Whether it’s a recipe sent to your smartphone, using ingredients from a shopping list you just uploaded, or a how-to video sponsored by a hardware superstore, content marketing is booming as a consumer engagement tool.
Meredith Corp., the parent of magazines such as Ladies’ Home Journal and Better Homes & Gardens, has been ahead of other publishers in leveraging its custom publishing operations to expand into content-marketing services via Meredith Integrated Marketing. That unit has evolved during the past decade into a full-service customer engagement agency, with clients including Kraft Foods, Lowe’s Corp., and Acura.
Starting in 2006, Meredith Integrated Marketing began acquiring shops such as interactive agencies O'Grady Meyers and Genex, mobile agency Hyperfactory, and New Media Strategies, a social media specialist. In 2011, it became Meredith Xcelerated Marketing (MXM) and went global with the acquisition of a minority stake in Iris Worldwide, a London-based agency.
CMO.com contributing writer Mercedes Cardona spoke to MXM’s head, executive VP David Brown, and Greg Kahn, chief business development officer, about how content marketing has evolved, and developments on the horizon.
CMO.com: How has the idea of content-based marketing evolved from custom publishing to new media?
Kahn: One of the misnomers of content marketing is: It’s not about new media or old media or digital communications. It’s communications, period.
What has evolved is the consumer touchpoints because we now have the ability to use technology in a different way. But print is still very viable, and some of our campaigns use print extremely effectively in combination with mobile, in combination with other forms. That’s one of the pieces that sometimes gets missed: It’s about the combination of different channels that you can use because consumers use them in different ways.
We have a lot more information about the consumer to know what they are engaging in. Content used to be a push mechanism; we created content, and we served it up to you. Now the consumer gives feedback in many ways.
That data all feeds back, and we’re able to take that information and understand what consumers are consuming--what content and what points in time--and to then use that learning and amplify that to target certain groups, pull back when you need to pull back, or to [decide] how we then continue the campaign. The data enables you to take that content and serve it up and amplify it in a way that we were never able to do 15 years ago.
CMO.com: What’s the role of data in content marketing?
Brown: Consumers don’t engage with data. They engage with content, which then throws off data. You can’t separate the two. Content is the front end, and data is the back end, and the best content marketers are those who do both in a balanced way.
You don’t just develop content just for the sake of it--you develop content to drive engagement, which throws off data. Then you monitor and optimize furiously to work out how to continue to work out and manage content to drive engagement--which throws off more data. You see how this virtual loop keeps going on? It’s not one or the other.
We happen to be more front-end focused as a content expert, so our answer to Big Data is Big Content. You can’t have Big Data without Big Content.
CMO.com: What makes good content marketing? What are some examples?
Brown: I think the work we do as the content agency for Lowe’s--we develop all of Lowe’s content across all of its channels-- and for Kraft, where we’ve been responsible for the food and family program for a number of years, is considered a best practice.
It’s where we’re developing content that meets a need at both a rational and emotional level, and then it connects with a brand idea. For Lowe’s, it’s around creative ideas and helping DIYers go through that process of being inspired by a project, and then having the confidence to actually go ahead and do that project. For Kraft, it’s to help moms solve that tension they have of, “What am I going to put on the table for my family tonight?” Ultimately it’s very much a brand idea, but delivered through content. We’ve been doing that for a number of years.
Many people can come up with a good content idea for tomorrow, but can you do it every day, week after week, month after month, year after year? These are things publishers have had to do over and over again for years. I think that’s what the agency world will have to learn: How do you actually sustain a content strategy, to keep it interesting, to make sure you have the variety and the breadth of interest and make it work underneath a brand idea?
In the old agency model, you’d have an account manager, a creative team, and a production team, and then the poor media director would be given [content] at the end. In our world, we have an analytics director and a content director working side-by-side to understand audience segments and then making sure the content is being built to meet the needs of the segment in each stage. That’s the front end, content, and the back end [is] analytics.
CMO.com: With so much content served across channels, how can a marketer stand out?
Brown: There is a really important lesson for content marketers: To get remembered as a brand, you have to do something different. You have to bring a new perspective or new service. The best content out there is not just churning out the same news that you’ve seen before.
Take a young mom. There’s no shortage of information about nutrition for babies--it’s all over the place. But how do Pampers or Huggies or Gerber stand out? They have to work very hard to develop a perspective or a point of view through content, which will be remembered and will encourage moms to go back to them for more information.
Gerber.com and Pampers.com are the two biggest Web sites in the baby category, including media companies. They have this unique perspective because they go deep within their areas of interest. They don’t try to fake expertise in other areas. They give moms what they need and try to go deep and make sense of their businesses and their consumers’ needs.
Kahn: One of the barriers we were talking about in terms of where content is going is the ability synthesize all the data streams together. We can’t even measure TV viewing in bars in this country and aggregate that, or accurately bring in online video and TV. So now that you’re getting more complex data streams within these channels, that is going to be one of the really fertile places to explore going forward.
CMO.com: What are the challenges regarding consumer resistance to sharing information?
Brown: There’s no consumer barrier. The barriers are more internal. You have to really, really break down a lot of walls to make content travel. The main impediment is making sure that in organization structures, both on the client side and the agency side, the walls are low enough to allow content to jump and travel across channels. It’s really the antithesis of all the traditions that we’ve been used to for the past 30 to 50 years.
We’re navigating through digital clients, social clients, the emergence of mobile clients, the brand clients, and sales leadership. These are all strong silos we need to navigate through to do the right thing for the consumer.
CMO.com: Are there any developments that could affect content marketing?
Kahn: Mobile is still evolving. The notion of near-field communications, NFC, is going to really change [engagement] the way that QR codes attempted to do. The notion that you could physically tap the screen and be served information or entertainment based on that is really going to be a game changer. The notion of audio encoding--the Shazams of the world, which are now being ported out other platforms as well, i.e. the cinema--is an interesting evolution.
David and I were discussing this notion of the networked home that is really just starting to emerge. We’re thinking about traditional appliances--refrigerators are one kind of starting point--and how do you introduce content there?
Cars are another place. The extension of the home is when you leave the home and you get in the car and go. So the content follows you throughout your whole day.
Brown: We were chatting to Samsung, which is one of our larger clients, and the smarter kitchen is their idea. We’re providing content to the smarter kitchen and playing off the screen of your refrigerator, the smarter dashboard in the car.
If it’s of use to consumers, I’m sure we can find a use for marketers. It’s much harder to truly meet a consumer need. If you can do that, you have the context for marketers to help promote products.