Michael Brenner is well-regarded for conceptualizing and leading the implementation of SAP's content marketing strategy during his seven-year tenure as vice president, marketing and content strategy.
Last month, Brenner left the company for a new challenge: to head strategy at NewsCred, a content marketing software company that has worked with a number of big-name clients, including Pepsi, GE, and Johnson & Johnson.
CMO.com sat down with Brenner to discuss the makeup of an effective content strategy, what B2Bs can learn from B2Cs about content marketing, and which brands have nailed it.
CMO.com: Can you talk about your time at SAP?
Brenner: I started seven years ago at SAP doing what at the time was called “innovation marketing,” which was basically online demand generation. It was pretty much centered on using paid media to get leads. It was a regional marketing role in North America, directly supporting all lines of business and all company sizes, for SAP.
We used straight demand-generation tactics. We used paid search and content syndication, and we would hand whitepapers over to publishers and tell them to use that content to drive leads—literally registrations or inquiries. Publishers don’t love to do that. Generally they like to sell on an impression of a click basis. We used the weight of our budget as well as the desperation of publishers to get them to bang their list with our content and generate leads. We were so successful with the program that my budget just grew and grew until I had one of the largest budgets in marketing. And it was only because it was a machine: You put a $1 in and get $4 out.
In that role, what we found was that thought-leadership content drove much higher response and better conversion than more sales-driven or more targeted content. One great example is the retail people always assumed that a retail whitepaper was the best thing to use for the retail industry. The fact was our data showed that higher level thought-leadership content works better for everyone, and so things like “7 Ways To Get More Out of Your Analytics” or “6 Steps To Becoming A World-Class Company” drove higher response and better conversion across all industries. It’s kind of counterintuitive, but it is what the data showed us. When we looked at it, the conclusion was if you create content that’s helpful to the largest group of people, you will end up creating affinity, affection, and, ultimately, conversion.
That was the message I began to preach around the company: If we try to promote a little less and instead help our prospects with the issues they are having around leadership--driving performance and outmaneuvering the competition--we will get a better result with marketing. With that a few things started to happen. There was a transformation initiative in the company to move from more of an outbound to an inbound marketing approach. I was picked to lead that project and joined the corporate marketing team. I was removed from the shackles of demand-generation metrics. And we did things like performance assessments and such, and found content was the engine that drove any inbound marketing program. So what essentially started as an inbound marketing transformation turned into a content marketing strategy.
Building a content strategy took some time. In the beginning, we looked at content as an asset, and we were significantly underperforming relative to our investment. In other words, we were creating a lot of content that wasn’t performing at all. In fact, we did inventory and found that a large percent of content created and uploaded to our digital asset management system was never downloaded by anyone. We figured we had a significant content problem. We were spending millions of dollars on content. And as we shaped our content strategy around thought leadership, we began to show literal ROI in the form of direct revenue and through driving valuable leads.
CMO.com: What’s your mandate at NewsCred?
Brenner: I joined NewsCred as head of strategy. My objective is to help as many brands as I can develop and deliver on an effective content marketing strategy for their business. My job is to help brands answer questions around content marketing. Who is the audience? What does an effective content marketing strategy/operation look like? How do you scale it? How do you source it? How do you hire for it? All of these [are questions] that brands are asking themselves today.
CMO.com: Marketers have been creating content for ages. Why is it such a buzzword now? Do you think it's due to social media and the need to feed the beast?
Brenner: There are two ways to justify why content marketing is more than a buzzword. One is that the majority of our marketing activity is completely ineffective, and in this digital world we now have the metrics to prove it. So 99.9 percent of banner ads are ignored, 90 percent of email isn’t being opened, and TV ads are skipped. You know all the facts out there to support the significant majority of marketing that goes ignored. And so I think that’s one reason content marketing has become such a hot topic from that perspective. It is not being ignored. It’s not selling--it’s telling. It’s the answer to the significant amount of interruption-based marketing that is being ignored because consumers are in control of their information experiences.
The other side--which is more of an operational POV--is we have all these new channels and platforms, and so how do you feed that beast and connect with customers through those channels? I talk about a need of a content culture, and it’s really about customer centricity.
CMO.com: What does an effective content marketing strategy looks like?
Brenner: First, there needs to be a very clearly articulated mission statement or set of objectives, and they generally would answer two questions: one, what does it do for the audience, and, two, what does it do for you as a business? We use that term “thinking and acting like a publisher.” But I boil it down like this: Publishers create content that people are interested in, and for brands it’s about figuring out how to turn that into a value. Some publishers sell their audience. With brands, however, they need to figure out how to turn that content into an improved relationship with existing customers or a new relationship with new customers. So that’s step one: defining the objectives and figuring out how to create content people want and turn it into business value.
The second step is figuring out what all of that looks like. Jump into the details: What is the brand voice? What are the channels? What type of content? Do you do a highly branded off-property site like CMO.com by Adobe, or AmEx’s Open Forum, or do you do less branding on-property? At SAP, for example, we decided on an on-site property within SAP.com, but with very little branding. You also have to hash out details like what the team looks like, the balance between original content vs. syndicated vs. licensed, the distribution strategy, etc. I always say, even great movies have 50 percent of their budget allocated to marketing and distribution, so even good content needs to be pushed a little bit.
CMO.com: Can you talk a little about B2B content vs. B2C content? How are they similar and different?
Brenner: They are absolutely the same. And I think what we were finding at SAP is the content that works is the content that doesn’t matter if it is a B2B person engaging with it or not. It is content people are interested in. BuzzFeed with its listicles and animated GIFs, the “how to be a better manager or employee” piece--all of these kinds of things could have come from a brand at a B2B company or B2C company, a journalist, or even one of the LinkedIn influencers. The best content today can come from anywhere, but it generally is helpful or extremely entertaining or clever. There’s no difference in the content itself when you compare B2B to B2C.
The difference is what comes before and after the content itself. The objective of content for a consumer company won’t be leads. It will be affinity toward a topic, for example. Pepsi wants to be cool and hip, while Coca-Cola is about happiness. In B2B, awareness objectives are typically low. In the end, B2B content all boils down to selling more. The objective or metric used to measure B2B is different from that of B2C.
CMO.com: Off the top of your head, which B2B and B2C brands come to mind for great content marketing?
Brenner: GE gets a lot of credit for not just what Beth Comstock and Linda Boff are saying, but they are walking the walk as well. Beth has a couple of quotes that I use all the time. One is that GE wants to “shout louder than it spends.” That’s a great answer to the content ROI question. Content will produce a better ROI because it will help you attract an audience vs. just buying an audience. [Another] good one is, “Great brands talk about what they do for their customers, not about what they do.” It’s not about what you sell; it’s about the value you are producing. The Vines, Tumblr page, the turbine pictures, all that stuff, GE has figured out content. My kids love the “My Mom Works At GE” commercial from the Super Bowl. I have four kids, and they were literally reciting it word for word. They just loved it. They don’t know or care what GE is, but GE was able to connect with my kids.
On the consumer side, Red Bull is an amazing, albeit possibly overused, example. It’s amazing to me they have had the courage to build a media company inside a beverage business. And they say they are a media company that happens to sell drinks. That’s just a great example of where I think consumer brands can aspire to, and many won’t ever make it because they are tied by traditional cultural issues. But think of the Stratos jump--that kind of stuff is aspiring and aspirational.