Stop talking about yourself: Use owned media to help people do something 

Many, many brands have sent “We’re here for you during this time” and “Since we’ve been part of the community...” emails during COVID-19. But, as Kate Thompson argues, while this has the right intent, it’s self-serving.

As brands pivot their messaging, pause campaigns and rely on owned media like never before, some are struggling to hit their stride. It’s highly likely they misunderstand and undervalue its role in the marketing mix. 

When we reach the end of 2020 – or even 2021 – and take the time to reflect on the effects the COVID-19 pandemic has had on business and marketing, owned media will be in focus. It has never been particularly glamorous amongst marketers and executive leadership, but by the end of this year, it will be the engine behind most brands’ entire marketing operations and we will begin to recognise its potential. 

Owned media – the forgotten second cousin of marketing is in the spotlight

Right now though, it feels like owned media – the people and platforms that brands have the most influence over because they’re built on an opt-in model – has been massively undervalued by marketers and, in some cases, completely misunderstood.

Instead of using these touch-points – primarily email, social media and a website or content hub – to build brands, nurture relationships and give people what they want (i.e. be informed, inspired or entertained), many brands have and continue to use them to interrupt, sell and talk about themselves. 

While messaging such as “We’re here for you during this time” and “Since <insert year> we’ve been part of the community…” has the right intent, it’s self-serving and misses a big opportunity to be more relevant than ever. When people provide explicit permission to contact them, they expect some sort of value exchange to help them to do something. During a crisis, like the current pandemic, they want to be able to achieve really specific outcomes like making new (virtual) connections or finding critical health information. 

Don’t get me wrong, some brands are taking steps to ‘pivot’ their messaging and refresh their usual sales promotions, behavioural targeting programs and re-marketing with some genuinely interesting and helpful content. But across the board, it’s generally quite shallow content, and not working towards a clear goal or contributing to a central platform that will achieve a cumulative impact. 

This means the short-term COVID-19 content play may not be as successful as it could have been had there been a content marketing or brand publishing strategy to begin with. There’s also very little chance it will lead to a long-term commitment to embrace a publisher mindset. I fear that all we’re going to achieve is a burst of pretty average yet topical content and a return to spending a disproportionate amount of time on brand campaigns and advertising. 

Now, I don’t want to discredit brand marketing and advertising. We’ve seen from the industry’s best, brightest and most controversial (thank you Mark Ritson) that advertising works, and investing in advertising and increasing share of voice during downturns can drive massive gains in market share. But content marketing and brand publishing have benefits that complement these marketing tactics. 

Influence, insight and discoverability

Above all, we have to remember that with owned media people have found you and want to hear from you. There is inherent trust, belief and passion for your brand (and content). You have a network of brand advocates to get the word out to other like-minded people who trust each other far more than governments, institutions and media: influence that can’t be bought. This is a very powerful position to be in and a privilege many marketers abuse. 

As a direct channel of communication, you also have an audience database. This means you can leverage first-party data and insight to power highly personalised and contextual experiences, which makes it easier to cut-through the noise and be highly relevant. It helps that your marketing or digital team manages these channels so it’s also easy to control and reset your communications, and bring in any external agencies for strategic guidance and production support. 

Finally, and perhaps most overlooked, is if you’re consistently crafting articles and videos that rank well on search engines such as Google and YouTube, you can be discovered in moments that matter. We tend to invest far more effort into campaigns that buy attention and try to generate awareness or influence perception. But when owned media is managed well, you can cash in on these campaign investments and earn attention from people who are ready to take action. 

The thing about influence, insight and discoverability is they can’t be realised when we’re talking about ourselves or delivering a constant barrage of disconnected and tactical ideas. Making owned media pay off requires a strategic approach. And, like any strategic plan, you need a clear vision. 

What do you stand for?

A winning content marketing or brand publishing program relies on a clear and distinctive proposition. It’s built by identifying the sweet spot between your brand and your audience needs, and brought to life across every interaction. 

Linked to this is a philosophy of publishing high quality (not high quantity – unless your proposition is to deliver daily news) content. You might produce content less often, but it will have more impact, and you avoid chasing your tail to simply ‘feed’ content hungry channels (which is exactly what’s happening now). 

Over the long-term – and let’s face it, content marketing is a long game – delivering on your strategy consistently demonstrates that you value your audience as you’re treating every interaction as an opportunity to add value. The Havas Meaningful Brands Study recently revealed that Australian consumers would not mind if 77% of brands disappeared overnight, which indicates this is something we all need to work on. 

Use the time we have right now to reset

If you have some extra time right now, or are in the thick of marketing planning for next financial year, you should review all things owned media and content marketing. 

Start with a content audit, customer research and a competitive review or gap analysis. Outline your content and owned media goals and allocate sufficient budget to activate key streams of activity. Despite the uncertainty, don’t reduce spend on ‘test and learn’ opportunities – this is more important than ever.

Finally, invest the time to share a long-term vision that your entire business can get behind so you’re clear on what success looks like and are ready to adapt to whatever comes your way in the future. And, resist the temptation to talk about yourself. Not now, not ever. 

Kate Thompson is strategy director at Hardie Grant Media


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