CMO Insights: Content Marketing

an interview with
Richard Marnell Chief Marketing Officer, Viking River Cruises

richardmarnellThis week, over 100 heads of marketing will gather in Los Angeles to share innovative ideas and forward thinking at The CMO Club Fall Innovation and Inspiration Summit. On Thursday, I am excited to be leading a panel on Content Marketing with three leading-edge CMO’s including Richard Marnell, CMO of Viking River Cruises. Richard was kind enough to share his thoughts in advance of the summit including how Viking is creating boat loads of content and using it to cruise ahead of its competitors.  And just in case you think I’m running you down the proverbial creek without a paddle, pay careful attention to how the Viking team has generated over 6 million video views and the role it is playing in their sales cycle.

Read on to see what tactics Viking River Cruises has used to engage their customers as well as why Richard Marnell believes content marketing will be an on going discussion even at next year’s summit.

Drew: What you are doing in the area of content marketing and how is it working for your business?

We started really digging into digital content marketing about 3 years ago in 3 very focused areas:

1) Videos about our destinations that focus on history, culture, food, experiences – things that travelers want to learn about;

2) Recipes that tie into the product because they’re for regional foods from the destinations we travel to; and

3) Social media on the platforms that are either relevant to our guests, business partners, media partners, or all of the above.

How it’s working for Viking? Increasing brand awareness – because videos such as language lessons, or meeting the cats of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, or a recipe for Vienna’s Sacher Torte – are things that our audience wants to share with their friends. And on Facebook, for example, when our audience engages with our content, it is then spread to their other Facebook friends. Plus, travel is something they naturally talk about on social media anyway.

Our product has a somewhat long purchase cycle, so content marketing keeps our guests engaged throughout the customer journey. Most valuably for us, it has filled a hole that was previously there for a segment we refer to as Booked Not Departed – meaning those who reserved their cruise a year in advance and are excited, but no longer receiving marketing messages from Viking. Now, they receive content marketing that is relevant to the product/itinerary that they’ve purchased – and it amplifies their anticipation, continues to connect them with the brand, and builds a base of knowledge and enrichment from which to further enhance their actual product experience when they do travel.

Drew: And before someone in the audience can ask about ROI, let’s talk about how your organization measured the success of your efforts in this area?

As a marketing organization we started as a direct mailer, which is highly measurable from an ROI standpoint.  As we have further layered our media mix, we isolate what we can to measure ROI.  Content is one that we more view through the lens of engagement.

This year we have driven 6,000,000 video minutes viewed.  We view this as a very positive sign that our content is being appreciated.

Drew: Content marketing seems to be a slow build versus a quick win as a company builds up its library and proficiency.  Was it a challenge to sell this to your management, and if so, what were the key points that made the sale?  

Our product and brand so naturally lend themselves to content – we focus on enrichment, education, history, culture, travel – that content marketing has been a part of the business from the beginning. New initiatives can be a hard sell at times; investing in video and social media wasn’t immediately intrinsic to the entire management team.

Over time, we’ve looked at the metrics of content within our digital channels:

•Testing email subject lines with keywords that actually promoted 2 of our main content channels – our email open rate is consistently higher when the subject lines state the words “recipe” and “video.”

•Website traffic being driven by content emails.

•Time spent on website pages that include video vs. not.

•The number of leads and eventual revenue generated by customers who came into our database new, through sweepstakes on our Facebook page.

And then using the conversations on social media – our customer-generated content – to showcase to management real-time brand sentiment and feedback around product, service, marketing, policies. Communities can amplify customer feedback in a way that management cannot ignore.

Drew: From a purchase cycle standpoint, what is content marketing particular good at? Are there things it simply can’t do well?

Good content, especially User Generated Content, can help turn awareness into consideration, and consideration into intent, because people are more inclined to believe their peers – even the anonymous online reviews of others like them – or a third party expert, such as a journalist, than to simply trust advertising alone. For Viking that means that having a strong user-generated content outreach program during the relive/recommend/reengage stage is important.

Also, the content that we produce ourselves can be particularly useful in the reengage stage of a long purchase cycle. Our passengers may not take a trip every year, so maybe they don’t always latch onto our promotional marketing, but even if they’re not ready to start planning their next trip, there’s a high probability that they’d like to test out the recipe we just emailed them, or answer a question we posted to Facebook. It keeps us in their consciousness and adds value to their day. Our content marketing helps create a brand halo.

For our product, I don’t think content works as well in the actual purchase cycle. It feeds into all of the other stages, but when it comes time to pick up the phone and purchase a vacation, what’s up on the screen isn’t a piece of content marketing – it’s our website with a very clearly defined cruise itinerary and offer.

Drew: Here we are talking about content marketing in isolation. Can you talk about the synergies of content marketing with your other marketing efforts? 

Content marketing is not a tactic, it’s a strategy. It folds into all of our channels: email, web, social, print, PR, while experiencing the product onboard our ships. It also folds into multiple stages in the purchase cycle.

Drew: How are you getting all this content created? Are you doing in-house or partnering with outside firms? What are the risks/benefits of in-sourcing versus outsourcing?

Currently any Viking published content is all created in-house, but in order to continue scaling with the growth of our business, as well as meet the demands of more and more content, we’ll need to add other publishers to the mix. The benefit to keeping it in-house is that there can be increased speed to publish, and the brand voice will be consistent. The downside is that being a publisher is a full-time job; knowing what to create, how to create it well, and having sufficient time in which to create it is always a challenge.

Rather than outsource more original content, we’re looking to scale for increasing content needs and elevate our brand by partnering with top publishers of the kind of content our audience likes – and curating that content into one digital destination under our brand umbrella. Moving forward, we’re looking to become more like a broadcaster than a publisher.

Drew: Production costs vary tremendously, especially when you are talking about videos. How did you decide how much to spend on content?

We have a fabulous video production team that performs as a full creative agency, and they are a fantastic value.  And no, I won’t tell you who they are.

Drew: Have you sought out user-generated content? What are the pros/cons of this approach?

Yes, we regularly solicit customer reviews – lengthy and detailed ones – on a popular cruise site. We use email and our own website to direct our customers to this third party site to write reviews and rate our product, because it’s a site that ranks high in our top search terms and because we understand that consumers trust peer reviews more than brands.

In PR we’ve started building relationships with social influencers, as well as more traditional media. They produce content differently than traditional media. It’s often quicker, there’s more of it, they’ll take their own photos and videos and publish across multiple platforms. It’s a way of having content created for us, rather than by us.

There’s some risk in turning over your brand to others. 100% of the time they’ll never say 100% of what you want them to say or how you’d want them to say it. They’ll talk about your brand in their own voice, rather than your brand voice – and there are pros and cons to that, too. But it’s an unavoidable situation in today’s digital marketplace. So we start all user-generated content efforts first with understanding who we are talking to: by extensively listening to what our customers are already saying online, by vetting social influencers with both our PR firm and social media team, or targeting customers who rated us highly in questionnaires or with a high NPS. Then, we build relationships with them, provide some kind of guidelines on what we’re politely asking for… and let go.

Drew: Will we still be talking about content marketing at next year’s summit?

Yes. I read once that content marketing began in the 1890s when John Deere published The Furrow magazine to inform farmers of the latest trends and technology that they needed to know about. Today, as marketers, we’re still using content marketing to grow our businesses, attract the attention of new customers and maintain relationships with current customers. Digital has only made it more important as a long-term strategy.

At next year’s summit I suspect we’ll be discussing how more and more, through content curation, brands are becoming both publishers and broadcasters for the best content relevant to their customer and their brand. I suspect we are heading toward competition between brands and traditional broadcasters and publishers.

Drew: If I’m a CMO and have been slow to the content marketing party, tell me a couple of mistakes I should try to avoid.

1. Don’t start by focusing on print. Focus on digital. Digital channels and their low cost barriers and ease of use are part of what has made content marketing explode.

Think of YouTube, WordPress, Facebook, downloadable articles, Constant Contact. Then consider paper, printing, shipping, warehousing, postage and on and on. Plus, remember that digital content is easier for today’s consumer to share with an audience of more than one.

2. Know that producing engaging content is a challenge that we all face and one that is most often learned through trial and error. Our instinct as marketers is to sell, promote, assert market leadership and hit home those branding messages.

Resist the urge to have all of your marketing speak directly to your products and services. Strive to balance the promotional aspect of your content with informational evergreen content. Remember that content marketing isn’t push marketing – it’s a pull strategy that can be thought of as the marketing of attraction. It’s marketing that is engaging, educational, helpful, entertaining and there when you need it.

Think of it this way: No one likes a one-sided conversation, so don’t be the guy on the date who only talks about himself. Instead, start your content strategy with a goal of establishing genuine customer-brand relationships by offering up content that your target audience would find shareable. Be the guy on the date that she wants to go tell her friends about, because he’s the guy who gets the second date, while the one who only talks about himself is in the never-ending cycle of first dates.

3. Remember that 90% of purchase decisions now begin with an Internet search.

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