Playing through lines – the secret of success now that we have reached peak content

Justin Kirby

As part of helping facilitate knowledge exchange between industry and academia, I recently hosted a panel on Branded Entertainment in London that was kindly moderated by The Drum.

The session was kicked off by panelists explaining why Branded Content exists. There was a consensus that it’s a response to the rapidly changing media landscape and how it’s now being consumed – not least by the 100 or so invited advertising students who represent the ‘millennial’ audience that brands find so difficult to connect with. This irony was not lost on the panelists, and to illustrate the point Mark Boyd at Gravity Road asked them to raise their hands if they had watched live scheduled TV in the last week. Only one student held up a hand. It was bandaged and that was the reason she had been watching daytime TV – in a hospital ward.

The comedy moment helps highlight the rapidly changing nature of the industry these millennials are about to enter; and where they could become the solution to the very problem they are currently seen to represent. As I explained as part of my introduction, content is just what marketing is and does now, and so this makes putting the word branded in front of content or content in front of marketing increasingly redundant. Nonetheless, it is useful to understand how marketing is being reshaped by content from different directions.

I use a simple Venn Diagram to do this that’s based loosely on Google’s 'hero, help and hub' (HHH) content framework. Some strategists may scoff at its simplicity, but it is at least derived from the analysis of our consumption of content rather than just expert opinion. Perhaps more importantly, it provides a starting place for thinking through both how the HHH content formats are used in combination to connect with audiences through the different ways they consume content and the frequency of when and where they are used.

One way of explaining Google’s hero content is the branded content & entertainment category of award shows like Cannes Lions, D&AD and One Show. This represents the space where the advertising and entertainment industries are colliding. BMW Films is often seen as being an early example, and The Lego Movie is a more recent full-length one that shows that the approach can help both win hearts and also shift product.

What’s interesting is this category only represents a small fraction of brand-funded content, but Big Culture moment examples like Jean Claude Van Damme doing the splits between two Volvo Trucks or Dove Real Beauty Sketches set the standard by which all content is judged by brands. The interesting question for brands is who is best suited to help them create and deliver this content, e.g. those who have traditionally created more interruptive content or those who make entertainment we actually pay to watch.

By far the largest content category though is Google’s help one. Just think of all those “how-to” videos including Unilever’s All Things Hair YouTube Channel featuring contributors like Zoella, one of the growing number of human brands. If you extend this category beyond Google’s HHH framework, it becomes more than just adding value to the customer experiences in general, and even through the likes of customer service or marketing as a service (MaaS) type apps.

It can also become part of the ‘Exponomy’, as Pine and Gilmore described in their Experience Economy book back in 1995, and so it could include experiential marketing, but also ways of amplifying the customer’s – increasingly social – ‘experience as content’. This category arguably provides brands with the most scope, particularly with integration of the real world into the digital one, eg retail experiences. Brands may, however, need to go beyond just those CX and customer service-types who are often more concerned with optimizing customer journeys, integrating tech and the more process-orientated side of things.

Last but not least, there Google’s hub category. For me, this represents what content marketing used to refer to before that term ended up simply meaning any marketing that uses content, which is pretty much everything now. Others prefer the term content brands, but I think that brand publishing more accurately describes the kind of editorial-style and regularly published content this category represents.

One way of looking at it is the evolution of the increasing tech-enabled direct marketing, but also how the discipline is merging with what used to be called customer/contract publishing before its rebranding as content marketing. This category has a long history that is often highlighted by examples like the Michelin Guide and John Deere’s agricultural journal the Furrow, but it’s now very closely linked to social and SEO, and increasingly becoming more video-orientated. Technology is a key driver and there’s more and more solutions being offered as developers embrace Mark Twain’s adage about it being a good time to be in the pick and shovel business during a gold rush. The question brands really need to be asking is: are the skills required for optimising SEO or driving response through tech the same as those needed to craft a good story… and vice versa!

It’s important to add that my adaptation of Google’s HHH framework above is just a means for thinking through content strategies, by simply providing a starting point with a rough map of the current territory. The lines are in reality more blurred and blurring, and that’s why it is presented as a Venn diagram. That said, there’s paradoxically also fragmentation as more specialist areas emerge and evolve as with any new area, or in this case one that’s being revisited.

The real purpose of my diagram, however, is to provide a prompt for helping categorise what good looks like, and seeing how lines can be played through as this seems to be secret to those award winning examples that stand out/have an impact. The idea being to provide pointers for creating more than just content-like stuff, and focusing on how to connect with people through culture via stories rather than getting over excited by the ways content can be delivered through an increasing array of tech.

Hopefully, this sidesteps the fruitless debate about what branded content is and how it’s different from advertising, and frames the discussion instead in terms of how brands can create story-led marketing that is interesting and relevant enough to people they will seek it out and/or subscribe to it. This seems to be a virtue of necessity now many pundits think we have reached peak content.

Justin Kirby is the curator of the Best of Branded Content Marketing (BOBCM) series of publications

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