Stories in the dark

When the online mattress company Amerisleep asked for help with its content marketing in 2014, Brian Honigman could have rolled his eyes and winced. After all, the purpose of a good mattress is to put people to sleep, and that’s the last thing the company wanted to do on its blog.

But Honigman knew Amerisleep probably was laying on more than enough good material to sustain a content marketing campaign. Moreover, as a young company with limited resources that was pioneering a new business model – selling mattresses online and shipping them to customers via Federal Express – the company needed to find a way to establish its credibility.

That made it an ideal candidate for content marketing.

“Not every client is Coca Cola or Amex with a big sexy brand and tons of money,” says Honigman, a social media and content marketing consultant, Forbes contributor and adjunct professor at NYU. “But, there is always a story within an organization that is of interest to the customers you are trying to reach.”

“There is always a story within an organization that is of interest to the customers you are trying to reach.”
– Social media and content marketing consultant Brian Honigman

In the case of Amerisleep, Honigman zeroed in on the role good sleep plays in health. He worked with a freelance writer to come up with a list of article ideas, and then pitched some to the Huffington Post and in exchange for links back to Amerisleep’s blog, Early Bird. “We wrote about different ways people could get a better night’s sleep,” Honigman said. “We changed the conversation from ‘three things wonderful about our mattress versus our competitors,’ to ‘this is why a good night of sleep is important and how it fits into a full life.’”

Thanks to the blog’s broad topic, the writer has been able to generate up to five articles per month on topics ranging from tips for sleeping on airplanes to how to reduce the impact work-related stress has on your sleep. The articles provide a steady stream of original content for Amerisleep’s Facebook and Twitter pages, which had garnered more than 76,000 likes and 10,900 followers, respectively, as of Labor Day.

Still the king

While marketers will debate how to measure return on investment in content marketing, there is no denying they are embracing it anew. PQ Media estimates companies spent $13.7 billion in the United States in 2015 with technology companies, consultants and publishers to create, leverage and re-target their “content assets.”

The figure includes spending on so called “native advertising,” which essentially is unmarked advertorial content indistinguishable from “normal content.” Debate over the ethics and efficacy of native advertising notwithstanding, PQ Media expects overall spending on content market to continue growing in the 10 to 15 percent range for the next few years.

Of course, using content to create an aura of authority and trust around a brand is nothing new. The French tire company Michelin began publishing its restaurant guides more than a century ago to establish itself as an authority with motorists. The strategy has returned to favor in the last five years, however, thanks to two overwhelming forces: demographics and technology.

While marketers will debate how to measure return on investment in content marketing, there is no denying they are embracing it anew.

By most estimates, Millennials, or those born between the early 1980s and early 2000s, now control 25 percent of consumer spending in the United States. But with 10,000 Baby Boomers retiring every day, their influence has reached a tipping point. Regardless of whether you think Millennials are more skeptical of advertising than preceding generations, there is no doubt they are doing a better job avoiding it.

Do you want to be entertained?

They have ad-blockers on their Chrome Browsers and their cell phones. They stream TV shows, so they don’t have to watch ads. They read news on-line, so they don’t have to see the ads. Gary Kayne, an adjunct professor at the University of North Carolina School of Journalism, says Millennials love a good story.

“They grew up being told and read stories by their parents and are the most-entertained generation, ever,” Kayne says. “So, content marketing is the best way to reach them as they don’t perceive it as an “in-your-face” ad. When done right, it’s storytelling at its best.”

Juniper Research estimated this spring that ad blockers will cost digital publishers more than $27 billion by 2020. Though chronicled for more than a decade, consumers’ inexorable migration online has caught some of the largest advertisers in the world flat footed. For example, U.S. department stores have announced plans this year to shutter hundreds of stores in coming years to raise cash needed to accelerate their “digital transformation.”

In many instances, the high-end brands they sell have beat them to the punch by building digital marketing platforms that push content directly to customers via opt-in channels ranging from emails and e-zines to social media.

The North Face has become a master at using content generated by its roster of mountain climbers, skiers and other brand ambassadors to fuel engagement online. Last year it generated 4 million engagements just by sharing images – including many from customers – on Instagram. Parent company VF Corp. has made replicating that success across its other brands, which include Vans, Timberland and Wrangler, a core pillar of its direct-to-consumer strategy.

Poor execution

Of course finding content as compelling as a summit of K2 can be challenging when marketing business insurance or mattresses. But that, of course, is the job of the marketer and many judge themselves to be failing. Surveys by and Content Marketing Institute have shown about half of marketers don’t think their content marketing is effective.

Content marketing proponents place the blame squarely on poor creative execution. “If it’s not engaging and compelling, entertaining, emotional or funny, it’s ignored,” Kayne says. “Content marketing should grab your attention and immerse the reader in a story that is emotionally compelling or entertaining.”

Native advertising appears to have failed to deliver on this critical front, according to research from Chartbeat, which analyzes web traffic to help brands monetize their content.

“Content marketing should grab your attention and immerse the reader in a story that is emotionally compelling or entertaining.”
– Gary Kayne, Adjunct Professor, University of North Carolina School of Journalism

In a recent survey, the firm found 24 percent of readers were scrolling down on sponsored content on publishers’ sites compared with 71 percent who did so on normal content., which also helps brands create, distribute and optimize the content, described the data point as a “damning indictment of the quality of sponsored content at large.”

Doubling down for the long run

Interestingly, another’s survey of 601 marketers showed a growing number of brands doubling down on content marketing, rather than backing away. In many instances, they are expanding their in-house staff and investing in long-form storytelling.

While smaller brands can rarely afford such “brand journalism,” Honigman has helped many launch effective and sustainable content marketing campaigns. He often starts with what has come to be known in the business as a content marketing audit.

That starts by asking clients who they are trying to reach and why, followed by an evaluation of what types of media and channels will best reach them. Then, he evaluates the client’s staff to see if any of them have the bandwidth and skills needed to sustain an effective content marketing strategy.

“I usually recommend they begin investing in two to three channels so they are not overextending themselves but are also experimenting,” he says. “If they are not reaching their goals, they can move on to another channel.”

Most clients outsource creative until they can gauge return on investment, which can be measured by tracking the lift in social media shares, traffic, read times and conversions each piece of content generates.

“Sharing and having their content responded to is way more important than just simply numbers,” Kayne says. “If you’re too focused on conversion rate, you will never win. The content marketing strategy must be long-term – not short-term results focused. It’s about forming a relationship with the customer that’s authentic – not just about getting them to buy.”