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Marketing Showrunners

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By: Jay Acunzo on June 13th, 2019

3 of Marketing’s Boldest Executives on Why Brands Must Prioritize Total Time Spent

The deep tones of synth music begin 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, shows, and other longform or episodic video projects. 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, head of marketing at the marketing tech firm Contently. A journalist by background, Lazauskas now serves an audience of marketers for the company that includes the likes of Microsoft, IBM, and Autodesk. 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.” However, those in the former group who think strategically about creating original films or series have identified a fundamental shift affecting how companies go to market.

Most executives talk about the marketing industry’s reaction to that shift, clamoring to understand things like content marketing, influencer marketing, and other experience-based approaches to building a brand. The shift itself, though, is far more useful to discuss. 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. Along came the internet, and…

Buyers of both B2C and B2B products now face seemingly infinite choice, whether in picking and consuming content or selecting a product or service. It’s all accessible on multiple screens, whenever and wherever they (which is to say, we) want it. Additionally, technologies have emerged with the sole purpose of blocking interruptive, unwanted advertising, signaling a larger trend: We don’t want anything we don’t choose. We control what we consume because we have infinity options — that’s right, Infinity Options. As humans, we only choose things that create value in our lives, like content – not ads.

If you’re a marketer today, and you’re solely focused on grabbing attention, it’s like digging a hole in dry sand. Nothing you do sticks. The very best in this industry have shifted focus to holding attention, not just grabbing it. To do so, they win through better customer experiences, 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. Last 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 2018. The very next month, Wistia released 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. The project is streamable from Wistia’s site, as well as on Amazon Prime.

In the spring of 2019, Wistia claimed two Webby Awards for best branded content: the People’s Choice Award, determined by audience voting, and the Judge’s Choice Award, selected by a group of individuals with, apparently, the taste and credentials to make such decisions.

After years of producing videos for their own marketing and selling video software to hundreds of thousands of other businesses, Wistia’s team has witnessed just how much budget constraints prevent teams from prioritizing video in their marketing. More specifically, the team believes that this is mainly a perception problem and that marketers don’t really need more money to create better videos. But that’s a messy subject to explore and requires significant time investment from the audience to understand.

“A blog post or a two-minute video just wasn’t going to cut it,” Savage told me. “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.”

In addition to creating longer form videos, Wistia has been writing actively about why and how they’re optimizing for and measuring total time watched.

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 first film, Design Disruptors, as well as a later project with IBM called “The Loop,” to justify ongoing investment in a dedicated team and consistent creation of longform video. Their experience with these types of projects has led the team to create a second kind of “platform,” in addition to their technology platform: a community platform.

This isn’t a discrete website so much as a stance InVision takes, a belief they share with their customers, and a mission they espouse: the elevation and success of each and every product designer working for tech companies today. InVision focused their first film not on the technique of product design but on the need for designers to get a strategic seat at the proverbial table. The recognized that the job function was relatively new back then, needed codifying for those pursuing the career and explaining to others who didn’t quite “get it.” By providing a platform for their audience’s entire careers, InVision goes well beyond talking about features and benefits.

What most of their competitors do is what I call “last-mile marketing.” They want to provide how-to blog posts, case studies, and other standard-practice content and messages, reaching those who are at the end of the buyer’s journey. Today, that’s far too late. Instead of focusing on the last mile, InVision runs the whole damn race with their audience, and that makes the last mile inevitable: They’ll run it with InVision. They’ll buy.

For Wistia, their customers struggle with budget. At InVision, they realized that product designers wanted a better sense of identity and community. Longform video sits at the center of how they rally those people together around the brand to solve those problems.

“We went out and talked to our best customers,” Valberg told me. “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 YETI Coolers, with their glossy, long-running YETI Stories project, 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 in 2017. Marketing tech companies ThriveHive and Klaviyo both debuted docu-style series hosted by their marketing leadership earlier in 2019, and Klaviyo specifically told me that they’re planning several longer-form video projects this year as well. Death Wish Coffee, which sell’s the world’s strongest coffee, launched docuseries #GrindItOut to explore hard-charging people pursuing their passion.

From large legacy brands like Oracle (“Unforgettable”) to young up-and-comers like ProfitWell (multiple shows, including field-reported “Protect the Hustle”), forward-thinking marketing leadership is starting to act like Hollywood executives, green-lighting projects for pilot.

This is to say nothing of audio, too, where hundreds of brands are launching new podcasts or continue to grow longstanding shows: Facebook, Zendesk, Drift, HubSpot, Salesforce, DELL, Adobe, Buffer, a16z, Toast, Basecamp, Red Hat, MasterCard, Mozilla, and many, many more.

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. Executives anecdotally report greater lifetime value and greater engagement from their existing audiences who watch or listen, while costs of new customer acquisition decreases thanks to the word-of-mouth provided by passionate communities that emerge around each show.

Shows provide endless amounts of marketing efficiencies internally, too, allowing 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 just that much source material bottled up in episodes. (I should know: I used my podcast Unthinkable to aerate and improve ideas ahead of writing my first book last year.)

The mere notion that someone would spend 10 minutes with a brand, let alone 45 or 60 minutes or 3 or 4 hours, was science fiction just a couple decades ago. Our marketing predecessors would have laughed and returned to writing giant checks to real-life Don Drapers.

Today? Tons of time spent has not only become possible, it’s been the focus of forward-thinking marketing executives for the past few years.

Admittedly, 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 successfully, let alone build and promote an entire series. This is, in the end, content-as-product. A show needs to be marketed and grown in discrete, dedicated fashion. We’re already seeing what the downside of making shows can be with, for example, the glut of B2B marketing-focused podcasts that parade out the same expert guests across the entire competitive set, never innovating beyond the now-commodified interview format. (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. I recall watching a public software company launch a beautifully produced documentary series to much fanfare in late 2018, only to discover that they effectively over-paid and under-planned: The show looked gorgeous, but merely plucked the same-old boring expert interview out of the boardroom and placed it elsewhere in the world. There was no story, no angle, no reason to invest time as a viewer.

Even still, Wistia’s CEO Chris Savage sees just how powerful the combination of strategic leadership, creative teams, and longform video can be for a brand. His company is investing heavily in serialized content, not only as producers but as technologists — they announced the launch of Channels recently to help brands act more like Netflix.

As someone who spends all day every day thinking about such things, Savage believes marketers are ready to shift how they track results, from direct response-centric to signals of total time spent.

“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 longform video and episodic content more generally 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,” blanketing the world with pithy taglines and time-boxed campaigns. Some stuff is directly measurable, some stuff is not. Some marketing looks like a piece of content, some like a series. Shortform complements longform, and so on. Finding the right mix for your business is what matters most — not clinging to any approach as the savior of all.

Longform video has long been a vehicle for holding attention, and marketers are finally catching up to what media companies realized long ago: creating originals creates endless benefits to your business.

“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 something brewing — bullish enough to launch the very company whose blog post you’re reading right now, Marketing Showrunners, to provide insights, education, and community for this niche.

I spent the last 3 years consulting brands, creating shows for myself and for them — 10 to be exact, which is just crazy, I know. And if I’ve learned anything, it’s this: To hold attention, to get someone to invest serious time with your brand, you have to deliver something genuinely worth it. Refreshingly, this is an approach to marketing that can’t be gamed. You have to earn time investment. Trust, influence, and hours of someone’s time aren’t things you can purchase or “hack.”

Eventually, I realize, this wave will go out, and those who will remain will be companies like InVision and Wistia who truly dug into the ground, with real foundations of creativity and customer-centricity. Marketers merely riding the wave will be washed away, and I say, good riddance. In the end, only the best and most service-minded marketing teams embrace the truth:

Marketing isn’t about who arrives. Marketing is about who stays.


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Founder of Marketing Showrunners, host of 3 Clips and other podcasts and docuseries about creativity, and author of Break the Wheel. I’m trying to create a world where people feel intrinsically motivated by their work. Previously in content marketing and digital strategy at Google and HubSpot and VP of brand and community at the VC firm NextView. I write, tinker, and speak on stages and into microphones for a living. It’s weird but wonderful.

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