Last week I discovered this beauty: a print ad that recharges your cellphone. It’s a magazine tip-in, with a solar panel and a USB port, produced by Nivea skin care and DraftFCB in support of a communication objective: “You never have to leave the beach,” i.e. even to charge your phone. The ad is a brilliant use of cutting-edge technology that provides real nontrivial value to consumers. Wow! Even without the copious Brazilian bikini model eye candy, this is serious moment of fave stuff.
In fact, you might argue this “ad” is so useful it flips the usual value proposition for readers. This is not a magazine ad that lets you charge your phone for free—this is a cheap solar phone charger with a free magazine wrapped around it. Had you proposed this idea as an editor, you’d have been laughed out of the shareholders’ meeting; it’s way too expensive and gimmicky. But on behalf of a sponsor willing to pay to make an impact, such stuff is possible, and the readers win.
And it crystallized something for me: the real promise of content marketing.
Content is treated like a shabby sort of utility these days, a doughy extrusion that can be piped into the shell of any website to flesh out a desired experience. Choose your working-class metaphor: There are content farms and content drivers, content can be organically grown (OMG, no pesticides, yum), then packaged and distributed and consumed. Somewhere in the Far East, a container ship loaded with content from Hong Kong is streaming thru Panama; as soon as it clears customs we’ll let you know what to click on next.
But this generic, amorphous concept of “content” is boardroom shorthand that has no place out here on the front lines. We who work to engage real people on behalf of brands can’t just man the content pumps—we need to create value. Usefulness…entertainment…desire. There can’t be anything programmed or mechanistic about it; we need to continually and reliably out-compete “pure” sources of diversion or we’ll be ignored.
And that’s hard. In the seventh meeting with Mugsy’s Banana Chips, the temptation is strong to think compromise: What can we create that is editorially good enough that people won’t reject it, but branded enough that Mugsy (or his human handlers) will pay us to create it. That is the advertorial approach—disguising an ad as editorial—and it only works if people are bored or captive enough to settle for it. It’s dead in the water in today’s world of infinite choice.
But content marketing can succeed where advertorial fails, because it’s not a compromise. Done right, as with our Brazilian friends, it’s a blue sky attempt to find something genuinely useful and/or entertaining for readers—the very mindset that editors start with. True, it also supports a brand and its objectives. But brand objectives are by and large pretty easy to align ideas to. They tend to be vague, positive, forward-looking ideals like “innovation” and “passion,” to reach those ubiquitous “early adopters” and “young influencers.” (Just once, I’d like to see some cheap, super-unhealthy CPG product admit that its real target audience is “borderline obese low-income moms who are dead inside and couldn’t care less what their kids eat.”)
Armed with a sponsor’s resources, a defined audience and a simple mandate to create something around “Innovation,” say, it suddenly becomes possible to create something so useful that people will share it, so entertaining that people forgive the brand presence.
Or even welcome it! “The Messiest, Most Over-The-Top Burgers In America” loses nothing if it is “Presented by Pepto-Bismol”…in fact, the brand presence makes the concept funnier and stronger.
I think in the next few years we’re going to see a lot of publishers pivot away from viewing branded content as a pollutant, and toward using brand resources to fund content initiatives they wouldn’t otherwise get to do. It’s about moving beyond the mindset of compromise (“What can I get our editors to agree to?” “What can I get our readers to accept?”) toward the genuinely new. (“What can we create together that wouldn’t have existed…but should?”)
I’m convinced the first ones to figure it out, to create amazing stuff that inspires true engagement, will be so successful they’ll never have to leave the beach.