In his “State of Content Marketing 2016” report, Contently co-founder Shane Snow wrote about content marketing’s “tipping point” taking place right now. Judging by Google search data—the ultimate oracle of our collective wants and needs—interest in content marketing is spiking more right now than ever before.
Of course, many brands are already ahead of the game; all in all, 2015 was a breakout year for branded content. Sure, most content marketing is still underwhelming, but I can remember a time not too long ago when you could count the number of branded content efforts worth reading/watching/listening to on one hand. That’s not the case anymore. Coming up with a top 10 list for this year was legitimately difficult, which means we’ve come to the part of the introduction were I list off a bunch of disclaimers…
Ultimately, I try to shy away from Contently clients—although I had to include a couple—and give an edge to newcomers or anything that delighted me personally. And I have to point out that while I cover the industry every day, I haven’t checked out every piece of content marketing this year. That would be masochistic.
But you know what isn’t masochistic? Getting inspired by the 10 best content marketing efforts from the past year.
10. The Naked CEO
At No. 10, we have The Naked CEO, which is one of the all-time best names for a content marketing project. If your first thought was “These guys must be Australian,” you’re right! Started by financial services firm CPA Australia and targeted at students and young professionals, The Naked CEO attempts to give an extremely honest perspective on the successes and failures people experience as they try to become better leaders. Sadly (luckily?), very few involve nudity.
It’s a great example of how financial services firms can take a thought leadership approach in a way that feels genuine instead of the usual calculated attempts companies use to garner good will.
9. GE Reports
At this point, everyone in the industry is sick of hearing about Red Bull. We need a new overplayed go-to content marketing example. My vote: GE. If Red Bull is the popular skater-jock at your high school, GE is the hot valedictorian science nerd who everyone should be trying to marry. The brand puts out tons of fantastic podcasts, TV shows, and web series, but my personal favorite is its online magazine, GE Reports, which tells the story of the crazy research going on inside the company.
Tomas Kellner, a former Forbes editor, crushes his reporting, and the stories on GE Reports regularly go viral on Reddit. Brands usually go viral on Reddit for ruining the world or releasing really bad lip-syncing videos, not for their content marketing.
(Full disclosure: Two divisions of GE are Contently clients.)
As I’ve written before, content strategy isn’t really that complicated: If you cover what your company leaders are passionate about and know better than anyone else, you’ll have a pretty good chance at success.
That’s why I love Autodesk’s Line//Shape//Space blog. Autodesk publishes 3D printing software, and it’s probably the best source on earth for stories about 3D printing and the larger manufacturing revolution. Stories like “Future of Construction: Your Next Building Won’t Be Built—It Will Be Manufactured” have been shared thousands of times and consistently deliver value to a loyal audience.
7. Tyler Fernengel BMX Session: Silverdome
I know, I know—you’re sick of Red Bull. But damn, this three-minute trick video is stunning. I never got into BMX, and now I’m regretting my whole childhood.
6. Madden: The Movie
And suddenly, we’ve entered the chewy “bro” center of this roundup. Here’s a piece of content that made my colleague Jordan Teicher declare, “Let’s All Go Home Because the Madden Movie is the Best Content Marketing of All Time.”
It’s hard to explain everything that’s going on here, but basically, a mustachioed Dave Franco has to team up with a bunch of NFL players—including Colin Kaepernick as Al Pacino from Scent of a Woman and Rob Gronkowski as a midriff-exposed ball machine warrior—to save his girlfriend. There are dinosaurs, rose petals, and many explosions.
5. Chase News and Stories
Next, we come to one of the more surprisingly innovative brand publishers: Chase. Over the past two years, Chase has built a robust internal newsroom that publishes in-depth reported pieces like this excellent series of essays and documentaries about various efforts to revitalize the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.
Following a redesign this summer, Chase put content front and center on its homepage, mixing in those in-depth stories with high-quality utility content. The depth and breadth of the content is really impressive for such a large financial services brand, which is a big reason why this makes my top five.
(Full disclosure: The Chase newsroom partners with Contently, but that didn’t have any impact on this ranking.)
4. Marriott: Two Bellmen
As I wrote in a big November profile, Marriott built one of the most impressive branded content studios on earth over the past year. It even has an actual newsroom that looks like the set of the next Aaron Sorkin documentary. But if I had to pick one aspect of the brand’s content marketing that stood out this year, it would undoubtedly be Two Bellmen, Marriott’s Emmy-award-winning short film.
My favorite story about this film is what happened when David Beebe, VP of creative, got the first cut. “We don’t want to see any ‘Welcome to the JW Marriott, here’s your keycard,’ and then a closeup of the logo,” Beebe told the production team. “None of that.”
Now that’s a brand eschewing self-promotion.
(Full disclosure: Contently partners with Marriott on its travel magazine, Marriott Traveler.)
In early 2014, luxury online retailer Net-a-Porter launched Porter, an ambitious print magazine built to compete with Vogue and other top fashion glossies. Two years later, it’s lived up to its reputation. With star-studded covers (Giselle Bündchen! Tina Fey! Emma Watson!) and high-quality editorial, it’s nearly outselling the U.K. Vogue despite costing about half as much to produce. It’s also the only brand magazine you’ll ever see advertised on a New York City taxi cab, which has to count for bonus points.
2. Van Winkle’s
When you hear that Casper, the trendy mattress startup that Brooklyn hipsters love, launched a blog about sleep, you’re probably about as excited as when you heard that a Celine Dion cover band was playing at your Christmas party. But this editorially independent site, launched by Gawker founding editor Elizabeth Spiers and run by veteran editor Jeff Koyen, is actually really good.
Van Winkle’s starts with the premise that sleep dominates our life more than anything else, which means there are countless ways to examine the subject. Pieces like a special report on how post-traumatic sleep disorders are the new PTSD for vets and an in-depth examination of the secretly addictive nature of sleeping pills just bring it. Since debuting this summer, the site has already found its footing—a great sign of what can happen when a brand gives talented, creative folks the freedom and resources to own a topic.
1. GE: The Message
On Thanksgiving, GE’s sci-fi podcast The Message hit No. 1 on the iTunes chart, beating out shows like Serial and This American Life. I wrote about this in last month’s best of branded content roundup, so I won’t rehash it, but this is the branded content singularity—the moment when branded content becomes as good as the best traditional media in its medium, forever altering the rules of the marketing universe.
Who knows what could happen next year? Will Captain Crunch launch a hit pirate drama? Will the Dell kid return to star in a cult classic buddy cop movie with the Geico gecko? I’m ready for anything, except anything involving Carrot Top. Even when you cover content marketing for a living, you’ve got to draw a line.