In the Battle for Attention, Marketers Are Going Long

A classic Hollywood lament is that “everyone’s a critic.” In marketing, it might soon be that “everyone’s an editor.”

A 2018 report LinkedIn produced in partnership with World Bank Group found that newspapers, broadcast media, and publishing are among the fastest-declining industries worldwide. However, writing, editing, and online media are growing at a rapid clip.

Throughout the past decade, the number of people on LinkedIn who say they work in content-related or editorial roles at nonmedia companies has grown by 32 percent. Much of that growth is driven by marketing, as an increasing number of brands are now producing original media programming that goes well beyond blogs, email newsletters, and YouTube videos. What’s more, the share of hiring people who are expert at content marketing and social media has “increased dramatically,” according to LinkedIn’s research.

The ongoing erosion of traditional media venues has forced marketers to become producers of more and more original media programming.

“With more streaming services, with more fragmentation, there are a lot more places where we could be advertising,” says Paul Imhoff, director of marketing communications at Hyundai Motor America. “We’re trying to reach a certain audience. Partnering with publishers and telling our stories where the people we’re trying to reach are already going to get their content allows us to connect with them in a more authentic way.”

Programming that Targets Specific Audiences

Hyundai is helping to drive the trend. Its “Rolling with the Rookies” video series, which follows a small group of college football prospects through the NFL draft, is now in its third season. Hyundai is a former automotive sponsor of the NFL, and the series has been a powerful adjunct in that marketing effort. Season two of “Rolling with the Rookies,” for example, racked up a nearly 100 percent boost in organic impressions over season one, according to Advantage, the agency that worked with Hyundai to develop, produce, and distribute the series. The series has captured several awards, such as Best Multiplatform Marketing Campaign in the 2017 Cynopsis Model D Awards and a silver (second place) finish in the Best Sports Series — Branded Content category at the 2018 Cynopsis Short Form Film Festival.

Hyundai also partners with MotorTrend for original programming, such as “Pole Position: Next Level.” A six-episode series now in its second season, the show gives fans a peek into Hyundai-IMSA racing action and the Veloster N TCR. It lives on MotorTrend.com. The current season will wrap with a broadcast-version 30-minute special that will air on MotorTrend Network, recapping all the stories and drama from the season. Season one of the series was viewed by more than eight million people.

That’s a lot of eyeballs, but does the kind of original programming Hyundai is producing really pay off from a marketing perspective? Imhoff certainly thinks so. “The results we’ve seen show that it gives us a big brand lift. We know that year-over-year from the first quarter of 2018 to the first quarter of 2019, awareness, consideration, and opinion of the Hyundai brand are all up by 3 to 4 percentage points,” he says. “We also know that we are the No. 1 automotive brand that is ‘popular and on the move,’ as one research company put it. Our efforts in this area are making things better.”

In fact, original programming strategies like the one Hyundai has deployed are well on their way toward becoming the new normal within marketing precincts. Marketers are struggling to reach their target audiences in an environment where those consumers have “natural and learned barriers in place to filter out commercial messages,” says Kim Donahue, a senior lecturer in marketing at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. “People read various ads, listen to commercials, informercials, etc., with a very skeptical mindset. So how can marketers get around that skepticism? By supporting what the consumer enjoys and making the brand’s involvement much more subtle.”

The dynamic behind marketer-created original programming is similar to that behind sponsorship, Donahue suggests. When people attend a concert or sporting event sponsored by a brand, they don’t feel like they’re being marketed to.

“They just have a great time and happen to notice how the sponsor’s name is seen everywhere,” Donahue says. “The hope — and science backs up this hope — is that the good feelings attached to the experience will then hold over and subconsciously be attached to the sponsor and its products.”

The same formula applies to original programming: Brands provide something of value that consumers want (entertainment or information), and consumers are exposed to the brand and its messaging in a subtler, less-threatening manner, she says.

Multiple Marketing Benefits

Creating original programming can benefit marketers in other ways, says Keith Hernandez, founder and partner at marketing consulting firm Launch Angle. Specifically, it can enlarge their global aperture, strengthen their communication with target audiences, and improve the quality of all their branded content.

Creating original content also helps brands cultivate a better understanding of who they are and what they stand for. “When you’re only producing a hero commercial on a yearly basis, you can get stuck in jargon and platitudes,” Hernandez says. “But if you have to live day-to-day in the real world, your brand will actually be able to sharpen its voice.”

Because the feedback loop will be nearly continuous, brands will have a better understanding of what their audience values and what they love about the brand, Hernandez adds. Marketers who partner with best-in-breed publishers and/or media companies are able to create clearer, more-compelling brand briefs, and develop a better understanding of the costs involved with production and the hard reality that creating content that resonates is not easy.

Indeed, deciding the best medium and channel to tell a brand story via original programming can be a challenge, says Laura Luckman Kelber, SVP of marketing at Flexera, a business software provider. With so much data available to help marketers understand what is getting read, watched, listened to, and shared, data should be the starting point, followed by the setting and prioritizing of measurable business goals. “Create the content and use the medium that works best for your customer and your goals,” she adds. “Start with the customer needs first, then you will more likely achieve your goals.”

Imhoff says that some channels work better than others, depending on the specific marketing objectives being pursued. “It depends on the car, the audience we’re trying to reach, the message we’re trying to convey, and what medium does it best,” he says. At Hyundai, the process starts with identifying the target audience and then moves to partner selection. Channel selection flows from those decisions.

“The number of partners we work with depends on the vehicle,” Imhoff says. “With our Veloster N and the N performance brand, we chose MotorTrend because that made the most sense for us, based on their feedback, expertise, and content. For the Kona and Ioniq launches, we used BuzzFeed because we wanted to reach millennial buyers with our ‘Young Entrepreneur’ series. It’s an audience segment that strategically aligns with our ‘Better Drives Us’ brand ethos.”

Back to the Future

In some cases, old media can be the right medium for original programming, even for a new-media company. Case in point: Bumble, the women-first social networking platform. Bumble recently partnered with Heart Magazines to create Bumble Mag, marking the brand’s initial entry into print media.

“At Bumble, we’re constantly exploring new ways to engage our growing audience,” says Clare O’Connor, the brand’s editorial director. “Our users have long sought out our content and told us they wanted more — more stories, more advice, and more real talk about dating, career, friendship, wellness, and life in general.”

With a robust social media following, the Bumble team spent a long time analyzing what would be thought-provoking topics to include in the magazine, which informed some of the stories covered in the debut issue. “Hearst was an ideal partner for our first foray into print,” O’Connor says. “The magazine serves as an extension of Bumble’s digital presence; we’ve transposed our product mission and values onto the page.”

Bumble Mag is being distributed free to current and prospective Bumble users via Bumble’s strong brand ambassador program, which is comprised of more than 3,000 women in the U.S. alone. Bumble distributed more than 100,000 free copies of Bumble Mag through brand ambassadors and in-app requests in the magazine’s first month of existence. Initial responses have been encouraging. “We’ve been hearing such positive feedback from those who have received and read the magazine,” O’Connor reports. “And they’re liking it enough to share photos of it — a magazine! — on their Instagram accounts.”

Reeling in Viewers

Verizon is taking a three-pronged approach toward original programming, as part of its response to media fragmentation and continued erosion among traditional media venues, says Andrew McKechnie, chief creative officer at Verizon. The approach includes producing longer-form content to tell more stories, create new in-house positions, and feature real people and actual customers rather than actors playing roles in a commercial.

For the brand’s 2019 “Pride” campaign, for example, Verizon developed a three-minute film that highlighted young people getting a second chance at talking to their families about coming out as LGBTQ+. The film was a continuation of last year’s campaign, which was a celebration of coming-out conversations between LGBTQ+ individuals and their families. “But this year we wanted to highlight that sometimes those first conversations don’t always go as planned, and we knew we couldn’t tell that complete story in 30 or even 60 seconds,” McKechnie says.

Earlier this year, Verizon also produced a nearly 30-minute documentary that focused on the first responders featured in its 2019 Super Bowl campaign. “We realized there was so much more of their stories to tell, so we created a documentary that explored what motivated them to do their jobs and the bonds formed in fire houses, police stations, ambulances — that are not unlike teams on a football field,” McKechnie says.

Verizon is looking to fill a newly created position, editor-in-chief of social, to develop and drive more editorial content. The person hired will lead the brand’s recently established in-house team in providing content that is both complementary to — and independent of — Verizon’s marketing campaigns. “This new capability will also play an integral role in ensuring that Verizon has a consistent brand point-of-view and tone across all social channels,” McKechnie says.

As part of its overall mission, Verizon strives to humanize technology, which is why the creative it’s releasing this year mainly highlights real people in real situations. “It’s human stories that resonate the most, and we have so many examples of how Verizon’s network has come through for customers in big and small moments,” McKechnie says. “That’s why we look to feature stories that highlight how technology helps people solve some of the world’s biggest problems, from health care to education to public safety.”

One Size Does Not Fit All

When it comes to choosing channels for original programming distribution, Verizon eschews a one-size-fits-all approach in favor of developing each campaign strategy as a unique entity. “We need to reach intended audiences where they’re active, that’s the only way we’ll have the most impact,” McKechnie says. “For example, our Pride campaign this year was led on social and digital, with a very small TV presence.”

The reach that original programming provides has won support for the content strategy from the highest level of Verizon’s marketing organization. “First and foremost, we have to engage and create trust,” McKechnie says. “Consumers will see right through a brand that is inauthentic. We can’t simply create a standard 30-second spot and think we’ve done our job. We’re in an ultra-competitive marketplace with brands vying for customers and share of voice. We have to continuously develop new and nontraditional ways to retain and attract customers. This is not a trend, it’s the new normal.”

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