The future of social marketing has been around for years
Here are eight examples of individuals representing companies on blogs and online forums. You may recognize the approach as content marketing—but I’ll argue that for several reasons, these examples rise above most of today’s content marketing.
The companies range from sole-proprietorships to LLCs to employee-owned cooperatives to international corporations. The writers include CEOs, engineers, journalists, and a jack-of-all-trades employee. One (but only one) is from the marketing department.
I’ve chosen these writers because they’re exceptionally good at what they do. I could write a much longer article on companies and representatives that do the same job poorly. But for now, the good ones.
Case #1: The Amplifier Designer
An engineer who designs guitar and bass amplifiers for a venerable California company takes an hour each day to write online. He joins conversations on an international forum for bass players. Here he answers questions. He explains basic design and engineering principles. He gives behind-the-scenes looks into an amp designer’s world. He doesn’t hesitate in telling people they’re wrong. His tone is world-weary, sometimes curmugeonly. He doesn’t push his company’s products.
I’ll argue that he’s worth more to this company than any single copywriter or social media strategist. And I don’t even know if he’s on the clock.
Other forum members value him, because he offers a unique resource—an expert’s knowledge, an insider’s perspective, a manufacturer’s attention. Most important of all, he’s not from the marketing department. He’s takes no commission. He doesn’t speak in a branded voice. He doesn’t even have especially good manners. He’s real.
As a result, people trust him. And by extension, they trust his employer and its products. Even if he’s commenting from way off the reservation, expressing just his own views, the fact that the company lets him do this inspires trust. Imagine an Apple engineer speaking with such candor on social media. I’d fear for her family.
Case #2: The Cloud Service Blogger
At a company that provides cloud backup services for personal and business data, a technology marketing specialist shares information that you can’t find anywere else. He uses the company blog to write about, among other things, results from his multi-year studies of hard drive reliability. His company has more spinning disks than anyone this side of Google and Amazon, so his results carry weight. This has made his blog an industry-leading resource for anyone shopping for hard drives.
The blogger also writes about the company’s services, but it’s the informational articles that keep people coming back. Like our friend the amp designer, he gives an insider’s perspective on the world of cloud backup. His articles traverse a broad range, from topics specific his company, to ones relevant to everyone who works with digital anything.
He’s a good writer—plainspoken, conversational, friendly. But to-the-point; you sense that he knows that his readers are busy. And he knows his different audiences. Articles written for CTOs use the language of statistics and data science; ones written for video editors use language more appropriate for creatives on a deadline. Most of his posts invite lengthy comment threads, in which he participates, acting like a member of the community.
Unlike the amp designer, he’s a marketing guy. But his technical knowledge runs similarly deep. And he offers roughly the same service. He’s a resource first, a talking head second. All of this adds up to exposure for the company—and trust.
Case #3: Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty
A professional makeup artist with a science degree (and grim memories of childhood acne) becomes an evangelist for truth in skin care. She becomes a student of the scientific literature on dermatology and cosmetics, and finds she has a knack for explaining it to laypeople. She becomes an investigative reporter, focussing on the beauty industry, and writes a book. She goes on to write eleven more, while producing a website on cosmetics facts, a podcast series, and a radio show. Eventually she hires a team of cosmetics chemists and develops her own product line.
In a world where many people are skeptical of science, and fear any ingredient that sounds like a “chemical,” she rejects such prejudices and doubles down on her commitment to research. She busts all the myths, even the potentially profitable ones. She’s found that in an industry so overwhelmed by bullshit, an honest voice backed by research stands out like a lighthouse in the fog.
Her blog has become a resource for huge numbers of people around the world seeking straight answers. She does more product-pushing than some of our other ambassadors, but the bulk of her writing is educational.
She scienced her way to $70 million in revenues before retiring from the company’s day-to-day operations a few years ago. The brand and its research-first blog continue dutifully in her spirit.
Case#4: The Knife Merchant
A former professional cook with a life-long love of finely crafted sharp things becomes an importer and seller of Japanese cutlery. His website and his Youtube channel grow into a trusted resource for cooks and knife hobbyists. He establishes a presence on knife and cooking forums, cultivating a reputation as an expert sharpener and merchant, and as someone willing to help with any knife-related decision. He doesn’t push his own products, but enthusiastically answers questions about them. He likewise answers questions about things he doesn’t sell—he does so authoritatively, because he’s owned and used just about everything.
The knife nerds accept him as their own. They refer their friends and colleagues to his shop. The business has grown, and now the owner has found another employee with the expertise and writing chops to handle the day-to-day blogging.
Case #5: The Lensman
A camera enthusiast opens a web-based lens rental company and becomes fanatical about optics. He studies optical engineering and design theory, and decides to use his position to act as a bridge between customers / enthusiasts and technicians / engineers. While running his company, he blogs enthusiastically about topics ranging from lens test results, repair records, lens selection tips, and really any related topic he finds interesting.
He puts a human face on the company, demonstrates his knowledge and dedication, and upgrades his company website from a basic storefront to resource and destination for photographers of every type. Some articles are purely practical, others are for fun, others are to satisfy the curiosity of those with outsized curiosities—and may start with a warning, like “This is a geek level 3 article!”
Case #6: The Art Insider
A successful New York City art gallery owner senses hunger among art lovers for a glimpse behind the white walls. He starts a blog addressing the business side of art, the interpersonal side, the political side, the brick-and-mortar-and-spackle-and-white-paint side, as well as the esthetic side and the personal side. He’s plainspoken and relatable. He’s an art lover who has to figure out how to pay the bills each month, just like most of his readers.
By putting a human face on the blue-chip art world (and less ambitiously, on his own gallery) he familiarizes what many have seen as opaque, abstract, judgmental, and unwelcoming. I have no way of knowing how many customers his blog has won, but I can only imagine that it’s built trust and interest over the years.
Case #7: Destroy, Measure, Share: The Climbing Engineer
Who cares about products more than people who trust their lives to them? Rock climbers and ice climbers really don’t want to hear marketing fluff. They want it straight. One of the top US climbing gear manufacturers gave its quality control engineer a blog. This guy is a badass climber by anyone’s standards, has a materials engineering degree, and for his day job gets to break stuff and analyze the data.
His posts have become great resource for the climbing community, and usually make for a fascinating read, at least if you’re a climber who doesn’t want to die, or a nerd who likes to vicariously break stuff. This engineer has moved on from the company, but his posts remain in a well organized archive.
Case #8: The Student of Pain
A Canadian massage therapist and health writer, tired of all the hokum in the healthcare world, becomes a fanatical student of peer-reviewed medical research. He starts a blog, in which he translates everything he learns into plain English. His primary topic: what fixes pain, what doesn’t. Among his discoveries, he learns that his own avocation, massage therapy, is barely more effective than magnets or reiki or faith healing. So in the name of personal integrity he relinquishes his certification and title.
His blog grows into major health resource, and a platform for selling ebooks to people with problems beyond the scope of the free articles.
Here’s an informal tally of our ambassadors in the trenches:
2 sole proprietors
1 marketing executive
1 jack-of-all-trades employee in a small company
Most remarkable to me is that only one out of eight is a marketing person. And he distinguishes himself by not thinking, acting, or writing like a marketing person. Food for thought.
Is this an old phenomenon or a new one? Is it the relatively recent idea of content marketing—which is in fact a very old idea? Or is it the even older idea of not sucking? I think it’s all of the above, with some added twists: it’s personal, it’s transparent, it can be spontaneous, it can even be borderline rogue. It’s more person-to-person than marketing department-to-target.
Here are some unanswered questions: how do you emulate these people? How do you do what they do if you don’t have the skills, don’t have the time, or don’t know how to find the right person in your ranks? And if you’ve found a candidate, how do you train them and manage them? Without overmanaging them?
The answers take the form of a long conversation. And every answer would be somewhat unique to your circumstances. Until the day comes when I can offer a magic formula, I offer consultation. Let’s discuss.
What do you know?
Do you have other good examples? I’m always on the lookout. How about in a service industry? How about non-US-based? How about something else I’ve missed? Enlighten me.
© Paul Raphaelson