Whatever you call content marketing—brand storytelling, sponsored content, native advertising—the marketing megatrend is expected to grow exponentially in 2014. In a nutshell, brands are becoming their own content creators, i.e., publishers; or they’re partnering with publishers in a role as editorial directors with active participation in the content creation process.
Last year, Marriott Hotels entered a partnership to support content with Fast Company, Mashable and Wired. The launch coincided with Marriott’s new $90 million Travel Brilliantly campaign, combining in-house and crowdsourced ideas about how to create the next generation hotel.
When content marketing works, it can work astonishingly well. The abbreviated Red Bull space jump video, which became a sort of North Star for brand storytelling in 2012, is at 35 million+ YouTube views and counting. A more recent viral example is Jean-Claude Van Damme’s elegant Epic Split video in November (66 million+ views) promoting Volvo Trucks.
Although entertaining and engaging, rather than sales-y and interruptive, there’s still a blurry line between these videos and traditional advertising. Some argue there’s no difference at all, except that the Red Bull/Volvo ads are just better than most advertising today. Precedents of similar landmark ads with a storytelling arc go back to Coca-Cola/Volkswagen in the 1970s and Apple in the 1980s.
Branded content, meanwhile, where brands like Marriott collaborate with established media players, is another animal. The sponsored content is integrated into a media platform’s editorial well and ostensibly written/designed as such, with colored backgrounds and/or verbiage stating the content is promotional. BuzzFeed, Yahoo, Forbes, Hearst, The New York Times (starting tomorrow), Washington Post, USA Today, The Atlantic and many others, including Skift, are all doing this.
The travel sector is catching on. The AFAR Media/Westin Hotels partnership profiled in Skift last year is one example. AFAR’s newsletters also have one editorial story positioned with the rest that’s clearly marked as sponsored. On the hotel side, early adopters from Ace Hotel to Four Seasons have built powerful blogs with aggressive social media to engage with their customers via owned and earned content.
Marriott Hotels is coming at it from a different angle. They’re paying Fast Company, Mashable and Wired to align their branding with stories assigned to established travel writers and independent third-party travel company executives. Those in turn are linked back to Marriott’s “Travel Brilliantly” initiative.
The stories are themed around travel innovation and insight, which each media brand handled differently for Marriott.
Fast Company: Creative Braintrust
FastCo’s Creative Braintrust series of stories has the most prominent Marriott branding, displayed largely atop the wallpaper background. The story layout design is exactly like the non-paid content throughout the site.
Instead of professional writers, the stories are written by the founders and CEOs of Vayable, Peek, Playtime, Repurpose, and GeniusSteals. The sidebar explains: “Expert voices in design, technology, creativity, sustainability and business leadership re-imagine the future of travel to inspire new ideas and innovations.”
Photographs with the five authors are at the top with a nifty slider displaying each of their bios. One critique about the list of 19 posts below, there are no dates or bylines. Only by bringing up the full story do you discover who wrote it and when, included for some reason at the end of the post.
Overall, the stories are personal, “bloggy” explorations of the imagination, such as Traveling Without Moving Fast, written by Faris Yakob, founder of GeniusSteals.
Yakob envisions a McLuhan-esque future where virtual technology obviates the need for travel because going, say, to Tahiti is much better in virtual high-resolution while sitting on your couch without the “messy stuff” of actually traveling.
Yakob’s Memory Hacking is more compelling, explaining the success of GoPro with the question: “Imagine if you could have the perfect vacation but could not take any photographs and at the end your memory would be erased. Would you do it?”
Wired: Where Next?
At Wired’s Where Next? collection of content, Marriott branding takes up the entire header under the nav bar. The story layout and fonts are different than the regular Wired stories, and the posts are written by established travel writers and bloggers with their Twitter handles included in their bylines.
Wired is the only one of the three without share counts for each story.
At the top of the sidebar, there’s a 300×250 banner linking to the Travel Brilliantly website. Below that, the copy recites the theme of Marriott’s crowdsourcing campaign: “Marriott is making travel more brilliant. One idea at a time. Discover how Marriott is re-inventing everything from guest rooms to check in. Share your game-changing travel ideas or check out ideas from modern travelers like you and vote for your favorite.”
Wired’s stories lean toward the practical, providing helpful tips about things like travel apps, packing carry-ons, fashionable style, eating healthy, and “How To Mail Hard Copies When Traveling Without A Printer.”
Many of these posts offer solid info, such as 5 Innovative Ways to Eat Local. It mentions the travel sharing site EatWith, where for a fee you can dine at people’s homes. A “Wok & Wine” experience with Markus and his wife in Vienna costs $38 per person, for example.
Mashable: The Future of Travel
Marriott branding on Mashable is significantly different than the other two. At the top of the landing page for Marriott’s The Future of Travel content series, there’s just a two-line sentence alerting the reader that the copy is sponsored.
The story design layout mirrors Mashable’s standard content, and there’s no supplemental Marriott branding in the sidebar. The stories are mostly written by established freelancers and Mashable staffers, along with a few others written “by Marriott,” with Marriott’s logo, Mashable’s “BrandSpeak” logo and one sentence linking to Marriott’s campaign, reading: “This sponsored article is part of BrandSpeak, a program that gives voice to Mashable advertisers’ best content.”
Mashable’s content, with the least Marriott branding of the three, has exponentially more share counts than Fast Company. There are 15 posts, 12 of which are listicles. Two other posts discuss high speed trains and smart glasses, while the top story “by Marriott” promotes healthy vending machines.
Another staffer in the content marketing department is Dani Fankhauser, assistant editor, campaigns. Her 6 Bags That Charge Your Devices While You Travel is fascinating. Everpurse, for example, makes bags that can recharge an iPhone twice before the bag itself needs to be charged on a charging pad. Fankhauser’s post was shared 4,400 times, and Marriott paid for it.
A Turning Point in Travel Branding?
By Marriott hooking up with three different media companies, it provides three thematically different editorial experiences to attract the widest scope of readers. None of them, except for those produced “by Marriott” discuss Marriott. The ROI for the hotel company is twofold: brand promotion and aligning itself with a cool readership interested in travel, thus making itself by extension, more aligned with the times.
Branded content in this context is nothing new. Tatler magazine has been creating native advertising editorial in print for fashion and perfume clients for years, which blend almost seamlessly with non-paid stories. Forbes’ BrandVoice is another particularly successful example.
If the underpinning of branded content is storytelling, then it seems travel companies are explicitly well suited to provide impactful content with measurable value to readers. For example, Marriott’s self-produced 15 Ideas That Would Vastly Improve Travel at Mashable has been shared 4,900 times. The story highlights 15 innovations in travel sparked by the Travel Brilliantly campaign, such as “social concierges” and pre-stocked closets.
Personally speaking, one of the most interesting stories is at Fast Company.The Sharing Economy’s Newest Traveler: The Enterprise is a form of branded content Cubism—content marketing inside content marketing.
Author Jamie Wong is the co-founder/CEO of Vayable.com, which is like an Airbnb for local, self-employed tour guides worldwide. Wong’s story recounts a Vayable company trip to Paris “to grow our business and improve our product by putting our boots on the ground.”
We discovered an entirely new customer in ourselves: The Enterprise. By bringing our entire operations to France in attempt to “eat our own dogfood,” we found that businesses can benefit from traveling with the Sharing Economy as much as consumers can. Other Sharing Economy businesses and organizations powered Vayable’s operations as a pop-up headquarters. We used Vayable Insiders and Airbnb hosts for accommodation, the co-working space, Mutinerie, for our office, Cookening and EatWith for dinner parties, Djump for local transportation, OuiShare for community meetups, and BlaBlaCar for long-distance trips. The Sharing Economy, which we typically think of as consumer-focused, lent itself surprisingly well to our business travel needs.
By publishing an account of how Vayable’s staff went hog wild in their utilization of sharing companies, and validating those services, Vayable is promoting its own services to other companies considering using sharing companies.
And it’s sponsored by Marriott.
Greg Oates covers hospitality trends and next generation hotels. He has participated in 1,000+ hotel site inspections in over 50 countries.