Brandopolis

How the world’s biggest brands make their mark online.

Seattle Skyline, Rudy Lopez

Introduction

Digital marketers are drowning in a sea of content. White papers. Infographics. Viral videos. Blogs, blogs everywhere, nor any drop to drink. We’re all seeking patterns in this astounding array, and as a result, many marketers have read more content strategies and how-tos than we care to recall.

So I’m thrilled that Distilled gave me the chance to create something more nuanced: an in-depth investigation of content strategy at top brands. I come from a journalistic background, and I’m always excited to story-hunt. My goal is to give a window onto big brands playing the content game: not just a stack of tactics, but insights into why and how.

To research this report, I interviewed individuals caught up in brand ecosystems as well as marketers from agencies, consultancies, and the brands themselves. I’ll share hard-won stories from brands including (but not limited to) Coca-Cola, General Electric, Dell, IKEA, L’Oréal, Honda, SAP, and Facebook. I also want to thank the Distilled team: Cheri Percy and Harriet Cummings for adding their insights, and Matt Mitchell-Camp, Richard Westenra and Volodymyr Kupriyanov for their design, development and data work.

Now, to set the scene: a quick overview of content marketing basics.

Content Strategy:

The Basics

Unique content that is useful or emotionally engaging, while staying relevant to the parent brand, is the Holy Grail. Colonizing, owning, and becoming the go-to resource for a specific topic that is relevant to the parent brand is the other Holy Grail. For example, in 2007 American Express created OPEN Forum, an online community for small business owners that pulled in a plethora of articles, tips, experts, and users – and, ultimately, birthed a national USA holiday called Small Business Saturday. Small Business Saturday now boasts endorsements from both Congress and President Obama.

Indeed, the makeup powerhouse L’Oréal actually owns makeup.com. This particular tactic would be awesome for you if you had the foresight to snap up obvious domain names in 1998, or if you have a spare million dollars lying around.

Brands are thinking more and more like publishers, complete with editorial calendars and content that is specifically designed to be great without overtly promoting the brand. Luxury brand Louis Vuitton has a gorgeous arts and culture website called Nowness that does not mention Louis Vuitton on a single page – not even the About page. Tech brand Intel joined forces with media company Vice to co-design a site called The Creators Project, which profiles interesting intersections of tech and art across the world.

In fact, well-known publications from Wired to Forbes to Huffington Post are creating content strategy branches. A lot of journalists are moving individually towards content strategy, too – as I noted before, my own background is in several writerly genres. My consultancy is even called Journalism For Brands. So clearly, you can rely on me for unbiased coverage of how great journalists are.

‘it’s pointless to distinguish between “content versus social,”’

Good content can be remixed and repurposed for many channels, to the point that it may be indistinguishable from social media. A white paper can become a ‘top ten tips’ blog post, and each tip can be an individual tweet, plus infographics can be pulled from the data and then shared on Facebook or used in the inevitable SlideShare presentation … et cetera. Good content should always be pushed to the appropriate social channels, and there are usually ways to make content social in itself, such as enabling comments on a blog. In a lot of cases, it’s pointless to distinguish between ‘content versus social,’ or to silo the two away from each other.

General Electric uses one of three labels for every campaign’s scope: ‘campfires, fireworks, and forest fires.’ Campfires are small pieces with limited scope; fireworks are bigger and reach across multiple platforms; forest fires are huge brand pushes with facets throughout GE’s digital ecosystem.

I like this table from Colleen Jones’ book Clout: The Art And Science of Influential Web Content. It’s a neat summary of how the best content marketers think nowadays, in contrast to ad-based marketing attitudes:

Old thinking New thinking
Target people Attract people
Plan for campaigns Plan for entire customer relationship
Tell, or talk, the message Tell and show, or walk, the message
Blast the message repeatedly Reveal facets of the message
Force or trick Nudge
Detached Contextual
Action only Attitude and action

Part 1:

The Brand Ecosystem

The phrase ‘brand ecosystem’ has been getting lots of traction. Maybe it’s because the social media frontier has created unprecedented windows into what connects where and how. It’s more obvious than ever that nothing in marketing stands alone, and we have more and more analytics to show how things relate to each other. It’s also easier than ever for brands to track, learn from, affect, and enfold the marketing emerging from their followers.

‘Brands can and should receive as much information as they release – if not more.’

It’s almost too easy to compare media cycles and interdependencies to the rainfall, sunlight, animals, and growing things that would pull together a natural ecosystem. The ecosystem metaphor is valuable because it emphasizes give-and-take. Brands can and should receive as much information as they release – if not more.

Brands exist in one big ecosystem, and if they get enough traction, they can create smaller ecosystems. One example of a tiny content ecosystem might be ‘just a blog.’ On established blogs, dedicated commenters often interact extensively with each other and give feedback to the blogger – thereby shaping the blogger’s thoughts. Successful blogs often quote commenters in blog posts, reflect on conversations in comments, or even invite commenters to become bloggers.

‘By maintaining the ecosystem carefully, brands can create an environment where their followers, including non-professionals, do an incredible amount of work for them.’

A healthy brand ecosystem is a community in itself that encourages both interaction and new thinking. By maintaining the ecosystem carefully, brands can create an environment where their followers, including non-professionals, do an incredible amount of work for them.

First and foremost, brands do this by offering a friendly environment for smart, creative people to offer feedback or make things.

Ecosystem development:

Facebook Starts from Scratch

Brand ecosystems share a lot of principles with the technical ecosystems devised by Silicon Valley’s giants, where developers create projects that work within larger systems – like a programmer who makes software for the Microsoft operating system. Indeed, for some tech brands, the brand ecosystem is basically the same as the tech ecosystem.

Facebook, for example, has not merely created an incredible environment for conversation. Facebook also makes it easy for marketers to put content on Facebook, and it works to help journalists and other individual content creators publicize Facebook. Header banner from Facebook’s Steps to Business Success page Perhaps, most importantly, Facebook made it easy for outsiders to develop Facebook apps that add new technical functions to Facebook. In other words, the Facebook content strategy is that it crowdsources both strategy and content.

‘No one knew what Facebook app-land would become, so the app ecosystem started small and rough and unprofessional, but it was also wildly creative.’

Facebook apps are a good place to start when describing Facebook’s ecosystem, because Facebook app-land is a mini-ecosystem in itself. I talked to one Facebook employee who used the phrase ‘canvas ecosystem’ to describe the beginning of Facebook’s app ecosystem - as in ‘blank canvas.’ No one knew what Facebook app-land would become, so the app ecosystem started small and rough and unprofessional, but it was also wildly creative. (I always remember my friends turning me into a badly drawn Facebook vampire in, like, 2008.)

Facebook’s App Center

As the app ecosystem matured, things calmed down and patterns emerged: for instance, most people now have a general idea of what a Facebook game is and what it’s usually for. Facebook then used what they saw in those patterns to develop support for larger, more focused players to jump in the Facebook sandbox. That was when most brands got in on the action.

Facebook often highlights the Nike+ Running app from 2012, which enables users to share their runs with friends. Nike+ Running users can showcase maps, or add fitness statistics and milestones to their Facebook timelines. Their Facebook friends can even send cheering sounds that they hear while they run. This is great promotion for Nike, of course – and it’s even better for Facebook, which not only gets lots of eyeballs but also collects lots of data.

But again, the app ecosystem is only one facet of the Facebook ecosystem juggernaut. In order to maintain its overall content ecosystem, Facebook listens to several sub-communities, collects data from them, balances their interests against its own, and creates how-tos that educate them. Sometimes it specifically connects them with each other.

I talked to several connections at Facebook to get insight into the sub-communities that they’re dealing with:

Everyday Facebook users. Obviously, Facebook users create the content that is Facebook by sharing their status updates, commentary, breakups, and everything else. Individual users also started marketing on Facebook before Facebook thought much about marketing – for instance, before Facebook Pages existed, people made individual ‘user’ profiles for brands. Facebook’s business value arises from mining its users for data and selling ads that target them.

‘continuous challenges with balancing users’ privacy preferences against its own preference to gather, publicize, and otherwise play with their data.’

Users need to feel at least somewhat happy with the product to continue engaging with each other, and to feel safe. In turn, Facebook walks a tightrope of censorship – some users want a more controlled experience and others want to be able to say what they like. The company also faces continuous challenges with balancing users’ privacy preferences against its own preference to gather, publicize, and otherwise play with their data.

App creators and small-time Facebook marketers. At first, Facebook needed outside thinkers to basically invent its app ecosystem and its marketing ecosystem. Now it needs them to keep building those ecosystems.

Facebook has a Preferred Marketing Developer program for developers who have demonstrated expertise in a Facebook area, such as creating apps or Pages. The program was created because there was huge demand for Facebook-related marketing disciplines, yet Facebook couldn’t scale to do it all in-house. Thus, Facebook identifies the best independent creatives and helps them find Facebook-relevant employment.

Big brand marketers. On a small scale, Facebook helps marketers make ads; on a large scale, they’ve asked their biggest potential partners to help them define what Facebook marketing means.

In 2011, Facebook’s VP of Global Marketing, Carolyn Everson, decided to bring brands into Facebook so those brands could contribute to Facebook’s marketing strategy. Her goal was to understand those brands’ pain points – not just at Facebook but across the marketing landscape. Thus, Facebook hand-picked a Clients Council that meets quarterly, and includes Coca-Cola and General Electric. They also have a Creative Council with creative directors from agencies like Digitas.

– Interestingly, Facebook has also started looking more closely at how it can work with people who create content outside of Facebook. There is a Public Content Team within the company that focuses on how celebrities, athletes, and publishers use the platform, and what Facebook can do to help them. This team came up with the recent Embedded Posts feature, which allows users to take Facebook posts and embed those posts live into their articles, much like an embedded tweet.

‘a status update from George Takei while writing about Star Trek’

Thus, a journalist at the Huffington Post might use an Embedded Post to highlight a status update from George Takei while writing about Star Trek. Readers can see the update, observe the comments and Like count aggregating in real time, click through directly to Takei’s page, et cetera. The posts help to solidify Facebook’s image as a place where great conversations happen.

Facebook is clearly a top example of a brand content ecosystem. In fact, it’s a great example of a brand ecosystem partly because that’s all it is: as a social network, Facebook literally does not have any content or purpose without its ecosystem.

But does it make sense for brands that aren’t already ecosystems in themselves – for example, brands that sell real-world objects – to care about the ecosystem concept? After all, it is obviously a lot of work to maintain these sub-communities and connections. But although not every company can be Facebook, smart brands are looking at how they can channel or re-form their ecosystems in similar ways.

‘successful ecosystems generate tons of product ideas’

One reason brands should salivate at the thought of a good ecosystem is that successful ecosystems generate tons of product ideas. Many brands ask fans and followers for feedback, and they always have. But that’s just the beginning. Ecosystems can create rock-solid content, not just conversation.

Research & Development Ecosystems:

Dell’s Ideastorm & Two IKEA Experiences

Some smart brands have created well-designed ecosystems dedicated to research and development. Social media consultant Paul Gillin has dubbed these ‘ideation communities,’ and cites examples such as MyStarbucksIdea and Dell’s IdeaStorm.

Dell, a major innovator in the digital marketing space, created its IdeaStorm ideation community way back in 2007. Users submit ideas for new products, clever marketing campaigns, or other innovations. Many people browse the ideas for fun, so Dell benefits from interesting, original content that it doesn’t even have to create.

‘the users became irate – and Dell wisely hired its biggest critic to be a community manager.’

The best ideas on the site are pushed to ‘Storm Sessions,’ where users fine-tune the concept in conversation with a Dell representative. Power users who contribute a lot are rewarded with minor perks. At one point, when Dell became inattentive to IdeaStorm, the users became irate – and Dell wisely hired its biggest critic to be a community manager.

I spoke to Richard Margetic, Dell’s Director of Global Social Media, who said: ‘When we launched IdeaStorm, we opened the floodgates. We’ve deployed over 500 product recommendations. The early challenge there was getting the internal Dell product group to listen, but once they were in, it was like having a customer at the table with them.’

A similarly clever ecosystem is IKEA’s Share-Space, which started in 2011. Users upload pictures of IKEA-laden rooms, and happily tag furniture within the pictures, using where-to-buy links from the online IKEA catalog. This content is browsed by other users and occasionally gets featured on IKEA’s design blog. I discussed Share-Space with IKEA marketing specialist Katy Lee, who noted that they use seasonal data to help decide when to sell certain furniture.

IKEA’s Share Space

Most excitingly, Lee said that they get ideas from Share-Space. ‘There’s never a boring day. Fans always surprise you. People might use kitchen cabinets for a bar in the basement.’

Missed Opportunity:

The Strange Case of IKEA Now

Outside Share-Space, an interesting situation recently arose between IKEA and an augmented reality app called IKEA Now. A California startup released IKEA Now in 2012; the app enabled users to look at a room through their phone lens, and to place images of IKEA furniture within the virtual room.

I talked to IKEA Now co-founder Andy Kim, who said, ‘Our intention was originally to get IKEA’s attention.’ Their original goal was to make something so cool and useful that IKEA would snatch it up.

Instead, IKEA sent legal notice. ‘IKEA approached us in November,’ said Kim. ‘I had originally sent a letter to their CEO, who I guess forwarded it over to their legal team, who then sent me a letter. They went through Apple and told us to take down the app. At that point we had 80,000 users.’

By the time they received the letter, Kim and his co-founders had apparently been re-considering their original plan. ‘We wanted originally to create a feature that a company would find interesting and incorporate into their brand,’ he said. ‘But then we realized that we had uncovered a gold mine. After we released it, it grew so fast that we weren’t ready for it. We also found that our users wanted more furniture and more retailers. So we stepped back and we decided to instead create an app where users could shop across multiple brands.’

In response to IKEA, Kim explained, ‘we told them that we had 80,000 users and we were in the process of changing the name.’ Kim and his compatriots suggested that their loyal user base might cause reputation problems for IKEA if IKEA forced the app to shut down completely. They asked IKEA to allow them to include its furniture as one of several brands that users could see and buy.

The app is now called Furnish. ‘We now include Crate & Barrel, Pottery Barn, et cetera,’ said Kim. And it turns out that IKEA is incorporating a similar augmented reality function into their 2014 virtual catalog! I asked Kim how he felt about that and he said, ‘We welcome the competition. Brands can go ahead and build this into their native app, but brands won’t be able to compete with us in breadth of furniture, and people want breadth.’

I was curious about whether IKEA got the furniture insertion idea from observing the larger IKEA brand ecosystem, so I asked a spokeswoman, who responded: ‘IKEA is not affiliated with the Furnish App and has not had any conversations with the maker of the App. IKEA is aware of other applications with similar functions; we are not claiming to be unique. The Furnish App did not inspire the IKEA app that was recently launched to coincide with the release of the 2014 IKEA catalog. It was communicated at the time of last year’s catalog release that the enhanced AR feature would be forthcoming.’

So IKEA says it was already working on something similar. Yet I wonder whether it might have been wise for IKEA to try acquiring Furnish, or at least to approach Furnish more carefully.

After all, IKEA’s reaction to the IKEA Now app may discourage people who would otherwise be contributing to IKEA’s ecosystem and innovating on IKEA’s behalf. It might also have been in IKEA’s interest to chat with the app developers who had such a strong vision for the feature – perhaps they could have learnt something interesting. For example, Kim assured me that Furnish 2.0 will have “game-changing features.”

Either way, it’s too late for IKEA and Furnish. But what approaches might, otherwise, have bridged the gap between them?

Adopting Creative Individuals:

Coca-Cola’s Consultants

Coca-Cola is one example of a brand that does an amazing job of watching the worldwide Coca-Cola ecosystem and motivating people to contribute. The brand clearly prioritizes finding the coolest stuff out there and incorporating both the content and its creators into Coca-Cola.

‘Waldman started hanging swings on random structures one day’

Sometimes the content that Coca-Cola grabs is already connected to Coke, and sometimes it isn’t. The brand’s interaction with Jeff Waldman, an independent creative guy in San Francisco, could stand as a lesson to any brand that wants to connect with influencers. Just for fun, Waldman started hanging swings on random structures one day – and as a savvy social media user, he successfully acquired plenty of coverage for his whimsical project. He received grants to hang the swings in new cities, and he looked into making a documentary. Then Coca-Cola snapped him up as part of their Let’s Go Crazy video campaign.

I caught up with Waldman to ask about his experience with Coke, and he started by saying that he liked the brand’s honesty: ‘The producer and director called me and were very direct about their intentions. ‘Yes, it’s what it sounds like, it’s a sugar water commercial. But here is how we think it’s different and what it means to us.’ They meant it, and they had some great motives. I had some concerns about how it would play – what kind of control I had over the look and feel of my story. It might sound stupid, but I’ve become a sort of swing connoisseur. I signed on because I had input on how the swings would look and be made, and that was important to me. I was a part of the creative process, and my concerns were addressed.’

I hang swings everywhere - Jeff Waldman

Waldman added: ‘The only things big brands bring to the table are money, exposure and resources. For a lot of people, like me, it’s not always worth the money, and the exposure isn’t the ‘right kind,’ so it’s sometimes easy to turn down these opportunities. Corporations need to have a reputation of fairly handling artists and creators and their work.’

This is the kind of thing that will encourage Waldman to talk to his creative friends about how good it can be to work for Coke. It could motivate some of them to think consciously about how Coke could help them in the future, if they make themselves look like a good value proposition.

‘a couple of guys in Los Angeles made a Coca-Cola page before Coke noticed that the feature existed.’

Similarly, Coca-Cola’s Facebook page is run by two fans-turned-consultants who started it on their own for fun. Way back in 2007, Facebook had just introduced its Pages feature, and a couple of guys in Los Angeles made a Coca-Cola page before Coke noticed that the feature existed. Their names were Dusty Sorg and Michael Jedrzejewski, an actor and writer, and Coke quickly adopted them in what they describe as ‘a creative partnership.’

In fact, ‘Dusty and Michael J.’ – as they call themselves – are now basically Coke mascots. In return, they and their creative friends have derived many advantages from being connected to the wealthy and powerful brand.

I tracked Michael J. down through the Facebook page dedicated to him and Dusty. He said that, ‘When Coca-Cola contacted us, the Coca-Cola Facebook page was accruing 60,000 fans per day. The call came as a total surprise, though by then we were in the ballpark of 700,000 fans, so we figured they’d have to notice sooner or later. They did the right thing by getting out of the way, letting it happen naturally and organically, and by engaging in this partnership with real fans. It’s been really smart of Coca-Cola to let that be and not try to refine it, or move it in a different direction. It’s real. It’s authentic, and people have really good radar for what’s authentic.’

The Coke fan page today is a remarkable production, featuring tons of different ideas and apps and campaigns. I asked whether the two consultants still oversee the whole thing, and it turns out that Coke has channelled them very efficiently. Michael J. explained, ‘The page has almost 70 million fans, and what that means in real time is that Coke uses every tool that is useful. This includes agencies and services. At this point Dusty and I are creative consultants, admins at large. We can make changes, but they’re few and far between. The content schedule on that page is planned out and executed by a number of people on a daily basis, but we create and write and perform in the digital content that features us.’

The stories of Jeff Waldman and the Facebook team are not unique; they seem to be Coke’s modus operandi. Michael J. told me that during one trip to Coke’s headquarters in Atlanta, ‘we met the EepyBird guys, who were the big real-world Coke fans before we arrived. They did the thing where you drop Mentos in a Diet Coke and it explodes.’ That was in 2006 – and the EepyBird Internet coverage helped Coke double traffic to its website.

As Michael J. noted, part of the secret of Coke’s success in handling these influencers is that ‘Coca-Cola does not react negatively to people who use Coke in ways that it’s not designed for.’

The Next Level of Content Ecosystems:

The Pepsico 10

Pepsi has tried a number of different approaches to brand ecosystems. One of the most interesting ones is the PepsiCo 10, an entire startup incubator for digital media and marketing companies. In 2010, Pepsi chose 10 USA companies to support; in 2011, it moved to Europe in search of 10 new companies; in 2012, it went to Brazil, where the program is ongoing as I write this.

Here are some examples from the 2010 USA startups:

  • Breakout Band: an online platform that allows musicians of any level to create and share music.
  • TvTak: a visual recognition mobile application that provides an additional level of engagement for consumers watching a TV ad or program.
  • Tongal: offers creative people the unique opportunity to work with companies that need new and original video content by crowdsourcing content and production.

After narrowing the list of companies, Pepsi publicizes the top 10 and pairs each with one of its many sub-brands. The startup gets the chance to work on a hugely prominent ad account, and Pepsi gets innovative marketing.

One problem for digital marketing departments at world-spanning brands is that their size can make them clumsy, and their entrenched position can stifle creativity. This is part of the reason that brands have historically hired agencies, and it’s part of what Coca-Cola is trying to counteract by enfolding and encouraging small-time creatives like Dusty and Michael J. Pepsi’s bold approach with the PepsiCo 10 has created a brand ecosystem that gives them both feedback from and input on the future of digital media and marketing strategy.

In fact, the PepsiCo 10 is – in many ways – an ecosystem of ecosystems. I’m most intrigued by Tongal, the company that crowdsources video content and production. At Tongal, brands put out calls for video content of all kinds, and users respond with pitches. And Tongal is now used by many huge brands other than Pepsi. Right now, I’m looking at a Tongal call from Johnson & Johnson, which is thinking about making a webseries called Band-Aid:

Full House and Family Matters. Modern Family and Parenthood. Old beloved and instant-classic comedies that also have heart. They are funny and entertaining, yet heartwarming. Their themes are family-friendly, but they deal with everyday issues in an interesting way. The dance between comedy and drama is a delicate one, but when done right, it makes for a compelling narrative.

BAND-AID® has tapped the Tongal community to create a series that captures this magic: you choose the characters, the wacky comedic situations, and the tear-jerking tender moments that tie them altogether. The goal here is to produce a pilot that could be developed into a longer series, so make sure the stories are entertaining to watch, share, and will ultimately make people come back to see what happens next.

Filmmaker Kent Yoshimura has made a bunch of money by working with brands on Tongal. ‘I started off with McDonalds,’ he told me. ‘I didn’t win the first prize, but my video got 250,000 views on YouTube. From there, I got in with Ford and other companies.’

According to Yoshimura, Tongal has done a good job of bridging the gap between brands and individuals: ‘All of the Tongal people are extremely communicative,’ he said. ‘If you have any problems with any of the brands, you can approach them.’

However, Yoshimura also noted that the Tongal ecosystem has evolved to the point where it’s hard for individual creatives to compete. ‘For me, currently, it feels like Tongal has producers that have money to spend. They’ll gamble $2,000 on a project hoping for a $10,000 prize. I don’t have that financial power behind me, but it’s exciting to see it evolve.’

Presumably, this will make Tongal less of a creative sandbox, but it will also raise the bar on the quality of Tongal submissions. Overall, it looks like Tongal is doing great. Does that mean that Pepsi is profiting? I contacted Tongal co-founder James DeJulio and was surprised to learn that Pepsi didn’t actually invest money in the PepsiCo 10 – so the brand isn’t seeing financial dividends. He also mentioned that Pepsi’s approach to their mentees was disorganized.

‘In the early days, having [Pepsi sub-brand] Brisk was a huge win for us and our community, and I don’t want to downplay that,’ said DeJulio. ‘But if I was Pepsi, I would have made an actual equity investment these companies – so that everyone’s incentives were aligned for the long term partnership. And although Pepsi paired us with Brisk as part of the win, it wasn’t well-planned and they had to work to find the budget after the program.’

Still, DeJulio was careful to express gratitude for the exposure and connections that Tongal gained from Pepsi. And in an interview with Forbes, Pepsi executive Josh Karpf made it clear that that’s the real bottom line: ‘It’s really about investing in talent and relationships and building a network of companies…. We look at this as an investment in digital innovation that pays off in immediate programs and in long-term relationships.’

Morals of the Stories:

Ecosystem Conclusions

Facebook is the top example of a brand ecosystem, and it’s worth looking at their cycles and interdependencies. Not everyone can be Facebook, of course, but other brands can create great ecosystems too – or they can invest in the larger ecosystem around them and earn major rewards. Some tactics include:

  • Treat outside content innovators nicely, including people who use the brand in ways it’s “not designed for.” Coke is the standout here, but many brands have realized that individuals outside the company will come up with amazing things – and that people will be encouraged to contribute more as long as the brand handles them right. Outsiders sometimes even develop innovations intended to catch a brand’s attention, like the creators of the IKEA Now app.

  • Create opportunities for innovators to approach the brand. PepsiCo is doing this on a very large scale with the PepsiCo 10, which creates a brand ecosystem of whole new marketing companies. But this doesn’t have to be such a huge production; Dell’s IdeaStorm and IKEA’s Share-Space are good examples, too.

Part 2:

Early Adoption Stories

Pintermission assets, courtesy of RPA

In the introduction, I joked about how L’Oréal owns makeup.com, and how that tactic would be awesome for you if you had the foresight to snap up obvious domain names in 1998 – or if you currently have a spare million dollars. I was not entirely serious, but there’s a genuine lesson there – early adoption during the initial development of an ecosystem can lead to massive dividends.

Paul Marcum, the Director of Digital Marketing and Programming at General Electric, put it this way: ‘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.’

‘In 1998, the “canvas ecosystem” awaiting definition was the entire Internet’

In 1998, the ‘canvas ecosystem’ awaiting definition was the entire Internet, and Google was an early adopter that prospered. In 2013, the Internet has proliferated into zillions of thoroughly colonized content niches and social networks. They are increasingly narrow, but sometimes reach wide popularity. Marketers who have been watching carefully have developed a sense of how and when to jump into a barely defined new niche or network.

Leaps of Faith:

Honda Dominates Pinterest; SAP Works With Forbes; And General Electric is General

‘startled the advertising world with its blowout popularity’

Image-sharing network Pinterest launched in 2010, and by 2012 the digital strategy world could not stop talking about it. No one was sure how to market there, though. One of the first companies to run an amazing Pinterest campaign was Honda. Their agency RPA created Pintermission, which startled the advertising world with its blowout popularity. It spread across the social landscape to Facebook and Twitter, where #Pintermission trended, and Marketing Magazine estimated that it netted 16 million impressions.

The campaign managed to capitalize not only on Pinterest, but on the world’s collective Internet exhaustion: they offered five top pinners $500 each to take a break. Each pinner had a particular topic – say, cooking – that consumed many hours of time on Pinterest. So each pinner took a ‘Pintermission’ to go and actually engage in their hobby in the real world, while test-driving a new Honda. They left behind Honda-branded graphics with taglines like: ‘I can’t cook any of the recipes on my boards because I spend all my time pinning about them. I need a #Pintermission.’

This highlights the fact that it’s easier to reach influencers in new niches or networks. An established blogger or Twitter power user may be hard to impress – but in 2012, Pinterest power users were not jaded and had no idea what they were worth. So the five top pinners were thrilled to get $500 in exchange for extensively promoting Honda throughout a large campaign.

J. Barbush, Creative Social Media Director at RPA, was kind enough to chat with me about how RPA stays innovative. He told me, ‘Within RPA, we sort of incubate. We have internal contests, with stuff like ’Summer Theme! Send us your pictures of summer on Instagram!’ Sometimes it feels like we’re the yearbook committee in a high school.’ The agency also has internal lunch-and-learn classes about new platforms.

I asked Barbush whether something specific inspired Pintermission, and he said that the idea arose after they saw Starbucks’ collaborative pinboard. On Pinterest, boards can be set for either a solo creator or to allow outside users. Most brands weren’t allowing outside users, but Starbucks was set to be collaborative – ‘maybe by accident,’ said Barbush.

Starbucks didn’t appear to be doing anything special with its collaborative board, and non-employees were using it. ‘We saw that Starbucks had left themselves exposed, or open,’ said Barbush. His team decided to figure out whether they could use Pinterest’s collaborative capabilities while controlling the process a bit more.

‘The thing about a lot of these platforms is that they’re so nuanced. If you can find a way to play on that nuance, that’s what separates good marketers from great marketers.’

Like many other strategists, Barbush noted that there’s no substitute for an employee being embedded in the Internet throughout their everyday life. ‘Social media is something that people live, versus something they need to learn. There’s such a blurred line between business and personal use. A lot of the stuff that we’ve learned comes from personal use. The thing about a lot of these platforms is that they’re so nuanced. If you can find a way to play on that nuance, that’s what separates good marketers from great marketers. That really comes from rolling up your sleeves and getting in there.’

Michael Brenner, the VP of Marketing and Content Strategy at the business-software brand SAP, has also taken this lesson to heart. On his own time, he created the personal blog B2B Marketing Insider after he got involved with digital at SAP. The experience of blogging put him in a good position to write for Forbes, after Forbes approached SAP to join its BrandVoice content marketing program.

BrandVoice (formerly AdVoice) was created in 2010. The program enables big brands to essentially buy blogs on the Forbes site. SAP was wise enough to dive right in – the company was the first to join up, and Brenner is one of many SAP writers to contribute.

‘There’s an ongoing debate about the acceptability of selling article slots to marketers.’

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 has 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.

‘the willingness to take leaps of faith goes along with willingness to fail.’

Like many early adopters, Brenner and SAP have had to handle controversy – and risk failure. I often heard from these leaders 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.’

As it happens, 80% is about what most traditional publishers see as a flop rate, too. Quality content is an inherently risky game.

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.’

‘no one should lose sight of old-school storytelling’

The final thing that early adopters emphasized was that although the ecosystems may be new, no one should stop focusing on content quality, and no one should lose sight of old-school storytelling. I got really into GE’s Facebook presence because it’s genuinely charming and funny – and at one point I spotted a picture of GE branded comics from the mid-1900s. This led to a discussion of how content marketing has been around forever. Marcum acknowledged, ‘Content marketing isn’t new. If you look at the origins of so much on TV, for the longest time there were branded programs. GE was also the sponsor of trivia shows back in the day.’

General Electric’s strategy is so well-regarded – and they have become so well-connected – that they are prioritized for new opportunities by the new media platforms themselves. When Instagram was developing Instagram Video, they notified GE about the timing of the feature’s release so GE could be first to capitalize on it. GE even holds a coveted seat on the Facebook Clients Council, which helps define Facebook’s entire approach to marketing.

Systematizing Digital Innovation:

Dell’s Long-Term, Across-the-Board Program

Dell is constantly cited as a digital media innovator, and with good reason. They were one of the first big brands on Twitter and were early developers of useful branded sites like IdeaStorm. They have an interior social training program that has scaled to teach more than 10,000 employees in 55 countries. I talked to a number of different people at Dell, and all the themes I’ve touched on emerged. For example, Dell has always had employees who immerse themselves in Internet culture out of sheer curiosity. The company also has immense buy-in for the social media program from executives.

‘the brand was involved in an early Internet fiasco’

The main reason Dell developed its pioneering social presence was that the brand was involved in an early Internet fiasco: top bloggers and other influencers publicized tech support issues, and Dell had a reputation crisis on its hands – in 2005. After that, the company decided to buckle down and take the Internet seriously, with strong encouragement from none other than Michael Dell.

‘Twitter gives people a kind of social sixth sense’

I chatted with Ricardo Guerrero, a former employee who helped to create the original Dell Twitter program strategy and presence, and he described how he first encountered Twitter and didn’t immediately get it. (I have a theory that exactly zero people get Twitter the first time they see it.) But the platform piqued his curiosity, so Guerrero followed the news about it. He still remembers a New York Times article that helped it click for him. To me, he described that moment of insight this way: ‘I realized that Twitter gives people a kind of social sixth sense.’

Guerrero suggested some small Dell Twitter experiments, like a coupon, and he received permission to try them. In July 2007, Dell’s first year on Twitter, the brand garnered about 300 Twitter followers, and Guerrero surveyed them. He determined that the followers were ‘geeks,’ and that 25% of them had found out about a specific Dell program from the coupon or other Twitter announcements.

Since geeks are Dell’s target market and Twitter was clearly improving Dell’s mind share, this gave Guerrero a lot of ammunition to pursue Twitter. And Dell gave him a lot of space, which Guerrero says was crucial. ‘Dell never said, ‘You did what?!’” Guerrero told me. "They just said, “Okay, cool. Thanks. Let’s see what happens now.”’

From those days, Dell has come a long way. Their program has been profiled by social media consultants galore, from their Social Media Listening Command Center to their in-person Social Think Tanks to their Social Media & Communities training program for employees.

The company is now promoting itself as a resource for corporate social media programs, complete with a timeline of their own development.

I heard the story beginning to end from Richard Margetic, Dell’s Director of Global Social Media. He explained that Dell launched its first social media outreach team in 2006, and he enumerated a dizzying array of programs that followed. ‘At first we were just looking for conversations, being transparent,’ said Margetic. ‘The words that we were using were ‘trusted advisor.’’

Dell invested an impressive amount of effort to figure out social media. ‘In order to scale,’ he said, ‘we had to be able to prove that the business was getting a benefit as well as the customers. We spent the entire summer of 2008 with four of us locked in a room 90 minutes, Monday through Friday, doing a deep dive into how we could get social media into a situation where it is valued by the company while giving value to customers.’

90 minutes, five days per week, is an awful lot of time for high-level employees to spend on something unfamiliar and unproven. Still, their thoughtfulness paid off. One of the most interesting things about the Dell training program is that it abstracts social media by type, rather than focusing on specific platforms. Instead of training specifically for, say, Twitter, Dell has taken a step back: they train for blogging (e.g. Wordpress), micro-blogging (e.g. Twitter), business networks (e.g. LinkedIn), and so on. Employees who take the social media training learn about social policy, tone, and legal issues, and they also receive general training for ‘how to engage in communities.’

This means that the program can easily cross cultures. Although there are always local nuances, Dell has quickly adapted the program to new environments such as China, where platforms are different. The Dell program and its trainees are also resilient as networks pivot, expand, and are supplanted by others.

Margetic explained: ‘What we understand is that social is social. We understand that there are two things that need to be taken into account: audience and functionality. The core strategy doesn’t change; it’s just that we’re talking to a different group of people using different methods. We just need to be agile in swapping methods.’

By now, Margetic said, social is thoroughly integrated across Dell. ‘Our content people are fully trained in social. In SEO, we’ve got a person whose job is to relate it to social. In legal, we’ve got a person whose sole responsibility is to be there everyday to understand what’s happening in social.’

Today, one thing Dell is looking into is ‘connecting online engagement to offline sales – seeing the entire journey. We want the ability to connect social to all sales, including offline sales. One method is correlating IP addresses to corporations and looking up corporate sales. Another is connecting social IDs with Dell account information so we can understand who’s who in social.’ In other words, Dell is figuring out how its people can tell at a glance exactly which Dell products are owned by a given Twitter handle.

Somehow, during this social whirl, content strategy got a bit siloed – but Dell is working on it. I spoke to Colleen Jones, author of Clout: The Art And Science of Influential Web Content, who recently consulted with Dell. She said, ‘When I started working with Dell, they had seen the benefit of content strategy for particular projects or engagements and realized that they needed to scale it. Some teams would start to create content and then other teams would create the same content, or they’d have gaps in some areas where no one was creating content to cover it. The challenges for them were around, “how do we do this consistently for every kind of content, from marketing to tech support to customer service? How do we operationalize that?”’

So – similarly to their approach to social media – Jones helped Dell create training on the fundamentals of content strategy. ‘From start to finish, we involved all the different people who touch content,’ she said. ‘Everyone heard a little bit about each other’s perspective, like the consequences of lack of planning up front for someone who gets the content later. The productive conversation that we had in bringing those people together went a long way towards making the training effective. The second success that we had was introducing common vocabulary for content strategy. We got on the same page of what content strategy means, what are the phases of it, what each phase means, and some tools to help implement it.’

Like everyone else, Jones was impressed by Dell’s gung-ho attitude. ‘With other organizations, I’ve experienced stakeholders or entire teams being resistant to change. The problems that Dell was experiencing are not necessarily unique, but what was unique to Dell was the enthusiasm and willingness to do something about it – the desire to embrace change in that regard.’

Morals of the Stories:

Early Adoption Conclusions

Adopting a new platform or ecosystem early is one way to gain a great following fast. Early adopter brands also gain a reputation for content and social innovation, which can mean that they are offered new opportunities later. Here are some tactics for creating an environment that encourages early adoption:

  • Give employees time, incentive, and backing to play with new platforms. Honda’s agency RPA does this by running internal platform-specific contests and lunch-and-learn sessions. Dell created a stellar social media program by standing back and giving employees space to experiment, then by devoting significant time towards discussing what they had learned and creating trainings for it.
  • Be willing to fail. Real innovation is always risky – in any field. It can be controversial, too. Executives from General Electric and SAP have noted that content strategy is no exception. Strong buy-in and consistent communication from leaders, as well as explicit willingness to fail, can encourage employees to take those crucial risks.

Part 3:

Brands as Publishers

The Creators Project, courtesy of Vice
‘jaded consumers are saturated by quality, interesting content’

The brand-as-publisher is a buzzword, but a good one. It’s an inevitable consequence of an ecosystem whose jaded consumers are saturated by quality, interesting content. The main principle of the brand-as-publisher is to aim for content that’s great in itself and doesn’t turn people off with a sales pitch – somewhat like the content that traditional publishers and media companies have been making for years.

‘Content marketers have to ask whether this is going to help the customer, or if it’s selfish promotion that increasingly in today’s world is getting tuned out,’ said Michael Brenner, VP of Marketing and Content Strategy at SAP. ‘We need to courageously push back on over-promotion and truly put our customers first.’ He pointed out that the people who do bother to look at over-promotional stuff are ‘increasingly turned off,’ and that most people don’t bother.

‘We need to courageously push back on over-promotion and truly put our customers first.’

The thing about new media is that it’s all opt-in: people have to sign up, sign in, or at least sit still without clicking away to another window. And convincing people to opt in is a tall order. Brenner put it like this: ‘There’s not a statistic in the world that shows people opting in more. They’re opting out more!’

Thought Leadership:

SAP’s How-To Formula and Intel’s Creators Project

In the Early Adopter section, I interviewed Michael Brenner about how SAP has partnered with Forbes’ BrandVoice program to create thought leadership content on the Forbes website. Brenner has also developed other content programs for SAP, including an extensive batch of how-tos.

‘Our objective is to create more content that people want to consume, hoping that we build our brand in the process,’ he said. ‘We’re looking at all the different ways that people like to consume information. Our first goal is to be helpful. One of the first things we did was decide that every topic we cover will start with “What is X?” For example, “What is big data?” The next step from “What is” is “How to” or “15 things you need to know.” It’s kind of a formula.’

‘the Internet is drowning in how-tos’

But, Brenner acknowledged, the formula has gotten boring. Plus, the Internet is drowning in how-tos; there’s only so much more it can take. ‘So we decided that we wanted to start entertaining folks as well. We’re doing more visual content. Right now we’re building sites for major league sports organizations where we’re the engine that’s driving the display of the stats around different teams. I would have never thought that I could help a big traditional tech company help sports fans, but it’s really fun.’

A great example on the SAP website is their Data Challenge, a game that helps people learn how to use SAP software to solve data problems. The trailer is worth watching – it’s got catchy music and nice visual design and a good concept, namely that data will help you solve a strange casino mystery. It all feels very James Bond-like.

Still, much of SAP’s best content remains in their extensive business blogs. When it comes to the blogs’ performance, Brenner explained, ‘We look at reach, engagement, and conversion. In reach, we look at whether we’re getting traffic from unbranded search terms that we weren’t getting before.’ Most people find the main SAP site using branded search terms, but apparently the blogs are found through 90% unbranded search terms, which is a definite win.

‘We’re also seeing upwards of 5 minutes spent on the site,’ Brenner said. ‘5 minutes is a great validation that people are actually reading the content. And we’re seeing way more subscribers than we expected. We started with subtle calls to action like ‘come explore this area,’ and we noticed that those things don’t work, but when we have next step offers – for example, ’subscribe to read more’ – we’re seeing way more subscribers than we expected.

‘The biggest surprise,’ he added, ‘was that we figured blog visitors would be early stage, and we would be happy if some small percentage of our traffic converted. But we were way higher than what we thought we would be in terms of converting visitors to some form of lead, registration, chat, phone call or app store visitor.’

‘If writing scares someone, then they don't belong on a content team.’

How did he build the team that’s done such a good job? ‘I think you’ve gotta be a content creator – I require everyone on my team to write. If writing scares someone, then they don’t belong on a content team. Being analytically minded is another thing – have that skill set of understanding basic web analytics and social media analytics. People who are already active on social get that. The rest of it can be trained. I think what’s noteworthy is that we are not spending millions of dollars to create the team or build the site, and we didn’t outsource everything either. I see brands either spend too much money on internal resources or outsourcing from the start.

‘we are not spending millions of dollars to create the team’

‘We decided to start small, to test what works, and to accept that we don’t know everything about everything,’ Brenner continued. ‘The first thing we did was hire an analytics person who started looking at the data. She also manages our social media, so she shares what she thinks will work. The second thing we did was hire a content curator who could act like an editor of third-party content. She looks at who else is smart in these areas, and looks internally and externally for thought leaders, and then she recruits them as authors. These authors get access to our audience, while we get their content.’ Brenner admitted that this means giving up the SEO benefits of original content, but he believes it’s worth it.

‘one of his biggest battles was over branding the SAP blogs’

I read an article about Brenner that claimed one of his biggest battles was over branding the SAP blogs, but when I asked him about that, he demurred. ‘I wouldn’t say it was a fight,’ he said. ‘I think it was a compromise. The question was, how prominent should the brand label be? Keep in mind that the blog we developed for SAP was in reaction to data and analysis showing that a significant amount of the traffic coming to our site was a brand term – those people knew that SAP was what they were looking for. They were in the process of looking into a vendor or checking into something a salesperson told them. We wanted to build a different site that helps people who don’t know who we are.’

There was talk of making the SAP blog a completely independent domain, but that was controversial. The compromise was to make it a separate domain on the SAP site, i.e. blogs.sap.com. Brenner described their design process: ‘The logo is very small and up to the left – as opposed to having a similar look and feel to our website, which has a stylized, glossy, brochure-type feel to it. In fact, the first version of the blog site was just white with a yellow banner and a tiny little SAP logo. The goal is to show that we’re just here to help, not to sell.’

‘Miniature Robots Follow A Hand-drawn Circuit’

In contrast, Intel has made a separate domain for its incredibly successful Creators Project, which it developed in partnership with ‘alternative’ media company Vice. The Creators Project has a dizzying and skilfully written array of articles on topics like ‘Miniature Robots Follow A Hand-drawn Circuit Translating Color Into Sound,’ or ‘Sculptural Face Masks Replicate Reality Using 3D Printing.’ It also has subtle branding similar to SAP’s blogs.

In an interview with Google’s Engagement Project, Vice CEO Shane Smith said: ‘Gen Y has been marketed to since they were two. They have very sophisticated BS sensors. The only way around those sensors is not to BS. They get it. They understand ads make magazines possible, make online possible, make TV possible, make radio possible. So why don’t you be smart about it? Why don’t you create long tail media assets that people like? For example, if you bring people a Spike Jonze movie and it says this is made possible by Intel, people get it. You don’t have to have product placement, you don’t have to have commercials. They get it. You brought me something by someone I like. Thanks Intel, I get it. You get me. That’s cool.’

‘The Creators Project is also scoring Intel status among brilliant philosophers, not just hipsters.’

The Creators Project is also scoring Intel status among brilliant philosophers, not just hipsters. Intel spokeswoman Jessica Hansen told me that The Creators Project is situated ‘where the art and tech worlds collide, so it’s about providing artists with tech. People are constantly taking tech and coming up with truly amazing things, and there are examples of some of those creators working directly with Intel engineers. Intel engineers talk to them about what they want tech to do, today or in the future. Creators Project artists are not directly involved in the development of Intel products, but the research team does take ideas back to their team.’ Of course, this goes back to the points I made in the Ecosystem section about research and development.

Real Journalism:

Dell’s Star Journalist

Forbes and Vice were ahead of the curve, but journalists and our usual haunts are increasingly amenable to branded content. Wired is only the most recent respected media outlet to create a department for branded content, with real journalists in it and everything. Even the New Yorker is getting in on the action.

Many brands aren’t working with journalism outlets, but are still hiring journalists for specifically journalistic things (such as this report). Stephanie Losee is a journalist who worked for Fortune and PC Magazine, and is now Dell’s Managing Editor, directing editorial content strategy. It sounds like she considers herself a legit publisher in that capacity: ‘Part of my day is spent thinking about what we can do with our content site Tech Page One, and another part is conducting writing trainings with groups all over Dell, and launching initiatives to ensure that we have tools to formalize our role as a publisher across the company.’

Some journalists are unsettled or angered by the idea of working for brands, but Losee loves her job. For one thing, it’s just plain exciting. ‘I’m finding it intriguing as a sort of content anthropologist,’ she said. ‘At the beginning of a shift in business, I find it so interesting how different companies go about it. [Journalists are] in a position to innovate, and lead, and make decisions about where the industry is going.’

‘I fight with people who talk about the terrible terrible demise of journalism’

Losee went on, ‘I fight with people who talk about the terrible terrible demise of journalism at the hands of the Internet and brands, oh villainous brands. I don’t think that we should be looking for a villain. All that happened is that brands used to pay for journalism indirectly through advertising – even when I was in journalism, I was always aware that I would have to tread carefully writing a negative story about an advertiser. So, I don’t want to hear conversations about purity. Brands used to pay for journalism indirectly, and now they’re paying for journalism directly. It’s not like you would never see a computer ad in a magazine – of course, you would! If you remember that brands always paid your bills, then I don’t think there’s anything to be bitter about.’

She specified, of course, that we should ‘keep in mind that I’m not talking about investigative journalism, and neither should any other brand.’ There are some types of journalism that are simply not suited for branded outlets, and there always will be.

Counterpoint:

Overheard in the Goldman Sachs Elevator

One of my favorite examples of branded content appears to be a totally unintentional promotion of the company in question. In fact, not only is it unintentional, but it seems to be spearheaded by an enemy of the company. It’s almost a journalistic exposé, and it epitomizes the idea that the best content is non-promotional.

I don’t know much about investment banking, but even I know that Goldman Sachs has a controversial history full of alleged misdeeds. The 144-year-old company is not famous for its openness, so there was a bit of a stir when it officially joined Twitter in 2012. One might say GS already had a Twitter presence, though: the ‘Overheard in the Goldman Sachs Elevator’ @GSElevator account reportedly had 261,000 followers by the time @GoldmanSachs sent their first tweet.

Today, @GSElevator has over 540,000 followers – over seven times as many as @GoldmanSachs. It has been featured by media outlets from Gawker to CNN Money. In fact, the first Google auto-complete line after ‘goldman sachs’ is ‘goldman sachs elevator.’ This might be great for Goldman Sachs, but it’s hard to say because … well, here are some @GSElevator tweets:

Basically, @GSElevator is an anti-Goldman Sachs mini-blog. The person behind @GSElevator doesn’t use Twitter for conversation; the account is entirely devoted to mocking the company by publishing terrible, inane, and breathtakingly arrogant quotes overheard at the office. It used to include racist and misogynist quotes too, but the creator of @GSElevator decided to stop tweeting those in July, after he concluded that he was accidentally supporting the bigotry he abhors, and also because his agent advised him to stop. Because he has an agent. And he’s working on a book deal.

‘the account is entirely devoted to mocking the company by publishing terrible, inane, and breathtakingly arrogant quotes overheard at the office’

This could be seen as the ultimate example of a media debacle for the brand … but is it? I caught up with the elusive (and anonymous) Mr. Elevator by email to learn more about what inspired his online presence, what he thinks about the official Goldman Sachs Twitter strategy, and Twitter strategy at large within the finance world. Mr. Elevator has apparently been in finance for 15 years, though he hasn’t been with Goldman Sachs the whole time. That would imply that he likes it, right?

‘bankers act like they are rock stars’

Or not. ‘I am very cynical for a few reasons,’ he wrote to me. ‘1) People in this industry take themselves far too seriously. 2) There really aren’t that many people on Wall Street that are truly impressive as people, thinkers, or innovators. 3) For the most part, the job is not terribly difficult, yet bankers act like they are rock stars. 4) The culture is exceptionally deviant and morally deprived.’

He’s not impressed by the official Twitter account, either. ‘They need to either embrace the culture of Twitter or get off completely,’ he wrote. ‘It seems like they use it as an extension of their traditional PR drivel, as a platform to push everything from standard press releases to attempting to highlight their small business mentoring initiative. I find it painful to see.’

It can certainly be jarring to compare @GSElevator tweets to material like this:

As it happens, many challenges for finance firms on Twitter are legal or purely capitalistic ones. The Securities & Exchange Commission, which is the relevant overseeing body, is only just catching up to regulating financial information flow on Twitter and Facebook; a press release in April covered the acceptable usage of these platforms for making announcements to investors.

‘the ultimate social media experiment in the finance world is just beginning to unfold right now’

Mr. Elevator added that ‘the ultimate social media experiment in the finance world is just beginning to unfold right now, with [billionaire investor] Carl Icahn just joining Twitter and promising to break specific stories via Twitter and inform the Twitterverse on moves he is making or stocks he is buying. That is material information that will have an impact on markets.’

Potential legal and financial risks have made Goldman Sachs incredibly cagey about having a public face. But of course, as digital marketers everywhere already know, there’s often more risk in not having a social media presence than there is in having one. The GS global head of brand marketing and digital strategy, Lisa Shalett, said in an appearance at What’s Next DC that GS finally reached the same conclusion after they searched YouTube and found 34,000 GS videos – none of which were under the brand’s control. That, apparently, was when they finally decided that an online presence was worth risking legal foofaraw.

I asked Mr. Elevator what he’d say if Goldman Sachs came to him and requested his strategic advice. ‘They really should think about doing some exclusive interviews with their own staff,’ he said, ‘like views on equities, rates, emerging markets, the economy, etc.’ That’s the same type of thought leadership content that worked incredibly well for SAP and their Forbes writers. It also sidesteps both regulatory concerns, and the moral questions that @GSElevator highlights.

Mr. Elevator suggested light-hearted content, too, especially in the wake of a New York Magazine piece that pondered whether the GS CEO’s much-discussed beard is ‘nuzzle-able.’ ‘How about a story by GS about GS, where they talk about the stubble beard?’ asked Mr. Elevator. ‘They could go around and find out how many people internally have subsequently adopted that look.’

So how has GS reacted to @GSElevator, anyway? ‘When I first started getting attention,’ said Mr. Elevator, ‘they tried to bully media not to write about it – New York Post and New York Times reporters both told me that GS put a lot of pressure on them to not write about @GSElevator or give it any kind of credibility. Once GS realized that that approach wouldn’t work, they have taken the ‘no comment’ stance.’

To be fair, GS is in a tricky position. For advice, I turned to Paul Gillin, author of Attack Of The Customers: Why Critics Assault Brands Online and How To Avoid Becoming a Victim. Said Gillin: ‘I’m frankly surprised that the account is still active given that it depicts people at Goldman Sachs in such an unpleasant light. If I were Goldman I would make it a priority to identify the author, and then either force him or her to shut it down or expose the identity of the author. If the person works for Goldman, the company should have some leverage to force the issue. If he or she doesn’t, then Goldman is within its rights to expose the person’s identity and state that the quotes are fictitious or at best secondhand. I would rationalize that action by pointing out that it’s in the best interest of customers that private discussions within the company remain private. I don’t believe a reasonable person would disagree with that course of action, although Goldman would no doubt draw criticism for taking any action at all. I think they’re justified in this case.’

As far as I can tell, no one has yet identified Mr. Elevator, and he told me that he’s quite careful to keep it that way. During our conversation I also half-jokingly speculated that @GSElevator might be useful for Goldman Sachs – perhaps the Twitter account is functionally a culture filter and hiring tool for the company. After all, the financial industry has survived many such slings and arrows before, and came through with plenty of eager applicants. In fact, some applicants might be more excited about Wall Street after reading @GSElevator.

Mr. Elevator agreed: ‘Just as I write this, the following tweet popped up on my Mentions bar: “This may sound trite but @GSElevator makes me want to become an investment banker.” That’s also one of the reasons I have toned down the really offensive / racist tweets, because I realized that some people are completely misconstruing @GSElevator. My intention was a tongue-in-cheek critical social commentary on the ridiculous culture of Wall Street, and yet, some people come away from it with comments like, “Wow. This is why I want to be an investment banker.”’

It is undeniable that @GSElevator is extremely interesting and unique, which is the definition of great content. I certainly think about Goldman Sachs a lot more than I used to, and I talk about it with my friends more, too. Some of us actually text each other out of excitement when we see updates, which is the mark of a great campaign. And while the Twitter account highlights GS bankers’ snide privilege, it simultaneously highlights their wealth.

A cynical person might wonder whether Mr. Elevator himself has already quietly been co-opted by Goldman Sachs … or indeed, whether Mr. Elevator exists at all. But if that were true, presumably they’d have a more exciting official social media presence … unless they’re trying to throw us off the scent! I’d love to ask GS about this directly, and I’d love to learn more about what kind of positive things they’re planning as part of their digital strategy. Alas, their PR office did not respond to interview requests.

Morals of the Stories:

Brand Publishing Conclusions

Marketing is tiresomely ubiquitous across the Internet, and there are miles of content as far as the eye can see. To succeed in this hyper-competitive environment, content must be authentically unselfish and genuinely great. Some tactics include:

  • Don’t over-promote. Both SAP and Intel chose subtle, rather than pushy, branding for their content sites. The brands focus on helping clients with relevant problems or highlighting cool stuff around the world, rather than talking about how great SAP and Intel are. From another perspective, @GSElevator – which is ostensibly intended to attack Goldman Sachs – has ultimately made the brand look attractive to some people. After all, @GSElevator is consistently entertaining, and it highlights the main thing GS employees are supposed to do well – i.e., be rich.
  • Find content creators whose priorities and experience are with great content. Brands are increasingly partnering with established media companies, like SAP with Forbes and Intel with Vice. They’re also hiring people who have a background creating truly engaging material, such as Dell choosing a journalist to head Tech Page One.

Part 4:

Hypercontextual

Roses by... Dussan Rejlin

Today’s marketers have an unprecedented ability to pinpoint target audiences, track location and activities, and work with the resulting information. With various mobile strategies, marketers can even follow their customers around. As a result, marketers are creating contextual content that augments real-time activities ... as well as content whose major goal is to learn about the audience by collecting their data.

Augmented Reality:

IKEA and L’Oréal Make Apps While The Sun Shines

In the Ecosystem section, I mentioned that IKEA is putting a furniture-insertion feature in their 2014 digital catalog – i.e., the user can look at a room through their phone’s camera, and then see how furniture would look in the room. IKEA already has an app that enables users to check deals and create shopping lists that are linked to in-store inventory. Plus, the app features a live map of the store, which is a wise move for a retailer whose stores are infamously maze-like. It may also be teaching IKEA how people move through its stores, and which pieces of furniture customers have trouble finding.

In fact, IKEA previously collaborated with Google Maps back in 2011, so anyone with the Google Maps app can access IKEA layouts too.

Likewise, makeup megabrand L’Oréal has attacked the app ecosystem with a will. Attack! Marketing was hired to devise an in-store app for the L’Oréal sub-brand Matrix that both surveyed customers and promoted Matrix products. The agency’s owner Andrew Loos told me that sales went up around the area where the app was deployed by 16%.

‘The app was designed specifically for stylists,’ explained Loos. ‘It was a way for us to get information about them to follow up, and a way to recruit and start funnelling down.’ Loos said that ‘an army of salon owners and style influencers’ were trained in the app’s use. They installed it on iPads, then deposited those iPads at various makeup-purveying locations after they trained staff to use the app too.

The app’s structure included a survey form, which entered the person into a sweepstakes for an all-expenses-paid trip to New York to meet a famous celebrity hairstylist. It also had videos with makeup tips for Matrix products. Product samples were sent to people who used the app a lot, so as Loos said, ‘people who stayed in conversation with us for the longest got more.’

L’Oréal media magicians have also created augmented reality apps that allow people to change nail colors on their own hands while looking through the phone’s camera, or play color theory games that require the player to be at a L’Oréal location. One recent and lovely example was an app for sub-brand Lancôme called “20 Bloggers for a Rose: The Lancôme Virtual Gallery.” The app was paired with a specific Toronto town square during the L’Oréal-sponsored Luminato arts festival. Lancôme recruited influential bloggers to provide images, and the images were viewed by app users who panned their smartphone cameras around the square.

Back to the Web:

Build your Honda; General Electric’s Kitchen Reimagined; and Louis Vuitton’s Nowness

Content can be made for all kinds of reasons, and as I have emphasized from the beginning, content strategy can be practically indistinguishable from social media strategy. But the most important place to focus on content is in a place the brand controls – its websites. On an owned website, the brand can not only test web design to its heart’s content, but can observe all the data it could possibly imagine.

I’ve mentioned the American Express OPEN Forum, which has become a significant go-to informational resource for small businesses. I’ve talked about research and development communities like Dell’s IdeaStorm and IKEA’s Share-Space; I’ve talked about blogs with SAP; and I’ve talked about building artsy influence with Intel’s Creators Project. To round off this report, I found a few more examples of interesting websites that big brands have created – not just as promotion but to gather information.

Honda has a web feature called Build Your Honda, which allows users to specify everything from model to seating to fuel efficiency. I spoke to Alicia Jones, head of the social media team at Honda, and she explained that most of Honda’s online activity is about branding rather than direct sales. "The car-buying process is long, with a 6-8 year gap between buys,” she said. “So the media opportunity for us is more brand-building and loyalty. Our goal is to be present and top of mind during those 6-8 years.”

“Pre-internet, our main touch point was just the dealership,” Jones continued. ‘We’re now increasingly working to track the effect that our efforts on social are having in driving actions on the website.’ Although people can’t buy cars on the Honda site, they can use Build Your Honda to play around with what their imaginary car might look like. So Honda could learn everything from what colors users are looking at, to how people are pricing out cars, and can use traffic sources to extrapolate how buyers started thinking about their options.

Likewise, General Electric has a site called Kitchen Reimagined that shows everything from baking how-tos to appliance schematics. Their spokespeople noted the same patterns: they’re trying to figure out which content leads users to look for real-life stories.

The Kitchen Reimagined is also a way of thanking customers. Director of Advertising Tim Matis told me that a major goal was ‘to highlight the unique role that the end consumer plays in our go-to market strategy. We spent countless hours on[LL18] research, and wanted to showcase the consumer leading us down the path to all these great ideas.’

For example, one section of the Kitchen Reimagined site documents the refrigerator, and one area of the page says, ‘You said: Appliances should have a more modern, streamlined look with fewer bold curves. We studied the human hand to determine how much we could reduce the curve on the handles.’ Then the page displays a diagram of an open hand that slides into a diagram of how the hand grips the fridge handle. So this section is both an indirect thank you for feedback, and a method of determining which fridge improvements motivate consumers to click ‘Where To Buy.’

‘a remarkable arts and culture resource’

Yet of all these examples, perhaps the most glorious and mysterious content site I’ve seen is Nowness, created by luxury brand Louis Vuitton. Nowness is a remarkable arts and culture resource full of beautiful short videos about design, travel, fashion, and other topics. Yet nowhere on the site does it show the Louis Vuitton logo – or even mention Louis Vuitton. The only credits are in the website’s footer, which leads to Louis Vuitton’s agency Create The Group.

Only if you thoroughly examine the website for Create The Group do you learn that ‘LVMH’ made Nowness. There’s also a tiny link for Press in the Nowness footer, and a few of the articles in the Press section mention Louis Vuitton, but most don’t.

So what is the point of Nowness? Perhaps, given that it’s a luxury brand, Louis Vuitton calculates that only the ‘right people’ need to know who made it, and it would be gauche to brag. It’s also undeniable that the Internet audience has hair-trigger sensitivity to marketing these days, so if a primary goal of Nowness is to build influence, then perhaps removing all overt references to brands is a smart move. Would people trust the site as much if it were not unbranded?

But really … you knew this was coming … the main thing to keep in mind is that Nowness collects a prodigious amount of data. Like many similar sites, Nowness requires a login for people to comment. Users have the ability to ‘Love’ (i.e., ‘Like’) various types of content. The data is used to provide them with a personalized experience – and presumably used by Louis Vuitton to keep track of what people appreciate. Many people who log in also give Nowness access to their Facebook or Twitter profiles. The site collects email addresses for mailing lists, and there is not only a general Nowness mailing list, but specific lists for categories like fashion.

‘the up-and-coming Chinese cultural landscape’

The site has become well-known in the West – and Nowness recently expanded into China, where it’s really taking off. As brands struggle to understand the up-and-coming Chinese cultural landscape, information from Nowness will give Louis Vuitton crucial and unmatched insight. The Global Digital Media Director at Louis Vuitton, Kamel Ouadi, has publicly maintained that Nowness is editorially independent, and that data is used primarily to improve user experience: “The intelligence is shared with our editorial team to analyze the performance of our stories with the main objective to better serve our online users and fans.” But Louis Vuitton could hardly be blamed for keeping an eagle eye on patterns revealed by a publication it owns.

Finally, like The Creators Project with Intel, Nowness gives Louis Vuitton status with artistic celebrities. Material from the site is frequently featured in luxury and arts publications. That, plus the data, makes the site totally worth the effort – even with no branding at all.

Morals of the Stories:

Hypercontextual Content

Brands have a plethora of new ways to get close to consumers: they can pinpoint informational resources and solutions, and they can track users’ activities very precisely. The most important tactics for brands devising a hypercontextual experience are:

  • Create content that directly augments real-life experiences. Apps and websites like IKEA’s in-store companion and Honda’s Build Your Honda are helping people engage with products both efficiently and personally.
  • Content doesn’t just teach; it learns. All these websites allow their parent brands to learn about buyers’ habits and patterns, too. Even websites like Louis Vuitton’s Nowness, which doesn’t blatantly promote Louis Vuitton, is helping its parent brand because it’s gathering information about the cultural landscape of luxury.

A Cluster of Conclusions

‘ great content requires both inventiveness and delicacy’

Content is key, as many marketers nowadays will tell you. It’s not easy: great content requires both inventiveness and delicacy. Yet it yields so much influence, data, and other great stuff that it’s worth it.

Not all brands are doing a great job with content. In fact, most aren’t but the brands who are smart about content have already derived such dividends that everyone else is stressing about how to catch up. On the bright side, now the rest of the world has a window into how they did it!

There is no magic bullet for excellent content. But I’ll summarize the tactics that I’ve emphasized throughout this report:

  • Be aware of how brand ecosystems work and where their interconnections are. Treat outside content innovators nicely, including people who use the brand in ways it’s ‘not designed for:’ this can both reward brand advocates and encourage others to create cool stuff, hoping to catch the brand’s eye. Create opportunities for innovators to approach the brand: when outsiders have amazing ideas, the brand is much more likely to hear about those ideas if it’s listening.
  • Early adoption can really help a brand build its reputation, so brands should keep their ear to the ground. Give employees time, incentive, and backing to play with new platforms: find ways to meaningfully reward them for time spent in the social media sandbox. Simultaneously, be willing to fail: plenty of platforms go under or never take off in the first place, but if nothing is ventured then nothing will be gained.
  • Brands can be publishers, and they can gain the status and influence that good publishers have. For best results, don’t over-promote: the branding should be subtle and the content inherently interesting. It should draw people in because they actually like it – there is no longer any such thing as a captive audience. And to make stuff people like, find content creators whose priorities and experience are with great content: there are lots of artists and journalists who are willing to help. (Not that I’m biased or anything.)
  • Finally, context is key, not just content. Create content that directly augments real-life experiences: apps that help people with daily tasks, for example, or websites that encourage customers to virtually try a new product. This content doesn’t just teach; it learns. Even if a website’s content does not convert to a single sale, the site’s owner can learn about the market by tracking users’ tastes and preferences.

As a final note, I want to practice what I preach and be a good listener by giving you the opportunity to tell me what you think of this book. My consultancy is called Journalism For Brands, so you can find me over at Journalism for Brands. I love nothing more than Twitter, and I’m lucky that my name is unique, so I’m @lydialaurenson. You can even email me at lydia.laurenson@gmail.com. And hey, if you’re saying hi, you can also greet my employers at Distilled or follow them over @distilled.

Thank you from Distilled

When reading blog posts analysing companies' online marketing strategies, I've often been frustrated by the lack of information direct from the brands themselves and from the people closest to the work. We had a vision of a report that went deeper and that was based on interviews and research to let brand marketing teams tell their sides of the story.

We started work on the research that would turn into Brandopolis back in April. As we worked on it, we found ourselves revisiting our assumptions and discovering the themes that would turn into the report you've just read.

It has been fantastic to work with Lydia and see her ability to tease stories out of diverse interviews, desk research and third-party accounts. I hope you've enjoyed reading our conclusions as much as we enjoyed putting them all together. We see Brandopolis as just the beginning of a process to invest more heavily in in-depth and long-form content. If you'd like to be the first to hear when we publish new stuff, just sign to our email list in the box on the right.

I'd love to hear any feedback you might have - you can reach me at will.critchlow@distilled.net.

Until next time,

Will Critchlow, co-founder, Distilled