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.
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.
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?
The Fun Theory competition and series of videos created by Volkswagen offers some interesting lessons on developing an engaging video content marketing campaign. Some of these are over a year old now, but if you haven't seen them, the most popular video by far, with almost 15 million views, features the transformation of a subway staircase into a large keyboard.
The underlying premise or "theory" being demonstrated in the video is that if you make something fun it can change people's behavior for the better. Volkswagen's related marketing premise is that more people will purchase smaller, gas-sipping, environmentally friendly cars if it's fun to drive them.
Fun is inherently engaging
One of the things that's interesting about these content marketing videos is that they engage the viewer just as they engage the participants in the experiment. Watching their delight makes you smile, and you have to share it with your friends on Facebook with the wish that someone would make the stairs you climb every day musical and more fun.
But in addition to being entertaining like thousands of YouTube clips, the experiments themselves are all about turning the everyday and mundane into something that's, well, fun. However fleeting it might be, in this case that heightened engagement can be quantified:
Granted, Volkswagen's Fun Theory video campaign is consumer-oriented. But if you can make climbing a set of stairs, throwing away trash, recycling, and driving the speed limit fun, and change people's behavior, then business-to-business marketers can make the everday interactions and communication that you have with your customers more fun and engaging.
I know I always appreciate it when someone does anything to take the dullness out of an otherwise lackluster workday. By expending a little creativity and effort there are ways to be both professional and fun, and more deeply engage current and potential customers alike. Stay tuned for more examples.
From press releases to case studies and research reports, I'm always on the lookout for examples of B2B content marketing that breaks the mold and isn't boring and formulaic. Send me your examples and I may feature them here. Thanks.
The Content Marketing Institute (CMI) launched a new consulting service last week. Knowing some of the folks behind CMI, I'm sure it will be a bang-up service for connecting with knowledgeable people who can help marketers develop a content strategy that delivers results. Check it out.
Much has been written about how to find the right consultant for a typical project. Standard qualifications include the right expertise, referrals and references, availability, and fee structure. But what are the unique qualifications and attributes that you should look for in a content marketing partner? Here are four:
Someone who listens first, talks later
Any initial consulting session should begin with a thorough exploration of your markets, your customers, your products, your services, and your company. Judge your consultant's listening ability by the caliber of his or her questions. Beware of anyone bearing solutions, especially of the social media variety, before understanding your audience and specific objectives.
Content marketing expert, teacher and coach
Strategy development will be a relatively short-term engagement, hopefully with periodic follow-up meetings to assess progress and make course corrections. Your consultant should provide specialized knowledge that will guide decision-making and execution on an every-day level after they are gone.
For example, the technical aspects of social media, e-marketing and SEO are rapidly evolving. Not unlike your IT staff or IT service providers, your content marketing advisor will keep up with the latest crazes, sort out what's relevant so you don't have to, and pass on appropriate guidance.
The biggest challenge for content marketers today is creating engaging content, as noted in this fairly rigorous study B2B Content Marketing: Benchmarks, Budgets and Trends by Junta42 and Marketing Profs. (Much more on this issue another day.) Engaging content has many facets, from topic selection to presentation style. At heart, it comes down to quality.
Your advisor should be an uncompromising proponent for quality. He or she should be able to articulate all of the reasons and research that connect high quality content and audience engagement with marketing results. You need someone who can help you stand up for the importance of quality content when your sales manager pushes to turn your white paper into a sales pitch.
Your advisor should challenge your team to break out of ruts, reshuffle resources, and take some risks. The exact nature and style of this role will vary. People who specialize in brainstorming tend to be good at it. The trick is to build on an idea, or a glimmer of an idea, or simply what you've always done, and flip it around, look at it from a radically different perspective, or simply give it another twist, so that it appears fresh and new. As demonstrated by the output of the best marketing agencies, creative thinking is a habit that can be cultivated.
A final thought. There's no substitute for experience. But that doesn't mean that you shouldn't engage an advisor who doesn't have specific experience in your market or industry. Many product and service and marketing innovations result from the cross-pollination and adaptation of ideas from unrelated markets.
This isn't a comprehensive list by any means. What have I missed? What are some of the key attributes of the best content marketers, developers, writers and designers that you have worked with?
Feedback and constructive criticism, gently delivered—what Patrick Lencioni calls the "kind truth" in a slightly different context in his recent book—are like magic. It shouldn't be personal, or taken personally. The objective that you and your team of reviewers are working toward is to make whatever you're doing better. Be it a product design, a business plan, or content marketing copy.
Here's a non-client example. Our minister recently asked me to take a look at one of our church brochures. I looked it over and noted some redundancies and inconsistencies, pointed out some opportunities to simplify and make stronger statements, and marked some stylistic and copyediting issues. She thanked me profusely for my feedback, before pushing back with some other ideas. We went back and forth over several days until we arrived at words and a structure and a design that were much clearer and potentially more effective than either one of us would have come up with on our own. That's the magic. That's how it's supposed to work.
This post falls deeply in the execution category. Execution is where many content marketing efforts fail, or fail to achieve 80% (to throw out a number that's probably on the optimistic side) of their potential.
One benefit of coming from a journalism (and liberal arts!) background is that you're expected to ask dumb questions. People tend to presume that you know next to nothing about them, about their company, and sometimes even about business in general. I don't take it personally.
What they don't always realize is that asking dumb, a.k.a. basic, questions allows you to quickly understand the fundamentals of their business. In fact, starting with the basics and getting people to explain the core elements of what they do and why, is the first step to asking really insightful questions.
Once you understand their core business issues and processes, it's easier to see when an initiative or a program or even something happening on the factory floor doesn't fit or connect with what they say they're all about. You know you've identified something worth exploring and possibly developing into a story element that could be interesting to customers when the response begins, "That's a really good question…."
Early the other morning when I was reading instead of sleeping I was reminded of the value of asking dumb questions by Patrick Lencioni in his most recent business fable, Getting Naked. The book is about overcoming common business fears that can sabotage client loyalty. Because it reinforces a position of honesty and vulnerability, asking dumb questions is one of the practices that he explicitly recommends for overcoming the fear of being embarrassed and building loyalty.
In a consulting capacity asking basic questions about something in a budget or a business plan that doesn't make sense to an outside observer might only reveal your ignorance most of the time. But the few times that your questions spotlight real issues and potential pitfalls, Lencioni argues, is what clients will remember and appreciate.
Whether you're developing a case study, gathering primary research, or conducting an interview, ask the dumb questions and try not to care too much about revealing what you don't know. Dumb questions force everyone—especially subject-matter experts immersed in the arcane jargon of their specialties—to explain what they mean in everyday words that everyone can follow. The end product that you create will be better because the key points will be more insightful and it will be easier for your target audience to understand.
Have you asked any dumb questions lately and been rewarded or surprised by the response?