This article was originally published on my Forbes column here.
Picture yourself preparing for a vacation to Sedona, Arizona. As you search for the best tips on where to eat, hike or spend a day at the spa, you’ll probably find yourself flipping the pages of a travel magazine or scrolling through articles online. Sure enough, you find the suggestions you’re looking for and start booking your vacation.
You might guess the article you’re reading appears in Travel + Leisure or Condé Nast Traveler. But you’re actually reading Airbnbmag, a branded magazine partnership that pairs Airbnb’s travel insights with the power of Hearst’s world-class magazine production.
Airbnbmag is an example of how branded content is transforming the way brands engage their audiences. When the publication was launched in 2017, Airbnb was valued at approximately $30 billion—but its execs knew that simply competing in the hospitality space is no longer enough to ensure long-term success.
To foster loyal brand advocates, Airbnb needed to enhance its image as a premium lifestyle brand—a challenge Hearst Magazines had already mastered for 25 national magazines with more than 300 global editions. The partnership proved lucrative for Hearst and opened new opportunities for Airbnb to compete with legacy travel brands in media.
Today, successful brands think of themselves as media companies by investing in premium content that performs well on multiple platforms, cuts through audience fragmentation, and engages customers in real dialogue
Cross-platform content will replace single channel brands
Businesses that rely solely on a website and traditional advertising to hold their audience’s attention will soon fall behind. Today’s media landscape demands a cross-platform approach with multiple touchpoints for connecting with consumers.
Brands today compete in a flattened media landscape. When people consume content online, in print, on podcasts or through videos, they’re more likely to care about the quality of the content than who created it or even where it appears.
Media companies and traditional businesses are adjusting their idea of where, how and why content is created and published. Platforms like Instagram, Twitter and YouTube are designed to make branded content feel as relevant and accessible as content from a friend or a media company. In fact, the distinction between branded and non-branded content is so subtle that the Federal Trade Commission developed new guidelines that crack down on brands that disguise the promotional purpose behind their content.
To cope with this shift, brands are increasingly embracing a cross-platform approach. Instead of creating a branded blog or Instagram profile, smart businesses repurpose their content and optimize assets for multiple platforms. A successful brand is instantly recognizable, no matter where its content appears.
For example, Marriott invests heavily in a global brand studio that nimbly crafts content to engage millions of people around the world. By hiring media professionals, Marriott uses creativity and storytelling to create memorable premium content that engages its audience.
In 2015, Marriott produced a 24-minute short film called French Kiss about an American business traveler who’s staying at a Paris Marriott only to be drawn into a romantic cat-and-mouse chase with a playful French woman.
In a single channel approach, Marriott might have posted French Kiss on its website and waited for people to discover it. Instead, the film was released on YouTube, where it has attracted more than 6.2 million views. French Kiss was also screened at a gala hosted at Los Angeles’ Marina del Rey Marriott, ran in movie theaters, and became an in-room entertainment option on Marriott’s televisions and website. By starting with one content asset, Marriott launched a cross-platform campaign that reached its audience through a wide variety of channels online and in person.
Any company that invests in premium content should maximize its initial investment by taking a cross-platform approach.
Content needs to reach fragmented audiences
Today, people consume more content on a wider range of platforms than ever before. According to Nielsen, American adults spend up to 11 hours consuming media each day, including up to six hours of video content split between streaming platforms, mobile apps, traditional television and websites. As the recent wave of layoffs across the media industry shows, this fragmentation presents serious challenges for content producers.
Traditional targeted advertising still plays an important role in content creation. Before brands invest in content like Marriott’s short film, they should audit audience data that informs them where content should be targeted and what should be created in the first place. While Marriott’s business travelers might enjoy its short film, other businesses might attract an audience that wants to curl up with a magazine or listen to a podcast at the gym.
Content should be published on and optimized for platforms where your audience naturally congregates, directly engaging the people who are most likely to share it.
For example, Panera Bread, the popular sandwich and pastry chain, recently launched a new labeling system to help customers understand how its food supports a healthy diet. Panera Bread used this seemingly mundane administrative shift as the catalyst behind Food Interrupted, a new six-episode digital video series that published content weekly.
In addition to publishing the episodes on a mini website dedicated to the project, Panera Bread embraced the fact that food content is a mainstay on Instagram, which features more than 319 million posts with the hashtag “food.”
For its Food Interrupted campaign, Panera Bread repurposed video clips from the series as Instagram posts for its 477,000 followers, using a branded hashtag. The strategy worked: One Instagram video of a recipe for baking whole grain bread attracted nearly 17,000 views. The video was shot in the same style as BuzzFeed’s popular Tasty series, showing easy-to-follow instructions paired with an overhead shot of a person’s hands going through each step.
Panera Bread’s savvy content strategy leveraged its audience’s existing presence on Instagram to craft content optimized for the platform. Although viewers still flocked to the Food Interrupted website to watch full episodes featuring celebrities like Marcus Samuelsson and Rainn Wilson, those who didn’t migrate from Instagram still had the opportunity to directly engage with optimized versions of the video content in platform.
Content should spark authentic dialogue with audiences
Brands should use content to directly engage their audiences, incorporating readers’ and viewers’ feedback to enrich the content itself.
Most newspapers and magazines feature a Letters to the Editor section that invites readers to share their own opinions and insights. Similarly, brands can leverage user-generated content to enter a public dialogue with loyal fans.
Vans provides a smart example of how user-generated social media content can enhance an e-commerce website. The California-based shoe company sells customized shoes and backpacks, allowing customers to select colors and materials and even upload their own designs. The e-commerce pages selling these products prominently feature user-generated Instagram posts of custom designs.
By inviting fans to post images of their custom products and rewarding them with a spot on the company’s website, Vans uses content to prove it not only talks to customers but also listens to them and values their contributions.
Brands can even engage in dialogue with each other to catch fans’ attention. On Twitter, brands including MoonPie, Wendy’s and Denny’s have all mastered the witty banter that tends to go viral on the platform. The brands’ social media exchanges regularly receive media coverage and thousands of shares and likes from fans. The Twitter content these brands post is genuinely clever and engaging, and some posts are memorable enough to spark conversation that lasts for hours or even days, such as MoonPie’s response to a picture of a “Mooncake” on NASA’s official Twitter.
Content doesn’t require an explicit sales goal if it improves customers’ overall awareness of and experience with a brand. As online platforms encourage direct engagement between brands and followers, content should serve as an opportunity for authentic dialogue.
Investing in content pays dividends
To win new customers and earn greater loyalty from existing ones, brands should invest in high-quality content.
Companies are increasingly partnering with media outlets to produce branded video series, editorially rigorous magazines and ambitious audio shows. These partnerships yield content that’s subtly branded and highly creative, achieving the same level of quality audiences expect from non-branded content.
For companies that lack the budget to embark on a premium content partnership, there are still plenty of ways to create content like a media company. Online brand partnerships with influencers can tap into new audiences in an age of growing fragmentation, and all companies can repurpose their content for multiple channels to maximize the value of each asset they create.
To stand out in today’s media landscape, companies need to embrace the reality that “content is king” and start investing in high-quality media that uses audience insights and brand advocates to inform, entertain and inspire customer loyalty.