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The power of niche content

What do you get when you combine puppies with the Super Bowl? Powerful niche content.

The recent Super Bowl may have pulled the largest audience in American TV history along with the world’s biggest brands but the most effective marketing initiatives engage a niche, not the masses. James Chalmers discusses the power of niche content using a most-delightful example: the Puppy Bowl.

Look! An excuse to read about puppies while sort of doing something related to your job.

It would be easy to make an argument that right now, puppies are having a moment. Although it’s not like they’ve ever not been the most popular thing in a given room (unlike this cat), dogs are riding high in the media world.

To give but a few examples, Buzzfeed has built itself into a $US850 million behemoth on the back of corgi gifs, eyewear icon Karen Walker has based her spring 2015 campaign around a spaniel with a permanently wagging tongue and Last Week Tonight’s John Oliver has even deployed dogs to make US Supreme Court hearings compelling viewing.

Now, these are far from the first people to capitalise on the fact that humanity’s adoration of dogs is so deeply ingrained it’s in our very genes. HMV was using a dog called Nipper to help sell its records back in 1900, and Kleenex has been using a labrador puppy to sell toilet paper for four decades (slightly disturbing sidenote: 10 years ago that nameless puppy even earned a place among the celebrity waxworks at Madame Tussaud’s).

But when it comes to capitalising on puppy power, US cable channel Animal Planet leads the pack. As a content producer, they obviously understand the power of good content. What they also understand is how to best use content marketing techniques to boost the reach and engagement of that content.

What we’re talking about is the Puppy Bowl.

Enter the puppies

Every February since 2005, Animal Planet has been filling an adorably miniature football ground with puppies, filming the results and screening narrated highlights of tiny clumsy puppies tumbling over each other to anyone who doesn’t feel like watching the day’s other big game, the Super Bowl. They were at it again on Sunday:

Puppy-Bowl_4  Puppy-Bowl_1

Aside from the sheer genius of giving themselves an excuse to spend a workday playing with puppies, the team at Animal Planet have served up a prime lesson in blending content with marketing.

Find your niche

The real Super Bowl, with boring old humans, is of course a juggernaut. It attracts more than 110 million viewers in the US alone each year, and is one of the most-watched and most-hyped events on the planet.

How do you compete against something like that? Legend has it that the Puppy Bowl began when a staffer at Animal Planet made a throwaway suggestion that competing against the Super Bowl was so impossible they were best off simply pointing a camera at some puppies and going home early.

And that’s basically what they did. The first Puppy Bowl was simply a 12-hour montage of puppies playing about on a field strewn with toys.

But even in its first year, it attracted more than five million viewers. That’s because, even though the Super Bowl’s domination seems total, the reality is that two-thirds of Americans don’t watch it in a given year. That’s still a very large potential audience.

And of course, despite the football trappings, the Puppy Bowl is not really competing for the same fans.

Animal Planet took scope of the landscape, identified a powerful competitor and then created a product that enabled them to benefit from their competitor’s titanic marketing hype while reaching for an entirely different audience.

That’s why it is such a powerful niche.

Give people what they want

The other reason it’s such a powerful niche is, of course, the puppies.

Animal Planet has made no pretense of not pandering to what is an extremely widespread and powerful interest to many, many people. And that is just fine.

When creating content, it can be easy to sometimes fall into a trap of thinking the audience is somehow separate to you. We all know what we like but sometimes when creating content we run everything through a filter, aimed at making sure the content aligns with what we think the audience should like. In doing so, it’s easy to overlook opportunities to engage with audiences on powerful emotional levels.

Yes, the Puppy Bowl is a goof, but implicit in the goof is the acknowledgement between the content creator and the audience that yes, there is a hell of a lot going on in the world but sometimes each one of us just wants to sit down and watch little fuzzballs chase each other around.

Grow through innovation

As mentioned above, the Puppy Bowl started relatively unambitiously. In 2005, there were no commentators, no half-time show and no sponsors.

Now? There is almost as much pageantry around the event as there is for the actual Super Bowl. There is a half-time show performed by kittens, sometimes including guest performances by this feline pop superstar.

There have been hedgehog cheerleaders. There are professional commentators. There are multiple lucrative corporate sponsorships. There are hamsters in a goddamn blimp.

Animal Planet has innovated each year, adding new features to give repeat audiences a little extra while not changing what is attracting audiences in the first place.

Even if something is working well, don’t be afraid to try new things. Done well, innovation can strengthen existing audience loyalty while luring in new audiences as well.

Add an emotional narrative

All these puppies are pretty cute right? Well, now add the fact they were all basically orphans before Animal Planet got involved. Yep. Every single puppy in the Puppy Bowls was from a rescue shelter.

Thanks to the Puppy Bowl spotlight, Animal Planet is able to find new owners for each and every one of its athletes, like Boomer here.


As part of the match coverage, they even screen short little documentaries showing the journeys of some puppies from the shelter to their new families.

Giving an audience an opportunity to be part of something with a tangible benefit to the world is an excellent way to get them more engaged.

Alas, rehoming puppies isn’t going to work for every content campaign you embark upon but deftly linking your campaign with a good cause is an excellent way to give it an emotional hook to resonate more strongly with audiences.

Spread the story wide

One of the greatest strengths of the Puppy Bowl is the deftness in which Animal Planet has extended it well beyond game-day itself.

The channel builds engagement by beginning its coverage weeks and weeks ahead of kick off, and giving would-be viewers myriad ways to engage with the content.

For example, viewers can check out each of the players and take part in a fantasy football league. Or they can watch the puppy athletes laze about on a live puppy cam (note: the folks over at Animal Planet were kind enough to keep replay footage from the day’s live stream on their website. Bless).

But most inventively, they even took the story out from behind the screens and straight into people’s mitts.

At the time of the big event, office workers in 10 US cities were able to use car-service app Uber to get a tumble of local rescue shelter puppies delivered to their offices for 15 minutes of play (and of course puppy-belly rubbing). Predictably, the initiative was the belle of the social media ball, helping ratchet up the hype a little bit further.

At the heart of any content marketing strategy is creating content that benefits your brand that people want to willingly consume and engage with. Animal Planet has done this adroitly.

Rick Holzman, the channel’s general manager, told an industry conference earlier this year that content creators must recognise how sophisticated modern audiences are at recognising self-serving marketing.

“Getting the right message in the right media isn’t an ad,” he says. “It is not something other, but part of the experience.”

The results

Since its first year, Puppy Bowl has increased its audience by more than 160%, with a whopping 13.5 million viewers tuning in last year, and even more predicted for this year’s event. It was all over social media, with an estimated 400,000 Puppy Bowl tweets made during the game. It’s also picked up some high-profile fans along the way, including the likes of US First Lady Michelle Obama, who helped launch last year’s game, along with White House dogs Bo and Sunny.

All of this is hugely valuable for not only Puppy Bowl but for Animal Planet itself. In the hugely competitive and crowded US cable television market, Animal Planet has created something that resonates.

Summary: What puppies can teach you about content marketing

  • Don’t be intimidated by the competition, no matter how dominant. Find your niche instead.
  • Give people what they want, even if it sometimes means being a little silly
  • Once you’ve built an audience, don’t stagnate. Find ways to innovate and improve.
  • Make your audience feel like they are part of something worthwhile. Everyone loves a happy ending.
  • Look for different ways to allow your audience to engage with you.

Finally, for those of you who came here after Googling an entirely different sort of puppy bowl:


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