"Content is king, right?”
In the last 5 years, many of us ski area marketers prophesied over content marketing—so much so that today 93% of brands are using content marketing as a cornerstone tactic in their marketing efforts.
We said "content is king", because we heard digital marketing gurus heralding the arrival of a new golden age of brand marketing. We watched in awe as audiences flocked to their devices to view information and entertainment online. We saw early adopter brands amass huge social followings on the back of viral hits. Our thinking was this: if we doubled down on creating content over mass advertising, if we told great stories that resonated with our audiences, and if we connected with consumers in real time through social media, it would allow our marketing to skirt around the interruptive efforts of traditional media and forge relationships directly with customers in social channels. Our "owned" channels—we were pretty sure—would become a hub for a community of consumers who cared about us and what we had to say.
Well, it turns out were were wrong. Perhaps not initially wrong, because some of us were quick out of the gate, and had some early wins in the pioneering days before the social media wilds were over-trodden. But we were eventually wrong, as were tens of thousands of other brands who failed to generate meaningful consumer interest online. Being wrong stings a bit. For us—a creative agency that prides itself in making meaningful connections between outdoor consumers and brands—it’s caused us to re-examine things. Today, we're asking ourselves two questions: What went wrong? And, what are we going to do about it?
What went wrong?
Much of what went awry with content marketing, is what goes wrong with all trends that eventually tip—everyone starts doing it. Like Lava Lamps, Gangnam Style and Pokemon Go, when everyone starts doing it, the novelty simply wears off, we get bored, and we move on to the next shiny thing.
In the case of content marketing, not only did everyone jump on the trend, but many did so without understanding the fundamental tenets of relevancy and quality. "Any content is good content" became the prevailing sentiment of the day, and the ski resort content marketing landfill began to overflow with Candide Thovex-rip off POV edits with fewer than a hundred views.
Beyond the issues of content quality and quantity however, many marketers also failed to anticipate the limited capacity of the world’s online communities and the limited appetite of our consumers. We flooded our social channels with branded content, but as soon as consumers demonstrated that they had little interest in consuming most of it, the social channels got wise and began protecting their communities from our drivel. They began charging us to get "sponsored" content into the feeds of people who were supposed to be our fans. Before we knew it, we were back to using paid media to distribute our content to people who didn’t really want to see it. #Fail.
Finally, and most importantly, it became clear to us that it was not just the quantity, the quality and the distribution of content that was the real problem. Our greatest failing as marketers was thinking that content, in and of itself, was "king" in the first place. In all the YouTubing, Instagramming, Facebooking, Snapchatting excitement, we failed to realize that it was not the content that was king, but that it was—as it had always been—the brand itself that was most important.
So, what are we going to do about it?
Our post-content marketing era realization that content isn’t a substitute for branding has brought about a renewed focus for brands that are winning. Sure, marketing is still about generating demand for your product, but it has ceased to be about what you say to generate that demand. Today there are simply too many brands, saying too many things via too many channels for this approach to work. Savvy brands are figuring out that today it is about what you stand for.
With this shift in focus, we went about trying to determine what is setting these successful brands apart in their marketing. We identified four post-content marketing era strategies that have emerged, and examples of brands applying them successfully.
Four post-content marketing strategies:
- Be useful. Not long after the concept of "online information overload" was identified, Jay Baer—one of the earliest digital marketing strategists and content marketing prophesiers—identified the critical difference between helping and selling in marketing. He wrote a book called "Youtility" whose premise was that the most successful brands were those whose marketing focused on providing utility to its customers. People like people who are helpful. They feel the same about brands that are helpful. KLM Airlines began adopting the "youtility" approach in their marketing in the earliest days of their digital efforts. They coined their strategy "small sympathy" and set about making small efforts to help their customers with everyday challenges. One such example is their "Must See Map". Based on the insight that a traveler is seeking advice from their loved ones before going on vacation, the company facilitated the aggregating of tips through the social networks of their customers’ friends who recommend their best travel tips geolocalised on Google Maps via email, Facebook or Twitter. Once the advice was collected, KLM aggregated the information on a card, printed it and sent it free of charge to the customer. The paper support allowed the customer not to pay a fortune in data consumption abroad and the object boasted of a charming retro side.
- Take a stand. In an increasingly complex world, a few brands have taken a stand in ways that have propelled their brand in meaningful ways. Adopting an ideology—not just in their marketing, but in their business—has long served Patagonia in ways that have clearly positioned them as environmental stewards of the earth. The brand’s Worn Wear campaign extends from its advertising, through its social content, to grassroots activations and even to its sponsorship of large content initiatives in the forms of environmental films.
- Be entertaining and inspiring. In a sea of mediocre content, a select few brands have been able to stand out solely on their ability to elicit a high-impact emotional response from its customers. The range of emotions from which a brand can play on are far reaching, and the loyalty generated by strong emotions is fierce. Last year, National Geographic implemented a new brand platform, nicknamed "Further", focused on increasing relevance among modern explorers while sticking to its brand’s deep roots as inspirational content producers.
- Help define a culture. Brands that are defining, or even just contributing to the meaning of a culture are surging to top of the world’s most relevant brands lists. Social media has turned subcultures—which used to be small, dispersed special interest groups—are now united via the web and social media into crowd cultures. Brands with the ability to create (or co-create), influence and integrate seamlessly into these cultures are winning. This is the next frontier of marketing and communications and while it has much to do with things like social, mobile and content—it is the cultural aspect that must lead while everything else follows. Poler is a brand that came to define outdoor hipster lifestyle. A subculture of millennial, urban, outdoor minimalists saw their culture defined through the Instagram channels of Poler.
What does this mean for ski resort marketing in the future? We think the path is clearly revealing itself. We’re done with content for content’s sake. We’re focused instead on content—and a plethora of other marketing strategies—designed with a specific brand purpose in mind.
In addition, our research uncovered one overarching rule that applied to virtually all of these successful brands, regardless of which strategy they chose. They were relentlessly consistent. In some instances, the strategy that they chose was perhaps less important than the reliability in which they applied it. The message was clear, if you want to come out of the content bubble unscathed, stop letting your brand be a one-hit wonder.