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By now, we’ve all realised that content marketing is the new black: a trend that’s unlikely ever to go out of fashion. This is because it’s not so much a trend as an inevitability of the digital age.
By virtue of the high premium they set on their own attention, the digital consumer continually raises the bar for what brands need to deliver if they are to compete with screaming goats and other treasures of this information-saturated landscape. Brands, accordingly, are learning that the most fruitful way to insinuate themselves into the lives of their target market is in the role of publisher, not interrupter.
Digital strategists and creatives have risen to the challenge, massively expanding the range of experiences a consumer can expect to have when engaging with brands. Some of the principles that have fallen out of these experiments in cyberspace have had a powerful and positive knock-on effect on traditional advertising platforms too, as I discussed in another article.
But where is this phenomenon heading? Will content just endlessly proliferate? The best digital campaigns of the last few years suggest to me that the idea of brand-as-publisher is already evolving into something a bit more interesting. We can plot the evolution thusly, in a friendly Fisher Price pyramid depicting what we have been inviting users to do with our brands in digital space:
The trajectory this model suggests is that social/digital space will gradually ease brand custodians away from the role of content creator and towards the role of facilitating creative experiences.
The tiers don’t denote creative merit or hipness. Rather, they show a progression of how much power we are prepared to cede to the user. It all springs from basic tenets: going digital means going social, and going social means abandoning the monologue in favour of a conversation. That means, to one extent or another, relinquishing control.
Let’s start at the bottom.
At the base, there’s the classic model: brands make content, consumers consume it. Nothing wrong with that. Work like Oreo’s amazing, 100% responsive “Daily Twist” campaign, which offered daily content that reflected the mood of the nation in social space in the form of a cookie, proves that there is still plenty of room for innovation — especially right here at the threshold of the user conversation. But it is perhaps the safe option, allowing marketers to remain squarely in control of the “what” of their brand content.
Interaction is the basic and fundamental challenge-slash-opportunity that the Internet has laid at the feet of marketing professionals (aside from the challenge to make advertising that people actually want to engage with). Examples of great interactive campaigns abound, but this one for Amnesty International New Zealand demonstrates that it’s always possible to push the dynamic a little further.
To begin climbing out of charted waters, we need to grant the user a voice, and let go of the certainty of creative control in favour of richer engagement. Stimorol’s Mega Mystery campaign in South Africa truly embraced the “conversation marketing” paradigm, inviting users to influence not just its content, but its product. The campaign asked users to decide by democratic vote what the name of the gum brand’s new flavour should be.
This is where things start to get really interesting, and also more risky. Trailblazers when it comes to inviting users to appropriate a brand campaign include Burberry, with its 2009 Art of Trench website. Burberry created a platform where users could submit photos of themselves wearing the fashion brand’s iconic trench coat – as they saw fit. The campaign proved a show-stopper.
Of course, when you give users the tools to have their way with your brand, there’s always a possibility that your campaign might backfire. Chevrolet, for one, learned the hard way that not every brand is well suited to being let out into the wild.
When it invited users to put together their own ads for the Tahoe SUV using stock footage, many took the opportunity to wax lyrical about the vehicle’s impact on the environment.
The lesson? It’s no good having insight into the tools if you don’t have insight into who uses them. Some brands are better kept sheltered in the loving hands of people who have a vested interest in making them look good.
User generated content (UGC) is nothing new. But only a few marketers have yet been bold enough to let the fate of their brand campaign rest entirely in the hands of the masses. It seems that when they do, fortune does indeed favour the bold. Doritos has had stunning success with its “Crash the Super Bowl” campaign, now in its eighth year. Doritos bet the farm on their fans’ ability to come up with brand ads worthy of gazillion-dollars-a-spot Super Bowl airtime, and the gamble has paid off. The campaign has become the largest online video contest in the world, receiving thousands of entries and paying millions of dollars in cash prizes.
Which brings me to a question: what if our greatest, least understood opportunity as brand marketers lies in thinking less about the “what” of content marketing, and more the “how” – the tools, the platform, the playground our audience can use to make the brands we work with come to life for themselves?
It’s a lesson that has been learned and capitalised on first and best not by creatives, but geeks: the fine developers and programmers behind social networks like Facebook and Twitter and social apps like Instagram, Snapchat, Vine and Frameblast. These products were created by people accustomed to spotting gaps in the “how” market. The space is wide open for brand marketers to jump in. You might want to start by dialling a nerd.*
*Google, for one, believes in the winning combination of “what”-people and “how”-people, as explained by Google Creative Lab creative director Alexander Chen. Part of the strategy the company employed in developing Google Glass involved seating the marketing team cheek by jowl with the development team, so that they would constantly test ideas against each other. Watch his Design Indaba talk here.