Content marketing is not just an awareness and advertising tool but forms the basis of many company's inbound marketing efforts, pulling in customers rather than pushing ads at them... and often, in the process, pushing them away.
As Dharmesh Shah, the co-founder of HubSpot says, "Although it is still possible to blast the world with your message and offering, and try to interrupt your way into people's lives with your marketing, that's the most expensive way to do it. The cheaper and better way is to tell a story or share something helpful and useful -- that's the power of content marketing."
But where do you start if you hope to reach prospective customers and pull them in by creating exceptional content that is helpful or entertaining -- and tells a great story?
One example you can follow is Ernie Ball Strings and Ernie Ball Music Man, a third-generation, family-owned company that makes guitar strings and accessories and guitars and pedals, respectively. The company still uses traditional and marketing advertising strategies but has increasingly moved into content marketing in a surprising -- and surprisingly successful -- way.
(Even though you could argue that Ernie Ball has been in content marketing for over fifty years; CEO Sterling Ball had the idea to put the names of some of the now-legendary artists who used his strings on the back of every pack.)
To find out more I talked with Brian Ball, the current President and grandson of Ernie Ball, and Dustin Hinz, the EVP of Marketing and the primary driver behind the company's high-quality content creation process.
And they were kind enough to let me premiere their newest String Theory video featuring Dhani Harrison. So yep: you get to see it here first.
The common criticism of content marketing is that it's hard to measure. How do you determine success?
Brian: At Ernie Ball, success is all about the brand. The whole reason our content exists is brand and product. So it really comes down to a combination of a few different impression metrics. That's why we have a great PR team to place our content so we get it in front of music fans.
The collaboration and association with artists is important, too.
But we don't measure success over a 3-month window. Our Kirk Hammett (Metallica) video will live for years.
Content marketing is important but it definitely must fit into your overall marketing plan. We have other investments in driving traffic, conversion, merchandising...
Ultimately content isn't about driving sales. It's about driving brand.
Why is that important to the Ball family?
Brian: Back in 1962 my grandfather signed Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin.) So we're extremely protective of our brand. It's his legacy.
That's why I get up every day. It's my job to preserve his legacy and build off it.
As Dustin likes to say, "We don't buy cool." The day we have to go to an agency to figure out how to tell our story is the day we should stop doing business.
We know who we are. We know our story -- our artists are an extension of our family.
Where did the idea for moving so heavily into content marketing come from?
Brian: In 1962 my grandfather started the company when he saw an opportunity: Kids in his teaching studio couldn't bend guitar strings easily. He developed what we still call Slinky strings, and they revolutionized what a guitar string was and still does.
As I look back at the work they did to build the company, so much of it was unconventional: creating mobile stages, custom visits to stores... so when I was promoted to president I knew that much of where we needed to go, from a brand and storytelling point of view, was in digital content.
So when we had the opportunity to bring Dustin on board, all the pieces fell together.
Content is a massive priority for us. It's the cornerstone of what we do. And it's evergreen.
In terms of expense and effort, how does content marketing compare to conventional advertising?
Dustin: In terms of effort, when I got here Brian asked me think about possible opportunities. I looked at the artist list: Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, Slash, Kirk Hammet... the list goes on and on... it's the greatest roster in the world.
To me the artist list created the greatest opportunity imaginable.
It's like we are a basketball company and we have Jordan and Kobe and LeBron. And when we ask, they all say yes.
As for the production side, we do everything in-house and supplement our staff with independent filmmakers. And as for cost... the String Series video with Kirk cost $2,500. An agency would charge $50,000 to $75,000 or more.
Plus, this way it's our concept and our guys. We will always care more about the outcome than an agency.
From a cost point of view, that's surprisingly inexpensive.
Dustin: There are a few other costs. There's some amount of digital spend that goes to promoting our content. But overall our digital content and related PR budget is around 30% of our total marketing and advertising budget.
It's not a huge number because we do it cost effectively. It's really important to us that we do things effectively.
Our expertise has also paid off in longer-form content. Brian joked one day that it would be cool to have a TV episode, we pitched an idea, and DirectTV bought the concept. That was very cool.
But keep in mind to do all this we did have to build a new content infrastructure. In a pretty short period of time we produced 7 films, 50 product videos... so we've worked hard to make all our content layer in with everything else we do so it's digestible and snack-able.
Brian: Fast-forward 18 months later and I could not be happier.
A lot of people have gotten good at this. Even really small brands are getting good at the production aspect.
The biggest difference is strategy. Everybody has a live music thing. It's like they say, "Let's take an artist, put him somewhere cool, have her play a song... and that's our content strategy."
We want you to walk away with something meaningful that creates a real connection to the artist and the Ernie Ball family and our legacy.
Can you define the connection you're trying to make?
Brian: It comes down to two basic themes. "Why should I play guitar? And what is the emotional connectivity between me and the artist?"
The connective tissue is that we all play guitar because of the way it makes us feel. So, our goal is to inspire people and make them want to pick up their guitar.
The episode with Dhani Harrison, George Harrison's son, is a great example (and is premiering here.)
Brian: Absolutely. Dhani's story is exactly the kind of emotional connection artists make when they talk about what playing guitar means to them.
That's why the implicit question our videos ask is, "Why Ernie Ball?"
The answer is family, quality, tone, emotional connection... not product placement. We're hypersensitive to overt product placement.
It's not a commercial. We don't want to sell people. We people to be engaged and captivated.
Do you have a formula you follow?
Dustin: We don't have a formula for length; a video can be as long as you want as long as the entire video is good.
As for the overall content, there's some basic advice we give other companies that ask: If your solution is to just put a person in a room and have them talk about your brand... it won't work.
Figure out your story. Decide what you want to say. With lifestyle-centric industries, if you are not core to that culture, you're going to fail. You have to understand what you're doing. You have to understand the audience and what matters to them. Bullet points don't matter. Talking points don't matter.
People want to see the artist do what he or she does best. And when they're fans of that person, it's natural for them to want to use the gear that person uses. When you let an artist be genuine and talk about why they love to do what they do, their fans will find them... and that means they'll also find you.
Brian: Our "strategy" is really just a reflection of the legacy of the brand and how for over 50 years we've made artists such a priority. Pair that with Dustin's ability to tell the story in a way that's not just a prototypical podcast or live music performance...
You can't force-feed product placement. Customers are smart. They know how to connect the dots. The more we associate our brand with credible guitarists, and let those artists be themselves and talk about doing what they love, the more that helps the brand and our sales.
To put a button on this, if you were to name other brands and ask consumers what they associate with that brand, they might say, "tone," or "longevity," or "strength," or some other buzzword a company spent millions of dollars placing in the consumer's mind.
When you ask about Ernie Ball, people say "tone" and then they say "icons, heroes, legends." Ernie Ball is what the legends play, and every artist has their story of why they play our strings.
So we don't have to create and push a brand identity. We already have a brand identity. All we have to do is tell our stories.
How do you you the artists to participate, especially since they're not being paid?
Dustin: We have an incredible artist relations team. And like Brian said earlier, we build personal relationships since the is a family-run business. The big guitar companies are owned by venture capitalists and investment groups. When you work with us, you work with a family member.
That helps a lot, and so does the fact they know we make great films that they will be proud to be a part of.
But it's also really important that we never ask the artist to just do it for us. We try to find a way that also helps them. Maybe we time the release to a new record. Or in the case of Tom DeLonge and his "The Pursuit of Tone" episode, we wanted to help tell his story. He didn't do it because he gets free pieces of wire from us but because it was an opportunity to put out a story that was important to him.
Or take Metallica: they don't need our help to sell records, but what we can do with Kirk and James is tell a unique story that most people don't know.
All these people wake up every single day wanting to play guitar. They love to talk about playing guitar. And they appreciate that we tell unique stories -- their stories.
What do you do to make them so comfortable and get them to open up?
Dustin: We have a really great crew. They're young, cool dudes that play guitar, and that helps. We're always extremely respectful of the artist's time and always film in their environments. That makes them instantly feel comfortable.
And we make sure our crew shows respect but don't act like fans. We don't take photos with artists. They're colleagues. They're friends. That attitude helps create that level of comfort.
And last, it's important that you create trust with approvals. Nothing goes out without an artist's approval. They know they can trust us, and that makes a huge difference.
What advice do you have for companies that want to leverage content marketing?
Brian: Success really lies in strategy and execution. Giving someone a product and trying to force alignment... it doesn't work. You have to have credibility and authenticity on the brand side and on the storytelling side.
Then, only invest in what you can do. Don't try to do something you're not capable of doing. If you need help, get it.
And the most important thing is only do things that you will own. Many companies don't actually own the content; they'll partner with another brand or publication or outlet to create content... and then they don't own it. Everything we do, from "String Theory" on up... we own the content.
Dustin: Like with the TV show. We were in a lot of meetings with networks, arguing about creative control, and Brian said, "We're just going to make a pilot. If you like it, you can buy it." If we want to do this right, we have to invest in it and do it ourselves.
Then, when we showed the pilot to different networks and one wanted to buy it, that way it was just a licensing deal. We own everything. We don't do things that we can't own.
Why put equity in something that will go to someone else with a bigger checkbook?
We started with this question and I want to come back to it. How do you measure success?
Brian: In regards to content marketing video, you can't see it as a short-term driver of sales. It's a long-term brand builder.
Where product videos are concerned, I love when we marry artist, brand, and product. We did that with the St. Vincent guitar we launched a year ago, creating a 6-minute story of the development of that guitar.
There was some conventional press and earned media that also helped generate excitement behind the guitar. In the end sell-through was high and dealers clamored for it... but by and large even that wasn't the number one priority with that video. When you can marry artist, brand, and product, it's pretty powerful and transcends conventional advertising and marketing.
And a somewhat more conventional product video can be very powerful, too.
The retail landscape has changed dramatically, and we don't rely on our retail partners to tell our story. We own that. We are responsible. We drive our branding. That's our job.
And retailers love what we do. They know we'll create something so badass, they're starving for it.
Be willing to tell great stories -- because when you do, when the quality of what you produce is high... you'll definitely be glad you made the investment.