Customer publishing: The evolution of engagement

Burberry: Art of the Trench site engaged consumers
Burberry: Art of the Trench site engaged consumers

Content-oriented strategies have become the lynchpin of many marketing campaigns, but such an approach needs to become a boardroom-level priority, writes Nicola Clark.

Procter & Gamble has launched a free monthly digital beauty magazine and Tesco is launching its own ad-funded TV show. Meanwhile, online-only brands such as Google have invested in print magazines in an attempt to boost brand equity.

As the ecommerce market continues to grow, merging editorial content with shopping has fast become a lynchpin of the thinking marketer's strategy. The possibilities offered by transactional editorial - a multi-platform content strategy that actively drives sales - has moved the goalposts for marketers worldwide.

From former Grazia editor Fiona McIntosh setting up shop as consultant creative director at My-wardrobe.com to Elle's Melissa Dick joining ASOS, the fusion of editorial and brands continues apace. However, while shoppers have consumed fashion and shopping as entertainment for more than a decade, can a content-led strategy translate to brands in other categories?

Mike Burgess, digital development director at content agency Seven, says that regardless of sector, the combination of content, social media and mcommerce is powerful. 'There are a lot of brands who want to be retailers in their own right. Brands that have previously relied on Boots or Tesco for their distribution now have the opportunity to speak directly to shoppers, which is huge,' he says.

Creating compelling content as a source of inspiration for readers and to build trust and brand equity is a well-established strategy among many brands. Julia Hutchison, chief operating officer at trade body the APA, says that while content has moved up the agenda, the challenge for brands is that every agency in town is trying to get into that space.

'People with editorial skills take it for granted that everyone can create content, but there is a big difference between a company that can create a web-build and an agency that can create engaging content,' she adds.

This land-grab can create confusion among marketers seeking to fine-tune their content strategy. With this in mind, Marketing has identified five key trends for marketers getting to grips with how content can drive their brands forward.

1. New structures: content is a board-level issue

Experts argue that for content to sit at the heart of a business, a shift in approach is required. For brands that have simply out-sourced their customer magazine to an agency in the past, or created a magazine just to drive ad revenue, a new approach is required.

Mark Fitzgerald, co-founder and chief executive of content agency Fitzgerald Shurey Tarbuck, says: 'We talk to our clients about content-planning; the proposition is about showing how content can work across different platforms.'

Rather than simply 'bolting on' digital and video content to magazine work, a cross-platform content strategy, underpinned by clear commercial objectives, drives the business.

Content agencies report that driving through content-oriented strategies requires a fresh skill-set for marketers who need to feed customers' desire for timely, compelling content across a variety of platforms. In the age of earned media, content has become a board-level issue.

'Marketers need to take a step back from the plethora of platforms available, to create a single view of how content can drive the brand across the organisation, rather than focusing on meaningless KPIs,' argues one editorial director. At a time when marketing budgets are under scrutiny, this often means content needs to work harder across multiple platforms.

2. Content is a direct sales tool

In an age of immediacy, where consumers can use their mobile phone to make purchases, there is an abundance of opportunities for brands to embed 'click-and-shop' mechanisms in online editorial.

Neal Anderson, digital director at Publicis Blueprint, says that content should be embraced as the key that opens the door to commerce and gets the brand to the forefront of consumers' minds. 'The beauty of branded content is that it is a soft sell and it gives brands the opportunity to be clever and use video content and editorial to drive transactions,' he adds.

As 'searchandising' becomes an important part of online retailing, content also has a key role to play in driving natural search traffic to brands and retailers' sites.

3. Avoid the curse of the vanity app

As customers become more platform neutral - interacting with brands in-store, on smartphones and iPads - marketers are grappling with how best to reach them. There is an array of branded apps on the market, and some customer publishing agencies argue that brands have outpaced traditional publishers when it comes to connecting with consumers via iPads and apps.

However, experts point to several apps languishing at the bottom of the charts, created with little tangible benefit for consumers. 'There is no point in creating content just for the sake of it,' says Burgess.

Hutchison says that it is vital apps provide a reason for consumers to engage with them. She cites the example of the parenting charity NCT's free app, which shows users where the nearest nappy-changing facilities are, as an example of a brand offering users a tangible benefit and forging positive brand associations through meeting a need.

According to Anderson, the technology should not come before the creative idea. 'It's the content and getting the context right which is at the heart of engagement.

It is easy to get carried away with social media or creating a Facebook page for no reason.' Creating content with no clear purpose is not a sustainable strategy.

4. The age of subscription retail

As brands become media owners in their own right, a growing number of companies are taking this one step further. Using the example of magazines, many of which have long relied on subscription models, where consumers commit to receiving the title for a 12-month period, a plethora of companies are launching similar models which get products directly to customers. Recent UK examples include Glossy Box and Boudoir Prive, where consumers sign up to receive a box of beauty products each month. The subscription format presents a substantial opportunity for brands. Those that invest in creating relationships with consumers could be best-placed to advance this model.

5. Consumers as content creators, brands as content curators

Creating content that consumers cannot only engage with, but contribute to, is seen as the ultimate aim of brand engagement.

In the fashion sector, brands have already embraced the concept of consumers acting as creators of content. Well-known examples include luxury brand Burberry, which encouraged consumers to upload images of themselves in one of the brand's trench coats for the Art of the Trench website. Elsewhere, Chanel has used its own creative and artistic directors to develop content for years, without using external agencies.

Imran Amed, founder and editor of The Business of Fashion, says that, with the growth of social media, every consumer is an editor. 'In the old days, the editor was at Vogue or GQ but now everyone can curate their own collections,' he says.

While this army of editors, with their smartphones in their pocket, present a way for companies to amplify and communicate their content, brands need to brace themselves for negative feedback.

While consumers can create and curate content for brands, they can also amplify any given failing or slight. As the success of gri.pe - a site dedicated to getting complaints heard and resolved through social media - demonstrates, a wealth of consumer-generated content is negative.

However, fear of such feedback should not dissuade brands from embarking on a content-led marketing strategy. As the tide of consumers seeking two-way conversations with brands continues to swell, creating engaging content is vital.

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