What does the future of content marketing look like? According to Gini Dietrich, founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, succeeding with content in 2014 and beyond means being visionary, practicing brand journalism, embracing native advertising, and telling employee stories. The co-author of Marketing in the Round and publisher of the Spin Sucks blog delivered her points October 17 via a keynote presentation at Content Jam, an annual event where marketers discuss the state of the art in content marketing.
Before looking forward, Dietrich looked back. She reminded everyone that content marketing is not new: John Deere started publishing a magazine for its customers in 1895, and brands like Michelin and Betty Crocker became publishers of useful content long before digital came along.
By 2007, seven out of 10 publications in the United Kingdom were produced by corporations. According to a study conducted by the Content Marketing Institute and MarketingProfs, 93 percent of marketers use content marketing, and more than half of marketers are going to increase their spending in this area. So what are the forward-thinking brands doing with their content spend? According to Dietrich, successful content looks like this:
1. Nonsalesy, Clear Vision Content
Content leaders today and tomorrow have a vision for what they want to be and produce nonsalesy content that aligns what that vision. And being nonsalesy means providing useful ideas. For example, Zingerman’s Deli publishes Zingerman’s Guide to Good Eating a cookbook that teaches everyday people how to become foodies. The cookbook is aligned with Zingerman’s own vision for being a source of great food and great experiences.
My reaction: Note, though, that Gini mentioned both “nonsales” and “clear vision.” An overt sales pitch can be entertaining and perfectly aligned with a brand’s vision of itself. Some of the best (and worst) of those pitches appear on TV during the Super Bowl each year. But advertising, however on-brand it might be, is not content marketing. On the other hand, a brand can share nonsalesy content that meets a clear consumer need — such as how-to information or entertainment — but the content must support the brand, too. We don’t use the term “content marketing” for nothing. Aligning your content with a clear vision is necessary to engage your audience while providing value to your own brand.
2. Brand Journalism
Brand journalism means providing content people would want from a magazine, or acting like a publisher (a trend that agencies such as IPG have acted upon by creating their own publishing units). For example, LEGO publishes the LEGO Club magazine, with content ranging from modeling tips to contests. And bank HSBC publishes Global Connections to provide tips for how to grow a business globally. As Gini asserted, publishing your own content liberates brands from needing to rely solely on third-party influencers because brands are either creating their own journalistic content or curating it.
My reaction: In fact, Gini’s examples are just the tip of the iceberg. Brands ranging from Red Bull to Louis Vuitton have made the brand journalism model a mainstream practice. Edelman just launched a the “Creative News Room” to “help clients monitor and respond, in real time with planned brand-relevant stories,” according to an October 15 press release.
When I asked Gini why brands are becoming journalists, she immediately answered, “Search.” Gini explained that brands are responding to pressure to update their content frequently to make themselves visible to Google. Hence, they need to adopt a publisher mentality. Moreover, the continued shrinking of the news publishing industry has created a void for brands to fill with their own news-style content.
Digital has made it easy for brands to act as journalists — too easily in my view. I agree with Gini that brand journalism is an important trend, and I would add that brands have yet to really tap into the potential for using video and imagery, too. But in my opinion, it’s only a matter of time before a glut of brand publishing tarnishes the practice (if it hasn’t already), leading to a winnowing out process from which only the best brand journalists will thrive.
3. Native Advertising and Sponsored Content
You can’t read Advertising Age or Digiday without someone examining the advent of native advertising, or branded content that a company publishes on someone else’s site. By making the native ad look similar to the content you’re reading in, say, an online magazine, the advertiser hopes to look less obtrusive. Hence, Sports Center publishes the sponsored article “20 Fans Losing Their Marbles Over Amazing Sports Moments” on Buzzfeed, and Gatorade operates its own G Series music playlist on Pandora. As Gini pointed out, native advertising comes in video format, too, such as on a site like Devour.
She explained that native advertising has become popular simply because it does not interrupt the audience experience. And I agree. Moreover, in the digital world, brands that interrupt the audience pay a heavy price: we shun them with an easy tap of the screen or click of a keystroke.
My reaction: But I also believe brands and traditional publishers need to tread carefully when they share each other’s space. The Atlantic ended up with egg on its face after publishing controversial sponsored content from the church of Scientology. And frankly some of the sponsored content on Buzzfeed seems wrong for the publication, an example being this post by Hyatt, “12 Apps You’ve Gotta Have if You Are Always Traveling,” which is a functional PoV but out of sync alongside Buzzfeed’s typically wicked-funny and snarky stories from Buzzfeed staff, such as “19 Things You Can’t Say without Sounding like a Tool.”
Obviously, native advertising is still evolving. But given the financial pressures that publishers face now to generate advertising revenue, I think it’s a safe bet to say native advertising is only going to become more prevalent.
4. Employee Stories
Employee stories are not about a company’s people telling everyone how great their employer is. Employee stories consist of people sharing their lives and interests as they represent their employer. For instance, the REI photo wall features pictures of REI store employees living the REI vision through their own lifestyles. The Mayo Clinic operates a blog consisting of real-life stories about how its people work with patients. Gini credited Tony Hsieh of Zappos for elevating the art of using employee stories to share a company’s brand. Zappos taught us that more companies share their culture, the more likeable they become.
“Employee stories are the future of content marketing because people buy from people and want to know who they are doing business with,” she said.
My reaction: Of the four trends, employee storytelling resonated the most for me. Especially through my work with Razorfish and iCrossing, I’ve experienced first handhow employees can be powerful brand ambassadors. An employee visual storytelling that I created for iCrossing improved the company’s reach and engagement (more about that here), and unleashing the ideas of the Razorfish work force became an effective business development tool for the agency.
Employee storytelling remains unchartered territory. Too many brands are hung up on questions such as, “What happens if I showcase my employees and they leave my company?” Fair question. Here’s my reply: you can never go wrong building up your employees and treating them well. Those who stay will continue to spread the love about you. Those who leave will remember how they were treated and may very well become your best customer ambassadors if you treated them well.