I’m a big believer in the idea that there’s a cyclical nature to the way content marketing is developing. That much was probably clear from the piece I wrote for the Guardian Media Network. While it’s certainly true that the digital nature of what we produce and consume these days benefits from instant access to vast data and the ability to strategise accordingly, I think content marketing is a lot older than many of its observers would like to admit. Not a bad thing at all, of course – there’s plenty we can learn from looking at how people where doing things 30-plus years ago.
Without wanting to sound old before my time, one of the days-gone-by notions that I’ve noticed more and more of recently – and have been very keen to get behind – is the idea of sharing. Not in any kind of hippy love-in kind of way – more in a kind of old-fashioned high street way. Sharing the space you market in – actually making use of the digital community to which you belong.
‘Community’ is one of those words that often gets misused by digital marketers. Invariably, when they talk about a brand’s community, they’re actually talking about a kind of walled garden. Real communities share knowledge, make recommendations and talk about things other than the brand in question, but that’s not always the case with brand-built communities. I remember writing a piece for a big tech company in which I tried to recommend third-party add-ons that made their product even cooler – the kind of article any fan would’ve found genuinely useful. ‘Why would you do this?’ asked their head of marketing, disgusted at what I’d done. ‘Why would we want to give free advertising to anyone else?’
To be honest, it’s one of the reasons I started working with startups. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – startups are, more often than not, ideally suited to content marketing. They get that ‘storytelling’ is a powerful way to spread the word, largely because their idea often came out of something anecdotal (did you ever hear the one about the toothpaste salesman who founded Red Bull following of a nasty case of jetlag?), but also because they’ve managed to hone their story following countless hours pitching for investment. The best startup entrepreneurs can hold an audience rapt.
In recent months, however, I began noticing something else. I became enamored of their sense of real community. The London tech startup community is known worldwide, but it is surprisingly small, and the more you spend time working among its denizens, the more you see how many of them keep an eye out for each other. Not working with big budgets, and often building things from the ground up, they tend to work in a much more communal way than anything you see with bigger brands. They refer freelance staff to help with difficulties, they advise each other on ways to get things done, and – significantly – they recommend each other to their customers.
As someone who spends a lot of time creating content strategies, it was this last point that interested me most. If they were happy to recommend each other verbally, why not incorporate that into their content strategies? Why not share their communities in the way that small businesses on the high street did decades ago? It seemed a great way to feed their communities’ desire for useful content – useable lifestyle advice, nothing big or flashy. Many of these startups exist as a kind of lifehack anyway. Flashy just isn’t in their nature, and their communities don’t expect it of them. They exist to be useful rather than to make the internet noiser than ever, and their content works best when it reflects that.
Working initially with Boxman, an on-demand self-storage company that blogged about shared living in small London flats, we began weaving together content that made reference to other startups that shared their stretch of London’s digital high street – companies like SpareRoom, Splittable, My Accountant Friend, 1Roof and Hassle. I think they’d all forgive me when I say that none of these are what you’d call ‘sexy’ products, but together they shared a kind of on-demand coolness and a demographic that reveled in having all of these lifehack options there at the touch of a button. At its best, this shared content strategy has produced everything from useful lifehack lists for London’s expats, right through to Gotkeys, a kind of digital hamper that 1Roof instigated in an attempt to help out London’s cash-strapped first-time buyers.
Importantly, they also ‘shared’ in the modern sense of the word. Working with them, there isn’t any sign of that guardedness against free advertising. The digital high street, as far as they’re concerned, is not a gated community. After years working with big businesses and media owners that set costs prohibitively high, it’s invigorating to be involved with people that work hard and work for each other. If that’s what a tech-driven future looks like, then it all looks pleasingly familiar.