The phrase “content marketing” has become synonymous with blog posts, slide decks, and infographics, but there is no law that states content has to live and die inside a CMS.
In my role as director of content and community at a venture capital firm, I talk to a lot of entrepreneurs about the power of content marketing, and the biggest issue I come across is when they understand it at a conceptual level but struggle with execution.
In most cases, the founder comes from a technical background and is uncomfortable with writing. The process of establishing an accessible voice, setting up an editorial calendar, and distributing the work feels like a distraction from their core businesses. Content seems like a time-consuming, hit-driven, and unreliable gamble.
However, instead of thinking of content marketing as the mother of all term papers, companies should look at it as a byproduct of their business model. Here are some stories of how successful content marketers have gone beyond words to strengthen their bottom line using toys, puppets, and even cereal boxes.
Photo Credit: iFixit
You may not be familiar with iFixit, but if you’ve ever seen one of those “tear downs” when a new gadget launches, you know its work. The company’s business model is built on selling kits and replacement parts for anyone who wants to repair their smartphone. iFixit provides visual step-by-step instructions for tearing apart iPhones and Apple Watches.
To the uncreative mind, producing these diagrams would be a cost center. Where others saw waste, iFixit founder Kyle Wiens saw a marketing channel. He knew that tech publications want the scoop on how the latest gadgets work, but since most don’t have the budget—or expertise—to perform a proper autopsy, he started sharing the useful photos his team created with them.
Now, every time a new Apply gadget launches, iFixit earns PR mentions in industry pubs like Wired, TechCrunch, Venturebeat, and The Verge. Think of it as a new form of thought leadership.
Photo Credit: Mind Tribe
Thanks to The Graduate, talking about plastics in a general sense still has some cultural relevancy. But on a more granular level, creating content about plastic injection molding, the manufacturing process that gives us LEGOs, will bore most audiences to tears.
Enter ProtoLabs, which does for plastics what VistaPrint does for business cards. Basically, if you have a credit card and a CAD file, the company can create small runs of plastic parts in days compared to the weeks or months it takes conventional manufacturers. And instead of relying on a series of blog posts explaining the wonders of polymerization, the company designed inexpensive plastic desk toys and sent them engineers as reference tools.
These products are compelling enough to proudly display on a desk, but are also designed to educate customers about the possibilities and limitations of the creative process. Instead of using pictures, ProtoLabs illustrates critical concepts with physical artifacts produced by their manufacturing tools.
Like any good marketer, ProtoLabs still used lead-gen forms to track customers and sales, but its primary “content” was made of polypropylene, not prose. The move seems to be working—the company now has a market cap of $1.5 billion.
Photo Credit: Airbnb
Before Airbnb was valued over $25 billion, it was a scrappy startup starving for attention. The unusual idea of regular people renting rooms hadn’t caught on, and the founders desperately needed some attention. Instead of just writing posts extolling the virtues of rooming with strangers or developing field guides to foreign cities, they created cereal boxes—complete with cartoon mascots and jingles—that they could give to hosts and sell to the public. The creativity earned them airtime on CNN and a shoutout from Katy Perry, and became the company’s lucky charm as it climbed to the unicorn club.
Photo Credit: Jason Krieger
Unless you have thousands of hours of training and access to a top-notch CAD program, producing 3D models is fairly tricky. MakerBot, which creates low-cost 3D printers, recognized this hurdle and built a library of downloadable designs called Thingiverse. It served as a sort of “iTunes for plastic” and made it easy to crank out functional robot arms, scale models of Winterfell, and radio-controlled Koopa Shells.
Photo: West Side Design Lab
Before MailChimp shot to hipster stardom as a sponsor of the first season of Serial, it was a content marketing machine. The company follows the traditional B2B playbook by publishing clever e-books targeting certain audience segments like online sellers and design studios, but it didn’t stop there. MailChimp also created a series of collectible vinyl toys that stand out, in addition to knit caps, socks, and playing cards, all of which are a great reminder that there are many ways to ape the competition besides blog posts.
Adafruit, the NYC-based purveyor of DIY electronics, has probably done more than anyone to expand the definition of what “content” can be. Its tutorials are spiritual cousins to white papers, but with coloring books and a web series that is like SNL for soldering, Adafruit has gone above and beyond writing into a whole new class of multimedia content marketing.
Its Avenue Q-inspired puppet video series is arguably the company’s most impressive marketing feat. Thanks to Adabot, the helpful puppet robot, the educational videos have driven hundreds of thousands of views.
For instance, Amazon is thinking about how drones will influence business, but it’s almost certain that Jeff Bezos focused on that project, at least in part, to wow a largely non-tech audience.
Likewise, in 2013, Uber built a feature into its app that allowed users to call ice cream trucks to their location. The revenue was paltry, but this minor engineering effort resulted in massive PR points. Outside of Apple product launches, it’s rare that you’ll see PC World, Parenting, CNN, and the Huffington Post all covering the same story. If there is some part of your product roadmap that has a strong narrative hook, it may be worth exploring how it could be exaggerated to generate good publicity.
Blogs, tweets, and Facebook posts are far from obsolete—you can’t build a brand without them. But before cranking out your next blog post, take a few minutes to think outside the box, or perhaps, think about creating something that will fit inside one.
Joe Flaherty is the Director of Content & Community for Founder Collective, an early-stage VC firm that has backed startups like Uber, BuzzFeed, PillPack, SeatGeek, and Contently. Prior to working in VC, Joe wrote about design for Wired.