One of the key facets that distinguishes content marketing from traditional advertising is how it draws the focus away from just selling a product. Faced with such a broad array of choices, consumers are no longer so easily swayed by tried-and-tested methods of persuasion. McGill University's Professor of Marketing, Dr. Robert Soroka, describes the situation to Forbes:
"We are all smarter consumers, wiser to the implications of making bad choices. Consumers rely less on advertising and more on sources of information that are independent and authentic."
As such, more and more brands are looking towards producing content that educates and allows consumers to make well-informed purchasing decisions. How, though, can an educationally-minded strategy work as a method of "cutting through the noise"? And what benefits can it bring to both consumers and brands?
Part of the problem that people face when it comes to the dizzying set of choices at their disposal is the simple fact that — no matter how much research you do, how many reviews you read — any expensive purchase is a bit of a gamble. We can never be 100% certain that our money will be well-spent. This is particularly true of products or services that are fairly complex. Who wants to spend a hefty sum on something that they’ll just end up bemusedly staring at?
The availability of educational marketing materials, then, can work wonders for informing and attracting potential customers. One of my personal favourite examples comes from the electronic music equipment company, Korg. Although, out of the box, their Volca Modular synthesiser presents itself dauntingly as a stark-looking box with a few dials and several small cables, it has been widely praised for how it offers a fairly accessible beginner's route into a particularly complicated and experimental form of music-making. As one preview from The Verge notes:
"This is a unit that both leans into the unknown and gives you control over it. If you're looking for something atypical that encourages trial and error and you love bleepy-bloopy sounds (though it can certainly do more than that), the Volca Modular is a fun place to start."
A big part of this sense of accessibility and user-friendliness can be attributed to the product's marketing materials.
Following the simple presentation of popular YouTube tutorials, Korg has released a series of ‘patch of the week’ videos that talk viewers through the range of sounds that can be produced with the machine — thus showing off to prospective buyers what it can do, while also giving those who have already purchased it a means of getting to grips with it.
It’s a principle that can be easily followed by any brand with a fairly complex offering, as an effective way of organically showcasing its strengths and assuring consumers that they’ll be able to get some value from it. Similarly-minded examples include Hootsuite’s e-learning platform, Hootsuite Academy, which offers courses on social media marketing; and Mailchimp’s series of email marketing videos on Skillshare.
The role of educational content marketing for brands extends far beyond simply educating audiences about the products and services that they provide. As Inc.’s Drew Hendricks remarks:
“The key [to effective educational content] is always to be filling a need and basing your educational strategies on your audience’s unique interests … Come up with something novel if you really want to build trust with potential customers.”
One brand that can certainly be said to have a novel approach is the outdoor clothing brand Patagonia. Their YouTube channel is home to a number of impressively produced documentaries (many of them long-form) on topics such as environmental issues and the achievements of famous climbers — most recently, Blue Heart, a film documenting activists’ efforts to protect Europe’s largest un-dammed river.
As well as reflecting the widely-documented principles and values of the company’s CEO, this kind of content also serves to organically align the brand closely with its niche — people who care deeply about the outside world, and who are immersed within the communities associated with outdoor pursuits — while also using its platform and resources to help them campaign about the issues that are important to them. As well as educating about the issue through the film, the wider content campaign for Blue Heart offers a wealth of resources that enable people to facilitate the change that they care about.
This kind of aligning with audience values certainly makes some sense in the current landscape, as Claudia Romo Edelman writes in Campaign:
“It is becoming clearer that brands which ingrain purpose into their branding see more solid consumer engagement, but that those that neglect to do so risk to become obsolete.”
Whatever the industry, it’s worth any brand’s while to think about their niche and what their audiences are interested in. What are their concerns and interests? What are their potential knowledge gaps, and how can your brand help to bridge them?
The resources available today to many brands and content creators puts them in a position to make the process of learning more engaging than ever. The app, Duolingo, is a good example of this — with its creative ‘gamification’ approach to transforming the process of learning a new language into something engaging and entertaining. At a 2017 conference held in Birmingham, Duolingo’s Zan Gilani described the incentive behind the app:
“Motivating yourself to learn is very hard and learning a language is even harder, especially when you are doing that online on your own, so we realised early on that we needed to try to encourage people to form a daily learning habit. We found that the most effective techniques for this come from the gaming world.”
Though not every brand or creator may have access to the skills required to develop an interactive app like Duolingo, a number of the app’s techniques can be applied creatively to a number of mediums: creating a sense of progression by breaking something large and complex down into smaller and more manageable stages, for example, or scheduling and timing education content in a way that can make it a regular part of someone’s daily routine.
When faced with the need to establish themselves amongst the global sea of competition, it can often seem like the answer is for brands to double down on the pure entertainment value of their content. However, it’s clear to see that incorporating education into a content strategy can yield a number of benefits (especially when creatively and entertainingly used). Most notably, increased consumer confidence and trust in brands and their products.
Most promising of all is the fact that these benefits are long-term — while many product-oriented campaigns will ultimately be superseded by future products, well-thought out educational content can offer something to its audience long after its original publication.