‘We Always Give People a Path Into Our Technology’: Inside IBM’s Incredible Content Marketing

Global technology and consulting company IBM builds a lot of neat things: supercomputers, game console microprocessors, artificial intelligence. Few of its brilliant inventions are easily explained to non-technological folks, yet for the 103-year-old company, that’s okay. The tech giant has found a way to be extremely innovative even when its inventions and services are perplexing.

IBM’s content marketing has spanned genres, continents, and artforms. With each iteration of the IBM story, it never misses a beat in delighting consumers. It doesn’t try to game SEO. It doesn’t trick consumers into buying its products or following its brand on Facebook. Most importantly, it doesn’t only talk about itself.

Together, IBM employees run at least 45 self-driven blogs that the company promotes and wants you to follow. The company has nearly 400,000 Facebook followersmore than 120,000 Twitter followersmore than a few Tumblrs that are regularly updated, and a YouTube channel with more than 40,000 subscribers. IBM has published at least 120 videos since the start of this year, or three videos a week.

In May the company launched a series of commercials profiling its clients. Called “Made with IBM,” the series detailed the success of each company—and smartly ignored their connection to IBM. It wasn’t a product endorsement; it was a storytelling collaboration. As a result, several of the videos reached six-digit views on YouTube.

This same content strategy, of course, helped IBM do the impossible: Get its branded publication, Midsize Insider, onto Google News as a reputable source.

On top of this, the company enables all of its social followers, which it dubs “IBMers,” to share and promote its content as a learning resource by running multiple training sessions, live e-sessions with experts, and self-help guides. The company teaches its employees to be engaged and builds them into thought leaders. And once an employee has started to blog for the company, IBM doesn’t require a legal team to go through every piece of writing, imagery, or video that the employee creates. Instead, IBM lets employees have their own voice while establishing that the company doesn’t endorse everything that’s written. On social, IBM simply makes sure its team is well versed in how to handle each channel; it built an internal website that employees could access at any time for its guidelines.

Sure, IBM is organized and thoughtful in its approach to content marketing. But how does IBM repeatedly take its complicated innovations and make viral hits out of them? Perhaps it all comes down to how IBM thinks about its brand.

“We don’t try to manage the IBM brand and we never define IBM by what we are selling,” said John Iwata, IBM’s senior VP of marketing and communications, in a company branding strategy video. “We’ve learned that at some point you have to take out that definition. IBM defines themselves by their belief system.”

Rather, the company prides itself on keeping things as uncomplicated as possible.

“We want people engaging with the IBM brand,” Ann Rubin, IBM’s VP of branded content and global creative, explained at OPA Content All-Stars in mid-September. “We know IBM is very complex and technical company. Yet, although what we sell is complicated, we try to talk about it in a very simple way.”

Rubin explained that IBM built its content strategy around deciding who it serves, how they primarily experience the brand, and creating enduring idea that those it serves can take with them elsewhere. In layman’s terms, that means IBM knows its target, knows what information the target is looking for, and gives the target content that is both thought-provoking and aligns with the target’s values.

“Everything we do, whether it’s a TV spot or a landing spot—we always give people a path into our technology,” said Rubin. “We had a film, but then we showed our researchers explaining how everything works.”

Rubin gave the now-famous example of the IBM supercomputer Watson playing Jeopardy! against two of the show’s all-time greatest champions, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.

On YouTube alone, the video earned more than 1 million views and led to an adjacent “path” that explained how the computer mastered the game. At IBM, “paths” are pieces of explanatory or behind-the-scenes content. They’re exactly how the brand connects the dots and builds consumer understanding and admiration in a way that technical language simply cannot.

At South by Southwest this year, IBM used Watson again to further prove how the supercomputer was different than just a mere search engine. The approach, Rubin said, was meant to be experiential and to reach people through something they could easily understand and appreciate: food.

“We knew we had something to say about food, so we created the #IBMfoodtruck,” Rubin said. “We talked and created content around cognitive cooking, and Watson helped the chefs come up with never-before-tasted recipes.”

Together with chefs from the Institute of Culinary Education, Watson came up with crazy recipes like Baltic apple pie, Austrian chocolate burrito, and Vietnamese apple kebab. Using specific parameters and input from the chefs, Watson would find an appealing ingredient and offer it up as part of the recipe. In order to include its Twitter followers in the insanity, IBM began asking them to tweet-reply which ingredient they wanted to see used. The company then reused the recipes and event content created on its Tumblr, and created several close-up videos with the chefs showing how the final recipe decisions were made.

In a more recent campaign, IBM demonstrated the power of its cloud services at the 2014 U.S. Open by using social data and leveraging predictive modeling to manage the servers on which runs.

This same data generated by the cloud propelled the company to create the “U.S. Open Sessions,” a series of experimental music tracks, showcasing what the cloud-based processing could do.

The final two tracks, created in partnership with electronic musician James Murphy, were uploaded to SoundCloud. Both received more than 40,000 plays. As with the Jeopordy! video, IBM used the opportunity to publish a behind-the-scenes piece on how Murphy used the collected sounds to create music. That piece of content has received nearly 500,000 views on YouTube.

Rubin mentioned that there are a lot of challenges for large companies looking to move quickly and innovate—but keeping the story clear and straightforward makes all the difference.

“IBM isn’t a nimble company,” she said. “But if we tell our story very simply and be relevant and timely about it, we can create a lot of value.”

Image by IBM

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