Somewhere between my five-year-old phone dying at 30 percent battery and reviving it to discover all of my personalizations wiped, I realized it might be time to replace it. Should be easy—I like to think I’m tech-savvy enough to make an informed decision.
But from the moment I made my first smartphone-related search, I realized I was in well over my head.
From one hyperstylized brand narrative to the next, to some creepily accurate retargeted ads that follow me, I have never felt so important to Apple and Google—nor so uncertain as to whether or not that’s a good thing.
Borderline intrusive advertising aside, the experience has given me a great lens through which to look at one of the more fascinating questions in marketing: How do brands work to create experiences and stories around products that already have enormous cachet and dedicated followings?
To the consumer, this could easily come off as wasted effort. Between friends and family using their preferred devices around us to incessant advertising that appears if we accidentally use the word “phone” in a Google search, most of us are familiar with these brands and their products in our day-to-day. It might seem simpler for the more entrenched of these companies to keep up their advertising efforts, and then build out powerful product marketing collateral on their web pages to inform and encourage that last step before a purchase.
Image attribution: negativespace.co
But when it comes to competing brands in a familiar space, it isn’t enough to just be recognizable or to settle for simple experiences that your audience has had in their day-to-day—a competitive edge only happens when your brand can successfully suggest that new, better experiences may come from switching to your product.
A Friendly (and Not So Friendly) Competition
When content marketing began to take hold around a decade ago, it was largely in response to the difficulties and gaps in advertising strategies. Sure, interruptive and memorable sales pitches might work for customers entering your space with no prior knowledge or opinion, but what about the loyal customer who needs more than fast promises to jump their brand ship? What about the large crowd of people who prefer to trust recommendations from friends and family as opposed to advertising? What about newer brands that don’t have the revenue to consistently buy ads or the cachet necessary to survive without them? Samsung’s dogged reliance on the technical comes out in a practical way in their ads, but the full force of how much better they believe their products to be for their customers’ lives is made more convincingly apparent through their content communities, including even massive user-generated communities dedicated to following Samsung’s developments. And of course, the Apple community also responds in kind with communities of their own.
Content marketing shines when given the space to elaborate on the promises of brand-level ads. But this presents obstacles of its own, with difficult-to-track ROI, complex production logistics, and audiences with demanding and, at times, fickle interests and expectations. And surmounting these challenges, phone brands still need to find a way to suggest a brand narrative beyond the rumors, news, and nuts-and-bolts of their products.
Ads and Content: The Frenemies of Marketing
With the rise of digital mediums for promotion, it can be easy for us to think of how we market today in comparison to “traditional” marketing practices of yesteryear. In this way, we see a number of disciplines placed against each other that may not belong in opposition—print versus digital collateral, direct marketing and brand marketing, and, of course, content marketing versus advertising.
But in shopping for a new phone, it has been exciting to find that many of the heavy hitters in the scene are working numerous, disparate practices together in a healthy way to create something more than just interruption for their audiences.
One of the longest running examples of this might be from Apple’s “Shot on iPhone” campaign. While the major sell of this campaign was the suggestion that Apple’s cameras are the best for creative users, the campaign’s actual focus was around the images, adventures, and stories of their users. From the start of a campaign that was covered by huge news outlets and drove people to plunder the archives of their iPhone 6s, to the campaign’s eventual evolution into a brand effort with an Instagram home, Apple was able to find a powerful way to convince people of the value of their phones’ cameras while also generating a huge amount of user-generated content that also served for billboards and banner ads. It was a near-perfect melding of advertising and content marketing that didn’t fare so well for HTC when they tried to push similar advertisements for their HTC One series with comparatively weaker cameras and a brand narrative that didn’t really come through with their audience. Hopefully, as time passes, Apple will continue to support this effort as a community hub rather than a source for easy ad content.
Meanwhile, Google has taken a chance this year to be the next phone manufacturer to wade into the controversial space of excluding a 3.5mm jack from their phone, pushing customers towards buying their Pixel Buds competitor for Apple’s AirPods. But with the advantage of some neat new tech like in-ear translation, Google has leaned into third-party reviews and articles to drive feature propositions that might otherwise not feel credible coming solely from the brand.
In this way, advertising can focus on the phone’s form factor and speed, while user-generated content answers frantic searches for “no headphone jack in Pixel 2.” The only drawback? Credibility often comes at a price, and in this case, it might be reviews that aren’t as stellar as you might hope. In the case of a relatively new entrant like Google, I wonder if depending so heavily on the tech of the product was the best move: It leaves a lacking feeling of experience where Apple’s content presents striking images and adventurous stories, and the new tech doesn’t hold up as strongly in its current iteration against Samsung’s more established foothold in the Android market. Rather, leaning into the more exploratory distinctives of their product—for instance how Google Buds’ built-in translation equips users to explore the world—seems to have been a missed opportunity that may have given Google stronger ground in this space.
Image attribution: Pavan Trikutam
For brands big and small operating in a space that necessitates dogged visibility, sales propositions, and engaging narratives all at once, it can be difficult to strike a balance between your advertising and content. Here are a few ways to capitalize on both practices, while keeping the focus on experience building and long-term, sustainable strategies that aren’t ad-focused.
Priming the Pump
One of the most daunting prospects of starting up content marketing as a brand is that you have a long, long road ahead of you, often in direct competition with brands that have established content hubs. To get your own content effort off the ground, however, consider building a pool of material that you can then launch over the course of a tight time window, and support these launches with small paid campaigns. The goal shouldn’t be to rely on this as a long-term method but rather to taper off your PPC campaigns as your content engine builds up steam. Eventually, you should reach a state where minimal maintenance-level advertising is necessary to keep seeing your organic metrics grow.
Embrace “Middle Ground” Content
There are many mediums available today that can build content experiences off sales-prop heavy ad pitches. Finding ways to combine your efforts to create infographics, support forum pages, or even use user-generated content as collateral for advertisement like we saw with Apple are all great ways to maximize the usefulness of your content while saving costs for development and deployment on the product side. But more importantly, this moves your team’s thinking away from “what about my brand would make for an eye-catching ad” and more towards “what great content can we make that might serve as a momentary basis for engaging ads.”
Rather than thinking of advertising and content marketing as two separate tactics, consider how the two play off each other in terms of market intelligence. Targeting effective content requires an understanding of what type of audience you’re able to attract to your brand, while advertising is only as effective as the actions taken after that first click. To make informed decisions towards success in either case, supporting a multitouch tracking strategy across all of your efforts can help you identify successful pathways that fit for each of your market segments, rather than throwing money at audiences who won’t want to proceed through your funnel. Once you have an effective hold on who your audience is, this same multitouch approach can help you track the life cycle of your customers from first content read to numerous lifetime conversions, allowing your brand the option of moving resources from top of funnel acquisition to bottom of funnel retention.
While I haven’t yet settled on a new phone, I am enjoying the process of researching one now that I get to use the experience as a sort of case study in enterprise-scale marketing in a mature, saturated market. While I might take note of what collateral or product marketing eventually convinces me to buy one device or another, brands should take the time to examine how heavily their strategies are dependent on advertising versus their content—and evaluate whether this bent actually meets the needs of their customers, or scratches the itch of fast returns that we sometimes fall into chasing. In most cases, the sweet spot will likely be a middle ground that begins with some support from advertising, and then gradually develops into equilibrium as content marketing picks up the slack for the long run.
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About the AuthorMore Content by Kyle Harper