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See What Content Marketing Success Truly Looks Like

Each day, CMI wants to help our fellow content marketers hone their skills and get more successful at the craft. I know our team is constantly inspired by all the ways that the industry has taken our advice and run with it.

Nowhere has this been more apparent than when looking at the impressive scope of the work created by the winners at the 12th annual Content Marketing Awards. Celebrating excellence in 76 distinct areas of our industry, this year’s ceremony recognized the best and brightest achievements in strategy, distribution, design, and editorial from a field of over 1,300 submissions.

In addition to the 76 category winners, four Best-in-Show prizes were awarded in a special ceremony at Content Marketing World 2016:

  • Project of the Year
  • Agency of the Year (fewer than 100 employees)
  • Agency of the Year (more than 100 employees)
  • Content Marketer of the Year

If you are among the 55% of B2B and 58% of B2C marketers who reported that they lack clarity on what successful content marketing should look like in their organizations, you might find it helpful to take a look at what our Project of the Year finalists were able to accomplish:

Sainsbury’s magazine

(Winner: Content Marketing Project of the Year; Best Retail Publication)

Sainsburys magazine

U.K. supermarket chain Sainsbury’s has elevated foodie content to a multimedia art form. Starting with its signature magazine — the biggest, fully paid for, food title in the United Kingdom — the company delivers well-balanced recipe features that are tested by some of the U.K.’s best home economists and aim to serve all types of readers’ culinary needs. Add to that a companion website, a hugely successful portfolio of social media channels, sell-out live cooking demonstrations, weekly newsletters, the magazine’s Food & Drink Awards, a series of editorial one-shots, and more and you get a level of multi-platform audience engagement that would make any content marketer’s mouth water.

Here are just a few of the results reported by Sainsbury’s:

  • 50,000 magazine readers receive the Sainsbury’s newsletter every week, which has achieved a 35% open rate and 31% click-through rate — well above the industry average.
  • The magazine has over 24,0000 followers on Twitter and 162,000 on Pinterest.
  • 81% of readers have cooked a recipe after reading the magazine, and eight out of 10 have bought a product from Sainsbury’s after reading about it in the magazine, according to a 2015 survey.

Takeaway: Build an audience on one platform, then diversify

As I’ve often mentioned as part of my Content Inc. model, content marketers’ ultimate goal should be to establish an audience on one channel and ultimately build that into three — one digital, one print-based, and one in-person platform. Sainsbury’s efforts fall in line with this advice, developing a strong and loyal audience base on its core channel content — a print magazine — before extending its expertise to other platforms.

This gradual expansion plan is often easier for content teams to manage — as they are not required to produce intimidating volumes of content to fill every possible channel all at once. Diversification also gives the audience increasing levels of flexibility when it comes to how and where they prefer to consume content — something long-time subscribers may come to expect from their brand relationships.


(Winner: Best New Digital Publication; Finalist: Content Marketing Project of the Year)

NS Favorites

The Dutch Railway operator, known as NS, wanted to encourage the country’s residents to travel more often by train. Having established a successful print publication — #nsfavourites — the logical next step was to create a digital counterpart where readers could discover helpful travel tips and explore some of the exciting Dutch destinations that NS services in more detail.

Naturally, the resulting digital magazine contained exclusive offers and travel discounts for selected destinations; but NS wanted to take the audience’s experience one step further by incorporating more interactive, engaging, and up-to-date customer touchpoints in its content plan. Working with G+J Custom Content, the company identified leading Dutch bloggers and influencers, who chose four top Dutch cities to profile. In an exclusive email series, NS shared the influencers’ recommendations on lodging, restaurants and bars, activities, and how to get the most out of a visit to each destination.

This collaborative content effort also led to a responsive website and companion mobile app that allow visitors to compose their own lists of favorite locations — and receive a map to help them find their way from the closest railway station. Thus, the effort added real-world value by including interactive content that took some of the guesswork out of traveling by rail.

Takeaway: Give your audience tools to customize their experience

Interactive content enables users to personalize and participate in the content experience. By enabling consumers to see their own interests reflected in the content they receive, interactivity can deepen engagement and drive greater brand satisfaction.

Interactive #content enables users to personalize & participate in the experience by @joepulizzi. Click To Tweet

You can choose from multiple types of interactive content, but which one is best to use will depend on what stage of the buyer’s journey you are targeting. For example, in a recent CMI survey sponsored by ion interactive, respondents thought contests and games were highly effective drivers of awareness and discovery, while configurators were more appropriate when targeting audiences in the decision stage.

Contests & games were highly effective drivers of awareness via @cmicontent survey. #cmworld Click To Tweet

Take a look at some additional interactive formats, and the stage at which they are most effective:


ARC Magazine

(Winner: Best New Print Publication; Finalist: Content Marketing Project of the Year)

ARC_Print-DigitalDisplays_Fuller.fw_-600x354 copy

ARC Magazine is a lifestyle magazine with an editorial mission of creating a deeper affinity for the art and craft of welding and metal fabrication and making it accessible and attractive to a new generation of craftsmen. While arc-welding product manufacturer Lincoln Electric came out guns blazing in its content marketing strategy of highlighting celebrities and notable personalities across a spectrum of industries who use welding equipment every day, it takes a decidedly more subtle approach to incorporating the Lincoln Electric brand into its editorial content.

For example, consider the magazine’s cover story on the celebrity duo from Gas Monkey Garage who brought their business of refurbishing and selling old cars onto the small screen in Discovery Channel’s Fast N’ Loud series. The article definitely brings the cool factor to welding; and even though it doesn’t directly promote Lincoln Electric, it’s a natural fit because Lincoln Electric provides much of the equipment used on the show.

Moreover, design and editorial are done by Lincoln’s in-house team, which strives to tell and illustrate these stories with a distinctively non-corporate voice.

Takeaway: Find your unique content tilt

While manufacturing may not be the “sexiest” topic to write about, Lincoln Electric found a unique way to highlight its subject-matter expertise by creating content that its target audience couldn’t get anywhere else. This unique perspective is known as the content tilt — an area where there’s little to no competition — so that you have a fighting chance of breaking through all the noise in your industry and becoming relevant. It’s not only what makes you different, it’s what makes you unique so that the audience can’t help but notice you — and reward your efforts with their attention.

Your #content tilt is what makes you unique so your audience can’t help but notice you says @joepulizzi. Click To Tweet

In our highly competitive digital landscape, finding an area of untapped content potential is an increasingly difficult task; but it is possible, if you consider a few different comparison points. For example:

  • Audience – Is your niche sufficiently focused for your audience? To be truly relevant with your story, you need to focus on a very specific reader — one who is underserved by available content to target his or her unique needs and interests.
  • How you tell the story – Content marketing has been around for years and has been called many different things. But we at the Content Marketing Institute were among the first to call it content marketing. That distinguished our voice — and made a difference in how the audience responded.
  • Platform – Lincoln Electric’s decision to create a lifestyle-focused print magazine was unique in the industry, helping it stand out from competitors who relied on blogs or other digital media channels to get their messages out.
  • Subject matter – Using tools like Google Trends, you can uncover important breakout terms for which there are few instructional resources available to the audience.

Traction News

(Winner: Best Transportation Publication; Finalist: Content Marketing Project of the Year)

Traction news copy

Tires help make the world go ’round; but if tire-related businesses aren’t careful, they can easily find themselves spinning their wheels without making progress toward their goals. Enter Traction News, an online publication designed to help these businesses become more profitable overall. Despite its sales-driven purpose, this trade publication is run just like a professional newsroom might be. In fact, Tireweb Marketing takes a refreshing, hands-off approach to its content, letting the editorial roll without interference, advertorials, or even obvious calls to action — a smart decision that has earned it recognition by Google News, Bing News, and Yahoo News as a legitimate news source.

Here are some more measurable wins this information-driven approach has helped Tireweb Marketing achieve:

  • From its launch on November 1, 2015 through May 2016, Traction News experienced a 1% increase every week in email subscriptions.
  • On the day Traction News was listed as a Google News provider, website traffic went up 534%.
  • A hyperlink to its product page resulted in $30,000 in sales revenue.

Takeaway: Prioritize the ABCs over ABS (Always Be Selling)

At the end of the day, our content needs to help us sell more, lower expenses, or create happier customers. Our customers know this, and our content marketing strategies are built around achieving these goals. But the more we educate, inform, and/or entertain our audience, the more they won’t mind being sold to.

One reason why creating informative content is such a powerful strategy is that when customers are well educated on a subject, they can make better informed purchasing decisions. Not only does this shine a favorable light on you as the brand that provided clarity on a complex issue, it can also help accelerate your sales cycle without adding stress on your sales team members.

However, as Tracy Gold once cautioned, it’s important to build trust by maintaining a product-agnostic focus in your educational content. To truly serve the needs of your audience, you must ensure that the information you provide will be universally applicable — no matter which product or service your audience ultimately decides to purchase.

Two Bellmen Short Films

(Winner: Best Use of Video in Content Marketing; Finalist: Content Marketing Project of the Year)

While traditional hotel advertising normally focuses on price and location, Marriott’s Two Bellmen short films, instead, cast its properties as integral characters in an engaging pair of stories. The action — including impressive parkour stunts — is highly choreographed and thoroughly entertaining, yet the marketing message still shines through — loud and clear — thanks to subtly integrated branding elements like Marriott luggage carts and key cards.

In addition to global distribution on the Two Bellmen YouTube channel and (as well as in Marriott hotel guest rooms worldwide), the first film was given an exclusive screening at the Marriott at Los Angeles’ L.A. Live complex. Combined with behind-the-scenes videos, photo galleries, and a robust portfolio of social media content, the multi-platform branded content effort garnered some impressive results that, according to Marriott, far exceeded the engagement rates typically seen with traditional advertising content:

  • The first Two Bellman film achieved a 66.7% view rate in the United States and 60.3% view rate internationally, exceeding industry benchmarks across the board by more than 400%.
  • The film also saw a reach on Twitter of 14.6 million impressions.
  • Two Bellmen Two and its trailer received almost 9 million views on YouTube, achieving a 52.1% view rate.

Takeaway: Create crave-worthy content

Content marketing works best when it doesn’t just interest your readers — it resonates with them deeply enough to leave them wanting more. If our goal is to influence, inspire, and move audiences to action, we need to create stories that people crave — memorable, deeply resonant content that audiences love so much, they will actively seek it out and voluntarily share it.

While stories are particularly effective in this capacity, crave-worthy content can come in just about any format. The important thing is that you focus on creating a relatable lens through which your audience will perceive your brand.

For example, you can tap into these cravings by creating content that:

  • Allows readers to reminisce
  • Is about risk-takers
  • Evokes curiosity
  • Builds suspense
  • Tells a rescue story
  • Is about redemption
  • Tells tales of sacrifice
  • Confirms (or alleviates) readers’ greatest fears
  • Uncovers a mystery

Think Progress

(Winner: Best Content Marketing ROI/Measurement Program; Finalist: Content Marketing Project of the Year)

Lenovo think progress copy

In the crowded B2B tech space, PC vendor Lenovo recognized that it needed to move beyond price-based messaging to compete for a share of IT buyers’ attention. Its agency, King Content, developed an always-on integrated approach to creating and sharing original branded content — in seven languages — on topics of interest to IT decision-makers.

The content was hosted on a series of B2B sites called Think Progress, and was designed to engage the target audience on an emotional level, entertaining them and enabling them to explore the latest technology trends while simultaneously demonstrating Lenovo’s understanding of their pain points.

Yet, the content initiative was also designed with the company’s performance goals top of mind. King Content incorporated real-time monitoring and A/B testing of content and different creative approaches for each component of the campaign, enabling Lenovo to optimize its efforts on an ongoing basis and maximize that content’s impact throughout various stages of the buying funnel.

Take a look at a few of the measurable results Lenovo achieved:

  • Upon their launch, Lenovo’s websites attracted over 300,000 users and 450,000 page views.
  • Average LinkedIn click-through rates and engagement rates nearly tripled industry benchmarks.
  • Organic sharing of Lenovo content on LinkedIn generated a 24% increase in earned media value.
  • The effort increased Lenovo’s average B2B lead value by 63%.

Takeaway: Manage your metrics to support your goals

While Lenovo’s program was tracked and measured across multiple platforms and audience touchpoints, this may not always be the most effective approach to gauging your content’s performance.

Measurement is a detailed process that can easily get overwhelming — particularly if you are trying to track more data than you can reasonably expect to act on. Rather than evaluating your content’s performance using every data point possible, start by prioritizing the metrics that are direct indicators of the top goals you are looking to achieve.

In his post on metrics made easy, Curata’s Pawan Deshpande outlines eight metric categories marketers can focus on, depending on what they are looking to achieve:

  • Consumption metrics look at the number of readers who consume your content, the channels they use, and the frequency of their consumption.
  • Retention metrics look at the effectiveness of holding your audience’s attention beyond the initial contact.
  • Sharing metrics examine what content is being shared, by whom, and where or how they are sharing it.
  • Engagement metrics are key to understanding whether your content resonates with readers and what kind of action (if any) they are taking after reading your content.
  • Lead metrics look at marketing’s part of the sales pipeline, quantifiably measuring how many prospective customers your content is helping you connect with.
  • Sales metrics apply to customers at the bottom of your sales funnel, where you’ll want to look at the dollar amount and percent value of opportunities influenced or generated and those ultimately won.
  • Production metrics are internal assessments of your content operations, helping your team understand how well their efforts are performing against the company’s expectations.
  • Cost metrics help you calculate a return on investment for your content based on actual operating costs, including materials, team and freelancer resources, and paid distribution.

Tôhoku Taberu Magazine

(Winner: Best Nonprofit Publication; Finalist: Content Marketing Project of the Year)

tohoku taberu magazine

Tôhoku Kaikon is a nonprofit organization that supports local food producers in the Tôhoku region of Japan whose business was hit hard by a devastating earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

Upon discovering that a disconnect existed between food producers and the urban consumers of their products, the company devised an innovative content subscription program to help bridge the gap, as well as to increase confidence in the quality of locally sourced food. Tôhoku Taberu Magazine shares the personal life stories of the hard-working harvesters, while delivering the products of their labor directly to subscribers — along with recipes for cooking with the delivered food and sumptuous foodie images to motivate their culinary efforts.

As the magazine’s popularity grew, Tôhoku recognized an opportunity to take these burgeoning consumer relationships full circle by establishing a members-only Facebook page. Subscribers could post about the dishes they cooked with the delivered food, and the producers themselves could get a firsthand view of how their products were enjoyed across the country.

Takeaway: Build communities through authentic storytelling

By using storytelling to facilitate a shared, meaningful experience, Tôhoku did more than help food producers build their business; it built a sense of community that traversed cultural and geographical boundaries, and fostered greater trust and mutual understanding from the top to the bottom of Japan’s food supply chain.

To tell authentic stories that your customers will want to read, engage with, and get involved in, start by following this advice:

  • Capture a unique or fleeting moment – Help your customers feel what it’s like to encounter the best value of your brand.
  • Drop the business-speak – People want to connect with other people, not “target consumers,” “end-users,” or “key demographics.” If you want your content to help build meaningful relationships, speak from the heart — not from the buzzword bingo.
  • Map your story arc – Think like a Hollywood screenwriter and plot your content from start to finish, including how you will initially draw your audience in, raise their suspense, and end on a memorable note.
  • Break down the walls between your brand and your readers – Put the emphasis on “us” instead of “I” through the dialogue, sensory details, and physical descriptions you share in your content.

More winning content creators

I also would like to take a minute to congratulate the amazing agencies that took top honors, as well as the inspiring marketers who were recognized as Content Marketer of the Year finalists.

Agencies – fewer than 100 employees

Winner: Velocity Partners


Agencies – more than 100 employees

Winner: C3 Creative Code and Content GmbH


Content Marketer of the Year

Winner: Amanda Todorovich, Cleveland Clinic


Want more inspiration for making all your content marketing efforts a slam dunk? Check out the best-in-breed examples in our 2016 Content Marketing Playbook.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute