By Jodi Harris published August 18, 2011

3 Tips from Surprising Content Marketing Geniuses

I believe you don’t necessarily need to be a genius to be good at content marketing. Not that the two are mutually exclusive, but at the very least, if you have the drive, some creative flair, a bit of insight, and a passion for your product, you’ll find a way to meet your goal of connecting with consumers by creating quality content.

While it’s obviously a benefit to be smart, skilled, and open to experimenting with available tools, techniques, and formulas, content marketing today is as much an art as it is a science. And so who better to provide some great marketing tips than some artists and entertainers who could be considered brilliant — if unexpected — content innovators.

An indie spirit, with a mind for community

3 Tips from Surprising Content Marketing Geniuses - Kevin SmithDo-it-yourself content marketers searching for inspiration should look no further than the work of one of the kings of independent film, Kevin Smith.

Smith embraced the power of online fandom early on, creating a View Askewniverse, where his fans could gather and commune with each other — long before MySpace, Facebook, or even Friendster gave like-minded people a digital lounge to hang out in. For the release of Clerks II (2006), he spurred fans to support the film by putting the names of the film’s first 10,000 MySpace friends in the film’s credits. And last year, he demonstrated the power of the tweet when he turned an embarrassing personal incident on a Southwest Airlines flight into a national, branded conversation.

But for his latest film, Red State, Smith bet on the persuasive power of content marketing, and he hatched a plan to go all in: Smith set out to self-distribute his film, and to side-step Hollywood’s marketing monster by promoting it through an unconventional viral/social media campaign. (He has since announced a revised plan to release the film via video-on-demand, followed by a video release by Lionsgate.)

He began by teasing both the film and his distributor’s journey on multiple social and online platforms, and then he took his story on the road, appearing live at each screening of the film and conducting lengthy Q&A sessions afterwards to interact directly with his audience. Smith comments on his official RedStatement website:

“My only super power as a filmmaker is that I refuse to let the film end when the credits roll; that’s when I come out and continue the story.”

Content marketing lesson: Don’t be afraid to defy expectations and break new ground. If you have a strong, dedicated fan base, like Smith has cultivated over the years, reach out to them, and give them a reason to spread your message with their friends — an underdog cause to rally behind, an experimental venture they can be a part of, a unique experience that they won’t find elsewhere, or what have you. And let the ensuing experience feed your ongoing brand story, told on as many platforms as you can manage.

By the way, screenings of Red State are scheduled in Los Angeles, Calif., for the week of August 15. But if you’re headed to Content Marketing World, you’ll have an extra opportunity to experience Smith’s vision: He will be performing a special show in conjunction with the conference’s Day 1 festivities and will be giving the final keynote.

An uncompromising desire to deliver content creatively

Back in the early 1990s, who would have thought that a hard rock musician who created loud, brash, and controversial songs with nary a guitar in sight would be making waves in the circles of advertising business publications like AdAge? Then again, who would imagine said musician would someday stand among film legends, accepting an Oscar for his work?

3 Tips from Surprising Content Marketing Geniuses - Trent ReznorNine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor has accomplished both, and he’s done it in the same uncompromising, do-it-yourself way that he attacked the music scene nearly two decades ago.

After extricating his band from its contract with Universal Music Group’s Interscope label, Reznor embarked on a series of innovative content-based promotions that provided fans with the means to support and follow his work on a deeper level. Some of Reznor’s experiments have inspired other artists to undertake similar self-marketing efforts, such as these examples:

  • An alternative reality game with elaborately staged fan scavenger hunts
  • Strategically placed (i.e., dropped in rock club bathrooms) flash drives of new music
  • A crowdsourced website that offers unprecedented access to the band’s catalogs and archives for free are just some of Reznor’s content marketing experiments that have inspired other artists to undertake similar self-marketing efforts.

In an exclusive interview on Wired’s Underwire blog a few years ago, Reznor explained why, as an artist, he took marketing matters into his own hands:

“Anyone who’s an executive at a record label does not understand what the internet is, how it works, how people use it, how fans and consumers interact — no idea.”

And though he has stated many times that he doesn’t believe music should be free, he admits that the music industry’s missteps in the digital age have created a sense of public mistrust.

“So everything we’ve tried to do has been from the point of view of, ‘What would I want if I were a fan? How would I want to be treated?’ Now let’s work back from that. Let’s find a way for that to make sense and monetize it.”

Content marketing lesson: If your fans are willing to take their time to express their love and support, reward them with special recognition, such as shout-outs on Twitter or open vaults of exclusive content. The success of Reznor’s innovative marketing efforts has proved that if you respect your consumers, and let them participate in your brand on their terms, you will benefit as well.

Feeding the public’s appetite for invention

In my final content marketing lesson, the “genius” of note is a composite of sorts. There are many artists who embrace techie lust in a way that extends what consumers know about their brands, and allows them to explore that brand in creative, playful, or personalized ways. Here are just a few examples:

  • The Beastie Boys launched their latest album by releasing a 30-minute video that revisited its “Fight for Your Right to Party” roots by pitting their young, rebellious selves against their older, and maybe not much wiser, future selves in a mock battle for supreme coolness.
3 Tips from Surprising Content Marketing Geniuses - Beastie Boys
  • The rock band Arcade Fire used Google Maps and Google StreetView to create an innovative, Cannes-winning video project called The Wilderness Downtown. When viewers plugged in the address of their childhood homes, the video would unfold in multiple windows, personalized with scenes from their own neighborhoods. As an added personal touch, viewers could also leave a message for their “younger selves” in a tree branch-inspired font that was incorporated into the video.
    3 Tips from Surprising Content Marketing Geniuses - Arcade Fire
  • The band OK Go has made a name for itself through its willingness to push the envelope of creative video concepts and give fans a unique experience. Their latest video, “All is Not Lost“, tops all their previous efforts with a split-screen “video dance messenger” experience that spells out viewers’ typed phrases through the body manipulations of dance troupe Pilobolus.
    3 Tips from Surprising Content Marketing Geniuses - OK Go

Content marketing lesson: If you are afraid to use the latest technology to enhance your marketing efforts, you’re not telling your consumers your full story. By holding out on them, you risk the possibility that your content will seem stale and behind the times — a potentially fatal error in the world of ever more fickle and fragmented audiences.

These are some of my favorite content marketing geniuses from the entertainment industry. Do you have others to add to the list?

Author: Jodi Harris

Jodi Harris is the director of editorial content and curation at Content Marketing Institute. As a content strategy consultant, Jodi helps businesses evaluate their content needs and resources; build infrastructure and operations; and create compelling stories to be delivered across multiple media channels and platforms. Follow Jodi on Twitter at @Joderama.

Other posts by Jodi Harris

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