There are a few names marketers hear again and again as being masters of content marketing. Red Bull. American Express. IBM. Nike. Earlier this year, I attended Content Marketing World and heard firsthand about the direct (and measurable!) success another highly regarded content brand -- Marriott International -- has been having with its Marriott Traveler platform since launching it in 2015. They regularly post numbers many content marketers can only dream of reporting to their C-suite execs.

In 2018, Marriott Traveler attracted 3 million unique visitors (up 78 percent from the previous year); as of September 30, visits to the individual hotel landing pages via Traveler were up 80 percent from 2017; and revenue from hotel bookings is up 200 percent compared to last year. Those results certainly make a solid case for content marketing.

To get a better sense of what makes the world largest hotel operator a standout content marketing leader, I connected with Scott Weisenthal, Marriott International's Vice President of Creative and Content Marketing and head of the brand's content marketing team. He shared four core strategies that really drive KPIs for Traveler--lessons that you can adapt to really move the needle on critical conversions for your own brand.     

Focus on Storytelling

As audiences grow increasingly savvy to content marketing, it becomes that much more important to make your messaging feel organic and entertaining -- rather than a slightly editorialized advertisement. Don't try so hard to make a sale with your content; but rather use it to draw people in and convert them elsewhere.

One of Marriott's best examples of successful storytelling is its documentary series, StoryBooked, which debuted in 2017. The series follows artists (who are members of the brand's loyalty programs) as they journey around the world in search of inspiration and then create original artwork as a result. It aligns with Marriott's own mission ("We're all about helping people follow their aspirations and succeed on whatever journey they want to take," Weisenthal said).

But while the artists' journeys of course include stays at Marriott hotels, the videos and accompanying write-ups only minimally call that out. (Season one of the series was such a success, Weisenthal said, that the second season will air on the FYI Network and A&E in addition to Traveler's hub.)

Make a Serious Commitment to Content--and Your Customers

None of Marriott's successes would be happening if the brand's executive team didn't believe in investing in storytelling. "They see how content and storytelling is a really significant part of our customer relationship," Weisenthal said.

Fostering that relationship is of utmost importance to Marriott's success. they're not pushing content out into the void, but rather using content as a way to build a connection. "First and foremost, content should be inspirational as well as aspirational," Weisenthal said. "We are really looking to break through to create that emotional connection with consumers. [...] It all ladders back to our vision of being the world's favorite travel company -- and the most important word there is 'favorite.' It's emotional; and to be someone's favorite, you have to have that connection with them to turn guests into brand advocates."

And they don't just achieve that through one-way storytelling. The company also seizes opportunities to interact meaningfully with guests through their M Live social media command center, which mines hotel guests' geo-tagged posts in real-time.

"Let's say you're staying at a Ritz Carlton somewhere in the world, you post a picture to Instagram that you just got engaged," Weisenthal said. "A second later, it pops up in our M Live command center...and then we call the hotel, and the hotel will send you up a bottle of champagne."

By keeping tabs on what guests are sharing Marriott can do personalized marketing through surprise and delight moments that may ultimately turn those guests into brand advocates and raise the overall perception of the portfolio.

Let Customers--and the Data--Inspire You

In-person moments like Weisenthal's engagement example are just one way to tap into your customers' side of the story. When you mine real-time social data, you can discover not only insightful trends and new ways to connect with customers, but also stories worth amplifying in a much bigger way.

For example, in 2017, the M Live team was following social posts when they came across a trending Instagram handle, @myhotelcarpet. The account was run by Bill Young (or "Carpet Dad," as the public named him), who posted pictures of the many hotel carpets he encountered on his extensive business travels; and it went viral after his daughter, Jill, pleaded with the Twitter community to achieve just that.

It turned out most of the carpets on Bill's feed were at Marriott Hotels; so Marriott invited the Platinum Elite Rewards member (and his family) to visit the headquarters and collaborate on a brand-new carpet design that would later be installed in the Aloft Hotel in Austin, Texas.

"All along the way, he was posting content to all of his followers, we were posting content of his journey through our loyalty handles, our content studio then filmed the experience, [and] Traveler documented it through articles or editorial storytelling," Weisenthal said.

The campaign garnered 3.4 million organic likes and 31,000 organic comments on social channels. "There was a lot of earned media, really good PR around the campaign initiative, and that was done with zero media spend," says Weisenthal.

Connect with Customers at Multiple Touchpoints

Part of the reason the Carpet Dad initiative was so successful was because Marriott activated all four of its content marketing business units to make it happen: M Live (which discovered Bill's handle), the content studio (which created the content following his journey), Marriott Traveler (which distributed his story), and the internal creative agency (which builds the brand design and identity that surrounded all of this).

"When we think about our content ecosystem, it's all about being at different touchpoints along the consumer journey," Weisenthal said. If we were to map out the consumer journey...what you would see is that M Live unearths the trends and insights to help us make sure we're telling relevant stories; then the content studio will produce content based on our strategic objectives and what the trends and insights tell us; then we will leverage our owned and operated channels as well as our brand design and creative marketing group to promote said content; which then drives to Traveler, where our content lives along with links to book that trip directly on Marriott.com. So it's a really nice ecosystem that we have with creative and content marketing."

The bottom line? If can find a way to connect with, inspire, and build relationships with customers through content marketing, the business growth you're likely to see will be well worth the investment.