Niche Brands Should Embrace Big Market for Offbeat Content

In Era of Democratized Media, Dull Entertainment Reigns; Give Consumers Reason to Think You're Hip

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Alan Wolk
Alan Wolk
One of the wisest bits of advice I've gotten in my advertising career came from an old creative director who once noted that "there's a reason 'America's Funniest Home Videos' is a top-10 show."

His point, which predated You Tube's sneezing pandas and dancing babies by at least 10 years, was that the most popular entertainment is often the safest. Which doesn't make it bad or wrong or awful. It's just not cutting edge.

It's something to keep in mind as we move deeper into a world of democratized content, one where consumers are their own editors and make the call as to what gets passed on. Because consumers -- the mass of them -- are about as risk averse as they come. They pass on fart jokes, cute animals and videos made by people who are already famous. Why? Because it's safe; no one will fault them for posting a leering squirrel video to Facebook. We play it safe in our roles as citizen editors precisely because it's not our day job; we get no reward for passing on something new or risky or fresh.

That reality (and I am far from the first to comment on it) was brought home the other day as I watched Ashton Kutcher's presentation during Advertising Week, where he talked about his web production company Katalyst. He showed some videos he'd done that had been passed around hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of times. They were well-crafted and entertaining, but nothing was exactly cutting edge. As I watched the crowd nod along, it hit me that here was a wide-open opportunity for marketers.

You see, beyond Kutcher and his mass-market clients, there's a world of niche brands whose consumers would welcome the sort of outside-the-mainstream content they're not getting from their social graphs. (And by "content," I mean anything from a web series to three-minute videos to short stories to podcasts to slideshows -- something people read, watch, listen to or look at for their own enjoyment and want to pass on to their friends.)

KATALYST: Ashton Kutcher's production company isn't exactly pushing boundaries.
KATALYST: Ashton Kutcher's production company isn't exactly pushing boundaries.
It's a sizable market too, because basically any product whose main benefit can be boiled down to "this will make you cool" will attract the sort of consumers who are jonesing for some unique, non-mainstream content they can use to impress their friends.

And by non-mainstream, I don't mean the usual cop-out of showcasing some DJ who's been crowned the latest king of Teutonic techno. That's a ridiculously narrow definition of "outside the mainstream" that many ad agencies fall into in an attempt to seem overly hip. They forget that there are all kinds of "cool": old lady cool, mom cool, geek cool. All these subgroups have their own definition of what constitutes fresh and unique.

If these niche brands are willing to assume the role of professional editors, finding content that is appropriate for their audience while managing the delicate balance between "unique" and "mainstream" (think "Slumdog Millionaire"), they'll be able to win over converts.

Social media is all about value exchange, and brands that can provide both coolness and entertainment have two great ways to reach their core consumers. Beverage company Red Bull has already collected almost 1.5 million fans on Facebook by providing a steady stream of well-done articles, videos and streaming audio centered around their sizable stable of athletes and musical acts. While Red Bull's target is the young and the hip, a similar strategy can work for any brand willing to create and/or collect content that's of actual interest to their target audience.

Brands that go this route will find a further benefit to adopting this strategy: As consumers outside their core audience grow increasingly frustrated with the banality of the content their peers are sharing, they'll begin to look to these niche brands for relief.

Which should supply them with a steady stream of fresh customers.

Alan Wolk is the founder of the creative strategy consultancy (and blog) The Toad Stool.
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