Tech enables, complicates content marketing goals

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The major theme dominating the three-day Custom Content Conference, last month in Washington, D.C., was how technology has both enabled and complicated "engagement," that elusive goal of all content marketing.

Elise Neal, VP-marketing solutions at comScore, led off the event (produced by the Custom Content Council) by enumerating new challenges and opportunities presented by social networking sites, online video and mobile. She said comScore's data show that 105.1 million Americans viewed online videos in December, up from 73.2 million in December 2010.

Another speaker, Stephen Cass, senior editor-special projects at Technology Review, said "gamification" and HTML5 were two technologies that should be added to every content marketer's toolbox.

Rob Tait, founding partner of Fresh Baked Entertainment, which produces webisodes for marketers, said that whatever new technologies marketers embrace, they are best used to enhance storytelling. "It's all about emotional engagement, and it's not just about computers but ... many screens," he said.

D.W. Pine, design director at Time, said some of these new screens can represent a double-edged sword, particularly for the editorial and design departments. He showed how designing for the iPad and Android devices enables increased engagement, allowing full-screen viewing of photos, but also boosts the workload of editorial employees.

Dannette Veale, digital engagements and technology strategist at Cisco Systems, also addressed the up- and downsides presented by new technologies.

In 2009, Cisco changed its Global Sales Meeting (GSM) from an in-person event that brought together about 15,000 of the company's employees in a single location to a virtual event that relied on telepresence, gamification and other virtual technologies. The primary goal was to save money, which the new event (renamed the Global Sales Experience, or GSX) did by reducing costs by more than 80%, Veale said. But employee satisfaction with the event dipped.

The nonvirtual event had been a big deal. How big? Well, Aerosmith performed at one. But the economic slump of 2009 hit nearly every company—Cisco included.

"There was a paradigm shift," said Veale, who outlined the changes Cisco has made to the event. In addition to cutting costs, the virtual GSX was greener than the GSM because 15,000 Cisco salespeople didn't get on airplanes.

Networking missed

But the retooled event, designed to motivate salespeople and recognize top performers, also had its drawbacks, Veale said. In particular, salespeople complained that they missed networking with their international peers. Additionally, the virtual congratulations to top sellers weren't as powerful as an in-person handshake from Cisco CEO John Chambers, Veale said.

Cisco found the salespeople's average rating of the GSX was 2.69 on a 5-point scale. That was down from a peak of 4.52 for the most popular GSM.

In 2010, Cisco altered GSX again, making it a hybrid virtual/in-person event. Bringing together salespeople in five locations around the world helped keep costs down but also resurrected face-to-face networking as central to the event.

Other changes, however, weren't as effective. Comedian Steve Martin's performance, for instance, wasn't universally praised. "Note to self," Veale said, "humor doesn't translate in some areas."

Nonetheless, in part because of the restoration of networking, ratings for the event increased to 3.36.

Last year, Cisco continued to make changes. For example, the virtual congratulations were improved, allowing salespeople to send virtual animated "pats on the back" to top performers. Veale said the number of virtual congratulations sent during the meeting increased from 1,600 in 2009 to about 62,000 two years later.

Veale said the ratings increased to 3.51, only a little shy of the 3.63 rating the final GSM received in 2008.

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