Early adopters: Lessons from the best content marketing overseas

Sarah Mitchell

Content marketing is a burgeoning discipline in Australia but in other parts of the world, it’s a full-blown practice.

During the past five years, brands in the United States and Europe experienced wild swings in execution and methodology providing many lessons about what not to do. In 2014, clear leaders emerged with inspiring results derived from mature content marketing strategies. It’s from these examples that we can better understand the hallmarks and guiding principles of success.

Anyone who has attended any content marketing conference in the past several years will know that the same examples get bandied about. Red Bull, Coca-Cola, American Express, Chipotle and many others have become the “usual suspects” of content marketing case studies. They have been so over-used they have ceased to be relevant to any discussion designed to illuminate best practice.

What’s far more interesting – and informative – is sampling a wider range of businesses for less publicised examples of excellent work.

The way stories are told

So what qualities does the best overseas content marketing have in common?

You won’t be surprised to hear great content marketing starts with storytelling. Most brands get this wrong. They invest a lot of time telling a story about their business, not realising the consumer doesn’t care. Flipping the perspective from your company to the customer experience is essential. Every great piece of content speaks directly to a person – the person most likely to purchase or recommend your products and services.

A lesson in empathy

Consider how Salesforce UK manages this conundrum with the Social Success website.

Loaded with a variety of content including articles, videos, how-to guides and infographics, the content hub uses empathy to gain credibility with readers. A great example is Out of Service, the fable of a customer service agent who quits in despair – all told in Post-it Notes. The call to action in this 60-page e-book links to solid advice on how to empower customer service agents. Readers can be sure Salesforce understands their issues.

Betabrand ramps up the customer experience by making consumers part of the product team. The San Francisco clothing company continually designs, manufactures and releases new products, eschewing the normal fashion industry habit of releasing collections on a pre-arranged schedule.

Including customers in the design and funding cycle creates immensely loyal brand ambassadors and paves the way for a little bit of content marketing genius. Model Citizen asks customers to upload a photo in exchange for profile on the company’s home page. If they upload a photo wearing a Betabrand product, they also receive a discount valid for the next 24 hours. It’s hard to imagine another brand more heavily promoted by their consumer base.

Finding common ground

Appealing to common interests is another way marketers influence their audience.

Produced by the estate agent firm Kinleigh Folkard & HaywardCompletely London is a print magazine for people with a passion for the capital city and an interest in property. Each issue is a study in brand journalism featuring great stories packaged with stunning photography and modern design.

The printed content proved so popular, a daily blog complementing the magazine was created. Circulation for the print magazine is more than 70,000 and 78 per cent of online readers spend more than 20 minutes on the blog.

For another instance of common ground content marketing, check out the Jack Andraka video from Intel. Instead of hammering viewers about technology, it draws parallels between the 15-year-old inventor’s research into early cancer detection with Intel’s “look inside” philosophy.

The way stories are written

Remove the logo from a lot of content and it’s hard, if not impossible, to differentiate one company from the next. This is especially true of B2B companies which often communicate in “business speak” in a misguided effort to sound authoritative.

When brands develop content to appeal to their own board of directors – or have to get approval from their board before publishing – opportunities dissolve with each acronym and jargon-filled sentence. Good writing is another essential for content marketing regardless of the medium.

Demystifying complex topics

PwC provides a terrific example of B2B content marketing with the 10 Minutes series. Covering weighty topics such as governance, risk, operations and technology, PwC promises readers they can digest a complex topic in 10 minutes. It is elegantly designed and well written, a complete departure from the turgid content historically published by consulting firms. All PwC content demonstrates an understanding that the consumer appreciates smart commentary packaged in layman’s terms.

Asking for business

Sprint Business shows how to take workhorse B2B technology and make it useful and interesting. Using plain language, the website keeps a strong focus on the real people reading and viewing the content.

Tongue-in-cheek prose such as “Desks are so 1990. Today, your people are out, about and all over it like jam on toast” easily blends with the business end of Sprint’s offering.

Don’t think Sprint isn’t deadly serious about closing business. The Stop Buying Tech appeal is littered with dollar signs and has a clear call to action to buy a pay-as-you-go service. The only real measurement for content marketing effectiveness is conversions. Asking for the sale is essential for bottom of the funnel content.

Making the sale

If the best content provokes conversions, then Kraft Foods wins the category. The Kraft Recipes website is a hot mess of demonstration videos, products and social media feeds. It’s also the place customers purchase Food & Family, a quarterly print magazine that started life as a free publication.

So why would anyone buy a magazine when Kraft gives away so many recipes? Kraft keeps the customer at the forefront of everything it does, mindful that readers don’t want a glossy food magazine but something to help them easily put a tasty meal on the table. Food & Family is delivered to one in 10 US households, not a bad chunk of change to fund more content marketing initiatives.


The design factor

Nearly every example mentioned in this chapter contains another important element of brilliant content marketing – great design. Before the human brain reads a single word, it’s already reacting to colour, photographs and graphical images on the page.

Information with good design gets first notice from anyone suffering from content bloat. Great content with poor design is not likely to garner the attention it deserves. Visually attractive content has greater chances of success.

Make your customers part of your brand story. If you can’t, tell stories showing you share the same values as your target audience. Insist on great writing. Invest in quality design. When these components come together, you will be competing with the best content marketing in the world. Don’t be afraid to inject a big dose of creativity to separate your business from your competitors.

Sarah Mitchell is head of content strategy at Lush Digital Media, founder of Global Copywriting and the Australian Editor of Chief Content Officer magazine. You can hear her speak on the Brand Newsroom weekly podcast or find her on Twitter: @globalcopywrite. Her blog received the #1 spot on SmartCompany’s 20 of the Best Australian Business Blogs (January 2014) and Search Engine Journal named Sarah’s blog one of the best marketing blogs in Australia (May 2014).


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