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Content Marketing in Focus
Content Marketing in Focus

It may seem counterintuitive, but video content marketing means more storytelling, minimal (or no) messaging, zero calls to action, and trusting your audience to make the brand connection

By David Baker


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Darryl Lai



As a football fan and the marketing professional responsible for Oregon State University's NCAA broadcast TV commercials, I love Super Bowl Sunday. I like to watch the game, but gauging audience responses to the ads is often more interesting. The Super Bowl is the one time each year when commercials become something more than spam. In fact, they're eagerly awaited because they may surprise, make people laugh, tug at their heartstrings, or conjure forgotten memories. Brands are increasingly engaging in content marketing—the practice of producing information that's inherently useful, educational, or entertaining to attract and build relationships with consumers.

Last month, brands spent an average of $4 million for a 30-second commercial aired during Super Bowl XLVIII. Their goal: Corner the market on water cooler conversations the next morning. (A growing number also leverage their ad buys by generating social media buzz, often previewing entire spots on YouTube before they air during the big game.) Unless you were cheering for the Seattle Seahawks, like many of us in the Pacific Northwest, the blowout game was either painful or boring to watch. The ads weren't much better. This year's advertising blitz was met with a collective sigh at most game gatherings, including the party I attended. You'd have to go back to last year's Super Bowl to find an ad that grabbed people's attention and hushed the room. It was a commercial that paired scratchy audio of the late radio commentator Paul Harvey's "So God Made a Farmer" speech with stunning photography in a paean to Americans who work the land. For a brief moment, these two minutes rose above mere advertising, becoming a spoken-word poem that entranced millions of viewers. In the final seconds, the image of a polished Ram truck broke the spell and reminded us that it was only a commercial.

The rules have changed

It's hard to whisper when you're used to shouting. Traditionally, advertising has been the equivalent of brands yelling messages at consumers while interrupting the content they'd rather be consuming—TV shows, newspaper and magazine articles, and music and news programming on the radio. Keep the message short, loud, and obvious. Hammer it home. These were the rules. As more brands shouted, consumers became increasingly deaf to their messages.

Filmmaker Werner Herzog famously decried the practice: "[C]enturies from now our great-great-great-grandchildren will look back at us with amazement at how we could allow such a precious achievement of human culture as the telling of a story to be shattered into smithereens by commercials."
Infographic for "Content Marketing in Focus" article

Now people have ways to avoid the messages that are sliced and diced into their content. TV viewers can fast-forward through commercials on their digital video recorders; listeners can enjoy music minus ads through subscriptions to services such as Pandora and Spotify.

Online video advertising increasingly acknowledges that the digital space is an opt-in environment. Links that allow people to watch just a few seconds of ads or skip them entirely are quite common. Users expect choice. Allowing mobile users to skip YouTube ads increases the likelihood that they will not only watch but click them, according to Google. Offering options creates trust and increases the effectiveness of your message. Enter video content marketing.

Content marketing is all about building trust. It's a promise that a brand makes to its audience: We will produce useful or entertaining content that is free of spam. This isn't a new concept. Agriculture equipment manufacturer John Deere is often cited as a pioneer of the genre. The company began publishing The Furrow magazine in 1895, and it's still going strong, offering a print version in 12 languages as well as online and tablet versions. The storytelling found in educational institutions' alumni and research magazines is a prime example of a time-tested content marketing tactic.

Digital technology advances have made quality video production more affordable and attainable. With the Internet as a free delivery platform, content marketing is burgeoning online. Commercial and educational brands are increasingly producing videos that look more like entertainment than advertising, which is essential since story trumps message every time.

Traditional advertising relies on standard formats such as brochures and commercials. These methods serve a useful purpose and have a place in your marketing strategy, but they aren't media that people generally elect to consume. Brands want audiences to view their advertising, but consumers will always choose other options—books, movies, TV shows, sporting events, even online cat videos.

Content marketing is what our audiences want to see. It exists in a space that overlaps art, information, or entertainment. Above all, content has to be engaging. An approach that's light on messaging, or even devoid of it, seems counterintuitive to those of us reared on decades of in-your-face advertising, but it wins with users.

Capturing interest

So what does video content marketing look like, and which brands are doing it well?

Visit Red Bull's home page and you'll see something that looks more like a media outlet for adrenaline junkies, video gamers, and music fans than the producer of the world's top-selling energy drink. One small link in the upper right corner is the only indication that this page belongs to a company with a product line. You can watch, read, and experience months of content on the site's multiple channels without ever knowing what the company makes. The content implies the message: exhilaration, adventure, action, daring. The brand's tag line, Red Bull gives you wings, is nowhere to be seen. Everything about the content that the company produces embodies the concept.

Perhaps without knowing it, higher education has been in the content marketing business since the early days of online video. Years before anyone coined the term massive open online course, institutions made recordings of lectures available to the public. At OSU, a series of biochemistry lectures is among our most popular YouTube offerings. Videos of instructor Kevin Ahern have received hundreds of thousands of views with users around the world thanking him for helping them pass their classes.

My unit, Interactive Communications, creates content without any calls to action. Because my office is part of the University Relations and Marketing division, this requires a lot of understanding and support from our central communications and marketing colleagues. OSU has undergone multiple branding efforts and endless working sessions to refine the institution's core values and messaging platforms. Asking for the leeway to develop video content that excludes all these hard-won messages in favor of subtlety is no small request.
OSU film, Relentless

Our efforts have ranged from short one- to five-minute videos to films that are more than 30 minutes long. One of our message-light projects is Relentless: The Global Formula Racing Pursuit of Perfection, a 35-minute documentary chronicling a year in the life of our student Global Formula Racing team as it tries to repeat its championship season on the international circuit.

"We wanted the student engineers to narrate the story in their own words and let it unfold for the audience," says Justin Smith, the multimedia production manager who directed the film. "We didn't want to coach them to say how great their Oregon State experience was. As it stood, OSU was all over the footage with the logo and colors of the car, which was in every other scene." Smith resisted the impulse to plant messages in the film, instead focusing on the integrity of the story and the documentary process.

Nearly 600 people attended live screenings of the 2012 film, which has logged nearly 35,000 YouTube views. Oregon Public Broadcasting aired the film for several months; a shorter version appeared on the PAC-12 TV Networks. Relentless won a gold award from CASE District VIII and is still screened at alumni and engineering events.

Last year, we produced Kel Wer, a half-hour documentary that follows a group of engineering students to a small Kenyan village as they work to help the rural community gain access to safe drinking water. The project won a CASE District VIII grand gold award last month.
Get Going Today screenshot

Of course, OSU isn't the only university using content marketing. In late 2012, Drexel University Sacramento launched a student recruitment campaign website designed to inspire the California institution's alumni and attract new prospects. Instead of leading with a huge apply now button, the site is a smorgasbord of HTML5 video clips with sound, stories, and inspirational messages. Clicking any image lets the viewer experience another story. Each vignette can be easily explored during an email or lunch break—enough time to get people thinking about finally pursuing that master's degree. But the copy and imagery are subtle and general enough to move anyone, not just those in the market for graduate education.

"We wanted to create a haven for alumni to share their culture and values with their friends in a low-key environment," says Elizabeth Forrest Lambert, Drexel Sacramento's director of marketing and recruitment. "We worked with our agency to develop a brand tone. The core value behind it is that there's got to be a better way to get ahead."

The site—one of the primary drivers of traffic to Drexel Sacramento's recruiting pages—made a splash far beyond its alumni community in California. Thanks to social media and blog placements that showcased the look and feel of the website, it grew especially popular among design communities in New York and London. "We don't even have a graphic design program, but anything we can do to share our values is important," Lambert says.

A few student profiles are tucked within the content. A small arrow next to Drexel's logo in the lower right corner of the opening page leads to more information about the institution's programs.

"There's something to be said for subtlety and for being the best not because you're the most aggressive but because you have the best approach," Lambert says. The site is an intriguing, artistic experience that reflects Drexel's brand values.
Author John Dufresne, a creative writing professor at Florida International University

Florida International University is another institution creating strong video content marketing. Capitalizing on the viral potential of how-to videos, early last year FIU released How to Write a Short Story with professor and author John Dufresne. I've been watching it gather traffic for months, climbing steadily to more than 25,000 views.

The brand connection is subtle. Nowhere in the piece does Dufresne mention his affiliation to FIU. There are no invitations to apply or overt brand messages. The beautifully shot profile offers an intimate glimpse of the writer at work and discussing his writing process. A small FIU logo appears in the top right corner in the final seconds of the short video, followed by a quick credit to the university's External Relations unit. A link to a recruitment web page is buried in the video's YouTube description. The content takes center stage in a piece that's found an audience far beyond campus boundaries, inspiring frustrated writers everywhere.

There is no greater evidence that online video content marketing has changed the status quo than Herzog's willingness to participate in a corporate-commissioned project. When AT&T wanted to produce a web-based documentary on the perils of texting while driving for the "It Can Wait" campaign, the company turned to Herzog—the same director who is on record berating commercials.

From One Second to the Next looks at the effects of texting-related accidents on four lives and is as emotional and wrenching as much of Herzog's theatrical work. Although the 35-minute film was sponsored by the telecommunications giant (and supported by other major cellphone carriers), it's devoid of corporate logos. The documentary's presence on the company's YouTube channel is its only brand connection.

Embracing experimentation

Content marketing is not for the risk-averse. We can track views and conduct surveys, but immediately proving that the positive vibes created by loosely connected content enhances the brand is difficult.

In higher education, where our institutions embrace research and the thousands of dead ends that eventually lead to breakthroughs, I'm always surprised by how resistant we can be to experimenting with communications. The tight budgets of the nonprofit world are sometimes used as an excuse, but by not being entrepreneurial we risk falling behind the competition and losing vital opportunities to engage with our audiences.

Companies, meanwhile, are increasingly investing in the technique. Seventy-one percent of marketers are boosting their content marketing budgets this year, according to a recent survey conducted by Curata, a company based in Cambridge, Mass., that creates content-curation software.

Instrument, a digital creative agency in Portland, Ore., produces video content for brands such as Nike and Google. Filmmaker Truen Pence leads the company's experimental technology and storytelling arm, but his unit is not assigned billable projects. Instead, his team's charge is "to create the type of content we are attracted to and would find entertaining, that utilizes new storytelling techniques, and blends with digital technology. Art meets craft."

In short, Pence and his team members are creating the future of digital video content. (His latest experiment is a year-in-review collage using stop-motion animation and a live goat that makes cameo appearances in a variety of music videos.) In the past year, Pence's unit launched two interactive documentaries that garnered industry awards and social media buzz: The Build, which profiles three custom motorcycle designers, and This Place, a series of atmospheric portraits of people living along the Oregon coast. Neither film contains any messaging about Instrument or direct sales pitches. The films and websites have received tens of thousands of views.

What's the value of this nonbillable work? "It allows us to reach more people because they know they can trust that it's coming from Instrument without a marketing message attached," Pence says. "It's just entertaining content. In the best-case scenario, this also leads to new opportunities as clients also become fans of our brand of content."

Welcome back—or notThe video Welcome Back to Oregon State

Not every video content marketing project is a success. Some may take months of work and patience to craft yet fail to engage viewers. Others may come together quickly but are then challenged for their tone or lack of message. They're spending time and money on this? That's a question some OSU leaders may have asked last October after my team and I posted Welcome Back to Oregon State on the institution's home page. The one-minute video takes viewers on a campus tour led by two students known for their comedic Twitter feeds. The somewhat irreverent end product is rife with inside jokes and purposely light on messaging. Viral marketing was on our minds from its inception. The video tied in with an online article that encouraged returning students to take advantage of campus programs and resources related to wellness and academic success. We saw it as a big spoonful of sugar helping some useful information go down.

We often post feature stories about amazing students and research on OSU's home page without hearing a word of feedback. But within two hours of posting the short tour video, I was asked to take it down. It had started gaining traction, quickly earning more than 2,000 views. The reason for the removal request? The video wasn't serious enough for the home page and lacked institutional messaging. I complied, but we kept it on our YouTube channel and the OSU Stories web page. With minimal publicity or exposure, the video has reached nearly 12,000 views and more than 150 likes (and a lone dislike).

Was minimizing the messaging and focusing on fun a stroke of genius? Or was it a missed opportunity? We could have added a strong messaging statement; perhaps then the video would have remained on the home page, racking up views and spreading OSU's message far and wide. Or maybe, like Ram's Super Bowl commercial, a heavy-handed closing would've triggered our audiences' innate spam filters and blatantly reminded them that it was created by marketing professionals. We don't know.

What we do know is that this isn't our last experiment. At OSU, we've had enough measurable success to understand that trial and error eventually pays off.
The 2013 short documentary Real Beauty Sketches by skin care brand Dove

As 2013 closed, Adweek named Ram's Farmer commercial one of the year's best. The ad that took the top spot, however, was a pure and powerful example of content marketing at its finest: Real Beauty Sketches by skin care brand Dove. During the three-minute video, a forensic artist sketches women based only on how they describe themselves, then makes a comparison sketch derived from other people's descriptions of the same women. The end result is eye-opening and speaks volumes about beauty and the way women view themselves.

With brands spending more time and money on storytelling and delivering entertaining or informative content than pitching their wares, the shift to content marketing is happening before our eyes. Are you up for it?

About the Author David Baker

David Baker is the director of interactive communications at Oregon State University.

 

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