3 Content Formats That Are About to Take Off (and Be Abused)

Everyone is afraid to be left behind. That’s why most brand publishers and marketers try to pay extra attention to trends and predictions. No one wants to be the last to know about that new technology that could be a game changer, which hot new tool can help them “go viral,” and what bells and whistles can help them gain more social shares.

But that’s also why they fail.

“It’s a pattern,” said Joe Pulizzi, founder of the Content Marketing Institute. “The same thing happened to e-books. Now, almost every marketer has an e-book of some kind, and their performance isn’t as strong as it once was (in general). We’ve seen the same thing with infographics.”

Whenever new content formats get popular—whether it’s e-books, infographics, or tutorials—everyone rushes in to make it as fast and as quick as possible, hoping to cash in on the trend. This results in a lot of noise.

“But once everyone without a strategy rushes in and fails, those who remain and understand why and how to use each content type are successful,” he added.

With that said, which new types of content will we see grow in 2014? And more importantly, how do we avoid adding to all the noise that pollutes the media ecosystem?

Interactive branded stories drive engagement—if done right

Over the past year, brands, marketers, and readers alike drooled over the narrative power and beauty of interactive longform content. While this format has already gained traction in journalism, brands are now paying attention to its brand storytelling possibilities.

Take the case of “Make Your Money Matter,” an interactive guide that tries to convince millennials to switch from commercial banks to credit unions. The website and social media campaign is a joint effort made by eight U.S.-based credit unions and PSCU, a financial services provider.

Despite the formal—and possibly dreary—topic, the website feels more like a video game than a page of content. Every time you scroll or click, you are rewarded with animation, parallax scrolling, and the growing narrative of where your money goes after you deposit it in a commercial bank.

There’s even a tool built midway into the narrative that helps you estimate how much money bank shareholders made from your hard-earned cash.

Given the piece’s interactivity and the compelling narrative structure, it’s likely that readers would be more excited to read and share it instead of a 1,000-word article on why commercial banks are bad for you. So far, the page has elicited over 3,500 social shares.

But this kind of interactive narrative isn’t limited to one-off promotional content. Even brand magazines and newsletters are moving more towards interactive experiences. More importantly, they are getting results.

One of those magazines is Tennis Tuesday, a free weekly digital magazine for tennis enthusiasts by the Tennis Media Company. The magazine is highly interactive and powered by Ceros, an online platform that helps publishers create interactive HTML content without the need for programming. That allowed the Tennis Tuesday team to create a finished product that would also be beautiful and responsive across desktops, tablets, and smartphones. It’s proved a big upgrade on their previous, static digital version of the magazine: Tennis 15–30.

According to Scott Gramling, Tennis Tuesday’s managing editor, using a platform like Ceros has allowed them to produce quality content consistently. “It allowed us to evolve our fortnightly Tennis 15–30 digital magazine into our current Tennis Tuesday weekly magazine, which, despite doubling the frequency, has resulted in nearly double the amount of unique visitors year-over-year.”

Renee Osgood, director of new business at Ceros, also said that this format, if properly used, tends to draw more engagement.

“When you have devices like video and animations to use, a brand’s personality—and the emotion of the story—can be more clearly communicated,” she said. “In turn, that impacts how much the consumer engages with the content. The more interactive, personalized, multi-layered, shoppable, and engaging your content, the more time a consumer will spend within the experience, as we’ve seen in our metrics.”

Apart from Ceros, startups like Scroll Kit and Exposure are also providing tools that create interactive stories without programming. As these tools become a standard part of a brand publisher’s arsenal, it will be easier for brands of all sizes to jump on the trend.

The downside is that when it becomes easier for everyone to jump on the trend, it’s also easier to create “noise”—interactive stories that are created haphazardly with weak narratives, and do nothing for the reader or the brand.

“The most common—and tragic—mistake we encounter is that brands don’t make a full commitment to designing digital-first,” Osgood said. “Many times, there is an existing story or article which came to life in print first, and bringing it online is an afterthought. The result of working in that order is that the digital piece looks and reads similarly, and all these great opportunities to bring the piece to life are missed.”

Plus, by not designing the digital experience first, the final product usually ends up clunky, and often doesn’t look good across a variety of devices.

To avoid these mistakes when designing an interactive experience, Osgood suggests starting with your goals and taking it from there.

“Make sure any visuals you include add to the story, and the user’s experience, and aren’t done just for novelty’s sake,” she said.

The branded documentary: it’s not ‘radio with pictures’

When you first check out the East Sussex Gliding Club’s website, you’re welcomed with a high-definition video that opens with a silhouette of a man walking across a hangar towards a glider.

Then, one of the Gliding Club members tells us: “Gliding teaches you a skill that no other flying does. You have to learn to read the air.”

The rest of the video contains short clips of their diverse members expressing what they love about the club, shots of spectators on the field (including a dog), and action shots of workers preparing a glider and the field for flight.

The thread that holds these varied clips together is the actual takeoff and flight of a glider. Viewers get to be part of the gliding experience via a camera mounted on one of the wings.

On the surface, this promotional video has the feel and style of a documentary. The “stars” are real people, not actors reading scripts. There is a story—the exhilaration leading up to takeoff and the serene flight that follows. It’s this story that’s at the forefront, not the sale.

There are several brands that have done this well, including Patagonia and Chevrolet. Their videos use people who are in direct contact with the brand, whether as a customer, founder, or employee. There are no scripts. The shots themselves resemble documentaries more than standard commercials—there are no cuts to different views of the same scene, and the shots aren’t completely slick and steady.

It sounds simple enough, but it’s easy for brands to miss the point of making a documentary video in the first place.

“A common mistake is to use an approach that I call ‘radio with pictures’: basically, just filming interviews and then layering generic images over the top like wallpaper,” said Ryan Spanger, the managing director of Dream Engine, a video production company in Melbourne, Australia.

Spanger urges brand publishers to remember that video is a visual storytelling medium. It’s meant to capture physical action, drama, and a compelling story. In other words, shooting interviews might seem easy, but that’s not what makes a powerful documentary.

“To avoid this, think about how you can use video to really propel the story. By all means film interviews, but also film the activities and drama that justifies telling the story through video, as opposed to another medium,” he said.

Personalized experiences: Sometimes cool, sometimes creepy

When you share the article “Fanboys,” written by Lessley Anderson for The Verge, your friends might not see the article in the same way you are seeing it.

Depending on which platform you use, whether it’s iOS, Android, or Windows, you’ll see different design elements and colors—from the header layout to the style of the pull quotes.

“I felt that styling the piece after the reader’s platform was a reflection of the ‘fanboy’ mentality of seeing what they want to see and wanting validation for their choice of platform,” said Guillermo Esteves, developer for The Verge, during an interview with the Society for News Design.

The subject matter and the personalized reading experience itself led to an engaging discussion among their readers. There are almost a thousand comments just within the week of publication.

Personalization isn’t just about appearances; it can also filter content to suit what the reader wants to see and follow.

For their coverage of the birth of Britain’s royal baby, the Guardian allowed users to choose whether they wanted to see the coverage on the homepage or not—a smart move for a readership split between the royal-birth-obsessed and those sick of the story.

There are also news apps such as Trove and News360, which deliver personalized news. These apps figure out which types of content, topics, and news that you like over time, and keep serving more of the content that you actually respond to. Individual publications are also following suit, with ESPN’s SportsCenter app letting users follow news and scores about their favorite teams, and there’s also speculation about Amazon founder Jeff Bezos taking The Washington Post in a similar direction.

This level of personalization is key to providing something relevant that delights and engages your target audience. Scott Robinson, senior director of loyalty consulting at Maritz Loyalty Marketing, wrote an article about a brand loyalty study they conducted last year. They found out that while most consumers want to hear from loyalty programs, only 53 percent feel that the communications they receive are tailored and relevant to them.

But this personalization comes at a price. To give readers a personalized experience, brands have to get to know them better by gathering more data—ranging from the devices we use to the sites we’ve visited, our location, and social media connections.

“Ironically, the very customer information that marketers need to capture in order to create a tailored and delightful experience for their customers is the very information that their customers are increasingly worried about providing,” wrote Robinson.

The trick is to find and create a personalization strategy that delights your customers and gives them a customized experience that benefits them, not just your bottom line.

“Your customers took a leap of faith when they chose to engage with you; don’t disappoint them, wear out your welcome or impose on them,” Robinson wrote. “If you do, you will affirm their concerns and damage your relationship with them. Instead, take every opportunity to show yourself worthy of their trust and their attention, prove you are looking out for their best interests, and then take every opportunity to delight and amaze them. That is what they are hoping for when they share information with you.”

It’s a marathon, not a sprint

At the end of the day, it’s better for brand publishers to plan for the long haul, not just chase trends.

“Content marketing is a marathon and not a sprint,” said Pulizzi. “The only way that brands will mature is if they stop with the tactical approach and actually take a long-term strategic approach backed by sound marketing objectives. The best indicator of content marketing effectiveness is if you have a strategy at all. It’s that simple.”

It may be simple, but it’s not easy. By the end of the year, when the dust settles on all this excitement, it will be clear which brands took the easy way out.

Contently arms brands with the tools and talent to become great content creators. Learn more.

Image by Scott Thomas

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