Living in a compelling material world

Industry experts explain how by striking up conversation with the customer, the best content marketing really can drive a sale.


The panel (l-r above)

Chair, Branwell Johnson (MW) – acting editor, Marketing Week
Andrew Warner (AW) – senior marketing director, EMEA Expedia
Sam Barton (SB) – head of user experience, Shop Direct
Justine Noades (JN) – head of brand, PR and social,
Thane Ryland (TR) – global head of digital and social insights, Nokia
Johanna Elderfield (JE) – head of brand, Saga Holidays
Simon Denny (SD) – affiliate director, IPC Media
Jeremy Corenbloom (JC) – marketing director,
Claire Harper (CH) – founder, IndiaCoco
Paul Avis (PA) – marketing director, Canada Life Group Insurance
Sharon Douglas (SDouglas) – business development director, Hearst
Magnus Fitchett (MF) – planning director, SapientNitro


MW: What are the challenges of content marketing?

Sam Barton (SB): We generate a lot of content but it’s how we use it in a relevant way that will also allow us to complete transactions. How do we, as Shop Direct, surface relevant content at the right time as part of that customer experience? 

Paul Avis (PA): We’re in an industry – insurance – that’s highly regulated as well as intermediated, with a complex value chain. We have to make sure content operates within the boundaries of different stakeholders but that also meets strict industry regulations.

Simon Denny (SD): Content moves customers through the purchase funnel, from creating awareness to the consideration phase. The challenge for us at IPC is to maintain editorial credibility while working within brand guidelines.

Andrew Warner (AW): Content marketing is one of those terms that has been invented by the trade press because we don’t really talk about it that much internally at Expedia. What we do is designed with an end purpose, which is ultimately transactions. But it does help with contextualising our offer and with discoverability, particularly in a digital context. 

Our biggest challenge is that we’re a large organisation so getting coherent content that works from the customer’s point of view is difficult.

The further down the funnel you go you need to deliver content that will inform purchase and reduce returns. In particular, we are asking ourselves how we justify return on investment when it is difficult to associate it with content such as video and blogs.

Justine Noades (JN): is trying to develop brand messages into brand content, and it’s not something the marketing team has done a lot of. The challenge is to target the right customer and measure it. 

For a lot of online retailers it’s easy to use online as a quantitative measure but as a marketer you look for different measures, such as what you want to be known for as a brand. Brand content can go beyond what advertising messages can do.


Jeremy Corenbloom (JC): needs to stand out among strong competitors. We’re in one of those interesting markets where the more successful you are, the faster customers will disappear [because they have met a partner and don’t need a dating site any more]. 

We want to make sure they have a rewarding experience, especially as recommendation and tenure aren’t too far away from each other. [We are thinking about] what the single-minded thing is that content can do for us, taking many loose threads and making a cohesive strategy.

Johanna Elderfield (JE): Content marketing is a great opportunity to build brand engagement. We have lots of content but we need to make sure we give it to the right people at the right point in their journey to build a positive feeling about Saga.

Magnus Fitchett (MF): The curation of content is challenging because there is so much of it. Justification can be difficult but the need is great because as consumers are researching in a digital space and purchasing offline, they’re looking for greater depth of content to feel comfortable with decision-making.

Thane Ryland (TR): A big challenge for Nokia is that we don’t sell direct so we’re handing large elements of the purchase ‘funnel’ over to retailers or network providers. We need good content that works on a global and local level.

Equally, we don’t have the marketing dollars that Samsung has, for example, so how can we use the huge amounts of content that has been created by fans and other people? We need to know the key content triggers, how they work in different markets and how different areas of the business can keep up with the evolution.

Claire Harper (CH): Content for me is about keeping it simple. It has to tell a story, it has to be meaningful and take customers on a journey. Customer recommendation is a big part of that – telling other customers how pleased they’ve been with their end-to-end experience and step by step we can build the IndiaCoco brand.

Sharon Douglas (SDouglas): At Hearst I wouldn’t say we’re involved in content marketing as such, more matching product to great content. As a content company we need to know what products are relevant to the pillars supporting our own brand. A particular challenge is that it’s not our core business, so you’re not number one on the agenda at board meetings any more. That said, in terms of ecommerce, if we get it wrong it erodes our margin. We have to maintain editorial balance.

Content is about keeping it simple. It has to tell a story, be meaningful and take customers on a journey

MW: How important is the brand’s point of view?

JE: We’ve worked hard to understand what our brand means to people. Once you understand who you are and how you’re perceived by customers then you can produce content that’s useful for your brand. In our case it’s about being the trusted host and one that can offer exciting experiences.

AW: This is nothing new, it’s just brand positioning and something we spend a lot of time doing. There is a myth that content marketing is free or cheap. Expedia generates a lot of content a couple of years ago telling our brand story, and then not as many people as we would have liked engaged with it or it was expensive to drive that engagement. 

We’ve learned there are stories we tell for the short term and some long term, where we hope it has utility that endures.

We’ve worked with Facebook to involve consumers in the creation of content such as mobile apps that integrate with advertising in Germany or co-creation of sponsorship bumpers in France. It’s got to be engaging rather than just throwing stuff out there.

TR: It’s about inviting people into an experience instead of focusing on broadcasting. We need to own the idea of innovation and so we made the specifications for phone covers available to customers to 3D print their own. We need to get people to look differently at us. Customers didn’t just create cases, it accelerated the innovation conversation and fed into advocacy.

MF: Brands that have done a good job have taken a step to the side. They’re not broadcasting but facilitating conversations around an issue or a higher brand purpose. Talking about ideas allows a consistent interaction around the brand.

JN: The internet has allowed a lot of brands the opportunity to be their own broadcaster and that can be quite overwhelming. The key idea you want to be known for needs to be grounded in your central brand strategy and you can’t go after every opportunity. 


It’s also a question of quality. Whatever you do, it must be done really well to make sure it’s something compelling, interesting and informative that will capture attention.

CH: I see time and again that people don’t have consistent tone of voice or execution. It’s one of the challenges as I grow our brand to make sure the foundations remain in place and that tone of voice stays consistent.

MW: How is content integrated consistently with all other brand touchpoints?

PA: Trust and leadership are the key things that most brands need to gain to make content interesting, useful and fun. But the broadcasting also needs to be experiential. 

You can achieve synergies from social media across PR, TV and advertising if you have a consistent message. Stick to what you’re about but do things round the edges to make it more interesting.

SD: The breakthrough we made a couple of years ago was in social proof – seeing people using Hearst’s products. Then, taking it a step further and having a look at feedback, we ran a lot of our creative ideas past our customers. Start small, be agile, keep costs low and get stories from the customers that are then played back out.

MW: If content is neither free nor cheap, how is it resourced?

SB: ShopDirect has always had teams that create marketing and promotional content. User-generated content has been high on the agenda for a long time. But moving from being a traditional catalogue retailer to digital has meant a shift in culture, and the whole thinking at senior level has had to change. 

You do have to take a leap of faith on some things. Though we may not be able to directly attribute rich content to the bottom line, we do see that engagement scores go up. There has to be an understanding that, by creating this content that is going to improve customer experience, it will have a positive impact on the brand and return on investment.

JC: You need to know what content is before you can define whether it’s expensive or resource-heavy. If we look at the extremes of video content it’s much more complicated to build the right models to justify moving forward. We’ve had success just in the written word and infographics. 

By picking up on insight at we’ve created a content strategy that’s not all about high production-value video but something that is quite rewarding and does pay back in terms of what the visitor is looking to achieve.

JN: The method of your brand content has to be appropriate to what you’re selling, so travel lends itself brilliantly to photographic and video.

MW: What platforms are delivering best?

PA: We’re working on audience segmentation – 25 to 35-year-olds, for example, want more Twitter information. We don’t touch Facebook and we’re about to launch a YouTube channel. We’ve been quite selective as everything we do has to be signed off, but we’ve already been doing webcasts that will form the basis of our YouTube channel. We’re not creating specific content for media.

CH: We’re developing a loyal customer following at IndiaCoco and most recently we launched a customer champion scheme where I’m inviting them to be part of our brand, recruiting them to share stories. Getting customers involved by being open and honest to bring the brand to life is very promising.

TR: Our content distribution is both internal and external. Our chief executive is a great proponent of [business social networking site] Socialcast, and did his first big internal broadcast on there when he joined.

Because it’s come from the CEO it’s been a real force for us to drive through change. We’re doing workshops to train non-digital people in the digital transformation elements that are available to them – the ones that are impacting their ability to sell more phones and drive potential buyers. Externally, it’s the usual suspects but last year we had hundreds of millions of social interactions.

MF: It’s so easy to talk about different platforms but content can surface anywhere. Even in changing rooms, how can you push average order values up by putting in an RFID [radio-frequency identification] tag that lets the store talk about companion [or similar] products?

Trust and leadership are the things most brands need to gain  to make content interesting and fun

Working with a large cruise company we found people had a set idea of how much they would spend on the journey. By emailing details about additional services and sending them useful content in advance about activities, they would spend larger amounts.

AW: We don’t look at Facebook and decide we should be on it because Facebook has been proven to work. We start with a commercial objective and the contextual objective and look for ways to bring it to life. Verified reviews, for example, drive conversion and better performance from hotels because if they get better reviews, they get better business from us.

You need to do activities that drive engagement and save you money on paid search. Brands go wrong when they approach it from the point of ‘everyone else is on You Tube’. If we know what you’re doing and when we might serve you a video because you’re in the ‘inspirational’ phase of travel buying [?]. 

On the mobile phone app, if you’re two days away from travelling, the home screen will automatically show you your itinerary rather than the booking page. Contextualisation of content is where brands need to be moving.

CH: The growth of our international customer base has surprised us but now we have to look at customer profiles and segmentations according to the markets they live in and then tailor that content accordingly.

MW: Is content a short or long-term plan?

SD: It’s a combination. We have an SEO [search engine optimisation] plan and conversion plan, and we have editorial staff who plan this anyway. We can be reactive but you have to have a clear idea of why you’re doing things.

JN: We have done little reactive things that are fun and have high engagement, such as turning the pink branding blue for the royal baby. We got lots of likes and people talking about us but as a brand it doesn’t have any strategic importance at all. It does make you feel current and you need to be part of a conversation but other messages have brand importance.

JE: It’s a balancing act. It’s nice to be entertaining at times and just show you’re relevant.

SDouglas: If people come to your brand through something like that you have to think how you can quickly take them somewhere else within your brand.

AW: The problem with content in an ecommerce environment is that it becomes out of date really quickly. We have a calendar – we’re a seasonal business – but, equally, we sponsor a travel blogger exchange. They want their up-to-the-minute content given traffic [?] and we want their content. We could push a destination then an exchange rate shift will make it deeply unattractive. You have to think of using content in an agile way so that you can maintain your business.

MW: Does video bring unique content challenges?

JC: If you’re looking to give yourself a position in innovation then using new technology is a way to do that. We can afford to watch and learn how consumers are using that technology before we blaze into it.

JN: Video doesn’t have to be served through social channels. My objective is to get it to as big an audience as possible, and actually social [media] isn’t ideal for that. You can approach it in the same way as you would broadcast advertising – serving it through Google ads.

JC: It’s important to make video content out of something that’s already there. With an expensive investment it’s tempting to think what else can be made out of it, but that’s forgetting about the customer. What does the customer get out of it that is rewarding?

MF: Video is about utility – using videos on Mamas & Papas to explain how to construct a pram is useful. Adding shoppable components to the video is a great opportunity to upsell.

TR: The issue with video is that many brands are still putting their call to action at the end. Vine and Instagram now come in with six and 15-second shorts, and the average length of a video on You Tube is two and a half minutes. Customers are leaving before they get to the call to action. What should we be doing to optimise for people who are restless?

AW: Volkswagen did a video piece where the call to action was in the first five seconds to encourage consumers to watch for longer. A competitor is actually making videos longer to play the Google ad model. Putting calls to action throughout the video but the video itself is relatively long, meaning most drop out before it finishes [?], in which case, the brand doesn’t pay for that showing of the video. That’s using it in a really intelligent way.

MW: Is there tension between content and brand message?

JE: It’s about facilitating the next step, keeping it simple and easy. If we have a great piece of content that people are engaging with then, as long as it’s easy for them to find out more, that’s the right balance. Don’t break the conversation halfway through.

PA: There’s no need for a call to action in everything you do. Much of our material is legislation-based, so it’s back to trust and leadership rather than pushing a sale.

SB: We need to give the customer the relevant content that will inform the purchase decision but not get in the way of it. For a remote retailer, it’s all about the sale. Without high-street stores we have to present the product to the customer in a way that gives them the information they need, so we invest heavily in rich media that will move them onto the next step.

AW: Customers will tell you where the call to action is if you use search intelligently. If they’re typing ‘plasma or LED TV’, they’re at a different stage than entering a model number. You can bring customers from one stage to the other and you can even switch people from competitors.

At LG we leveraged the digital switchover, where people were scared of going into a store and seeming unknowledgeable so would use Google. Based on an insight we found online, we went offline to a print piece where we created ‘maps’ of the actual size of different flat screen TVs so people could see what was the best fit in their living rooms. 

This was one of the biggest issues in purchase consideration in the switch from [older] cathode-ray tube TVs to flat screen, and was the most demanded piece of marketing collateral we’d had in the whole year.

JC: Content can go into much more experiential territory. Let’s get away from the online environment and meet people face to face is the foundation of Nights. How do we take the online experience and make it real, giving consumers something tangible to take away?

TR: Nokia Connects means someone can actually take a device and trial it for two weeks. One of our key objectives is to get the device into the hands of more people. Experiential will become more and more important for many of us. There are higher costs but it’s a way where we get to deepen the relationship.

JC: It’s about social proof and becomes self-fulfilling. If you can get product in hand and deliver an experience then your content strategy is starting to take on a life of its own.  

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