered from the customer-perspective.”

He illustrated this point with two examples. The first was Salesforce who have achieved huge success with their B2B marketing by making their content funny, having asked the question ‘whoever said that our communications platforms had to be boring?’

The B2C example he highlighted was deliberately not Red Bull. Instead he chose AirBnB’s ‘Hosted Walks’, where a Google Maps-enabled app provides travelers with tips and local secrets when walking around New York. It’s a contextual example that he thinks provides more ‘Empathic Utility’ by creating an experience that combines something that’s useful based on user intent (Intent Utility) and also more meaningful (Emotional Resonance).

He wrapped up by saying that although the big culture moment campaigns, or what Google call Hero content (e.g. Dove Real Beauty Sketches, #LikeAGirl, etc), get a lot of accolades and earned attention, there’s a whole host of brands that are having success by looking to be there during those billions of searches being made every day at those ‘moments that matter’. Unilever’s ‘All Things Hair’ YouTube channel is one that he thinks nails this, not least because of the multi-million dollar incremental growth globally having collaborated with leading YouTubers and embraced the much quoted slogan about becoming what is interesting to people, rather than interrupting what is interesting to them.

What Medeiros sees working well from work they have been doing with brands is when editorial is leveraged in a really strong way. For example, the Nike London campaign where they worked on a series of ancillary pieces around the Hero brand film, that tapped into more journalistic video-based stories celebrating real young Londoners who are excelling at sport despite their often difficult circumstances.

He sees the value here being the cultural contribution made by brands that goes beyond their purely transactional objectives:

“The commercial end result still sits at the heart of marketing, but to have an impact and be relevant it needs to transcend the transactional and also be a benefit to wider culture.”

That important cultural connection is something the authors touch upon in their book, and Medeiros thinks Vans is a brand that have done this well with the recent work around female empowerment – focusing on young girls who have picked up on skateboarding despite skate parks often being dominated by testosterone. It’s an example that he argues makes a valuable contribution by asking questions, challenging dominant paradigms and doing something that is both interesting and different.

Rather than highlight any specific brands Kirby pointed at the research by the co:collective based on the difference between Storytelling and StoryDoing that their founder Ty Montague explored in his True Story: How to Combine Story and Action to Transform Your Business book. The rise of #purposewash has resulted in some pundits demanding that marketers get medieval about profit rather than purpose unless they want to be consigned by their c-suite colleagues to becoming little more than the colouring-in department. But there’s a growing body of evidence Justin mentioned to show that those brands that are clear about their Why, and advance their narrative by the value they deliver rather just how they describe it, are outperforming their competitors. What’s important, according to the recent research Justin cited, is that the purpose has been articulated in a way that the middle managers who have to make it happen have both understood and bought into it.

A new set of optics for distribution and delivery in the attention economy? The third strand of the discussion that Lepitak prompted looked at the distribution and delivery challenges of the attention economy. There was a consensus that all media is now both paid and earned, or at least needs to be. For example, the leveraging of great editorial that Medeiros and his team are looking for brands to fund is something they fully understand that marketers expect to be both seen and work for them.

He picked out two measurement initiatives by both Hearst and the Content Marketing Association that are helping brands to evaluate both those objectives. Drilling down on what is meant by ‘seen’ is something that Lazar argued needs to be clarified because there is difference between the old model of interrupting our aggregated attention versus what is seen because it’s what’s being sought out individually. Building on his earlier point about being there via search at those moments that matter, he added that being useful does not have to be boring and having emotional resonance doesn’t have to be expensive. His point is that brands need to be thinking across the whole of the customer journey, and who can help with that is something he think is anyone’s game now. That’s something he says needs a new set of optics about not only what’s delivered when and where, but also who might be best suited to help with at those different points where brands can now connect with their customers.

The very real problem of skippability is something that Verity explained makes every impression have to be what Dzamic and Kirby describe in their book as an ‘opt-in’ one, regardless of whether media has been paid for or not:

“We always have an option to ignore something and mobile only makes that easier, so nothing can be boring anymore. Whether something is funny, useful or relevant, everything has to have something that earns our attention. That’s part of the new rules that we now operate in," said Kirby.

That earning of our attention is something that Kirby thinks requires a different mindset based on their research. He mentioned the ‘designing for time and place’ idea that Joe Pine and Gilmore of Experience Economy book fame explained to them:

“The distinction Pine and Gilmore make between ‘time well spent’ and ‘time well saved’ is an important one because it’s the former that makes something worth our time and a more memorable experience rather than one that simply saves us some time which we don’t register.”

This more human-design thinking is something Kirby sees as having empathy baked into its DNA and which goes beyond content distribution and delivery challenges to form part of the wider transformational focus of clients and agencies alike. It’s also the backdrop to one of the ten key findings from their book, that Dzamic and Kirby will be discussing in a follow-up article for us here on The Drum.

In the meantime, they’ve made a number of the chapters from the book freely available on the Kogan Page site and there’s also 20% discount available to The Drum readers with the code PMKSCM20.

Last but not least, Verity, Vince and Justin will be judging The Drum’s Content Awards this year, and look forward to seeing all the awesome work submitted.

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