It’s been called the world’s oldest content marketing vehicle, so David Jones is not surprised when people look at The Furrow and ask the publications manager at John Deere for the secrets of its success.
“We do things consistently and we do things well, and we do things consistently well,” he told the audience Wednesday at C2 Montreal, a three-day festival focused on commerce and creativity for both consumer and B2B marketers. “Doing the same thing for 180 years certainly helps.”
The longevity of The Furrow, and of John Deere itself, doesn’t entirely explain why the magazine has just a strong and loyal subscriber base, however. In some respects, John Deere is an atypical B2B brand. It’s not a software giant like Oracle, selling information technology to large corporations. Its key decision-makers are not CIOs, CMOs or CFOs. Instead, John Deere sells tractors and ploughs to farm owners, the sort of focused niche that requires the firm to go well beyond the creation of personas that is common in other kinds of brands.
“When I saw we know our audience, I don’t mean we just know what web page they came from and where they went next,” Jones said. Instead, John Deere has acquired deep institutional knowledge by hiring directly from the sector it serves, whether it’s former farmers or those who have graduated with agricultural degrees. “Folks, (that knowledge) is coming off the walls. It’s in the air.”
Jones said John Deere applies the same thinking to the content producers who make up the editorial team for The Furrow. The group is small — only six people — but several come directly from farming backgrounds, while two stumbled into agricultural journalism early in their careers and never looked back, he said. This team is paid on retainer and have some expenses covered, and are paid for articles as well as photography, offering a cost-effective model for its content marketing program.
John Deere also a policy, which Jones said go back to its founders, of allowing complete editorial independence at The Furrow. In other words, not everything has to have a CTA that ladders back to its sales and marketing objectives.
“We do not talk about ourselves in the editorial space of the magazine,” Jones said flatly, estimating that readers who select any 50 years’ worth of The Furrow’s back issues would only find the company mentioned half a dozen times at most. “We take believability very seriously. A reputation that took 175 years to build up would only take a fraction of that to come down.”
Content marketers would do well to keep believability top of mind as they try to apply the lessons of The Furrow to digital channels. According to Craig Silverman, media editor at Buzzfeed, efforts to “game the systems” of algorithms behind social networks to grab audience’s attention is reaching an all-time high.
This goes beyond fake Twitter and Facebook accounts, Silverman said. He showed examples of “deepfakes,” a technique whereby someone’s image is placed in a context where it doesn’t belong. While some deepfakes are funny — like the strange series of Nicolas Cage images being placed in other stars’ movies — others are not, like putting images of female actress in pornographic films.
“The ease of manipulation is fun until someone uses your image to do it,” said Silverman.
Of course, B2B brands won’t be engaging in that kind of behaviour, but the point is that all the nefarious activity happening online may be skewing what we interpret as “viral” or successful in terms of having an impact. That’s why, instead of trusting what we see from the outset and then verifying when necessary, Silverman suggested a “verify, then trust” approach.
“If you get a report about the success of your programmatic ad buy, look a lot closer, because you’re probably getting ripped off,” he warned. “I call it emotional skepticism — we need to recognize our reactions a lot better.”
When firms stop chasing algorithms and focus harder on their audiences, the emotional impact can be a lot more authentic. At least, that’s been the takeaway for Jessica Lauretti since she became the global head of Ryot Studio, which makes branded VR films and other content for customers of Oath (formerly AOL).
Lauretti admitted that to call virtual reality an “empathy engine” because of the immersive content you can make is becoming a tired description, but when it’s done right, she said she’s seen viewers take off VR head sets with tears in their eyes.
A good example was her first project, which involved editorial reporting on the 2016 Orlando nightclub massacre that left 49 people dead. The team initially considered covering vigils and other events held in support of the victims, but Lauretti said what really worked was gathering 49 people together in a clip that drive home just how devastating killing on that scale could be.
Since then, Lauretti said, she’s realized that VR filmaking requires something akin to user experience (UX) design — thinking though the entirety of how an audience is interested in the subject and how that should shape the content.
“This is participatory content — it’s not top-down,” she said. Because 360 video allows viewers to pan around the shot, for instance, “there’s no way to control what they see and how they’re going to act.”
That’s a tough transition for more traditional film directors, she added — and also brands that want to drive home a particular message.
Knowing your audience, serving their interests first and striving for authentically emotional experiences is a tall order, Lauretti admitted, especially as we move from the “democratization” of media with the rise of digital channels to technologies like VR that give users even more control. She called this the “decentralization” of media, and encouraged marketers to be part of developing a better future for innovative mediums while respecting the kind of storytelling basics that go back to the days of John Deere.
“It’s the easiest thing to mess up,” she said.
C2 Montreal runs through Friday.
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