The Dollar Power of a Good Story: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter Boosts Universal Theme Park Attendance by 50%
The thought leadership and content marketing realm is becoming more like popular entertainment with a slew of channels and choices, and no time to keep up with it all. To stand out requires attention to detail, respect for your audience, and a really great story.
My oldest son grew up with J.K. Rowling’s books, reading them over and over again. He literally grew up with the movies and the core actors who played Harry Potter, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley. He loves the stories but is a little too reserved to ever want to dress up in Gryffindor house garb or casually use wizard lingo. Or so I thought until we visited Universal’s Islands of Adventure during a family trip to Orlando last month.
The different sections of Universal’s Islands of Adventure theme park are arranged around a central lagoon. The entrance has a vaguely Middle Eastern/African market feel, followed by (going counterclockwise around the circle) a whimsical Seuss Landing with marvelously bright colors and great low-key rides for younger kids. Next is the Lost Continent area, which is interesting in a Greek mythology kind of way. But the significance of the imagery is lost on most kids, and adults too really. And then you enter the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
Gawking with scores of people milling about in a King’s Cross platform 9 ¾ kind of frenzy, we obviously weren’t the only ones struck by the resonance of the attraction. The details are superb. Screaming Mandrakes and fidgeting quidditch bludgers are displayed in the shop windows. For lunch my son gnawed on a turkey leg from The Three Broomsticks. Over the course of the day he had two Butterbeers; they are like a caramel and butterscotch slushie with whipped cream on top, a tad sweet. In Olivander’s wand shop—makers of fine wands since 382 B.C.—Olivander selected my son from our group and a wand chose him as dramatized by a glowing light and sudden gust of wind. He was thrilled.
As a casual reader of the books I hadn’t anticipated that Universal’s Harry Potter world would strike a deep chord with me as well, but it did. By comparison, the other areas at Universal are like any amusement park where the rides and attractions all have loose themes, but they seem superficial and anachronistic in comparison. Some are horribly dated, based on bygone cartoons and comics characters that even I don’t recognize. Others, like the Jaws attraction that closed a week ago after several decades, are past their prime. Although our kids were able to pet a “baby dinosaur”—which our 5-year-old is still a bit confused about—the Jurassic Park area was almost deserted in early December (and neglected with more than one of the exhibits out of commission).
Universal has reported that attendance at Islands of Adventure increased by an amazing 50% in 2011, driven entirely by the Harry Potter attraction. That’s the power of a great story. Recognizing a good thing they’ve announced plans to expand the Wizarding World to the company’s other Orlando theme park next door.
What does the commercial success of Universal’s Harry Potter attraction have to do with generating effective business-to-business thought leadership and content marketing? In a world where most B2B content fails to be overwhelmingly compelling or exciting—generally meeting expectations but forgotten as we move on to the next thing—it offers a marvelous example of how striking a current and new and well told story can be.
I have another guest post on Content Marketing Institute's blog. Many thanks to Michelle Linn and Jodi Harris whose editorial skills refined and dressed this up quite a bit.
A few weeks ago, Boston Consulting Group (BCG) relaunched its online platform for thought leadership content, bcgperspectives.com. Content marketers can learn a lot from how the company handled its launch efforts:
Read more at contentmarketinginstitute.com.
In case you missed my most recent guest post on Content Marketing Institute's blog.
Even if you’ve never been a reporter for your campus newspaper or have never edited copy and page proofs late into the night on a deadline, you can appreciate the intensity and focus (and coffee consumption) instilled by a press deadline. Longshot magazine harnesses that same intensity: crowdsourcing content to produce an entire 60+ page magazine and related podcasts, from topic announcement to final pages, in two days (in both digital and print editions).
Longshot was co-founded by Gizmodo’s Mat Honan, The Atlantic‘s Alexis Madrigal, and GOOD magazine’s Sarah Rich. Their first effort that followed this “48-hour” model (which was produced under a since-redacted title that provoked the ire of CBS’s attorneys) won a 2010 Knight-Batten Award for Innovation in Journalism.
Before getting to any elements of this approach that have relevance to content marketing, here are a few highlights about how the Longshot team produced their most recent issue....
Keep reading at contentmarketinginstitute.com.
As far as weight and credibility goes, white papers fall somewhere between a case study and a research report. They are a perennially popular form of educational marketing and means of demonstrating thought leadership. White papers vary considerably in quality, format and length, ranging from detailed technical papers to blatant product promotions. A high quality white paper will focus on a compelling topic or issue and help people make decisions by pulling together information that supports a particular solution. The most effective white papers emphasize customer education and avoid anything that would come off like a sales pitch.
1. Topic Selection
Choosing the topic of a white paper should be straightforward. Every market segment has a burning issue, emerging technology, or technical area that’s a source of customer confusion. After identifying the general topic narrow it down to the most compelling and urgent aspects. What knowledge and insights can you provide that would help the targeted audiences accomplish their objectives and do their jobs better now? It’s never too early to think about titles that would catch market attention as a subject line in an e-mail blast or as a headline in a news release.
2. Reporting & Research
A good white paper will incorporate material from a variety of sources, including industry experts and practitioners, as well as secondary and primary research. Research and reporting can easily consume twice as much time as the actual writing. Like any writing endeavor, the higher the quality of the inputs, the higher the quality of the end product.
Organize notes, research, interviews, and other material into a logical flow of primary and secondary arguments and supporting observations. It’s generally best to put the strongest arguments at the beginning where they are most likely to be read (the classic inverted pyramid structure). If possible get feedback on the idea flow or outline to make sure the primary points of emphasis are where they need to be. Tangential topics or brief case studies work well as sidebars and will add graphic variety to the final layout. The typical white paper ranges from 6 to 12 pages, or 2,000 to 5,000 words. The exact page length will depend upon the amount of white space and the number of charts, tables, diagrams and other illustrations. Footnotes and sources for additional information add credibility.
White papers tend to follow a professional or academic writing style. That’s not to say that a more creative style would not be appropriate for a particular audience. Avoid gobbledygook words, excessive acronyms and marketing speak when possible. Shorter sentences are generally easier for readers to follow, but good writers will vary sentence length based on meaning, and use short sentences for emphasis. Conclude the paper with a clear course of action and specific recommendations.
5. Editing & Revising
Solicit feedback from everyone who has a stake in the white paper’s accuracy, main argument and final appearance. Edits and revisions typically require little direct time, but it can take weeks to receive suggested changes from all interested parties. So plan accordingly.
The typical white paper usually starts with a title page and summary, such as a single-page executive summary or a brief descriptive paragraph to entice the targeted reader into downloading and reading the document. Near the end it's commonplace to include a prominent description of the sponsoring organization that highlights their expertise and, if appropriate, brief professional bios of the authors.
Today most white papers are distributed electronically as static electronic pages or in more interactive formats. They can be promoted as a source of more in-depth information in printed advertisements and newsletters, and used as marketing collateral for sales calls and at trade shows. Distribute them in any way that will initiate a relationship with targeted customers or generate sales leads.
What have I missed? What are some of the best practices that you have used to develop engaging white papers and put them in front of the targeted audience?
The basic process and tips presented here are based on my own experience with clients. If you're looking for more detailed and extensive information on creating white papers, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Michael Steltzner's website and his white paper on how to write white papers.
Update (10/2/2011): Co-founders Eric Ryan and Adam Lowry share insights into their offbeat culture, intense design focus, and keeping their story fresh, in their new book, The Method Method. Inc. magazine asked Ryan why they're so willing to share and why they aren't afraid another company will steal their ideas,"At Method we're all about transparency and openness. Plus, if you give away your ideas, it forces you to go out and get new ones."
Because of their history, the nature of their products and high profile founders, some companies are able to cultivate a richly compelling story that becomes a core element of their brand appeal. That story has an innate authenticity that permeates everything that they do, especially their marketing. B2B marketers can learn something about combining great products and great service with people-centric stories that connect more deeply with customers and clients.
In the consumer goods space these companies often use their giant corporate competitors as a foil to present themselves and their products as safer, more enlightened, more hip, more fun, and more human. Their marketing isn't limited to value-oriented offers such as "25% More Free!" Or legal speak. They're generally more engaging and, oddly enough, have a tendency to avoid the upper case.
Mission as message
For example, the glass cleaner bottle by Method (the "people against dirty") reads, "we think there's a time and place for streaking. it just shouldn't involve your glass." It then goes on to trash ammonia-based glass cleaners in comparison to Method's plant-based alternative, which doesn't have the "chemical stank." (By the way Method does a fantastic job on its blog of offering mission-aligned, product-oriented updates on a regular basis.)
The U.K.'s innocent drinks offers another example. It too offers a "more natural" product, in this case fruit smoothies. The company name itself sets a pretty high standard that a corporate organization might find hard to maintain. The company's mission-driven values are promoted by the business celebrity of one of the founders who recently appeared on the BBC version of The Apprentice. (On the social media front, the company's website is currently promoting a number of more or less addictive games that help promote it's full product line.)
Reflecting their non-corporate story, a cheeky "voice" pervades the innocent website. There's even a drop-down menu for "bored?" which is what first got my attention. Every section of the website takes what's often stock content and gives it an extra twist, a nod and a wink. For example, I don't know how I ended up here exactly, but under "careers" and "current opportunities" there's a link for an international vacancy in Maldives:
Job in Maldives
Just joking. But keep checking back. If you'd like to send us your CV just in case we do open up in the Maldives, or your dream job comes along a little closer to home, then click below
You won't find that on a corporate HR website. All in all innocent drinks offers a consistent and coherent story to it's targeted customer base. But what happens to such a story when one of those big, faceless corporate monoliths buys the upstart?
In April 2010 Coca-Cola expanded it's minority investment to acquire a majority share of innocent drinks. This type of acquisition generally allows original investors to cash out. In this case company leaders also said Coca-Cola's expertise and distribution footprint would help speed the company's expansion into Europe.
As much as such a move may make sense from a business standpoint, to some customers, often those who are most passionate, such a sale means that the company has "sold its soul" by not staying true to its original story. Perhaps any company that professes to serve a higher purpose is setting itself up for a fall when the storyline can no longer be maintained. So far, innocent appears to have maintained its momentum, in part by maintaining a healthy separation from it's new corporate owner.
Method, mentioned above, has so far been able to maintain both its natural cleaner story and corporate independence, despite selling its products through giant retailers, drug stores, and even the Home Shopping Network. Tom's Shoe's, which gives away a pair of shoes for every pair that it sells, is another high-profile, mission-driven company with a compelling story.
What would happen to their mission and stories if Johnson and Johnson bought Method, or Nike bought Tom's Shoes? Similar acquisitions have happened before.
Perhaps the stories have simply grown too familiar and a bit old. Of course, when that happens, it creates room for the next generation of upstarts, with their own stories to sell.
It's right here. I have it in my hand. I considered posting it but I'm not mean by nature and it's not necessary to make my point. Trust me. It's bad. Let me explain why.
The press release in question is essentially about a company's recertification to the latest version of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 9000 quality standard. If this seems arcane to you, for manufacturers ISO 9000 describes a quality system that companies can choose to follow and be audited against. It is developed and updated by a global standards organization based in Switzerland. Being ISO 9000-registered indicates: a) that a company does in fact have some kind of quality system, and b) that their system conforms to a recognized global standard.
ISO 9000 certification is rarely mandatory. It is however sometimes "strongly encouraged" by a manufacturer's customers. While it can be reassuring to purchasing folks, certification is no guarantee that they will always receive a quality product. Quality, in the case of ISO 9000, is mostly about conformance to process specifications.
Likewise, at first glance, this press release conforms to specifications. It has an all-caps headline, a subhead, contact info at the top, dateline, quote, and the obligatory about paragraph (including company URL) at the bottom. So at least the template is there.
The biggest problem is the "news" itself. After receiving the ISO 9000 certificate from their registrar, I can just hear the quality manager or the CEO saying, "We need to put out a press release." And the junior marketing manager nodding his head, "No problem. We'll send it out this afternoon."
But it's not news. In the manufacturing industry promoting ISO renewal is almost like promoting the fact that you've renewed your factory's occupancy permit with the local fire department. It's like McDonald's or Burger King proclaiming, "We have French fries!"
Second, the marketing writer doesn't understand what ISO certification means. That's clear in the second sentence where the release states that ISO monitors manufacturers for adherence to the standards . ISO does nothing of the sort. It develops the standards. What registrars and companies do with the standards is up to them.
Third, the marketing writer doesn't understand what ISO certification means. Yes, I'm repeating the previous point. That's because there's no bigger potential cause for utter failure than not knowing what you're writing about. Slapping words together into an uninformed press release that goes out on the wires can be embarrassing at best. It's the opposite of thought leadership. Let's call it "dumb leadership."
Fourth, the third paragraph goes into more erroneous detail about the ISO 9000 standard itself, and says nothing more about the company or product. The release could have gotten a little better at this point. It could have linked high quality to the company's products or related market issues. It could have offered some advice on the benefits of a superior quality product. Or even promoted a quality-oriented, lifetime value-based quote service. But it didn't.
The fifth problem: clichés. "The world's leading…," "the highest quality," "the industry's largest selection," "state-of-the-art," "today's competitive manufacturing environment," "the company is the leader…." None of these phrases ever makes the cut if a story is picked up by any halfway-decent media outlet. Why include them in the first place? In this case, if you remove the clichés, there's virtually nothing left.
Finally, there's no real call to action. Sure, it includes, "For more information, visit" their website. But there's no urgency. Nothing of value is promised. The company could at least have offered a catalog, preferably electronic. Something. Anything.
I understand that small companies often struggle to come up with worthwhile "news." But sometimes, as in this case, no news would have been good news.
Do you have any more poor examples or advice for putting out newsworthy press releases?
Working on a proposal for a client the other day, I was looking at a previous project that they had done and noticed two words in small, sans serif type in the top right corner: "white paper." It might as well have read, "let your eyes glaze over now."
What if, at the very early stages of development, you approached your next content marketing project with the thought that, in the top right corner, it would be labeled, "Not another boring … whatever"? What would it look like compared to what you do now? What would the actual content be compared to what you've done in the past? Or what you have planned?
I'm not talking about going crazy and creating something all neon green, reversed out type on black with pop-ups--unless your audience is into that--which could turn off potential customers. The essential educational elements would still be there. And it would be as entertaining as it could be and still be appropriate for your audience. But what could you do differently to make something really bold that would knock people's socks off (in a good way)?
The challenge I'm making here is to envision what people in your target market would find extraordinarily engaging. Of course, different markets can have vastly different style standards and formality expectations. But the essential attributes of compelling content are fairly common. How would your next white paper be different if it was more authentic? More original? More honest? More enlightening? More visually striking? Hence, more useful and valuable.
Or think about your next case study. In addition to the challenge and solution could you include some missteps and lessons learned? How about some detailed financial data? Or an on-site video? Such elements are difficult to get clients to develop or share. But because they're rare, they're more valuable.
Only you can figure out the content elements that will make your next project extraordinary. By all means ask your current customers and audience what they would really like to know or see. Who knows? You might get a useful idea or two. But in my experience with focus groups and the like, people often don't know what they want or what information they could really use until they get it.
In the end creating great content always comes down to execution. But you can't do it if you haven't first envisioned what something extraordinary might look like.
What content have you seen or created that really stood out? What made it not boring? What could you do?
There’s a lot of conversation in the publishing industry today about the fate of books, magazines and newspapers in the age of the iPad and other tablet computers. Two notable interactive books that have been released in the past two months demonstrate the eye-catching potential that digital publications offer for presenting engaging content that appeals to both consumer and business readers.
Our Choice by Al Gore
The sequel to former U.S. Vice President Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, Our Choice is “Produced by Melcher Media, published by Rodale, powered by Push Pop Press.” It’s available as a “content app” on Apple’s iTunes ($4.99).
In the book Al Gore reviews the causes of global warming. The book presents a variety of technology and system-based climate solutions that are already available or in development. It includes audio narrative, photography, interactive graphics, and documentary footage. Some of the interactive elements and super cool navigation are demonstrated on the Melcher Media website and in a brief TED presentation by Mike Matas of Push Pop Press.
Melcher Media is both a publisher of consumer-oriented books as well as striking, “market-savvy” books for corporate clients. Still, the fact that it required three companies to publish this one title seems to put it out of reach financially for most marketers except for those with the deepest pockets. But it’s not the only example of interactive book possibilities.
The Final Hours of Portal 2 by Geoff Keighley
Reported and written by Geoff Keighley, and designed by Joe Zeff Design, The Final Hours of Portal 2 chronicles the making of the Portal 2 video game at Valve Corp. It’s available as an app on iTunes ($1.99), and as a digital book for Mac and PC on Steam.
The Final Hours of Portal 2 is long-form, behind-the-scenes journalism that appeals to a highly engaged consumer fanbase. It delivers the slick graphics and interactivity that gamers expect. The 15,000-word story element isn’t quite book-length by traditional publishing standards but it includes many exclusive extras including interactive graphics, games, panorama photos, and song tracks.
One of the game-changing aspects of Keighly’s publication is that it’s essentially self-published, bypassing all of the traditional production, promotion and distribution channels that Gore’s book maintains. But it doesn’t look or feel any less professional and polished, or have the lower quality connotations that self-published books often have.
In part this is because both the medium and app distribution channel for such content are relatively new. It’s also because Valve gave Keighly carte blanche to its offices and people, yet he maintained complete editorial control. Few companies are willing to grant such access. But such calculated risks can result, as The Final Hours of Portal 2 demonstrates, in the type of product promotion and publicity that can’t be bought.
Will digital-only books like these elevate readers’ expectations for interactivity the same way that Amazon’s Kindle and other e-readers have created market expectations for electronic versions of traditional books? That will depend on how common such books become, which depends on the tools, skills and people required to develop them. It will be exciting to see how the spirit of oneupmanship among writers and designers and publishers will push interactive publications forward over the next several years.
*Thanks to Michelle Linn (@michelelinn) from the Content Marketing Institute for making me aware of Our Choice.
case study -- n. a) A detailed intensive study of a unit, such as a corporation or a corporate division, that stresses factors contributing to its success or failure. b) An exemplary or cautionary model; an instructive example.(The American Heritage Dictionary)
A business case study tells a chronological story that starts with a pivotal decision, challenge or obstacle. Your service or product provides a solution that delivers clear benefits and measurable improvements.
From an educational marketing perspective, the objective is for the potential client or customer to identify themselves or their situation in the story, to understand how your products or services could help them, to recognize your company as a product, technology, service and market leader, and to pick up the phone or engage in some other way with your organization.
1. Identify the Subject and the Story
In addition to the promotional value for your company, case studies should strengthen relationships with satisfied customers and promote their businesses and brands. Target high-potential growth areas and market segments. It’s never too early to start thinking about highlights that would grab reader attention in the subject line of an e-mail blast; this includes brand names, hot topic/issue areas, big dollar cost savings, and dramatic turnarounds.
Before moving forward very far, get explicit permission from the client or customer to write and publish the case study. And make sure you have approval from the right person. Don’t assume that it will be approved or you could end up wasting a lot of time and effort on developing a story that cannot be shared.
Be prepared. Make the reporting process as painless as possible for your customer. Don’t waste interview time on basic information that can be pulled off of a website. Gather as many insights and details as possible from both your customers and your employees who led or supported the project/solution.
At the end of any interviews, assure the client that they will have the opportunity to review the text and their quotes. Be sure to ask for photos or illustrations, or make arrangements for professional photography.
Business is not boring. Just like any other facet of life, the business world is full of characters, drama and good stories. But it is chock full of bland and boring prose. Be clear, be direct. Be wary of excess modifiers and over-qualified statements. Avoid gobbledygook words, marketing-speak and businessese.
Case studies are already formulaic: 1) problem, 2) solution, and 3) results. Use that framework but build a sense of urgency and convey why your solution is essential now. To speed the narrative flow, put non-essential details (such as annual sales, product lines, brands, locations, employees, etc.) in a separate sidebar or box.
Include the client’s perspective everywhere you can; their quotes should read as a trustworthy third-party referral to the reader/potential customer. Respect readers’ intelligence and time. The typical case study won’t run longer than 1 to 3 pages, (600-1,500 words).
4. Editing and Revising
Send the draft text to appropriate customer and client representatives and internal staff who have a stake in the final result. Be as firm as possible with the deadline for changes and revisions. Use the weeks that it can often take to receive feedback for internal review and fact checking. After all changes have been reconciled, have the final text reviewed by a professional proofreader.
For layout (electronic or print), clearly identify titles, headlines, subheadings, pull quotes and boxes. Include high-resolution images, brand logos, charts, tables and anything else the graphic designer can use to grab a passing eye.
Case studies often follow a common page template that prominently features company logos, background details and where to go to get more information. Repeat the review and proofreading cycle with the final layout. Pay particular attention to headlines, chart captions and illustration callouts.
6. Distribution and promotion
We're getting beyond the content creation phase at this point, but depending on the quality and sources, good case studies can be of interest to top-tier trade magazines and business journals if offered on an exclusive basis. The trade-off for such third-party endorsement and exposure is that–after the case study has already taken months to develop–the lead time from submission to publication can take several more months. Copyright ownership can become an issue as well; you may be required to pay for branded reprints of the article that you already paid to develop.
Other typical uses for case studies include customer newsletters, association news, blog posts, and permanent website collateral. Utilize every social media vehicle available to promote the case study. And keep on promoting it. A tweet on Twitter, for example, has a half life of a few hours. Keep dribbling out key value statements over several weeks.
What have I missed? Are there any other key factors for creating high quality business case studies?
Here's an image to keep in your mind when you are writing. This print (available online via 20x200) by San Francisco-area artist Lauren DiCioccio is a sparkling illustration of the ideas, memes, and bits of insight and inspiration that could populate your prose. It has a wonderful effervescent quality that is a great metaphor for writing that lights up the hearts and minds of your readers.