David Beebe: Launching and Scaling a Truly Global Content Marketing Program

January 1, 2017 Ted Karczewski

David Beebe of Marriot International

We’ve all heard the phrase, “brands as publishers,” but there are only a few enterprise organizations that are truly living this mantra. Beyond the commonly offered examples like Red Bull, we’ve had to look far and wide for a business that puts serious focus on content marketing, community building, and measurement.

Fortunately for the content marketing industry, Marriott International’s Vice President of Global Creative and Content Marketing David Beebe has begun to talk about the global company’s strategy, structure, and processes as a way of demonstrating that story-driven content can, in fact, generate steady revenue and marketing ROI. In this week’s Innovator Series interview, I spoke with Beebe about his global team’s goals, structure, process, and advice.

As brands finalize their 2016 budgets and strategies, what’s one trend you’re paying attention to over the next 12 months?

In general, people understand the phrases, “brand as storyteller” and “brand as publisher.” With that comes a lot of changes with setting strategies. I do think there’s still an old way of thinking where we ask ourselves, “What’s our strategy for the year?” and “What’s our media budget for the year?”

The idea of a campaign lasting three months—it starts and ends—is not the way content marketing works. Content shouldn’t have a dead end like many campaigns do, and as a result, content affects how we plan our marketing for the year. At Marriott, we’re shifting budget toward content, but we don’t always know what all of that content is going to be at the beginning of the year. Some of it will be big hero-type content like short films—check out “Two Bellmen“—while other content will be shorter form webisode series or daily, snackable updates.

Two Bellmen

The reason content planning is so different is because you may know your content pillars and core messaging, but everything in-between, such as the creators, distribution channels, and influencers will shift as the year goes on. Content strategy must be a living and breathing thing, while traditional campaign-based marketing typically had to be locked in for the year. Then, you had X dollars for X number of campaigns, and they were unchangeable. You knew exactly what they were going to be. Content is different.

Can you talk about how your Marriott’s global content marketing team is structured?

We’re in a unique position in that we’re a much more experiential brand than a lot of other businesses that might be inserting themselves into their customers’ conversations. We’re also a global organization with a portfolio of 19 brands within it. We already had the structure in place to get content marketing going from a global and scale perspective. I think for brands just starting out, before you get into process and structure, you have to start with why you’re doing what you’re doing.

Flying on vacationFirst, you need to back up and start with the “Why.” There’s a lot of talk around content marketing and how it’s an effective way for brand awareness, engagement, and driving revenue and sales. At Marriott, we have several projects that we talk about all the time that actually show hotel rooms being booked through original content. So before you go into organizational structure, what’s the “Why” for what you’re doing? For us, it’s about the entire travel customer journey, which lends itself naturally to content marketing.

We decided that we wanted to own the whole travel space, not just the hospitality portion but the entire customer journey. Once you understand the “Why,” and how you’re doing to own a program around that goal, then you can get into what you need to support the strategy from a structural perspective.

At Marriott International, we have an internal creative and content team that support our 19 brands globally. We have a global team on four different continents, the majority of whom are based in our D.C. headquarters, but we have cultural and language professionals in our other cities.

Our content strategy is set in house—we know what we’re going to do, what brands we’re creating content for, and which partners we’ll tap for execution. We take this approach because it allows us to focus on strategy and then finding the right creative talent for the job. This is where a lot of brands get in their own way—they try and set up their own internal studio to produce all of the content they’re creating, but this often results in marketers getting in the way and ultimately making content about them. We do have a content studio at Marriott, but they’re also designing our branded keycards, print brochures, and campaign-level work. So it’s really an in-house agency, with a big content arm, in charge of partnering with the creative community directly.

At the same time, another great resource in terms of how to keep a content strategy going is to look internally at your associates. In our case, we have 300,000 associates worldwide in over 80 countries. We tap into them all the time to create content for us in all different formats.

In the end, it’s about creating value first, and once you’ve delivered value over and over, the consumer will remember that. We’re trying to reach next-generation, Millennial travels. We know that one of our short films won’t cause our audience to book a hotel immediately. But I can tell you that viewers of one of our short films remember that we gave them something that entertained them.

For something like, “French Kiss,” we shot the whole film in and out of one of our hotels, and not once did we talk about the hotel itself. You see the features and benefits without us having to call them out—it’s the set for the story we were telling, and it inspires people to want to travel. How we take this idea and begin to generate revenue is through distribution and packaging. We built a sales package, and if you book through the “French Kiss” package, you got a special rate, champagne and chocolate, and a Paris tour in one of our cars. That package drove over $500,000 in revenue for that single hotel. Content does lead to commerce—so long as it doesn’t have a dead end.

French Kiss by Marriott

Are there any challenges you’re still trying to overcome?

One of the things brands need to do is earn support at the highest level. Content marketing can’t be something that Bob down the hall is working on. It can’t be, “Go see Bob about some content marketing or whatever.”

The way we earned buy-in at Marriott is by framing our strategy as a solution for reaching next-generation travelers. We knew that Millennials weren’t engaging with anything interruptive anymore. They aren’t engaging as much with 30-second spots, display banner ads, emails, and we needed a new way for reaching our audience. We believe it was through content.

So we made sure that everyone understood the challenge and our strategy—our CEO and even Mr. Marriott himself. They understand that if we want to remain relevant, we can’t continue to yell at our audience through traditional channels. We presented our recommendation for overcoming this marketing shift, and because we sought out support from the very beginning, we resolved the biggest challenge many brands face.

Vacation BeachAt a lot of organizations, marketers may see buy-in at the middle levels, but not from senior leadership. In those situations, it’s easy to run into red tape. That’s why it’s so important to sell your content strategy from the ground up—support removes a lot of fear-based thinking among your team, and it clears the runway for more creative thinking to happen. Beyond communicating your strategy, you also need to educate—and not just educate about your strategy, but how people’s jobs will change, how performance reviews will differ, and areas where you’ll need to improve. Executives want to innovate and change, but change is also scary. The education part helps overcome that obstacle.

In addition to earning support, budgeting will always be a challenge, even for big brands like Marriott. While we have a large marketing budget, it’s not all for content creation, and we have to chop our budget up for global efforts. Regardless, budget will always be a challenge, no matter the company’s size, and that’s why it’s so important to get senior buy-in from the start.

What does a documented strategy look like at Marriott, and how do you distribute it to your global teams?

I think if anyone tells you that they have a documented strategy, they’re probably lying.

I would love to have just one brand to work with, but as a portfolio company, there’s a lot to manage. So you have to look at a strategy in two ways: the day-to-day activities and the broader mission.

We started by identifying our mission and what we wanted to own—the entire travel journey. We built our program around the 3 C’s: Content, Community, and Commerce. Within each of these C’s are multiple strategies. For example, we started by producing a ton of different types of content, each with a unique distribution channel and creative partners. Once we started to scale content creation, our strategy shifted to building community. That’s where we are today.

Now looking ahead to commerce—this idea of content puts heads in beds—we have a few ways of doing this at Marriott. Some of our brand awareness and engagement content converts on its own, but we also have a relicensing strategy in which we truly operate like a media company. Because we’re producing content that’s story-driven, and not about our products or services, we’re able to provide our content to other distributors like Netflix, Hulu, Yahoo, and other international distributors. We’re already relicensing our short films to these partners, and that’s a unique commerce strategy for us.

We also benefit from already having a built-in distribution platform within every hotel. We’re selling ad space like a media company to other marketers. We publish four in-room magazines, soon we’re launching Marriott Traveler, which will be a lot like Travel + Leisure, and we have the Media Marriot Network that we sell a couple of million dollars worth of ad space to partners on for Marriott.com. We were already a media company, we just weren’t operating like one.

When it comes to a documented strategy, for us it’s about documenting, communicating, and distributing our mission across the organization so people within the company understand the “Why” of what we’re doing. The day-to-day activities remain fluid and focused on our content studio team.

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