Marketing trends: Selling by storytelling

  • Article by: NEAL ST. ANTHONY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 18, 2014 - 11:50 AM
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Scott Severson, president of Brandpoint, and Brenda Boehler, CEO of Bellacor, are working together on “content marketing.”

Photo: Renée Jones Schneider• reneejones@startribune.com,

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At Bellacor, a privately held Mendota Heights-based online retailer of lighting and home furnishings, the blogging is about summer “staycations,” the perfect barbecue, a cozy reading nook and adding a farmhouse style to the home.

There are fewer banner ads, pop-ups and discount coupons.

“It’s not really about pushing product,” said Bellacor CEO Brenda Boehler, a veteran Twin Cities marketer. “Embellishment is not positive. We want every piece of content to be accurate. It’s part of building our reputation. And at its core, it’s about being an authority in the home and lighting industry.”

Bellacor is spot on with the hot trend known as “content marketing.” The aim is to get ranked highly on searches by Google, and attract and retain more affluent customers.

It’s about the “search-engine optimization impact” said Scott Severson, president of Brandpoint, a 75-person marketing agency that has grown fast in recent years by focusing on content research, strategy and production that reads well and authoritatively, as well as casting a good light on the client company.

“Content marketing is being used by some of the greatest marketing organizations in the world, including Procter & Gamble, Microsoft, Cisco Systems and John Deere. It’s also developed and executed by small businesses and one-person shops around the globe,” Severson said. “Why? Because it works.”

Bellacor hired Brandpoint last year and the results, although Bellacor declined to quantify them, have been positive.

“Google … has said for several years that when somebody searches online, we want to return the freshest, most relevant results to that user,” Severson said. “Content is the key. Companies that invest in content marketing are winning in thought leadership and traffic and sales.”

The Internet allows companies to bypass publishers and have a one-on-one relationship with customers, Severson said. “The only way to reach the audience used to be to buy an ad. Now the brand can have that direct relationship.”

Brandpoint has gone all in on content management to produce research and written work for hundreds of large-and-small clients. Other marketing firms say content marketing is the latest trend, but that doesn’t negate the need for news releases, product promotions, ads and other traditional marketing tactics as part of an overall strategy.

Digital-content marketing also is just the latest twist in the generations-old press agency and “custom publishing” trades that have been around nearly as long as paper and ink. It was, after all, venerable John Deere, a century ago, that kicked off “custom publishing” with a magazine that, surprise, surprise, featured a lot of Deere-made tractors and other equipment.

“Content marketing is growing in its use and sophistication,” said Rod Greder, marketing professor at Augsburg College, and also a veteran businessman. “The basic concept is not new but evolving with technology to work better with search engines. It is being used most to generate leads and initiate conversations with prospects and then used for conversion to customer as the prospect views the company as a credible, knowledgeable source on the topic. Content often is sent to the prospect [via e-mail] and then the [customer] develops enough trust to sample the company’s product or service.”

The adage that good marketing is the best thing for a good product and the worst thing for a bad product still holds true. Greder and others say if the content material is misleading or overstates the value of the product, online bulletin boards and dissatisfied customers tend to provide scathing content of their own. And bad consumer reviews of a product or service are not good for business.

The Content Marketing Institute, the trade association for this brand of marketing, says its adherents try to “attract and retain customers by consistently creating and ‘curating’ relevant and valuable content with the intention of changing or enhancing consumer behavior. It is an ongoing process that is best integrated into your overall marketing strategy, and it focuses on owning media, not renting it.”

The institute says consumers have grown wary, if not immune, to TV ads, surfing the Internet around the promotions and knowing the pitchmen more for their personal quirks than the products they are selling.

Matt Kucharski, executive vice president of Padilla CRT, the diversified communications firm, is a dean of the marketing-communications industry.

“I’m not sure Brandpoint is on to anything new,” Kucharski said. “Ghost writing has been done as long as there have been trade publications.

“Firms like ours are all about helping an organization move from awareness to action. There are more precise and deliberate ways [through technology] to move that message than in the past.

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