Opinion

Content marketing – fad or the future?

Anthony HearneIn this guest post, Anthony Hearne reveals the learnings from a recent forum on content marketing in Singapore. He argues that how a brand tells a story through content matters as much, if not more, than the content itself, and that religions are the world’s best content marketers.

We have come to the close of another year, and far from winding down, brand marketing departments everywhere are busy finalising their strategic plans for the year ahead.

It is a good time then, to surface the question on whether brand marketers should be spending their resources and budgets next year on content marketing – the new kid on the block that has got everyone talking.

But is content marketing just a fad, or the next big thing?

Outbrain and the Asia Content Marketing Association (ACMA) hosted a Content Conversations Meetup with over 60 industry professionals in Singapore last month, to find out if content marketing lives up to its hype.

The audience heard thoughts from four experienced industry professionals – Don Anderson, head of digital integration for PR agency Fleishman-Hillard was our moderator; Olivier Legrand, LinkedIn’s head of marketing solutions, Asia Pacific and Japan; Chris Pile, founder of digital agency The Farm; and Andrew Knott, VP of media and digital at McDonald’s.

Here are the key insights that came out of the session:

1. Content marketing is not actually new

While there are many different views around content marketing, we agreed on one thing – it is not new.

The speakers at the session debated around who were the world’s oldest and best content marketers – Chris Pile from The Farm mentioned the Catholic Church with the use of the Bible, and Andrew Knott from McDonald’s reminded us that the Koran had printed over 3 billion times and should take the crown. My personal favorite however, was the example of the John Deere Furrow Magazine.

John Deere's Furrow magazine

December issue of The Furrow

While it probably was not called content marketing then, John Deere launched this initiative in 1895 to provide great content about rural life and farming and in doing so, added value to its relationships with its customers. It now has a circulation of 1.5 million in 40 countries and 12 languages.

So while we agreed that content marketing is not new, what is new about it is that more and more people are moving their media diet online. In doing so, they enable technology to break through barriers to entry – think content acceptance, talent and technology – for brands to get into the publishing game.

And indeed, we are seeing that happen now. Olivier from LinkedIn shared that according to eMarketer, content marketing is today the leading tactic for 34.8 per cent of marketers worldwide, a significant increase from just 18.9 per cent in 2012. The game is on.

2. Brands need to stop shouting about themselves

We now live in a 24/7 world of digital experiences where the self-educating consumer is empowered by search, conversations are driven by social media and the economy is increasingly becoming powered by mobile. Search, social and mobile have redefined the landscape for marketers today, who are quickly realizing that in most cases their audiences have already formed perceptions about the brand even before that brand gets an opportunity to share their perspective.

Realising that they get eliminated in the early stages of their audience’s consideration in the purchase decision-making process, it’s understandable that brands’ knee-jerk reaction is to talk and shout about themselves.

Chris Pile: 'Brands needs to forget about themselves'

Chris Pile: ‘Brands needs to forget about themselves’

But it will do us good to keep in mind that the power play between brands and consumers has always resided with consumers in every stage of the customer lifecycle. So brands need to forget about themselves, and think about what their audience’s values are and how they can deliver that to them. Chris from The Farm had a simple expression of this in his presentation.

If brands can deliver experiences that people value, they will share. Content sharing becomes powerful when there is social proof, and social proof is about people – not brands – sharing that content.

Using content to tell brand stories should be so much subtler than what we are used to in advertising. Brands should focus on adding value for the audience by being informative and entertaining first, and then they will have a much better chance of getting the audience’s attention. This then gives brands the opportunity to talk about themselves down the track.

3. It is about the journey, not just the destination

LinkedIn content marketing modelClosely aligned to the previous point is the importance of remembering that potential customers are not always in purchase mode. According to Olivier from LinkedIn, customers are typically 60 per cent into the purchase journey before brands get the opportunity to influence them directly.

If we use the model by Avinash Kaushikn from Google, who splits the customer journey into three key stages – See, Think and Do, what this means is that there are more people in the early stages of a relationship with a brand than in the Buy (or Do) stage.

So why do most discussions on digital marketing so quickly head towards a direct response outcome? If brands do not influence the buyer earlier in the process then there is a chance that most buyers will never push the door open to their store. Content marketing is the opportunity to capture the buyer’s attention in that information phase.

While content can be used as a very effective direct response tool, my view is that its power lies more in its ability to build a brand online. Connect with people in the early stages of their journey by adding value, and then be in a position to cut through the noise as people walk towards making a purchase. Brands need to build intent before they can harvest it.

Chris from The Farm takes this journey approach one step further by suggesting that brands map different types of content against the different stages of the customer lifecycle. Blogs may be the platform to use when targeting potential customers who are in the initial exploration phase, but in the post-purchase phase, customers may find more value from other types of content, for example, product tutorials on YouTube or on the brand’s website.

4. Tell great stories that connect.

Knott: 'How the story is told matters as much as the content itself'

Knott: ‘How a story is told matters as much as the content itself’

I referenced earlier some candid remarks that surfaced at Content Conversations about how the world’s major religions are probably the best content marketers out there. I couldn’t agree more. If there is one common element that most religions share, it would be storytelling.

Storytelling has been around for as long as language has existed. People love to tell and share stories, and the most compelling stories appeal to people the world over, regardless of geography, culture, age, gender or language.

Great storytellers make complex issues seem so simple. Andrew of McDonald’s reminded us that stories that connect with people will inspire them to think, feel and react with the brand, and move the business. How the story is told matters as much, if not more, than the content itself.

There are many brands today that tell stories that move us and make us feel and think. My current personal favorite is the recent “Real Beauty Sketches” work by Dove.

All up, the collective opinion of the speakers and attendees at our Content Conversations session seems to be that content marketing is real, powerful, and here to stay.

The next step would be to work out how best to apply this new-but-old practice into our respective businesses in a way that delivers results.

Anthony Hearne is the regional director of Outbrain Southeast Asia and India

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