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Content marketing – the new route to the US consumer

Is content marketing the new Holy Grail for US brands? Many of the attendees at this year's New Media Expo in Las Vegas certainly believed so, with its wide-ranging impact likely to be felt globally in the not-so-distant future.

Photos: Blog advice from celebrity illusionist Penn Jillette. (Courtesy of NMX)
Blog advice from celebrity illusionist Penn Jillette.

"Every industry is becoming the New York Times. They are all looking to online content as an extension of their voice," at least according to Perry Quinn, Head of Publisher Development at LinkSmart, a Colorado-based company specialising in 'text-linking optimisation'. Quinn's attendance at this year's New Media Expo (NMX) – formerly a haven for bloggers of a less commercially-minded persuasion – is a sure sign of how much this Las Vegas-based event has changed.

Over recent years, the NMX has matured into an annual summit for content creators, including podcasters and web TV experts, all united by the common goal of finding new ways to reach – and, frequently, sell to – audiences around the world. It is an event where individual content producers come to learn about new distribution channels and monetisation opportunities for their blogs, podcasts and videos, while corporate marketers try to figure out how to turn the Wild West of new media to the advantage of their brands.

Summarising the focus of the event, Quinn says: "Attendees come here to ask: 'How can we share our expertise with the wider community?' It is something everyone wants to get far smarter about."

The growth of the NMX – and its far higher commercial profile – is very much in line with the way many businesses are continuing to shift their spending towards new media channels. According to Advertising Age, the US marketing industry's trade bible, in its 2014 BtoB Outlook, this year will see an increased emphasis on digital promotion, including content and mobile marketing. Overall some 80% of B2B marketers plan to increase their digital spend, up from 67% who planned to do so last year.

The very term 'content marketing' is still, however something of a nebulous one and one that covers a variety of activities. One definition, advanced by the US-based Content Marketing Institute (CMI), makes it clear just how wide-ranging this discipline really is: "Content marketing is a marketing technique of creating and distributing relevant and valuable content to attract, acquire, and engage a clearly defined and understood target audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action."

Just which new media channels are the most effective, however, when it comes to content marketing, are still under debate. According to the 2014 B2B Content Marketing Report, the top five most popular routes to market are social media, articles on the corporate site, e-newsletters, blogs and in-person events. The report also indicates that some 73% of content marketers are producing more content than they did a year ago.

The type of content that will perform best in a corporate environment is the subject of yet another major and ongoing discussion. Traditionally, corporate marketers have opted for blog posts and online videos as the key means of helping their target audience solve specific problems, follow trends or to offer glimpse into the behind-the-scenes actiivities of any given company.

Despite the emphasis on video, however, there are signs that marketers are now less exclusively focused on it than in the past. Assessing current thinking, Quinn says: "Three years ago, video was the panacea for engagement and had the highest value in terms of ad revenue. Since then, it's been realised that many people bail from videos. It's not quite as an engaging medium as you might think. For many, it's easier to quickly scan written content. In truth, both forms have their advantages."

According to Quinn a number of brands are now making content marketing an in-house discipline. For many in the sector, the Holy Grail is coming up with right mix of company-generated and user-generated content, as well as managing to engage influencers in the field and initiating conversations at a grass-root level.

Photos: Podcasting: an essential item for marketer’s or mere self-indulgence? (Courtesy of NMX)
Podcasting: an essential item for marketer's or mere self-indulgence?

A prime example of such engagement was presented by Quicken Loans, a US-based mortgage and retail lender, during its NMX presentation. Launched in 2011, the company's blog is a lead generating and SEO (search engine optimisation) tool, but also a conversation platform. The company has recently teamed with Allstate, an insurance company, in order to build cross-expertise on its blog, a move that was greeted enthusiastically by many industry experts participating at the event.

Overall, discretely securing engagement was deemed to be the key to success in any such venture. Greg Keller, LinkSmart's Chief Operating Officer, believes creating a 'personality' is the key to this. He says: "You have to be human and brands – big and small – understand that now. You have to hook a customer, but rather than just throw them into a purchase funnel, you need to touch them through soft engagement over and over and over again. Be an expert in your field and stay in the conversation with them."

Making use of the voices and personalities of the key influencers in their industry would be a smart move for many brands, according to Gary Arndt, an award-winning travel photographer, blogger and one of the keynote speakers at NMX.

He said: "The key is to use the power of the personality of such individuals." He cited the example of Expedia, one of the world's leading travel sites and its use of well-known travel bloggers, all with sizeable online followings of their own, to supply a considerable amount of its own content.

Arndt also believes that the human-to-human connection also works in other verticals, saying: "Comcast, the cable company, has "Comcast Bill", an actual person. He answers all their tweets. People react differently when they know there's a real person at the other end of a communication."

While video may be falling out of favour in preference to actual contact with genuine individuals, podcasts seem to still be growing in stature. Noah Shanok is Chief Executive of Stitcher, a San Francisco-based digital company that offers over 20,000 podcasts and radio shows for streaming. He believes the medium has recently found a new lease of life.

He says: "We're seeing a huge amount of growth right now. We're seeing double digits in the number of applications last year to be on the Stitcher platform." According to Shanok, the key reason behind this growth is the improved connectivity between cars and personal devices, a development that allows people to easily listen to podcasts during their commute.

He says: "Over 50% of our audience now listen in a car. We're predicting that will be some four million Stitcher-enabled vehicles in the US by the end of this year."

Despite this, doubts remain as to whether podcasts really add value to brands. Currently, they are seen as having clear benefit for media companies as an enhancement to their print and online content. There's also a strong contingent of individual podcasters with a devoted following.

Describing how brands can make best use of the medium, Leo Laporte, a US-based technology journalist and podcaster, says: "The key for brands is not to use advertising in their podcasts. They can feature stories about how their product is used and relate customer experiences, but should stay away from ads. Unfortunately, most brands don't do a good job of distributing their podcasts either, tending to just put them on their website."

Laporte also believes that the number of the Chinese listeners for English programmes is "exploding". He says: "We're seeing a surge of consumption in China and, I believe, the increase in both the international production and consumption of podcasts will inevitably continue."

For many companies, marketing via new media remains a daunting challenge. Rick Mulready, host of the influential Inside Social Media podcast, believes the biggest single mistake many companies make is to not add value, but to simply go for the hard sell.

He says: "It's hard for many businesses to avoid overload. The key is, first of all, to decide whether your business is actually a suitable subject for a podcast. If the answer is yes, figure out your objectives and the platform that is favoured by your audience. Then get off your virtual soap box and offer them something of real value."

Photo: Blogging off: is online user content really key to shifting products? (Courtesy of NMX)
Blogging off: is online user content really key to shifting products?

The 8th annual New Media Expo took place from 4-6 January 2014 at the Rio Convention Center in Las Vegas.

Anna Huddleston, Special Correspondent, Las Vegas

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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