Editor’s note: Jay Acunzo is the author of the new book Break the Wheel, which explores how the world’s best creators break from conventional thinking to think for themselves. He’s a former digital media strategist at Google, head of content at HubSpot, and VP of brand at the seed VC, NextView.
The deep tones of synth music begins to play. A crackling sound emerges, as if from static electricity, followed by a single strum from an electric guitar that shatters the silence. A man’s voice booms.
“I really didn’t get fascinated with design until I learned what it was and what it could actually do.”
These are the opening moments of InVision’s “Design Disruptors,” a now-famous film within the design community. This hour-long video features some of the biggest and brightest names in software design today, hailing from companies like Google, Lyft, Netflix, Dropbox, and more. The film launched in the summer of 2016, and although it was never aired online (the company debuted the film in 1,500 offline screenings worldwide), “Design Disruptors” helped InVision generate more than 70,000 leads and double its user base in a single year, according to sources within the firm.
While this may seem like an outlier project, it’s become part of a larger marketing trend we’re seeing proliferate around the tech world today: marketers creating films and shows. Why?
“Optimistically, I’d hope it’s because marketers are realizing that impressions and pageviews are BS metrics, and it’s a lot more valuable to get a smaller group of consumers hooked on a show that they’ll watch for a really long time,” said Joe Lazauskas, executive editor and head of content strategy at the marketing tech firm Contently. A journalist by background, Lazauskas now consults clients like Microsoft, IBM, and Autodesk for Contently, and while he clings to his optimism, he knows there’s a downside to any trend. “Pessimistically, I’d say that it’s because marketers still fall in love with big vanity projects without much thought to the return on investment.”
So what’s causing this trend, anyway?
Ultimately, Lazauskas concludes that the rise in branded shows is a combination of both his optimistic and pessimistic views. On the one hand, films and series are indeed strategic for some companies, enabling them to reap certain rewards that disparate pieces of content can’t provide. On the other hand, plenty of companies continue to glom onto the trend because, well, “it’s a thing.” Those in the former group, however, have identified a fundamental shift currently affecting how companies go to market. Most of us talk about the industry’s reaction to that shift: things like content marketing, influencer marketing, and similar experience-based approaches. The shift itself, though, is far more revealing. You see, the marketing mandate has changed. The goal is no longer to acquire attention. The goal is to hold it.
It used to be sufficient for marketers to describe the value of their products in a few disconnected interruptions. Marketers would leap out in front of the content a consumer actually wanted to consume in order to grab just a few seconds of their attention and deliver the right message, with the right promotion, at the right time. Of course, we all know what happened to that old marketing playbook: (insert mushroom cloud GIF). Along came the internet. Buyers of both B2C and B2B products now face seemingly infinite choice, from content to competing products, all accessible on multiple screens, whenever and wherever they want it. Additionally, technologies whose sole purpose is to block advertising signal a larger trend: As consumers, we don’t want to be interrupted. We control what we consume because we have all the choice, and we only choose experiences that create value in our lives, like content–not advertisements, which are messages that merely describe value. (I’m painting with broad strokes, but we’re all part of the technorati after all.)
If you’re a marketer today, and you’re stuck in acquisition mode, it’s like digging a hole in dry sand. Nothing you do sticks. The very best in our world are winning on customer experience, not brute-forcing their way into customers’ lives. We need to embrace the new marketing mandate: The job isn’t to acquire attention. The job is to hold it.
“If you’re willing to make the investment in some serialized, engaging content, rather than a bunch of disconnected pieces, you can start thinking in terms of hours spent with your company as opposed to ideas like impressions,” said Dan Mills, creative director at video software company Wistia. This fall, the company announced a new documentary series called “One, Ten, One Hundred,” a partnership with video agency Sandwich, which boasts clients like Facebook, Slack, Uber, and Square. The series explores the effects of constraints on creativity when creating videos.
Said Wistia’s cofounder and CEO, Chris Savage, “What’s interesting about a more substantial project like this is that instead of just moving on to the next piece of content to push out the door, we have the time and space to really invest in exploring all of the different angles and nuances of this complex topic.” First, the company asked Sandwich to create three videos to promote the same Wistia product (a Chrome extension called Soapbox): One ad for $1,000, one for $10,000, and one for $100,000 (hence the name “One, Ten, One Hundred”). Those videos launched in mid-September. In October, Wistia will release a four-part documentary series going behind-the-scenes of the entire process to examine exactly how changes in budget alter the quality of the videos. They believe that budget is a major reason why more marketing teams don’t prioritize video (and thus, buy Wistia). More specifically, they believe this is a perception problem and that teams don’t really need more money to create better videos in most cases. But it’s a messy subject.
“A blog post or a two minute video just wasn’t going to cut it,” Savage said. “We wanted to create something that was deeper and lasting. The most valuable thing that we learned through this process, and what we explore in “One, Ten, One Hundred,” is the complex relationship between money and creativity.”
InVision’s CEO and cofounder, Clark Valberg, seems to agree that holding significant audience attention means focusing on depth, not breadth. Like Wistia, InVision used its documentary, “Design Disruptors,” as well as its newer film with IBM called “The Loop,” to illuminate a large problem facing designers in their work and to rally the community around their brand to solve it. For Wistia, their customers struggle with budget. At InVision, they realized that product designers wanted a better sense of identity as a profession, as well as a seat at the proverbial table.
“We went out and talked to our best customers,” he said. “They had a lot more to tell us than just what they were doing with our products. There was a movement [in the field of product design], and they all felt it. They all understood their role within the company and their company’s role in the formation of this new market called digital product design. It was evolving here and now, and they had a lot to say about it.”
Wistia and InVision are not alone in creating shows and trying to spark movements in doing so. Other companies creating video series include Fuze, which will partner with CBS to create a new series about tech later this year, and LinkedIn’s sales and marketing solutions team, which debuted “B2B Dinner for Five” late last year. In audio, dozens of brands are breaking from the conventional wisdom of what a podcast has to sound like (namely, Q&A with experts) to create documentary series instead. These include Zendesk’s “Repeat Customer“ (created with the agency Pacific Content), Adobe’s upcoming “Wireframe” (Gimlet Media’s branded content studio Gimlet Creative), and “Exceptions,” a series exploring why high-growth SaaS companies are betting so heavily on brand marketing (which, full disclosure, I host and produce for my client Drift).
These companies all seek benefits from their shows that the usual marketing campaign or “piece” of content doesn’t offer. By holding attention for hours on end, shows develop a level of intimacy and trust similar to a one-on-one meeting that scales far better. Shows provide endless amounts of marketing efficiencies, too, allowing marketing teams to mine each episode for excerpts, lessons learned, and new ideas, all of which can fuel company blogs, newsletters, and social media profiles. At some point soon, I expect to see a brand-sponsored book with material pulled exclusively from their company’s show, there’s that much source material bottled up in episodes. Lastly, shows create customers through both word-of-mouth and thriving subscriber lists. After all, it’s far more powerful to say to a visitor, “Get the next episode,” than, “Subscribe for alerts” or “more of our content.”
According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, an annual report measuring consumer trust in big institutions like government and business, trust in companies continues to fall. To get any individual, let alone an entire audience, to spend 10, 30, or even 60 minutes with your company each week is more powerful than ever. But that’s the benefit these companies seek.
What would cause this trend to stick?
It’s hard to ignore Lazauskas’s pessimism about brands adopting this approach. After all, most companies barely know how to market a single blog post well, let alone build and promote an entire series. For example, in many B2B niches, competing shows feel like copycat programs. They’re all effectively “Talking Topics With Experts!” (If everyone claims to have the smartest show in a niche, does anyone?) Additionally, many shows lapse after a season or two, even after a public victory lap over their first few episodes. Slack’s “Work in Progress” hasn’t aired an episode since October 2017, despite being widely loved and even syndicated to satellite radio. But while Lazauskas hints at the potential negatives, Wistia’s Savage sees it differently. His company is investing heavily in serialized content, but he believes marketers need to shift how they track results to justify doing so.
“It starts with qualitative results: Are people talking about it, are they engaging and spending time with the content? Over a longer period of time, we expect to see that content like [“One, Ten, One Hundred”] brought in totally new and different audience that helps expand our customer base.” If most marketing focuses on reach with a broad group of people, then shows are all about resonance with the right people.
Additionally, as Clark Valberg of InVision told me, it has to be a “portfolio approach.” Brands shouldn’t aim to be purely Netflix any more than they should act exclusively like Don Draper in “Mad Men.” Some things are directly measurable, some things are not. Some marketing looks like a piece of content, some like a series. Finding the right mix for your business is what matters most.
Shows have long been a vehicle for holding attention, and marketers are finally catching up to what media companies realized long ago. Call it the Curse of Conventional Wisdom. As tech companies invent the future, marketers at those very same companies need to constantly question older norms and even the most tried-and-true best practice in order to keep up. After all, we may be at the start of something positive for companies and consumers alike—that is, if you’re optimistic.
“We definitely think this is the beginning of a trend,” said Savage. “It’s clear that companies are making investments in engaging their audiences with things like podcasts. We see video series content and storytelling as the next logical step for companies to connect at a deeper level.”
I’ve been a content marketer for a decade now, which makes me a grizzled vet in a relatively new career path. (In marketing, “grizzled vet” is code for “jaded as hell.”) But for once, I’m bullish on a trend. It’s not because the hype won’t fade. It will. But, refreshingly, this is an approach to marketing that can’t be gamed. When the goal is to hold attention, not merely acquire it, there’s no faking it. You have to earn that level of attention. Trust, influence, and hours of someone’s time aren’t things you can purchase or hack. Eventually, this wave will go out, and all who will be left will be companies like InVision and Wistia who truly dug into the ground, with real foundations of creativity and customer-focus. Those merely riding the wave will be washed away. When it comes to holding long periods of our attention, the hucksters and system-gamers have no power. Because fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice—can’t get fooled again.