Content marketing in the gift economy

By Heather Rast/Tree Full of Owls

In the digital domain, content is the fuel that feeds the hungry search results beast and sates consumer’s appetites.

When content development prioritizes the audience and their intent, the fuel blend switches to high-octane.

If you tell your brand story in a manner that resolves reader needs and in ways that make it readily discoverable in search, your efforts can really influence reach, brand perceptions and buyer behavior.

Company communication (website, e-book, e-newsletter, social media updates, custom content, etc.) written with the prospective buyer at the center of all decision-making will increase the opportunities for a positive return like share of mind, sentiment, word of mouth, and sales. That’s the basic premise of reciprocity — companies that place customers first (like publishing content that’s actually helpful to the audiences as a precursor to conversion) will earn goodwill in the new gift economy. And the social currency funded by generous content marketing strategies in this new economy can be significant.

What’s the gift economy, you might ask? It’s actually not a new concept, but rather an ages-old social sciences behavior model given new velocity by today’s connected consumer. Wikipedia describes the gift economy as “…a mode of exchange where valuable goods and services are regularly given without any explicit agreement for immediate or future rewards. Ideally, voluntary and recurring gift exchange circulates and redistributes wealth throughout a community, and serves to build societal ties and obligations.”

The shared sense of purpose and meaning exemplified in today’s gift economy (think open source software, GitHub, SoundCloud, blood donation, the give-a-penny cup at the checkout counter, even Wikipedia itself) is readily seen in companies embracing the role users play in creating and advancing online brand experiences. Brands like Kraft, Threadless, music artist Beck,Tom’s Shoes and others are working the interplay between content development, online publishing & social sharing, and consumer activation (inciting participation in your brand’s specialty area).

These types of content ideas percolated throughout the Content Marketing World conference earlier this month in Columbus, Ohio. Presented by the Content Marketing Institute, the event drew over a thousand attendees holding roles in brand marketing, editorial and content development, sales, and business strategy.

In one presentation, Mark Bonchek, founder of ORBIT & Co., asserted that we’re presently in a communication revolution. Knowledge sharing and promotion that began with Guttenberg’s one-to-many model has evolved to a many-to-many culture, with content and online distribution at the heart. One huge opportunity for brands is to find appropriate ways to turn their useful, informative content into the social currency that can fuel a gift economy.

Take a look at one example: Nike+ evolved from the shoe manufacturer’s desire to drive sales through communities of passionate athletes. Management knew it was imperative to further differentiate their product and re-define the running shoe category to reflect the enthusiast culture. The Nike+ platform tracks and records personal performance data, supports playlist sharing, messaging, logs user activity, and much more. Competitive running has, in some ways, transformed into a digital sport that can be as inclusive as participants wish. In concert with the Nike brand, participants are generating compelling content distributed in the form of social currency.

Nike sells shoes, we’re not forgetting that. But they’re adding functional value within the brand’s category of expertise and freely providing the tools and content for running enthusiasts to wring more out of every drop of sweat. Without any overt selling, it’s a safe bet Nike has seen a sales bump since Nike+ hit the market.

Kraft Foods subscribes to the gift economy model, as well. In a separate Content Marketing World presentation, Director of CRM Content Strategy for Kraft Foods, Julie Fleisher, described the company’s publishing model for putting food solutions information  into the hands of hobby chefs and bakers, and harried adults with families alike.

For Kraft, utility is the key to creating valuable social currency in the gift economy.  Through Kraft’s free recipe magazine, product websites, and social media platforms like Pinterest, the company choreographs meal and dessert ideas into an editorial calendar that corresponds to the real-life needs of its audiences. Using attitudinal and behavioral insights mapped with brand priorities and seasonality,  Kraft optimizes its recipe content in real-time across multiple channels.

Yes, Kraft-developed recipes feature Kraft products. But the magazine, website, and all other digital channels also feature user-generated recipe content. Again we’re seeing incidence of useful, helpful experiences and content being made available to self-subscribing audiences.

Ms. Fleisher had this closing comment for the people attending her session: “What’s the authentic basis of conversation that your brand can realistically play in in order to add value to your customer’s life? Think beyond your product to how your customers use your product, the context in which it’s experienced, and the convenience needs those people have. Create a value exchange that forms the basis of a mutually beneficial relationship.” For Kraft, the value exchange includes drawing on a team of 20+ culinary specialists to create tasty, easy recipies for consumers to create, adapt, and share. This value actually  manifests in tangible artifacts some people save and use for generations.

As you can see, the worlds of content marketing, social media, and search marketing blend to set the framework for today’s digital marketing. How does your company fare in these areas?