Does this sound familiar? You have a limited marketing budget, but you need to make meaningful connections with your target audience. Adding to the challenge is that your target audience is not known for its tech savvy.
That’s exactly the situation Thao Le, vice president of marketing at Hyland’s, set out to conquer when tasked with promoting the homeopathic medicine company’s Hyland’s Leg Cramps product to active seniors. She never anticipated that the journey would lead to the creation of a hyper-niche content platform called Pickleball Channel. Yes, pickleball!
Within two years, Pickleball Channel has become the largest media outlet in the world for the quirky, tennis-like sport; it now has over 15,000 “likes” on Facebook and more than 1.2 million views. The channel features mostly video content that includes tips on how to improve your game; feel-good, inspirational stories about players; and news coverage of pickleball tournaments and events.
“We knew we wanted to get more involved with active Boomers and seniors,” says Thao.
The first hurdle, however, was putting aside the assumption that targeting seniors via digital content was a lost cause. Thao and her team, led by Rusty Howes (owner of Rumer Studios, and executive producer and director of Hyland’s digital media lab), were confident that there were active, technologically savvy seniors who were eager to engage with compelling and relevant content. The challenge was to identify what content would compel these seniors to tune in. It turns out that pickleball was the perfect fit.
Creating an engaged audience around a niche topic is the reason Thao was named a finalist for CMI’s Content Marketer of the Year.
Here are the lessons that Thao and her team learned after determining (and then convincing the company) that a relatively unknown sport could be the catalyst for niche content marketing success.
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Work with what you have
Thao has earned the moniker of “mad scientist” many times during the course of her 13 years at Hyland’s. She’s serious about proving that a focused niche marketing campaign can score big engagement points. Luckily, she says, her CEO has developed a high tolerance for guerilla marketing tactics. “Because we’re a small homeopathic medicine company, we’re used to competing against brands that have deep pockets to spend on traditional media. We can’t play by the same playbook as large drug companies,” she says.
But even so, Thao knew getting approval to zero in on pickleball players wasn’t going to be easy; the sport’s offbeat name certainly didn’t help. The Hyland’s team had discovered the opportunity during one of Rusty’s shoots at the Huntsman World Senior Games where he learned that pickleball was the fastest-growing sport in North America among active seniors (even George Clooney plays the game as he revealed in an Esquire interview). Thao got to work prepping the management team so she could get their blessing to run with it.
“My boss asked around his community and found out one of the executives at our bank was a huge player,” says Thao. From there, they had people from the Pickleball Association teach Hyland’s employees how to play.
It took another six months of strategizing by Rusty and Lisa Shapiro, Hyland’s senior brand manager, studying the target audience, and prepping before Pickleball Channel launched in March 2014.
“It was a hard sell, even after launching, and for the first year,” says Thao. But then they started to see results as the channel’s popularity grew. Two years later, we’re preparing to build pickleball courts at our company’s headquarters,” she says.
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Resist the urge to be all things to all people
Thao advises that when you focus on highly specialized content, you won’t have mass appeal, but you can make one audience really happy. That’s what niche marketing is all about: finding that “one branch on the tree that can’t be split further,” she says (i.e., specializing in a category that can’t be subdivided).Focusing on highly specialized content can make one audience really happy says @PickleballChan #cmworld Click To Tweet
Once you find your branch, you can create something to delight and satisfy, and the word will spread. Although, Thao says, Hyland’s doesn’t focus too much on whether the content is driving revenue, it’s pleased with how audience engagement continues to increase. Through pickleball, Hyland’s message has literally spanned the globe, reaching enthusiasts in Croatia, India, and Africa — all without spending any advertising or marketing dollars in those regions. Even better, says Thao, the testimonials they’ve received from athletes all over the world who use Hyland’s leg cramp products on and off the pickleball court are real and priceless.
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Let analytics steer you
When trying to connect with a new-to-you audience, some risk-taking is necessary. But a point comes where you need to validate your efforts with results. Lisa Shapiro says data helped guide each step of the project forward.When trying to connect with a new-to-you audience, some risk-taking is necessary says @PickleballChan #cmworld Click To Tweet
“It’s a great marriage of creative and analytics. We put out different types of content and carefully tracked what kind of engagement we got through open rates and click rates. We knew we were really on to something when even our poor-performing content was still outpacing industry standards,” says Lisa.
Careful monitoring also helps the team make informed adjustments to content and smarter distribution choices. “That best practice has allowed us to hone in and understand the kinds of content our audience is hungry for,” says Lisa.
For instance, when Facebook changed its algorithm, Rusty knew that some tweaks were in order such as producing more original content specifically for the platform. “In addition to Facebook posts, we make it a point to upload video directly to Facebook (instead of just linking from the channel),” he says. That way, there is an increased likelihood that Pickleball Channel’s Facebook fans will see the new videos in their feeds.
Rusty points out, however, that analytics need to be taken in context with your business. “Our numbers are great in our space, but we don’t worry about hitting 10 million views or going viral because we don’t have that many players in the sport; there’s fewer than a million core players,” he says.
Even as the numbers continue to increase, Thao still calls Pickleball Channel “one grand experiment.” As she says, “We improvise as we go; test and learn.”
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Authenticity comes from audience immersion
The creation of Pickleball Channel required that Rusty and his team talk to people (a lot of people), get their stories and travel to pickleball tournaments to create authentic content that truly represents both the players and the sport. All together, eight people on Rusty’s team have varying degrees of involvement in Pickleball Channel content, in addition to himself, Thao, Lisa, and her associate brand manager.Talk to your customers so you can create authentic content that represents your audience @PickleballChan Click To Tweet
Getting in on the ground floor, and even helping introduce pickleball to a wider audience, puts Hyland’s in a great position. “Before we existed, there was no higher-end, consistent video content in the space,” says Rusty. “We created that. And now, I’m getting invited to a national pickleball ambassador retreat to speak and help them grow the sport.”
Thao says that “in some ways, Rusty is the face of pickleball. People want to take pictures with him and talk to him at events. When we’re there with our gear and our product, they want to tell us about their symptoms, and how the product helps them.”
In essence, people in this community have come to associate the sport with the Hyland’s brand. In fact, Hyland’s will likely be a sponsor for the sport’s first inclusion in The World Games in 2019.
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Maintain team unity, even when you’re apart
On any given day, the team members involved in producing Pickleball Channel content may not work side by side. “The communication hasn’t been a challenge,” Lisa says. “We have regular meetings where we do the deep dive into our short-term and long-term priorities. That keeps us on track and focused.”
Looking ahead, Hyland’s wants to apply its pickleball learnings into new content projects that target other specialized athletic communities, such as runners. In the meantime, for Thao and her pickleball-loving content team, it’s game on.
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Editor’s note: A special thanks to Ardath Albee who scoured the planet looking for the best of the best content marketers. She was instrumental in helping us find our 2016 Content Marketer of the Year finalists.
A subscribed audience is one of the five core elements for running successful, scalable content marketing operations. Read our 2016 Content Marketing Framework: 5 Building Blocks for Profitable, Scalable Operations for an overview of the full strategic blueprint.
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute
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