For AT&T, the small-business owner is so key a customer the company needed more than regular marketing tactics to reach it. Its solution? Original content.
To create it, AT&T turned to an outside firm called Associated Content — a startup with a network of 300,000 freelance content creators — to produce over 100 how-to articles. Topics range from setting up a wireless network and building a marketing strategy to writing a business plan. The material will appears on the AT&T Small Business InSite destination.
“The ability to distribute content offers us a credible way to connect with small business owners,” said Chris Schembri, vp of media services for AT&T. “We’re able to provide valuable information that comes from a third party that will be a little more believable” than brand-created content.
AT&T’s tactic also highlights a dilemma for brands: at a time of tight budgets and consumer skepticism of brand messages, marketers still need to produce loads of digital content to capture consumer attention. This virtual content arms race is fueled by how consumers now use the Web. Search and social media are the main modes of information discovery, and both engines live off vast pools of content.
To feed them, many advertisers are relying less on content produced solely by themselves and their agencies, and more on that crafted by customers and outside content creators.
“The proliferation of platforms and the crush of content makes it very difficult for any one creator to match the volume of the environment,” said Colleen DeCourcy, chief digital officer at TBWA Worldwide.
That’s led some retailers to branch out from simple product information and into editorial. Zappos, for instance, operates blogs and posts third-party content about everything from parenting and skateboarding to running. All that content helps it bubble up in search results not necessarily tied to products.
It also means brands are increasingly taking a “portfolio approach” to content in an attempt to stay relevant in the real-time Web, according to Christine Beardsell, group cd at The Third Act, the digital content unit of Digitas.
“The trick is how do you keep the conversation going,” she said. “It used to be about campaigns. The opportunity now is to pull together a strategy for content to be more evergreen and be relevant beyond a campaign model.”
IBM, for instance, wants to be known for “collaboration software” after finding through Internet conversation analysis that it’s a common term among its target audience. It has TV spots and other content around the topic, but realized it needed more when it came to the Web. Its agency, Ogilvy Worldwide, decided the best way to own the category was to co-create reams of content with actual customers discussing issues.
The result: a series of interviews with business executives discussing how software like instant messaging can play a role in mergers. All the content is tagged “collaboration software.” Visit Bing’s video search results and IBM-sponsored videos dominate the page. It’s a similar story on YouTube.
“Having a core content strategy is the secret to engaging an audience,” said Paul Beck, senior partner and executive director of digital at Ogilvy Worldwide. “We already know some of the most trusted sources are not brand content. We’re not hiding from it.”
At Ogilvy, that’s meant an overall rethinking of how it plans campaigns. The agency, of course, still puts great care in the content it produces for awareness — TV commercials, print ads, radio spots and Web advertising — but it has found that a majority of the content nowadays is either co-created with consumers or “stimulated” through social media outreach programs.
“There are thousands of people at Ogilvy,” Beck said. “And that’s not enough people to create the volume of content needed. I could do it all day long, but we’re not enough people or the right people sometimes.”
In some cases, Associated Content has licensed “thousands” of pieces to brands, according to CEO Pat Keane, a scale hard for agencies to match. “That’s not their expertise,” he said. “We have an entire content ecosystem built for them.”
AT&T is promoting its content through banner ads with headlines that link to InSite. The content itself, however, remains brand neutral, according to Schembri. “Hopefully they leave thinking they got something of value and more than just an advertising message,” he said.
The secret for brands is making the content more than digital marketing pollution optimized to clog up search engines when people are looking for information, according to Keane. That means making sure the content, whether it’s commissioned or co-created, is more than a product brochure.
“That’s something users are going to vote with their clicks,” he said.