A leap of faith and the willingness to fail: Early adoption stories from SAP and Dell

This post comes from Lydia Laurenson who has been working with us on the forthcoming big brand industry report. 

Leap of FaithIn the upcoming Brandopolis report about the content strategies at top brands, I have a section on Early Adoption Stories -- tales of brands that managed to jump on a given content opportunity early and reap dividends.  SAP is a great example: the business-software brand was first to partner with Forbes through Forbes' BrandVoice program.

BrandVoice (formerly AdVoice) was created in 2010.  The program enables big brands to essentially buy blogs on the Forbes site, and SAP was the first to sign up.  Michael Brenner, SAP's VP of Marketing and Content Strategy, is one of many SAP writers to contribute.

BrandVoice and other programs like it have stirred controversy among readers and journalists.  There's an ongoing debate about the acceptability of selling article slots to marketers.  Yet Brenner pointed out: "We gain access as advertisers, but our content is only getting viewed because it's got good titles and good depth.  Forbes gives their advertisers' thought leaders a voice on the platform, but the content stands on its own.  If we want to take advantage of the platform, we have to write content that the Forbes audience is looking for, on topics like the future of business.”

"I've fought some of the critics," he went on, "because they think that BrandVoice and other sponsored content is not clearly identified [i.e., that it's not marked differently from other Forbes articles].  I disagree."  On the opposite side, many marketers wish that the content was very obviously aligned with their brands.  Brenner has argued against them, too, while reiterating a crucial fact about content marketing: that it can’t feel too sales-y.

Like many early adopters, Brenner and SAP have had to handle controversy -- and risk failure.  I often heard from leaders at early adopter brands that the willingness to take leaps of faith goes along with willingness to fail.  As Brenner admitted, the SAP BrandVoice blog "has had some bombs," although it's generally doing very well for SAP: in mid-2012, AdAge reported that 60% of BrandVoice traffic came from SAP's work alone.  That was an average of 90,000 views per month for SAP content.

"I really see it as an adventurous, somewhat risky, but rewarding experience for us," Brenner said.  "80% of our content may not do very well.  Going in, it's hard to tell -- you can't just create a list of all the great titles and pay someone to go write them."

General Electric has consistently been at the forefront of new opportunities across many platforms, and GE also allows for failure.  Their Director of Digital Marketing Paul Marcum explained, "For new hires, I don't have a checklist [of skills].  Part of the question -- part of the opportunity -- is that I'm looking for someone who is willing to fail, people who are willing to take risks.  Happily, we are given permission to take risks here, and that may be on a platform that doesn't have the reach of nearly anything else big old GE 'should' utilize."

Risk-taking can be complex at huge corporations, which means that innovative brands often thank top executives for buying in.  "This is very well coordinated with Jeff himself, our Chairman," said Marcum.  "His team of communicators and marketers meet with him once a month to align stories and make sure we're all in sync.  That provides a tremendous amount of permission to do what we do."

So with all this controversy and risk, what are the rewards?  One reward is that a brand can benefit within the marketing industry if it has a reputation for content innovation: such a reputation will attract talented staff, new content opportunities, and so on.  The main reward, however, is that brands that stake out a claim in a rapidly expanding space can win a large audience simply by being the only game in town.  As Paul Marcum put it: "It's helpful to join these things early not just because you connect with people who are innovating, but because you grow much more quickly."

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