Content Marketing: It's Not About Shock, but Good Storytelling

What Expert Knowledge Does Your Brand Have That Customers Could Use?

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Want your message to cut through the noise? You have to be doing content marketing -- and doing it right.

Content marketing is not a shallow advertisement, a blatant self-promotion or an attempt to trick readers. First and foremost, it has to be about great content. It's writing a story that people want to e-mail a friend, or unearthing a fascinating piece of information buried in an organization's little-read white paper. It's a stunning infographic that breaks down a complex idea or drives home a jaw-dropping statistic that your organization happens to know. It's a video interview featuring an expert who gives honest answers to interesting questions.

A content marketer has to think like a journalist about crafting a narrative and providing either a thought-provoking idea or accurate, timely information that helps people to better navigate the world. But like a public-relations professional, he or she has to think strategically about the organization's larger goals and the audience it wants to reach. Like an advertiser, the successful content marketer has to know how to tell these stories visually and tap an emotional vein.

Lincoln Motor Co. is an example of a brand that gets it. The average Lincoln buyer is older than the buyers of any other luxury car brand, including Cadillac, according to research published last year by Polk, the automotive market research firm. The company understandably wants to introduce itself to sophisticated younger drivers. But rather than focusing only on its own rebranding, Lincoln has been exploring the very concept of reimagining tradition through content that is interesting enough to grab eyeballs on its own merit. The company's website features stories about a New York City street photographer who captures the urban landscape as his bicycle tires might see it, an artisan who restores string instruments and innovations in e-book publishing.

But the highlight of the Hello, Again campaign came when the company commissioned Beck to remake David Bowie's classic album, "Sound and Vision," in a live performance with more than 160 musicians. A series of 360-degree camera shots and microphones brought the theater home to online viewers. The performance was an apt move for Lincoln because both the impressive aesthetics and the celebrity firepower spoke to the sort of energetic, youthful luxury that would appeal to the under-60 crowd.

Beck performs for the Hello, Again campaign
Beck performs for the Hello, Again campaign Credit: Lincoln

Nokia Music is also doing stunning work. In collaboration with the Sundance Film Festival and production company Somesuch & Co., the company has created a series of mini-documentaries on the music scenes in several American cities. The purpose of the New American Noise films is to promote Nokia Music's music-streaming service, which offers curated playlists available on the company's smartphones. How better to tell audiences that Nokia's got the goods on music than straight-from-the-streets documentaries?

Authenticity is the quality that makes many worthy brands stumble when they create content, but the fearlessness of these documentaries makes Nokia's videos shine. In Atlanta, the film crew takes viewers inside the clubs that determine which up-and-coming rappers make it big. In New Orleans, they venture into the gay clubs where bounce music originated. The ethereal vibe of Portland's indie scene and the portrayal of a thriving New York underground hip-hop scene that focuses on storytelling also ring true. The images in some videos can be explicit, and the language is raw and uncensored. But the videos are beautifully produced, and they tell a true story about the diverse musical styles that give each city a soundscape as unique as its skyline.

These brands have proven that the key to successful content marketing is to stop thinking about how to shock your audience into paying attention. Instead, start thinking about what they might want to know. Whether you're into fashion or finance, what could your organization share that might make people come back day after day?

How are people doing it wrong? You only need to visit the Condescending Corporate Brand page on Facebook to see how irksome audiences find insincere, lazy marketing ploys. An Applebee's franchise asking fans to weigh in on what color they would like the company's French fries to be – with a helpful display of paint chips for inspiration – makes the grade. Like a perfunctory message on a birthday card, "engagement" like this tells people a brand doesn't think highly enough of them to spend much time thinking about what to say. Restaurant chains have lots of knowledge that people might find fascinating. Why waste time with inane questions?

There's no question that doing this right is more expensive and time-consuming than sending a press release or tweeting. If brands want to become media platforms, they have to accept some of the costs of being a publisher. Many of them are. A recent survey of marketers based largely in the United Kingdom and Europe showed that 70 percent would increase their content budgets this year.

The knowledge economy continues to rocket forward. People actively seek out things that entertain them or keep them a step ahead in whatever field interests them, but they have no time for halfhearted efforts. If you're going to have a content-marketing strategy, unlock what your organization knows that's worth sharing with the world. Figure out what your most interesting stories are, and tell them well.

Alexander Jutkowitz is Managing Partner, Group SJR.
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