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Learn the Secrets Behind 5 Great Content Marketing Projects


Before I turned 12 and decided to become a content marketer (I was a weird kid), I wanted to be a biologist. I loved how the field allowed you to study all the “unseen” elements of a living thing that made it work. To the untrained eye, an organism is just that – an individual thing, a single entity. But trained biologists know and value how millions and millions of tiny, underappreciated parts all fit together to make the larger whole just plain work.

To understand great content is to understand that same idea – dozens of small, unseen choices, tactics, and techniques are really what make great pieces work well. So whether we’re creating blog posts, graphics, SlideShare presentations, podcasts, videos, or other projects, the devil is in the details. It’s the way a great videographer frames a shot. It’s the way a writer weaves a story throughout a stellar blog post. It’s the way an expert podcast producer fades emotional music into the show, then out again.

This attention to detail and ability to understand small, subtle components to larger works are the true keys to mastering the craft of content creation. Yes, we can appreciate that Contently created a great big map of the content marketing landscape, for instance, but we should also appreciate the little things it did to make the piece a success.

The trick, however, is knowing where to look for these hidden elements of a great piece.

So today, I wanted to explore five examples of great content that resonates emotionally or intellectually with audiences. For each, I highlight a somewhat hidden tactic or technique that the marketers used to make each piece work well. (As a disclosure, these examples were shared in my newsletter, the Daily Content. I have no affiliation with these brands aside from that.)

Example 1: Award-winning video from Liberty Mutual

This Webby-winning video from Liberty Mutual is beautifully done. There’s a clear and emotional narrative, and it’s truly content, not a commercial. Liberty does a great job of showing restraint and taking a back seat to the core story.

To understand the key hidden element, we first need to understand something about the medium. In video, as in audio, you constantly need to think about drop-off. Both are linear experiences – it’s much harder to skim or skip around a video or a podcast as compared to a blog post or PDF. So as a content producer, you need to be paranoid about your audience leaving at any given moment for the millions of other stimuli available at the click of a mouse.

In this particular example, pay close attention to the way the video starts: As viewers, we’re dropped right into the story. It’s almost like the interviews and filming have been happening for a few minutes and, suddenly, you’re invited to watch. There’s some missing context, which becomes clearer over the course of the video, but it prompts several questions from the outset that cause us to stick around: Where is this “Murray” town being referenced? What game are they talking about early in this video? Why is that game such a big deal? Why is this story being told at all?

It’s a sort of in medias res approach to storytelling wherein the viewer starts near the middle or with some of the context left unexplained. You can use that device to reel in the audience in a distracted world. By dropping viewers into something that already feels like an unfolding story – rather than taking the standard approach of sharing the dry, basic facts up front – you’re more likely to get viewers to pay attention and remain engaged until the end. There’s more to discover, and the viewer wants to lean forward and get some answers.

Like so much of what makes great content effective, it’s easy to miss this technique. It’s not the overt “marketing” part we all readily identify such as calls to action or splashy headlines, but it’s just as instrumental to make this part of an effective content marketing strategy.

Example 2: Boss-proof interactive spreadsheet from Bonobos

Ever get caught red-handed by your boss when you should be working but are instead shopping for a bunch of totally “necessary” things that in no way serve as guilty-pleasure purchases?

Yeah. Me neither …

But for everyone else, Bonobos, an e-commerce-driven apparel company, created a clever tool to fool your boss into thinking you’re working.

(Note: To understand what I’m referencing, you’ll need to download the actual file since it was an emailed campaign not hosted online.)

Bonobos-spreadsheet-example-image 1The subtle yet powerful element that makes this piece a success is the brand’s commitment to making the piece functional.

Here’s what I mean: Imagine you receive an assignment that asks you to create a spreadsheet others can put on their screen to feign work when they’re actually shopping online. A logical, quick piece to create might pop quickly to mind: Dump some placeholder charts into Excel and ship the content.

But Bonobos takes that one step further and conveys the sense that they give a damn about quality content. The project, cleverly titled =VLOOKUP(Your boss is behind you), actually allows you to shop inside the spreadsheet! If you manipulate the tables, it populates various links for actual Bonobos product pages.

Not only does this improve the experience for users, it allows the company to measure traffic coming from an offline project. Brilliant.

(Bonobos also inserts some pretty hilarious copy, as well as hidden messages only viewable by hovering over certain spots. Clearly, it cares deeply about providing the best possible content to its audience.)

Example 3: Sensational-yet-substantive blog headline from Price Intelligently

Price Intelligently, makers of ProfitWell, an analytics tool for software-as-a-service companies, wrote this brilliant blog post detailing the missed profits of a tech start-up legend:

How Groupon Is Losing $1,117,808 Every Single Day

Some subtle and effective elements that make this headline work include:

  • The incredibly specific number. It makes you wonder how the company writing the blog post knows such a specific fact. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it definitely prompts the click.
  • The size of the number. Over a million dollars?! What the heck is Groupon doing? (Note: This post is an oldie but a goodie, so things may have changed.)
  • The word single. This is such a hidden thing in that headline, but oh how I love it! That one word turns a decent headline into a powerful one. Rather than simply saying “Groupon is losing X dollars every day” or “regularly,” that one small word drives home the severity of the issue, elevating the effect of the headline.

Now think back to the saying, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” In the content marketing world, we seem to believe that those who can write, write, while those who can’t, try to use overblown headlines.

But Price Intelligently took the time to write a sensational headline that’s actually backed up with substance and quality. It starts with a company lots of people in their target market know and care about, and it uses the name to its advantage before delivering a well-researched post. Awesome!

Example 4: Original song from Airbnb

I’m no singer/songwriter, so rather than analyze the track itself, let’s zoom out a bit to learn from Airbnb’s official song. The hidden element that makes this work is that Airbnb clearly understands what it sells as a B2C company – an emotion. As it states, it offers the audience a sense of belonging even more than it offers rooms.

All the top B2C brands understand this idea of selling and marketing emotions, from top players to smaller brands just seeking an emotional niche to occupy in the minds of their buyers. For example, Coke’s emotion is happiness. On-demand car service Zipcar’s emotion is freedom. Nike, Red Bull, Pepsi, P&G, Kraft, Unilever – they all sell emotions.

Recognizing that fact and clearly articulating it, as Airbnb does when blogging about its official theme song, is the best way a B2C brand can coherently align content and product.

If you’re a B2B marketer, this is much easier. You know exactly who you’re trying to reach. Do you sell marketing software? Hmm, I wonder who you should target.

But in B2C, it’s much more nuanced. Yes, you can have personas, but generally speaking, you’re still able to fit your product into the lives of many more types of people. So the content has to match the emotional benefits and positioning of the company’s products. With that as the foundation, Airbnb’s song experiment suddenly makes much more sense as an effective content marketing piece.

Example 5: SlideShare presentation from Google’s Eric Schmidt

To help promote his book, How Google Works, the company’s former CEO and current executive chairman created this attention-grabbing SlideShare presentation. (Or, more likely, his agency created it for him.)

One of the most effective-yet-hidden elements to this piece is the relatively minimal design, particularly on the cover slide.

This normally wouldn’t be noteworthy on its own, but it’s important to recognize the “native” experience of SlideShare. The bulk of the audience for any SlideShare presentation is found on, given the site’s millions of hits per day. But it’s a cluttered site, with dozens of cover slides demanding your attention on every page.

Thus, the minimal design on Schmidt’s SlideShare presentation cover actually helps the project stand out. I remember seeing it for the first time when visiting SlideShare – it was so different and so much less stressful than the rest of the page, I couldn’t help but click it. It’s such a small thing to consider relative to the entire project’s copy, layout, design, and promotion, but it made all the difference in attracting me as a visitor … and now even more people know about it because I’m listing it here.

Are you a content biologist?

Too often, when we consider the creatures that are blog posts, videos, podcasts, and so on, we act like kids playing with toy animals – dumping them on the floor, randomly grabbing at each one, pounding them together as we play. They are single entities to be used and abused.

In my opinion, that’s leftover behavior from not knowing any better. Maybe that blunt, brutal approach to content worked when you were the first adopter. (“Just hit publish! Just copy the other guy! Who cares about quality?”) But the days of being first – and the days of trying to be loudest – are long gone. In 2015, we can’t just create content to reach audiences, we need to create things that will resonate with them.

In that kind of world, the true students of this field are the ones who separate. They’re the ones who are content “biologists.” They understand that all the smaller, seemingly hidden pieces that make up a great piece of content are actually what make the entire thing work in the first place.

What if we all succeeded in getting to that point? What if we all became masters of the craft of creation, along with our knowledge of distribution and measurement?

In short, everything would get better: our results, our careers, and our audiences’ lives.

That’s not my opinion. That’s science.

Want to improve your skills to become a content biologist? CMI can help. Our Online Training & Certification Program provides you with must-know strategies, tactics and best practices you can use to build a strong foundation for your projects. Learn more.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute