The CHARACTERISTICS of GREAT CONTENT and COMPELLING STORIES
The social media revolution wrenched the keys to the cultural kingdom away from pundits and gatekeepers, giving ordinary people a voice. But the sound of so many people talking at the same time—not to mention opining, debating, entertaining, instructing, and doing all the other things people do to make their views known online —is overwhelming. In order to increase their odds of being seen and heard, many marketers respond by posting a constant, steady stream of fresh content to their social networks. But the social media equation requires quantity and quality. Far too much of the content businesses and celebrities put out is no more innovative or interesting than a Yellow Pages ad. You can find truckloads of garbage on these platforms, especially when they are young and people are compulsively tossing content around like Mardi Gras beads, or when they are old and act their age. Brands and small businesses want to look relevant, engaged, and authentic, but when their content is banal and unimaginative, it only makes them look lame. Content for the sake of content is pointless. Tone-deaf posts, especially in the form of come-ons and promos, just take up space, and are justifiably ignored by most of the public. Only outstanding content can cut through the noise. Outstanding content can generally be identified because it adheres to the following six rules: 1. IT’S NATIVE Though the functions of every platform may sometimes overlap, each one cultivates a unique language, culture, sensibility, and style. Some support text-heavy content; others are better suited for richly designed visuals. Some allow hyperlinks; others don’t. These differences are not minor—putting the wrong kind of content on a platform will doom your marketing efforts. This should be self-evident, but as you’ll see from the examples in this book, many companies just don’t take the time to learn the platform’s native ways before throwing content on it. Those who do, however, see results. And the ones who really dig deep to understand the subtleties and nuances of the platform that aren’t obvious to the more casual user? They truly shine. It’s like the difference between someone who learns a new language well enough to order meals in restaurants and talk about their day, and someone who is so fluent he dreams, curses, and makes love in that language. Marketers who understand platforms at that fluent level are the ones whose businesses will be most noticed and appreciated. This has always been the case. People forget that it took a long time for television ads to become as persuasive, and as pervasive, as they are now. Originally, only select families had access to television, and when they did, it was a guy in a suit sitting at a desk heralding the commercials, or a disembodied voice announcing, “This program brought to you by . . .” Not too compelling. Television ads only started to drive sales once TV units made it into more homes and became a popular source of family entertainment. In particular, ads started to work when a few smart marketers figured out how to talk to their consumers in ways that were native to the platform —through short, scene-driven stories populated with evocative characters. The ads became an intrinsic part of the television-watching experience. People hummed the jingles on their way to work or while vacuuming the house. The brands became cultural touchstones, and their products—the Cream of Wheat, the floor wax, and the frozen dinner—flew off the shelves. All because marketers figured out how to create content that was visually compelling, storydriven, and entertaining—ads that mirrored the content already airing on the platform and that the television audience was coming to see. Content is king, but context is God. You can put out good content, but if it ignores the context of the platform on which it appears, it can still fall flat. Most marketers are oblivious to context because marketers are on social media to sell stuff. Consumers, however, are not. They are there for value. That value can take many forms. Sometimes it’s in a few minutes’ respite from the stress of a busy day. Sometimes it’s in the form of entertainment, information, news, celebrity gossip, friendship, a sense of connection, a chance to feel popular, or an opportunity to brag. Social networking sites light up people’s dopamine pathways and the pleasure centers of their brain. Your content must do the same, and it will if it looks the same, sounds the same, and provides the same value and emotional benefits people are seeking when they come to the platform in the first place. In other words, it will if it is native. What is native to a platform? Depends on the platform. Tumblr attracts the artsy crowd and supports animated GIFs (short, rolling loops of video). A text post from a design firm reading “Visit our Web page to see our award-winning office furniture designs,” would be wasted there (actually, that would be a lousy post on any platform). So would a low-quality photograph on glossy, picture-perfect Pinterest. Twitter speaks to an ironic, urban audience that loves
hashtags. An earnest post like “We love our customers!” would probably be soundly ignored. It sounds funny here, and yet posts like these are everywhere, proving that most brands are ignorant about what is native to a platform. You already know that successful social media marketing requires throwing many jabs before converting the sale with a right hook. Counterintuitively, the most effective jabs are actually the gentlest. They are thrown with “native” content, which seamlessly blends in with the platform’s offerings and tells stories that engage the consumer at an emotional level. From the outside, jabbing with this kind of content won’t look or feel like the setup for that selling right hook, but it is, because the long-term financial worth of a person’s smile, giggle, snort, and even her tears is invaluable. Native content has been compared to a modern-day version of advertorials, or infomercials. Just like the talk show that isn’t really a talk show, but a venue for selling slow-cookers, or the headlined article that isn’t really an article, but an introduction to a new joint-pain medication, native content looks and sounds exactly like any other content that appears on the platform for which it was created. The similarities, however, stop there. Infomercials and advertorials are usually ridiculed because of their poor production value. There’s something cheesy about them. Sometimes that cheese is part of what makes the piece work—it’s hard to take your eyes off Ron Popeil puttering around his staged kitchen gabbing with his cohost and pulling chickens out of the Showtime Rotisserie. But classic advertorials and infomercials are hardly subtle—they are loaded with right hooks. They’re informative and entertaining, like a jab, but they’re there to sell. Whether the brand places its ad on a TV screen or in a magazine, it makes sure to plaster a huge phone number and URL across the bottom. And even if those obvious signs weren’t there, the whole tone of the piece is that of a sales pitch. Consumers couldn’t avoid the sell if they tried. Native content, however, is not cheesy when it’s done right, nor is it obvious. What it is, really, is cool. Now, what is the formula for cool? Beats me. You know it when you see it. It’s whatever hits your emotional center so hard you have to share it with someone else. It can be a quote, a picture, an idea, an article, a comic strip, a song, a spoof, but whatever it is, it says as much about you, the person sharing it, as it does about the brand or business that originated it. There is no formula for cool content, other than that you can’t make it if you don’t have a deep understanding of what makes your audience tick and what they’re seeking when they use social media. Creating skillful native content has little to do with selling and a lot to do with skillful storytelling. In the right social-media-savvy hands, a brand that masters native content becomes human. Though of course the topics of Campbell Soup Company’s posts on Facebook will probably be vastly different from your mother’s, they should still look and feel like something a real person, whether a friend, acquaintance, or expert, would write. When native content is skillfully delivered, a person will consume it with the same interest as he would anyone else’s. That’s because unlike most of the marketing tactics forced down consumers’ throats in the past, smart, native social media tries to enhance the consumer’s interaction with a platform, not distract him from it. You see the difference? For more examples, check out the color commentary at the end of chapters 3 through 7.
- IT DOESN’T INTERRUPT
The Keebler Elves, the Trix bunny, the Yoplait ladies one-upping each other with ecstatic proclamations of how good the yogurt is—they were all created to entertain, so that the next time you were in the mood for cereal or a snack, you’d remember the funny ad and be compelled to try the product. The Marlboro Man’s steely jaw and far-off stare were designed to convince you that if you smoked his cigarette, you too might exude an ounce of his masculine, independent essence. Ads and marketing are supposed to make consumers feel something and then act on that feeling. In that regard, the content marketers create today is similar to what it would have been fifty years ago. Where it should differ, however, is in the way it affects, or rather, doesn’t affect, your consumer’s media experience. Despite being the strong, silent type, the Marlboro Man was still an intruder. People would be watching Bonanza and then there he’d be, interrupting their program to sell them cigarettes. Then ads for Pine-Sol, Bengay, or Jif would follow. No matter how good the ads were, there was a distinct break between the show people were watching and the ad. But today marketers don’t have to intrude on the consumer’s entertainment. In fact, it’s imperative that we don’t. People have no patience for it anymore, as evidenced by the speed with which they jumped on the chance to bypass advertising altogether with the advent of DVRs in the late 1990s, and other commercialskipping devices. If we want to talk to people while they consume their entertainment
we have to actually be their entertainment, melding seamlessly into the entertainment experience. Or the news experience. Or the friends-and-family experience. Or the design experience. Or the networking experience. Whatever experience people are seeking on their preferred platforms, that’s what marketers should attempt to replicate. They may not be in a buying frame of mind today, but you never know about tomorrow, and they will be far more likely to make a purchase from a brand they believe understands them and represents what they value than one to which they have no emotional connection. 3. IT DOESN’T MAKE DEMANDS—OFTEN Advertising impresario Leo Burnett offered the following advice for making great content: Make it simple.
Make it memorable.
Make it inviting to look at.
Make it fun to read.
I’m going to add one more directive: Make it for your customer or your audience, not for yourself. Be generous. Be informative. Be funny. Be inspiring. Be all the characteristics we enjoy in other human beings. That’s what jabs are all about. Right hooks represent what is valuable to you—getting the sale, getting people in the door. Jabs are about what is valuable to the consumer. How do you know what content people find valuable? Look on their phones. Phone home screens show you everything you need to know about what kind of content people value. In general, the three most popular app categories are:
a. Social networks, which tells you that people are interested in other people. b. Entertainment, including games and music apps, which tells you that people want to escape. c. Utility, including maps, notepads, organizers, and weight loss management systems, which tells you that people value service.
Much of your content should fall within one of these three categories. Sometimes the possible jabs a business should take with this content will be obvious. A cosmetics company could easily tell a story about utility by giving their customers short videos (under fifteen seconds) on Facebook on how to properly apply their makeup, or put out an infographic on Pinterest illustrating the interesting facts about their product history and how women have used it over time. But how would a cosmetics company provide entertainment? If it’s selling to eighteen- to twenty-five-year-old females, it could post demos of new music that appeals to eighteen- to twenty-five-year-olds, and deconstruct female music stars’ stage makeup, maybe admiring the risks they take and explaining how people could try to get the same toned-down effect at home. As for how the company can tap into its customers’ desire to interact with people, it just needs to be human. It needs to get in on conversations, find shared interests with consumers, and respond and react to what people are saying, not just about the brand per se, but about related topics, like how women can erase the signs of fatigue and stress before a big presentation even when they’ve been up since three in the morning with a baby, or what age is appropriate for girls to start shaping their eyebrows. It could also talk about unrelated topics. Just because its main product was makeup wouldn’t mean that it couldn’t also talk about gaming or food, because it’s possible that fans could be enthusiastic about those topics, too. Jabs can be anything that helps set up your “commercial ask.” When you deliver a precise jab with native content, it might take your consumer a split second before he realizes that the story he’s paying attention to is being told by a brand, not an individual. Yet if your content is great, the realization won’t piss him off. Instead, he’ll appreciate what you’re offering. Because when you jab, you’re not selling anything. You’re not asking your consumer for a commitment. You’re just sharing a moment together. Something funny, ridiculous, clever, dramatic, informative, or heartwarming. Maybe something featuring cats. Something, anything, except a sales pitch. Skillful, native storytelling increases the likelihood that a person will share your content with a friend, thus increasing the likelihood of that friend remembering your brand the next time she decides she needs whatever it is you sell. It might even increase the chance that when you finally do hit her with a right hook and ask her to buy something from you, she will click through to make an immediate purchase, even though she’s sitting under a dryer at the salon (this moment brought to you thanks to the generous contribution of mobile device developers everywhere). The emotional connection you build through jabbing pays off on the day you decide to throw the right hook. Remember when you were a kid, and you’d go to your mom and ask her to take you out for an ice-cream cone, or to the video arcade? Nine times out of ten, she said no. But then, every now and then, out of the blue, she would say yes. Why? In the days or weeks prior, something about how you interacted with your mother before the unexpected outing to the ice-cream shop or arcade made your mom feel like she wanted to do something for you. You made her happy, or maybe even proud, by giving her something she valued, whether it was doing extra chores or good grades or just one day of peace with your sibling. You gave so much that when you finally asked, she was emotionally primed to say yes. No way is a consumer going to say yes if you ambush him with a giant pop-up that blacks out the middle of the Web page he’s reading. The only thing he’ll feel is irritation as he frantically hunts for that little X in the corner that will make you go away. If consumers could wipe out all the banner ads blinking around the periphery of their Web pages, too, they would. No one wants to be interrupted, and no one wants to be sold to. Your story needs to move people’s spirits and build their goodwill, so that when you finally do ask them to buy from you,
they feel like you’ve given them so much it would be almost rude to refuse. Jab, jab, jab, jab, jab . . . right hook! Or . . . Give, give, give, give, give . . . ask. Get it? 4. IT LEVERAGES POP CULTURE There’s a great scene in the movie This Is Forty where two parents tell their daughters they’re going to eliminate the Wi-Fi so the family can bond better without the distraction of electronics. For entertainment, the mom and dad suggest building a fort, or running around in the woods, or putting up a lemonade stand. The girls have no idea what their parents are talking about; without their phones, they may as well be condemned to life in an isolation cell. Histrionics ensue. It’s no joke. Generations are defined by their pop culture, and without it, they’re lost. Take away a young person’s tech and you’ve taken away her lifeline to everything that matters to her. In days past, kids met their friends at the soda fountain and listened to records. Then they hung out at the mall and listened to cassettes. Later they hung out at the 7-Eleven parking lot and listened to CDs. Now they hang out on their phones, simultaneously listening to downloads, checking the celebrity news, chatting with their friends, playing games, all on their smartphones and tablets. And your content has to compete with all of it. But as the saying goes, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. The young generation isn’t the only one consuming their culture via phone, either. Everyone is, including the ones who used to listen to their music on records, cassettes, and CDs. So use that to your advantage. Show your fans, whoever they are, that you love the same music they do. Prove that you understand them by staying on top of the gossip about celebrities from their generation. Create content that reveals your understanding of the issues and news that matter to them. Just don’t place it in a mobile banner ad. The days of stopping people from what they’re doing to look at your ad are at best diminishing, and more than likely over, and regardless are overpriced for the ROI. Integrate your content into the stream, where people can consume it along with all their other pop culture candy. 5. IT’S MICRO There is something else you could do as you reevaluate your social media creative: stop thinking about your content as content. Think about it, rather, as micro-content—tiny, unique nuggets of information, humor, commentary, or inspiration that you reimagine every day, even every hour, as you respond to today’s culture, conversations, and current events in real time in a platform’s native language and format. A well-known (in advertising circles) yet perfect example of micro-content practically stole the show at the 2013 Super Bowl. When the power went out in the Superdome during the third quarter, leaving thousands of spectators in the dark for a half hour, while the players for the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers hunkered down trying to keep their bodies limber and their heads in the game, Oreo saw an opportunity. It tweeted, “Power Out? No Problem.” Attached was a photo of a lone Oreo cookie waiting in the dark, with accompanying text that read, “You can still dunk in the dark.” Suddenly, all those people in limbo waiting for the power to be restored and the game to start over saw a funny reminder that Oreo is the cookie for all occasions. The tweet didn’t tell anyone to go buy Oreos. It didn’t include any call to action, actually. It didn’t need to. Within minutes it had been retweeted across Twitter and liked on Facebook tens of thousands of times. Why? No one had ever seen anything like it. It’s one thing for a Ravens fan or a 49ers fan to tweet or post status updates chronicling her reaction to the game; we’ve gotten used to seeing individuals respond to real-time events around the world. But to see a brand do it as casually and naturally as a real person? That was a first for such a mass-market brand within the context of such a mainstream event. The tweet was only possible because Oreo had thought far enough ahead to have a social media team at the ready to respond to whatever happened on television. Talk about proper investment in a platform. Key to the ad’s success was not only the fact that it was clever and elegant, but also that it aligned perfectly with Oreo’s brand identity, as well as the identity of Oreo lovers everywhere. Oreo is the playful cookie, the fun cookie, the cookie you want to watch football with. Did the micro-content offer consumers anything of value, as a proper jab should? It’s unlikely it would have received any attention if it hadn’t. Don’t underestimate the value of a fun surprise, a grin, and a sudden craving for chocolate and shortening. For a few days, the whole world, in traditional media and social, had positive things to say about Oreo. At the very least, everyone who saw it got the chance to say they witnessed the beginning of a new era in
marketing. The next time a brand responds in real time, will the Twittersphere go crazy? Probably not, which is why it’s good to be first to market, even on platforms that don’t appear to have tremendous value at first glance. Your job as a marketer is not just about selling more product (though that’s a priority, and don’t forget it), but increasingly about making sure that you are first to market as often as possible in terms of timing, the quality of your micro-content, and the originality with which you respond to the world around you. This is true no matter what platform you work with, from Twitter to Facebook, from Instagram to Pinterest. Oreo’s strategy through the Super Bowl exemplifies the only formula for social media success that doesn’t change depending on platform or audience:
Micro-Content + Community Management = Effective Social Media Marketing
Some people weren’t impressed by the tweet. Imagine, using a platform the way it’s supposed to be used! But so few companies manage it, it is worth applauding when one succeeds. This move took a lot of forethought. Oreo had to have a team in place, watching, waiting for the first opportunity to strike as the game went on. Old Spice managed something similar a few years ago with its “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” campaign, in which the actor Isaiah Mustafa replied to consumer questions in real time on the Web. But that Q&A was the result of a carefully orchestrated campaign. Oreo had a TV ad that ran during the Super Bowl (and integrated Instagram) but otherwise had no plan other than to be in a position to respond to real-time events in real time. That’s hard to do, and they did it perfectly, keeping things simple, immediate, and relevant.* Businesses can forge a direct connection between their community and their brand when they stop thinking about social media as the backup to the main events. It should be a main event in and of itself, serving as the nexus connecting every other channel by which businesses talk to their customers. There’s no reason for marketers to draft new overarching social media campaigns every year. Everyone’s should be as simple as this: Jab at people, all the time, every day. Talk about what they’re talking about. When they start talking about something different, talk about that instead. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Not every brand has to jab at the same rate as its competitor. Remember, quality and quantity—some brands can get away with just a few jabs here and there; others need to jab all the time. I don’t have to jab nearly as often as I did when I was first starting out. BP doesn’t have to jab as often as it did after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. Apple probably didn’t have to jab at all at the height of the iPhone frenzy, when the product was still new. Successful storytelling builds brand equity, and businesses with high brand equity don’t need to draw as much attention to themselves and their achievements as those that are still establishing their value to the consumer. Yet even if you don’t have to jab frequently, you can’t ever stop entirely, and you certainly can’t stop watching for those special opportunities where your brand can take advantage of breaking news or the culture at large to prove its relevance or show it’s paying attention. Social marketing is now a 24-7 job. 6. IT’S CONSISTENT AND SELF-AWARE Consider how each and every post, tweet, comment, like, or share will confirm your business’s identity. Though your business’s micro-content will vary wildly every day, it must consistently answer the question “Who are we?” You can and should learn to speak as many languages as possible, but no matter which language you’re using, your core story must remain constant. And no matter how you tell your story, your personality and brand identity must remain constant, too. When you’re self-aware, you know your message. When you know your message, it’s easy to keep it consistent in every setting. No marketer should find this a daunting concept—we do it every day when we navigate the analog world. You’re going to wear a different outfit and use different vocabulary when you’re sitting down for tea with your grandmother in her home than when you’re living it up with friends in a nightclub. At least, you will if you’ve got nice manners. Creating micro-content is simply a way for your brand to adapt according to the circumstances and the whims of your audience. Micro-content is your brand’s best chance of being noticed in an increasingly busy, disjointed, ADD world.
When you create stellar content native to a platform’s context, you can make a person feel; if your content can make a person feel, he is likely to share it with others, providing you with amplified word of mouth at a fraction of the cost of most other media. Best of all, you not only own the content, you own the relationship with your customer. You’re not spending a million dollars to rent it for thirty seconds from a television network. You could spend a million dollars to acquire committed fans on Facebook, and that would be money well spent, but if you also storytell properly, the only additional cost you’ll have is for the nonworking creative. Your content simply lives on, replicating itself over and over as your fans and followers pass it along through word of mouth, diminishing your costs with every retweet, share, pin, heart, and post. The concept of owning content and relationships instead of renting them has gained enormous traction with the start-up entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley, but it has been slower to infiltrate the mind-set of most Fortune 500 companies and traditional small businesses around the world. That’s going to change once they realize that they are no longer beholden to media companies to disseminate their content and connect with their consumers. Thanks to social media, they’ll be able to do it all by themselves. Some already are, as we’ll see in the upcoming chapters.