Behind every successful content marketing campaign is an awesome content marketer. When you look up at the gleaming pinnacle of their success, it’s hard to spot the foundational level stuff — the effort, strategy, thought, and work. We did some digging in order to discover some of the disruptive ideas and effective strategies that produce success. What you’re about to learn is some of the secrets of the world’s best content marketers — how they roll, what they do, and why they’ve become so successful.
Make it worth spreading.
Head of Global Partnerships for TED
“Audiences expect more than ever from advertisers.”
Let’s face it. As a content marketer, you’re an advertiser. There’s a myth that advertising has to be either dumbed-down, far-fetched, slapstick, or otherwise egregiously way out in order to get people’s attention. Ronda Carnegie has a different idea. “Six years ago, the [content marketing] industry would not have predicted massive popularity for online talks on math, science, design, and technology.” What changed? Content marketers finally got as smart as their audience. Carnegie puts it this way, “Smart content becomes more popular.” Now TED.com videos have over a billion views, TED’s YouTube channels have millions of subscribers, and just about every day a new TED talk video goes viral. The kernel of this insanely effective content marketing effort is the simple idea that great ideas are worth spreading. Their content marketing strategy is so mind blowingly successful that Ronda launched a TED initiative “Ads Worth Spreading,” which is devoted to the task of boundary-pushing and brain-stretching advertising campaigns. A brand’s audience deserves content that is more than merely funny, shocking, or crude. Thanks to Carnegie’s pioneering, TED has further ennobled the content marketing industry. What’s more, she’s shown us that ads worth spreading can be smart, engaging, insightful, and life-changing.
How you can apply this to your business: Don’t be afraid of depth and quality. Find the best resource on a specific topic in your niche and create something 2-5x as long, thorough, and valuable (even if its really expensive), whether it’s an in-depth guide, a video series, etc.
Make your content interactive.
Founder of Gawker
“For advertising to be truly native in an interactive medium, it should be interactive.”
Truly effective content isn’t something that an audience takes in. It’s something that an audience does. That’s why Nick Denton is evangelical about interactivity. He believes that the whole environ of content is interactive. How do you accomplish this interactivity? Should you add a comments section to your blog and stop there? Nope. That’s not going far enough. Here’s Denton’s idea: “Gawker is letting readers rewrite headlines and reframe articles.” This seems tantamount to brand suicide for some marketers, but Denton is committed to “building a truly interactive news platform” via Kinja. Denton said in an interview, “Interactive news: I’d like to bring some meaning to the phrase. And by ‘meaning,’ something more than volume of comments.” Interactivity isn’t something that needs to be curated. It’s something that needs to be embraced.
How you can apply this to your business: You don’t need to build out a new Gawker-like commenting system, but you could “crowd source” a list where you’re asking for ideas from commenters, then updating the actual meat of your post/article to include (and credit) their input so that the content itself is stronger. This way, you have an army of contributors who are incented to share it.
Take the new paths.
Co-founder and CEO of Thrillist Media Group
“We’re currently heading down some new paths.”
Ben Lerer is doing some crazy stuff — not in the creepy sense, but in the making-millions-of-dollars sense. In other words, he has defied content marketing norms, and been pretty successful. Actually, let’s change that to “very successful.” Lerer has brought together the disparate fields of content and commerce, and married them into a harmonious union. Here’s how it worked. Ben started something called Thrillist — a lifestyle site targeted toward people in major urban centers like New York, Chicago, Atlanta, and London. The site dishes up savory advice like where to buy the best BBQ Rattlesnake Salad. In other words, it’s all about content — really good content. But this content serves a purpose, and Lerer has successfully monetized it through avenues such as Thrillist Rewards. That’s the union right there — a commerce platform connected with its content epicenter. As it turns out, it’s clutch. Besides boasting over three million daily subscribers and a multi-national audience, Ben has found his name showing up in places like Inc. Magazine a few times, and he’s changing the face of content marketing as we know it. He says of his approach, “We’ve developed a really innovative model, sitting at the intersection of content and commerce — and we’re currently heading down some new paths. I think that the model we’re employing now is the future of what a digital media company looks like, and that we’re really only in the early innings.” If we’re still in the early innings, it sounds like its time to get busy and score some runs. It pays to take the new paths.
How you can apply this to your business: Bring back the brainstorming sessions — those no-idea-is-too-crazy sessions where you fill the whiteboard with everything that comes to mind. You’ll only do something groundbreaking if you dare to open the doors to new ideas.
Give the right content to the right people.
Founder of Buzzfeed, cofounder of Huffington Post
“You want the people who are really excited about the content to see it.”
Maybe you haven’t heard the name “Jonah Peretti,” but you’ve probably heard about his brainchild, BuzzFeed. That’s where you spent hours watching videos of cats, looking at pictures of people in subways, and spewing your coffee in an outburst of unexpected hilarity. BuzzFeed has earned the moniker, “Viral marketing hot dog” by the New York Times. According to Nick Denton, “Jonah Peretti is one of the smartest web publishers out there.” We tend to believe Denton, especially when we see the kind of web quakes that Peretti has caused. And how do those quakes strike? Peretti describes his approach: “You don’t want everyone to see a piece of content. You want the people who are really excited about the content to see it.” Let’s face it; we’re not all going to found the newest Buzzfeed or HuffPo, but we all have a content marketing goal of some sort or another. Our goal isn’t to make biggest splash in the biggest pond — it’s to make biggest splash in the right pond. When it comes to making things go viral “there are no tricks,” Peretti says. There is a right way to do it, though. And Peretti knows how to do it. Now Buzzfeed isn’t just a site for funnies; they’re doing branded content business with GE, Schick, The Atlantic, Glamour, Foxnews.com, MTV, Life — stuff like that.
How you can apply this to your business: Decide who you want to reach with your content, and pursue them with everything you’ve got. Here’s where the power of the persona comes into play. Paint a picture of your target audience, and you’ll find yourself successfully delivering your content to their very smartphone or browser.
Use your email list.
Philippe von Borries
CEO and Co-Founder of Refinery29
“It’s ultimate marketing efficiency if you can figure out how to convert readers into shoppers.”
In von Borries’s niche, it’s all about fashion. Refinery29 tells the world the latest news on what’s hot, what’s not, and who’s who. Now, Refinery29 is a $20 million dollar blog that garners 80-90 million monthly page views. How did Von Borries and Justin Stefano do it? Neither of them are serial entrepreneurs, and neither of them are fashion moguls. They’re just normal dudes who decided to start a blog. Like any other normal people who start blogs, they struggled to figure out how to make money, how to get page views, and how to wake up in the morning without feeling paranoid and panicky. The secret potion, as it turned out, was in their email list. This was the first major decision that the founders peg as the reason for their insane success. After giving their email newsletters a lot of attention, the game turned in their favor. In the process, Von Borries figured out how to seamlessly integrate commerce and content. As he explained “commerce is meaningful content when the product is great.” He’s got great content, no doubt about it. But in order to be at the cruising altitude of millions of site visitors, he had to hone in on his email product. He made it amazing. Now his company is amazing.
How you can apply this to your business: Email lists are still a huge source of income for your business. Create a way to harvest email addresses wherever you can. The warm leads will come, and you’ll start to be more successful.
Curate your opening.
Founder of Influential Marketing Group
“Always start with a great opening line.”
Bhargava knows about influential content marketing. After all, he founded a company with the name “Influential Marketing Group.” If he had to distill his influential marketing approach into one spark of brilliance, it would be to make your opening line absolutely explosive. Most content marketers have read all the articles on the importance of the opening, the statistics about how you have .002 seconds to capture someone’s attention (whatever that number is), and how it’s important to spend 98% (or thereabouts) of your time crafting the headline. And it’s all true. Bhargava shares his strategy: “In the quest to create content marketing that answers questions and provides utility, it’s easy to forget quality still matters. As a writer, I spend a lot of time finding the right words.” If you’ve got a great opening, you’ve prepared the way for success.
How you can apply this to your business: Hire the best and brightest content creators you can. Insanely good writers aren’t cheap, but this is precisely the kind of brilliant mind that you need if you want to open with a bang.
Be free within a framework.
Executive Director of Global Brand Marketing for General Electric
“These [mediums] are…perfect for what we’re trying to do.”
What’s a staid and gargantuan corporation like GE doing on breakout social networks like Instagram and Pinterest? And BuzzFeed? Really? You have Linda Boff to thank for that. This is “a company that sort of had Thomas Edison at its roots,” says Linda when she describes General Electric. It doesn’t matter that GE is a company as old as the lightbulb itself. Boff recognizes that her company is about innovation, and that allows her to innovate her way into every content marketing space. Linda Boff is confident that GE can own these mediums. She describes her strategy this way, “When you’re working in the marketing space, when you’re working on brand, when you’re working on digital — these are spaces that I think are so perfect for what we’re trying to do.” Her mantra, the motto that characterizes the GE ethos, is “freedom within a framework.” The framework is the brand of GE itself. What’s the result of taking these freedoms? Just look around. You’ll find the GE imprimatur on just about every content marketing medium available.
How you can apply this to your business: The horizons of content marketing spread to infinity. Within this endless space, you need to set up some boundaries for where you’ll go and what you’ll do. Set up your framework — a budget, a team, a medium, and a message — and go wild within your framework.
Your brand has something to say.
CMO for Virgin Mobile
“A brand with no content is a brand with nothing to say.”
Content marketers can be skittish about publishing branded content. After all, we’re content marketers, and we should slip in our brand only when we’ve hooked the audience. Someone is saying “No.” Ron Faris believes in the brand. According to Faris a brand has a voice itself. “The trick is to create or curate in a manner that’s authentic to the brand’s voice. A brand with no content is a brand with nothing to say. And a brand with nothing to say socially — or worse, a brand that only posts offers — is like a creepy user on Facebook with no profile pic.” Your brand has a chance to say something, and it’s not about “just brandishing a huge logo like you’d see a lot of other brands do.” VirginMobile is one of the biggest phone providers, but they spend a pittance on advertising. For Ron Faris it’s about connecting with an audience of hyperconnected youth. He realizes that his company “needs to publish as often as an almost-annoying-but-super-cool friend on Facebook.” Why? Because VirginMobile has something to say. A brand must express itself. That’s the whole reason why its audience connected with it in the first place. A brand gets on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Tumblr because they can say something that an engaged audience wants to hear. The brand is the connection. You lose that brand connection, and you lose your brand audience. You lose your audience, and you might as well go out of business.
How you can apply this to your business: Be proud of your brand, and let you message loose. Being an outspoken brand is the fastest way to build a loyal tribe and faithful following. Decide upon a brand message, and go ahead and be outspoken about it.
Senior Director of Content, Whole Foods
“We sell inspiration.”
Vadan Less believes in content marketing, but he takes it way further than just content marketing. He sees a difference between what his company, Whole Foods, does and what he does as a content marketer. Vadan Less and colleague Jacob Ellenberg publish an online magazine, Dark Rye, which supports the Whole Food brand, but not in a way that you might expects. He explains, “The stores sell products; we sell inspiration.” His content in Dark Rye is not a profiteering effort to amass an audience and trumpet a product. Instead, he says, “We have the luxury of telling amazing stories.” That inspiration, believes Mr. Less, is the core of content marketing. Whole Foods has positioned themselves as a world-changing force, and a life-improving entity. That’s the kind of marketing that really connects to people. “Why not give them something…that can better the world?” When you take the idea of content marketing and elevate it to an idea that we can better the world, you’ve grasped the idea that Vadan Less is driving at. We all want to be inspired. And, far from being some meaningless platitude, inspiration is crucial. When you produce inspiring content, you’re going to have the connected and engaged audience that you crave.
How you can apply this to your business: Connect your business to something bigger than just business. We live in a world that’s bigger than profits, so find an inspiring cause and promote it. Ending hunger, saving rainforests, digging wells — this is truly inspiring. There is no shortage of causes, but there is a shortage of worthy businesses supporting these causes. Find a cause that inspires you, and your business will help inspire others.
Yourself is who you need to be.
Director of Social Communication for Michael Kors
“You can’t be afraid of yourself or the truth of who you are.”
Farryn Weiner believes in creating a brand that is intensely personal, boldly engaging, and constantly learning from others. Since she leads a brand that is essentially someone’s name, she kind of gets it. Obviously, however, the idea of content marketing is more than posting about handbags that bear the name of a fashion designer. Farryn understands that the world is made up of people who want to get personal. She has curated the Kors brand to be just that — personal. What she has done with Kors is remarkable, because her efforts have developed a personal feel within social media outlets, with mobile apps, with email marketing, with email campaigns, and with every other aspect of Michael Kors approach. You don’t get much more personal than sending personalized sympathy notes to friends of the victims of Hurricane Sandy. That’s the kind of personal approach that Farryn Weiner advocates — one person reaching another. In order to do that, we as content marketers have to be bold enough to be ourselves.
How you can apply this to your business: Encourage your employers to be their true selves on social media, whether or not it directly supports the brand. Businesses are essentially collectives of individuals, each with his or her individual message. Rather than stifle individuality and creativity among your team, open the gates on Faceook, Twitter, Google+, and Tumblr. And, hey, it’s okay to use “me” and “I” on the company Facebook page.