Music junkies, film fanatics and marketing maniacs alike are descending on Austin this week, fearlessly getting their weird on at the proverbial mecca of the conference circuit, South By Southwest. Raven will be repping as exhibitors (have a blast in Texas, Jon, Alison and Taylor!) and odds are, if you had the chance, you would be there, too. With hundreds of sessions led by the brightest minds in digital media, SXSW Interactive holds countless takeaways for marketers of all stripes.
With content development strategies in mind, a look at the SXSWi schedule revealed six major trends for marketers.
1. There’s a new storyteller in town: your brand
First and foremost, it’s clear that there’s power in storytelling. Content creators have been adjusting their craft to the new media environment, and one form that performs no matter the channel is the story. Today, to be truly effective, a message must be present in multiple media, embracing uncharted territories like augmented reality, location-based services, user communities and even social platforms.
An example of this strategy at work can be seen in the marketing of Disney’s Tron Legacy, which successfully engaged an audience through the creation of a fully-formed immersive world of traditional and interactive advertising, games and community. Developing a story so conceptually real that it transcends media channel has evaded brands clinging to old school thought.
Any company can adapt a storytelling mindset with the practice of non-fiction advertising. Customers are part of a brand’s story, and sharing those stories can be an effective way of relating to and engaging others. In order to fully embrace storytelling, a brand must let go of outdated assumptions of one-way messaging and accept the power implicit in users’ personal stories. It’s these personal stories that build influence and incubate trust among the engaged online audience, radiating the brand’s messaging outward from there.
2. Identifying overlooked content creators
If it sounds like a major paradigm shift in marketing, you’re right. And while it may seem daunting, a small- or medium-sized business isn’t exempt from the expectations of savvy audiences today. The good news is, a business may have more resources at its disposal to devote to the growing umbrella of media than its leaders realized. With an understanding of what’s required for effective holistic marketing, a business can look through this lens to identify content creators and brand ambassadors that may have been overlooked before.
The reality is that roles are being redefined. Just as simple publishing platforms and inexpensive photo and video enabled anyone to be a content producer, any member of a business staff can be an effective content producer, too, as long as he or she is well equipped. Find out who in your organization has outside interests that can be applied to content production and the web presence. Is there a people person who would love to jump on Twitter for the cause? How about a blogger in training? This strategy depends on individuals and teams that can recognize strengths and weaknesses and put aside ego as members of the staff try on new hats.
Even in mainstream publishing, content creators are coming to terms with new roles. It can be seen in the misconception that blogger and journalist are at odds. A mental block, now waning, supported a misunderstanding between the old and new school writers that the “other” threatened their future. In reality, these roles are not mutually exclusive in the digital media world. Beyond this restrictive model lies the truth; we all hold the potential for relevant content creation.
The key to this emerging communications strategy is in the planning, of course. Messaging can hang together across channels if the content production team works with a unified, though not rigid, understanding of the image and values of the brand and knowledge of who‚Äôs talking with whom where. Without a content management plan, it may be a game of one step forward, two steps back.
3. Keeping your foot out of your mouth
Say a business has successfully embraced the above philosophy of content creation and is actively engaging users with stories online. At this point it’s almost inevitable that sticky social situations will arise. That’s why it’s vital that e-etiquette is addressed company-wide. Whether it’s drawing the boundaries of humor or keeping within other unwritten rules of the social web, brands should take a proactive approach to understanding what’s acceptable to their audiences.
There are questions to ask while developing a content strategy to help identify the outer limits of an audience’s embrace. Discovering the answer to questions like: what guidelines do the audience use to evaluate validity and trustworthiness; how highly does the audience value objectivity; and what values are emerging as a reaction to the environment of competing information. As consumers become more sophisticated and critical of the content they come into contact with, it’s increasingly important to know the answers to these questions and act accordingly.
As a rule of thumb, an organization will find itself in safe territory if it’s unmistakably transparent. Doing good deeds among the community is great, but honesty, no matter the merit, is an expected baseline for respected companies today. Offering accurate and transparent analysis of successes and failures (and taking responsibility for them) as they arise can boost a brand’s credibility factor, which can often offset minor to moderate missteps. Just remember that even with new expectations, the classic advertising adage “know your audience” holds true. The rules of etiquette are different for every audience.
4. Where the influencers at?
One advantage of content marketing today is that every message has the potential to be magnified with a megaphone. Every network of users online has among it those who wield influence. If your message is shared by an influencer, there’s a good chance it will spread from there.
There are ways to enhance a brand’s influence. For one, let individuals within the organization be themselves. The brand is no longer a blob or a faceless entity. It has a story, as we know, but it also has persons. Give an audience people to identify with, to relate to, to connect with. Give the person manning the Twitter account range to tell their personal story along with the brand’s. By shining a spotlight on individual brand advocates, you’re not dividing the brand message; rather, you’re adding connection points to it.
Also look outside the organization to tap networks of influence by courting influencers and growing brand reach. Influencers may be celebrities, but they may also be the well-connected community activist or the social butterfly of an industry. They could be a respected thinker or just a compulsive content sharer with a proven track record. Follower numbers aren’t the only metric to look at when determining influencers, it should be noted. A users engagement level with his or her network is also a strong signal of influence. In any case, when people are talking, a message stops feeling like advertising and starts feeling like conversation.
5. Big picture stuff: you need a dynamic content strategy
It’s clear that in order to take advantage of digital opportunities, content marketing has to take a broad view of potential channels and treat each as a unique space. Until now, the best we would expect from forward-thinking marketing teams venturing into new media channels is one ad campaign repurposed across platforms.
It has been a long-held best practice that in order for brand marketing to hold together, the messaging was to remain consistent. The result is a user gets the TV commercial she just saw delivered to her again as a video pre-roll ad, or a magazine print ad showing up again as a banner ad. In such a context, the practice of consistency falls flat as redundancy and fails to account for the different audiences viewing each ad. A far better strategy is to allow for flexibility in marketing, letting the message adapt to and flow through the channel to the consumer receiving it. Unique experiences facilitate greater engagement.
Furthermore, redundancy is increasingly scoffed at by an audience on the move. According to one statistic, 70 percent of those watching TV are online at the same time. Seamlessly transitioning between channels, a content consumer quickly picks out repetition, and the more times they see the same message, the more likely they are to deem it irrelevant. It’s good for a brand to be in multiple places at once, but again, the message must account for both the audience and the context for the best fit.
This doesn’t mean that the marketing messages don’t correlate or reflect the true brand values. Look at the hit TV show True Blood for an example of coordinated messaging and cross-channel integration. After gaining initial momentum from the well received story, the marketing team leveraged numerous appropriate channels, from micro-sites to merchandise, adding to the development of the story and allowing the audience additional means of engaging with the brand. Take advantage of and learn to get the most out of interactive media and all content forms.
6. People are talking. Now what?
Now, if the story stuck, detectable embarrassment has been avoided, the content strategy accounts for multiple media and the audience has engaged, what do you have to show for it? The questions of how to measure the effect of messaging across so many inter-connected channels, and the challenge of translating the value of social media to ROI are among the toughest marketers face today.
However, technological advances are being made that are making social analytics and tracking more accessible to businesses of all sizes. Information about what content is finding popularity and gaining traction on social channels can be used as a feedback mechanism for improving messaging and targeting going forward. Social is a direct line into users’ behaviors and mindsets and search data unveils interests and needs. Understanding user behaviors through analytics tools offers hints at an audience’s messaging sweet spots. Use all available feedback mechanisms for continual improvement of content marketing and development and stay a step, south-by-southwest of course, ahead.