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Experimenting with new content: take risks, carefully

The main reason for doing anything relating to content marketing is user-centricity.

Once you say, “This is what we’ve always done, and it’s working, so this is what we’ll always do”, you may as well be reciting your own eulogy. Still, a degree of caution is advised. There’s a difference between being forward-thinking and being reckless.

Imagine that by all accounts – your audience, your team, your boss, your mum – your content marketing strategy is an admirable thing. At company meetings and behind closed office doors, you’re bordering smug talking about this perfectly balanced, well-oiled machine. Why, then, would you even think about doing something new?

Why you should try new stuff

The main argument for experimentation – and the main reason for doing anything relating to content marketing – is user-centricity. With new platforms, channels and content forms bubbling up all the time, audiences everywhere are responding in kind, adjusting their expectations as their exposure broadens and their tastes are enriched. They’re not going to remain static – not in their habits, behaviours or preferences. Nor, then, should you.

Play it too safe with your strategy, and in the eyes of your prospects and customers, your brand image starts to gather moss. Soon enough, you’ll be the modern-day equivalent of one of those terrible, neon-flashing websites. You’ll be updating your MySpace page.

And it’s not all about keeping up with your existing audience either – trying new content types channels or platforms is a very valuable way of reaching a new audience.

Aside from audience needs, there’s that old chestnut of content marketing – we’re not here for fun, we’re here to fulfil business needs. It’s inevitable that business functions diversify or those business needs shift. Having different forms for different functions is one of the basic principles of storytelling (and – not coincidentally – marketing too). In this scenario, defaulting to ‘what we’ve always done’ is not only choosing the way of the deathly dull – it’s ineffective, and will be felt as a loss.

By zagging and zigging in a forwards-minded, objectives-driven direction, those positive labels of ‘adaptive’ and ‘innovative’ won’t be just empty talk – they’ll be earned.

For example, GE

Let’s take GE as an example. As we’ve mentioned before , the industrial conglomerate is a leader when it comes to agile, imagination-driven content marketing. Following the success of NPR’s Serial in 2015, the brand decided to capitalise on audience demand for longform, serial, story-driven podcasting, and produced the sci-fi podcast, The Message. With millions of listeners worldwide, it scored number one on the iTunes charts.

Galvanised by this success, GE had the confidence and value-backed proof to experiment further, creating more localised iterations of the storytelling form. In 2016, GE launched the ‘bespoke’ podcast series Decoding Genius in partnership with Fairfax Media, which explored across six episodes the lives of young innovators in Australia, Canada and the United States.

“As a brand, we like to experiment with innovative ways to tell our stories and interact with audiences,” GE’s Australia and New Zealand director of communications Joanne Woo said. “We try to be among the first to pioneer new channels and platforms – from podcasts to virtual reality.”

With 142,000-plus downloads, it topped the iTunes Arts category for the duration of its campaign. Because it aligned with the GE brand, its audience, and its strategy, the audacious move into audio storytelling more than paid off.

Doing it for your audience

Being experimental with your content isn’t the same as being whacky. What’s more, you shouldn’t dabble in something just because you love the form, topic or platform yourself. Just because you personally adore Clickhole-style quizzes, for instance, doesn’t mean you should integrate them into professional email marketing campaigns. And though Snapchat has the potential to be amazing for marketers (as DJ Khaled demonstrated for Las Vegas’ platform launch), it’s unlikely to suit an audience of retirees (and if you do convince those retirees to use Snapchat, be ready for their grandkids to come for you).

Instead, experimentation is about trying something new that your company hasn’t done before, but which everything tells you your audience will love. ‘Everything’ can include a gut feeling, granted. But most of this ‘everything’ is an incredible amount of research-based insight into your audience: where they are, what they’re interested in, and what they respond to most.

Here, we can pull out an example from HBF’s award-winning content hub Direct Advice for Dads (aka DAD), created in partnership with Mahlab. In February this year, an article came in from writer and lecturer Gregor Stronach. It was called ‘My name is Gregor, and I’m an alcoholic’, and was about struggling with addiction in the context of new parenthood. While it wasn’t planned in the editorial calendar, which focused on snappy, funny, practical advice, the marketing team decided it deserved a place on the site – that this was a conversation that their audience of new Australian fathers needed to have.

Breaking the silence on a topic sometimes considered taboo turned out to be completely worthwhile. In the comments, the article gained an enormous amount of appreciation, solidarity and support. “I couldn’t have come across [this] at a better time,” wrote one reader. “Sharing your story means a great deal to many and sharing it for other dads especially,” said another. A week after it was published on the DAD site, the article was syndicated by the Sydney Morning Herald, where it was shared on Facebook more than 1700 times.

This measured risk earned eyeballs, audience share and the loyalty of dads who saw that DAD wasn’t going to sugar-coat anything.

Doing it for the business

Another caveat to be dealt with: whatever new thing you’re trying, it has to be aligned with a business objective. As with the rest of your content marketing, it has to be purpose-driven. Publishing a flashy video that has nothing to do with your brand or your offering, titled “Watch this! It’ll give you GOOSEBUMPS!” may boost engagement for example, but will it generate more leads? Will it grow brand awareness? If it’s about a dog that found its way home after a few years of being missing, but your business is accounting, probably not.

And if your audience doesn’t respond – or worse, reacts negatively – then things can go very bad, quite quickly.

While it doesn’t fall under the content marketing category, we can learn some tough lessons here from KFC’s latest advertising campaign. Created in partnership with creative agency Mother, it centres on the idea of ‘The Whole Chicken’ – the fast food chain is “proud of [its] chicken” and “not afraid to show it”, as CMO Meg Farren said.

The ad that kicked off the campaign featured a very attractive specimen of a hen, bouncing its wattle and strutting about to the sick beats of ‘X Gon’ Give It To Ya’ by DMX. It was bold, ‘disruptive’, beautifully shot – but as Mark Ritson wrote over at Marketing Week, “some rules, even though we don’t like to say it in marketing, are best left unbroken”. No consumer wants to put ‘meat’ and ‘animal’ in the same category. (It’s enough to put them – literally – off their dinner.) And in this particular case, nobody wanted to associate the star chook – obviously loving life, and with what looks like an amazing personality – with a fate that amounts to a clutch of greasy bones at the bottom of a cardboard bucket tomb.

To date, the Advertising Standards Authority has received 250 complaints from the video and poster campaign, ranging from it being offensive and distressing to vegans, vegetarians and kids, to that it’s misleading, because no KFC chicken gets to live as long or as well as that one.

Moral of the ‘fast food fail’ story: if you’re going to take a punt, consider the consequences. This is even more relevant to the content marketing profession, because let’s face it – it’s hard enough to get the c-suite on side. If the person controlling your budget is saying, “Yeah, I’m not too sure about this, but if you really believe in it, go for it,” then you’d better work out whether you’re sure it’ll work. And if you’re not? Don’t stick your neck out.

Essentially, it comes down to being responsible and accountable for the decisions you make. After all, should you lose the trust of your executive, they’ll be less likely to sign off on other content marketing experiments – ones that could have borne far better fruit.

Give it a chance – but if it doesn’t work, dump it

Like most things content marketing related, patience and persistence are key. Sometimes, the new content you’re doing will be immediately embraced and adored by your audience – you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it long ago. But, humans are creatures of habit – sometimes they won’t fall head over heels, they’ll flock to the familiar and jack up their critical faculties when encountering anything different.

Give them time to chew the new dish of yours thoughtfully. Look at who’s biting, where they are coming to it from, how long they are spending exploring it, where they are going when they’re done with it. And keep on optimising based on what you find out.

Even if it’s not blowing the top off all the metrics, but is performing decently, there are a few situations in which you’d also carry on:

  • It’s consistently performing better than other types of content you’re producing, relative to your investment in each.
  • It’s found a ‘niche’ in a potentially lucrative segment of your audience that your other content doesn’t reach.
  • It fulfils a qualitative return on investment by demonstrating your expertise in an area your other content does not.

So long as you’re not losing money, audience, undue resources or valuable c-suite favour – and you and your audience are getting something that your other content does not provide – there’s nothing to lose and much to gain.

But if you’re sinking painful amounts into this dead horse, and absolutely nobody is betting on it – time to stop flogging it. Bury the poor thing, look at why it failed so you can remember those lessons, use them to ensure no one in your organisation is seeing this as a broader failure of ‘content’ in general, and move on.

Test, test and test again

Lastly: when trying your hand at a new content tactic, there is nothing more important than testing. More ‘outlandish’ efforts, or those with a reputational risk attached, should be tested before they even make it to daylight.

Once that new thing is launched, test it for all it’s worth. Test it to see whether it’s more suited to a particular channel. Test it against your existing content to see where it is strong and where it is weak. Use segmentation to test whether it resonates more with one particular audience, going on to target it accordingly, and testing some more.

From all this scrutiny, you are able to improve as you progress. Analysis may even reveal knowledge about your audience you hadn’t even guessed. By testing, you’re teaching yourself how to make your brand the best it can be.

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