content worth sharing: what marketers can learn from cartoons
I gave a 30-minute talk today at the MarketingProfs conference on Content Marketing. In case you missed it, they’ve archived the talk here. I’ve also posted my slides and notes below.
I am both a cartoonist and a career marketer. I run a studio called Marketoon Studios that brings the two together. We create content marketing campaigns with cartoons for businesses like the Wall Street Journal, Unilever, and Kronos.
I also draw a weekly marketing cartoon that lampoons some of the things that marketers do, inspired from my marketing career at General Mills, Nestle, and method.
As a cartoonist and marketer, I learned that there is a lot to learn from the simple cartoon. Cartoons are “content worth sharing”. Today I want to talk about 5 lessons marketers can learn from cartoons, and I’m going to use cartoons to do it. These lessons are relevant no matter how you communicate with your audience. I’ll use case studies along the way too.
A lot of brands approach marketing like this cartoon. All marketers want to be shared. But sharing is more than a “Like” button. You have to have something worth sharing. Rather than chase “Facebook Likes” or followers, be a brand worth following in the first place. This relates to all aspects of the brand experience.
Second is the role of content in marketing.
With the podium of social media, brands are becoming publishers. Seth Godin has said that content marketing is the only marketing that’s left. But content can’t operate the same way as traditional marketing communication. It can’t pitch features and benefits. There is no more captive audience. Don Draper is no longer in charge.
There is a difference between earned media and paid media. Content marketing is earned media. You have to earn it.
Like many of you, I fell in love with cartoons as a kid, stretching silly putty across the Sunday paper. Cartoons are an amazing medium. They convey a lot of meaning in a small space. Cartoons are easy to share. I heard cartoons described as the highest involvement devices ever created. There is a tremendous amount of power in the humble cartoon. What other form of communication gets tacked up on refrigerator doors and cubicle walls?
10 years ago, when I left Harvard Business School where I had a student cartoon strip, I started emailing cartoons to my friends. This was before blogging, Facebook, and Twitter. I set up a simple email newsletter and a static HTML website and committed to emailing one cartoon every week. That cartoon has grown by word of mouth to reach 100,000 marketers a week.
Along the way, I learned everything I needed to know about content marketing. Just by growing that audience and watching how other cartoonists developed their audiences.
Here are 5 lessons, inspired by cartoons and cartoonists. I’m going to focus mostly on web cartoonists, because I think of them as “lead users” for how to connect with an audience online.
Most brands think that to become big, they need to appeal to everyone. Or that content marketing has to be relevant to everyone.
When I worked at General Mills, the CMO Mark Addicks joked that every brief that crossed his desk seemed written for “women, ages 18-49, with a pulse”.
It is better to be deeply meaningful to the few, than blandly appealing to the many. This is true for marketing in general, but is particularly true for content marketing.
This is xkcd, the most popular web comic on earth. Yet you won’t understand many of the jokes if you’re not a Unix programmer.
This specific cartoon is not funny unless you know that “Sudo” is a Unix command that temporarily grants godlike powers to a programmer.
I shared this cartoon at a conference once. Out of 200 people, 10 laughed. But 1 of the 10 was wearing a t-shirt with that exact cartoon printed on it.
XKCD has nearly a million unique visitors a day.
You don’t need to read this one in detail, but look at the string of numbers in the panel at the bottom left. It’s a code showing a longitude, latitude, date, and time.
At that longitude, latitude, date, and time, several thousand people showed up in a park near Boston. Look at the rapture of the faces in the bottom right. That’s the power of creating content for a niche.
Matt Groening, long before the Simpson’s, started a weekly cartoon called “Life in Hell” (which he still draws, incidentally. It features a one-eared rabbit named Bongo, who is a prototype of Bart Simpson.
To research what kids think about, Matt Groening started dumpster diving next to schools. He filled up a garage with student notebooks, and rifled through them for material. He didn’t just rely on his memory, he went dumpster diving to make sure he knew the niche.
Marketers should all know our niche audiences that well.
I saw the importance of knowing a niche when I worked at an upstart consumer brand called method. We didn’t have enough money to appeal to everyone. So we focused on niche audiences. We didn’t have the reach of Procter & Gamble, but we had fans like Nathan.
Nathan started a dedicated blog about Method: “One Man’s Unsupressed Lust For All Things Method”. He updates it several times a week and gets several comments per post.
It’s the power of knowing a niche. You know you’re meaningful when your audience creates content marketing on your behalf.
The second big lesson is related. It’s not about you. It’s about your audience.
It’s amazing how many brands forget this. This cartoon shows how many brands talk: “But enough about me. What about you? What do you think of me?”
Heavy-handed product placement is not content marketing.
Cartoons have been used to shill. But today this overt product placement seems as ridiculous as this 1962 cartoon of the Flintstones selling Winston’s cigarettes. Don Draper is no longer in charge. That kind of marketing feels phony.
Content marketing has to pass the bedtime story test. Most brand storytelling doesn’t.
Remember Ralphie in A Christmas Story. He listens to his favorite show, LIttle Orphan Annie, and waits for weeks for his Secret Society Decoder ring. He cracks the code, only to discover that the message says, “Be Sure to Drink Your Ovaltine”.
Don’t be an Ovaltine. Content marketing should be more than a crummy commercial.
Yet it’s amazing how many Facebook pages look like this.
The New Yorker learned this lesson. In the late 90′s, New Yorker cartoons were perceived as elitist and unapproachable. Readers didn’t get a lot of the jokes. The cartoons didn’t represent the audience. One of the New Yorker cartoonists, Bruce Eric Kaplan, was also a writer for Seinfeld. He wrote an episode about how none of the characters could understand the cartoons.
A couple years later, The New Yorker created the caption contest. It is about the reader. It is credited with some of the success of the New Yorker magazine as whole. It sparked fanatical interest from the audience, including Roger Ebert, who submitted captions to over a 100 cartoons. The cartoons aren’t about the New Yorker. They are about the reader.
Since the New Yorker launched the caption contest 6 years ago, they’ve received 1.7 million entries. This is 1.7 million high-touch interactions with the New Yorker audience.
Nike followed this example with Chalkbot. They invented a robot that sprays chalk on the surface of a road. They sent it to the Tour de France. Rather than spray Nike swooshes, they rigged it to spray messages of cancer inspiration and support sent by readers. It then sent a satellite photo of that message on the actual route of the tour de France.
It’s not about the bike. It’s about you.
It’s not about you and your business. It’s about the audience.
Betabrand is a startup clothing brand that gets this. They have a program called Model Citizen, where anyone can be a Betabrand model, just by taking a picture of themselves wearing Betabrand. Someone skydived into Burning Man wearing Betabrand. When you send in a picture, they send you a link to a personalized version of the Betabrand site with you as the model.
It’s not about you. It’s about the audience.
Many marketers think of content marketing as the viral video. They chase viral.
You can’t create a viral video. You create quality content that may or may not go viral.
What this mindset creates is social media ghost towns. Brands lose interest in content marketing if things don’t go viral right away. The internet is filled with social media ghost towns.
Garry Trudeau once compared daily newspaper comics to a public utility that delivers its service so regularly that any interruption is seen as some kind of major systems failure. That’s a goal for content marketing – that your audience complains if it’s not there.
One of my favorite cartoonists is Scott C, who created a series called Great Showdowns. Every weekday, he releases a new great showdown. Here are two, from the Big Lebowski and the Titanic. He doesn’t bank on one going viral. He commits to a series, which grows an audience over time. You want to see what he comes up with next.
Think of content marketing as series with a regular cadence.
This is how Orabrush became the most widely viewed YouTube Channel. They market a tongue scraper to fight bad breath. Not the most exciting product category in the world. But look at the video views: nearly 46 million. Yes, some of their individual videos went viral. But their secret was continuity.
They committed to a Diary of a Dirty Tongue, a weekly video episode. It wasn’t by being a one-hit wonder. It was through continuity.
This is an expression, courtesy of gapingvoid cartoonist Hugh Macleod. He calls social objects “the hard currency of the internet”.
It helps to think of content marketing as the creation of social objects. We’re creating objects that are the reason for people to socialize, something for people to share meaningfully with each other. With each other, not with the business.
Cartoons are social objects. People tear them out and stick them on the fridge or their cubicle wall. Hugh calls his cartoons “cube grenades” because they are conversation starters.
Many marketers confuse the medium with the message.
You don’t even need social media to create social objects. But it helps.
When I lived in the UK a few years ago, I came across a smoothie brand called innocent that was wearing woolen hats on shelf.
I eventually discovered that innocent had commissioned woolen hats from its audience. Their audience knitted woolen hats. Every bottle sold with a woolen hat earned money for a charity called Age Concern, which helped keep the elderly warm in the winter.
Many of the hats were knitted by the elderly. The hat was a social object. The best marketing creates social objects.
The early days of content marketing were about quantity and content farms. Marketers tried to break through the clutter by sending out more.
You don’t break through the clutter by adding to it. You break through the clutter by creating something remarkable.
This cartoon shows a brand breaking through the clutter created by heavily funded brands. This is the power of earned media versus paid media. The key word is “earned”. You have to earn it.
Marc Johns is a cartoonist of exceptional quality. His cartoons are of such quality that his audience not only buys framed prints, they have his cartoons tattooed on their skin. His site shows dozens of people who have tattooed his cartoons on their skin.
The lesson is to create content so powerful that it passes the tattoo test.
I love this quote, “Advertising is a Tax for Unremarkable Thinking”. You could paraphrase it as “unremarkable content”. This is a quote from the founder of Geek Squad.
The Geek Squad is a brand that passes the tattoo test.
Another brand that passed the tattoo test is BMW. They are one of the early pioneers of content marketing and they set an extremely high bar. In the late 90s, they commissioned short films from Ang Lee and Guy Ritchie, with creative license to do anything they wanted with the story, as long as it starred the driver of a BMW.
The films were of such high quality that they were viewed 100 million times. They launched Clive Owen’s career. A Vanity Fair magazine with a DVD of the films sold out. BMW sales grew by 12% on the back of the films.
These are the 5 lessons I wanted to share from cartooning.