Device Dogma: How Cisco Wins at Content Marketing by Predicting the Future

Cisco’s storytelling focuses on one fascinating question: What will the future of the Internet look like?

Smartphones aren’t the end-all for connected devices. Sensors are creeping into our cars, homes, and even our trash cans. Down the line, maybe sensors around the house will notify us when something happens. Say, if a child spills milk on the floor, your kitchen sensor will send over a notification by text or slyly add “milk” to your grocery list.

That’s one scenario that plays out in Cisco’s commercial “Circle Story,” which follows a family through an ordinary day. Well, except that nearly everything, from rooms to windmills, are connected to the Internet. The mother demands the coffee machine to “make coffee” from bed. The father, late to work, reads the newspaper in his driverless car and lazily commands, “Find parking spot.” At the grocery store later in the day, he picks up the milk the kitchen sensor added to his list.

Cisco spreads these stories on all their social media channels to their 435,000 Twitter followers and nearly 700,000 Facebook fans. But The Network, the company’s main hub for original content, is where Cisco is really making its mark with an owned audience, driving 1.6 million unique visitors and 4.3 million total pageviews between May of 2013 and June of 2014.

Let’s take a look at why it’s been so successful.

“Rethink everything”

Founded in 1984, Cisco has been at the cutting edge of networking technology for decades. And even though the company develops Internet hardware with esoteric names that might as well be a foreign language to most of us, the content is often light and fascinating—stories people outside the tech industry can enjoy.

Consider a recent article that mulls over a link between the Internet of Everything and artificial intelligence: “Imagine being able to ask your phone how to get to the nearest piece of sunny parkland, for instance. Or having your iPad warn you off taking the train for a while because of a crowded station,” contributor Jason Deign writes.

The Network still finds time to tackle pressing issues as well. A recent post explores how social media has empowered women around the world and how online networks like World Pulse hope to give women a voice. In a LinkedIn post, Cisco CEO John Chambers asks readers to “rethink everything” and outlines his vision for the future of connected manufacturing.

“The Internet of Everything is part of our re-branding and branding at Cisco,” Joie Healy, senior manager of social media communications, tells me in a phone call. And in 2013, the company fashioned a new motto to match it: “Tomorrow starts here.”

There seems to be a company-wide infatuation with the idea of connecting. A Fortune interview with Chambers highlighted the brand’s quirky storytelling bent: “Everyone said everyone’s refrigerator is going to be connected to the Internet. How far can that really go?” journalist Andy Serwer asked. “Some of it’s kind of ludicrous, isn’t it?”

Chambers laughed and answered, “No.” He noted, perhaps with pride, that many people have considered Cisco crazy over the years.

The global newsroom

A few years back, Cisco reached out to some writers and asked if they wanted to pitch stories. “Obviously, the landscape has changed when it comes to how people are getting information,” Healy noted. “A lot of really good tech journalists were finding themselves out of work or moving to different places.”

Now, The Network’s global team of freelancers have contributed to the likes of The New York Times, the Guardian, and The Wall Street Journal. “We have 15 different folks that we work with for our global and different locations. The rest are spread throughout the U.S.,” Healy added.

The editors ask writers to cover general trends like “mobility” or “security,” but otherwise the reporters have free rein to pitch stories that interest them. “So when they write the story, very rarely does it mention Cisco, but it will mention topics that we’re interested in,” Healy says.

This independence is probably one reason why, even though Cisco is a hardcore tech-loving brand, The Network often tones down the enthusiasm.

In an article about technology revolutionizing the in-store shopping experience, writer Kristi Essick describes how stores are attempting to reverse declining in-store sales in the age of online retail. The high-tech attempts run the gamut from geo-fencing apps that send over special coupons to customers when they visit the store to robots that deliver items to customers in fitting rooms. But she expresses skepticism and cites research that explains exactly where stores have seen successful and where they flopped. Forrester Research analyst Adam Silverman found that some apps, like the special coupons, seem to work. But robots are probably not worth the price tag and “won’t appear in stores anytime soon.”

The Network is filled with plenty of reminders that many of these projects are cool thought experiments that might never get off the ground. So, the writers are granted some independence. But they also hail from diverse locations like Texas, Barcelona, and New Delhi, and boast a range of experience at a variety of publications and technology companies. It’s not stretch to think that this diversity has made a significant impact on the content.

Focus: the monthly magazine

At weekly meetings with the writers, Cisco’s editors also discuss ideas for their digital magazine Focus, a branch of The Network that focuses on themed issues. The content mostly consists of web-sourced blog posts and reported videos, and in the past, the newsroom has focused on concepts like “Women in Tech” and “Connected Health.”

For the holiday shopping season, the November issue, “The Connected Consumer,” examined the potential for the Internet of Things to disrupt the consumer experience. While it might not sound like the most revolutionary of trends, Cisco finds a way to make it appeal to a wide-ranging audience. For example, want to control household devices with the wave of your hand? While it might sound like magic or a Star Wars movie, there’s a startup for that: Minneapolis-based Playtabase will soon stock a wristband that allows users to control home appliances just by pointing at them.

Focus regularly showcases companies on the rise, and often tells those stories through branded videos. One such video features UK-based mall Trinity Leeds, “the mall of the future,” which saw a surge in popularity from No. 8 to No. 4 in the U.K. retail rankings after introducing a host of connected devices for shoppers to toy with.

In the video, Craig O’Donnell, head of information systems at the commercial property group that owns the Trinity Leeds shopping center, says, “We like to reward curiosity.” He explained how the retail center often displays new interactive tools, like an interactive screen in the Trinity Kitchen restaurant that connects to Instagram, syncing photos posted with the #trinitykitchen hashtag.

“Now, are you having a hard time getting people to take pictures of their food?” comedian Tim Washer asked sarcastically. O’Donnell said they weren’t.

Driving the conversation

Cisco obviously has a stake in promoting routing technology. While The Network is accessible to a diverse audience, it still has a strong appeal to influencers and investors within the networking industry. The goal is “driving that conversation with them and making sure that when we give them content that they can use that we’re also making sure that we’re part of that conversation,” Healy says.

Their program Take. Share. Engage encourages the audience to take the content “as a seed” and publish or distribute it elsewhere. They only ask for a credit at the end of the story.

But Healy notes that The Network goes beyond steering towards trending issues and encouraging investors to share their content: “It’s just coming up with innovative ways of telling stories as a company.”

Image by Cisco

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