“It all changed with this.” Jonah Bloom waves his smartphone in the air, and, for a moment, it's not a communication device but a totem of the evolution of content.
As chief strategy officer and co-founder at kbs+ Content Labs, a content wing of integrated ad agency Kirshenbaum Bond Senecal + Partners (clients include BMW, The Vanguard Group, Coachella), the English-born Bloom and former EIC at Advertising Age thinks about evolution a lot these days.
“I think what has changed is that the consumer is now empowered by technology,” he says, in rapid-fire oratory that suggests a familiarity with Ellen Woods or Red Bull energy drink. “Every single one of us has this amazing computer in our pockets and several other computing devices in other places. If we, at any given time, are thinking we might like to buy a crate of water, or buy a car, or take that vacation in Alaska, the place where that thinking immediately turns into action is via this.”
“What has changed is that the consumer is now empowered by technology.”
We're at the SoHo New York offices of kbs+, and as Bloom returns the smartphone to its home pocket he leads me to a stairwell door. Pushing it open he says “Let's visit Spies and Assasins” (not the least bit conspiratorially), and bounds up the stairs like a Tough Mudder competitor; I follow, enthusiastically at first, until my breathing gets heavier and I'm puffing more than I did on the bike ride over to the office. This, Bloom calls the “Client Tour.”
He leads the charge up the stairs to an open room. Spies & Assassins, titled like a skull and bones society, appears as just that, but with an industrial edge: employees with lab coats and protective goggles, standing sentry among whirring 3-D printers. It's the kbs+ fabrication shop, the agency's think-and-do tank to increase engagement with their content.
“Consumers are now telling us what they want and we would be fools frankly if we didn’t try to be there to respond to their needs.”
A kbs+ colleague approaches Bloom and reports that the swing arm device they created—it encircles Coachella festival goers and films them dancing, recording “360 selfies”—is performing well during the first weekend at the festival, but it needs a bit of help reflecting that online. People are having so much fun with it, apparently, they're not tweeting, so the solution is to send a video wall for the festival's second weekend. Bloom agrees and the team continues pulling out tools and devices they've created to inspire this kind of engagement.
Through all this, Bloom's talking has barely ceased. “So we’ve got all these people all around us sending up signals that they might be interested in our products, which is quite different from the old way of, 'We’ve got a message and we just throw that message out there and we hope to hell that someone who is interested hears it and responds in the following way.' The equation has completely flipped. Today we have this opportunity to actually respond to them. They are now telling us what they want and we would be fools frankly if we didn’t try to be there to respond to their needs. So instead of it being an equation of us desperately trying to persuade a bunch of people who may not be currently demonstrating any interest at all, that they should be excited about us, instead it can be us being of real value to those consumers because they’re asking a question and we’re there to answer it.”
And this is where content comes in.
“Once we are out there listening and figuring out what questions people are asking,” says Bloom, “we want to be in a position that when they do ask that question, especially by that device, the content that comes up there is something that:
A) answers their questions, and
B) that they feel is of more value than any other answer they could have gotten."
Brands should ask themselves: “Is someone already out there asking a question that we might have one of the best answers to?”
“So it’s not just answering their question by saying ‘Yes we have one of those products and it’s $13.99,’ because that might work if all that consumer was doing was asking for the cheapest crate of dog food out there, but it may well be that they’re seeking information.”
Bloom uses one kbs+ client, The Vanguard Group, as an example. “At any given time, we are never just putting out information. We are never wasting a single dollar of Vanguard’s money, we're never talking to someone who isn’t at least thinking about a financial question that Vanguard could be the answer to. So you won’t see any shouting on TV that says, 'Look at us, we're Vanguard, we’re more wonderful than those other financial companies,' and you won’t see print ads telling you that, but if someone raises their hand and says, via social, via search, via web behavior, and essentially says, 'Actually, I’m starting to consider these things, have you got any useful tools for me to understand the financial market better?', then we would like Vanguard to be there to answer those questions for them.”
“If you’re seeing the answers are unsatisfactory, then you need to create something that’s of a bit more value to those people and quickly surpass the existing answers as the answer they want to get.”
Bloom's basic litmus test to determine whether the resulting content offers something of value is simply answering this: Is someone already out there asking a question that we might have one of the best answers to? “And if you’re seeing that question through certain social and web behavior, and has been posted a lot, and you’re seeing the answers are unsatisfactory, then you need to create something that’s of a bit more value to those people and quickly surpass the existing answers as the answer they want to get.”
So, to brands, Bloom will advise that if their content isn’t answering a question that lots of people are posing, or isn’t solving a problem that lots of people want solving, then it probably is wasted money.
“It’s another reason why I’d advise people to invest in the strategy and not just in the content creation itself,” he says. “Without the strategy there’s a good chance the content creation will be a waste of money.”
And similarly, he'll advise brands that they haven't wasted their money on content if they can answer affirmatively these two questions: 'Can you imagine someone giving up their time in exchange for this content?' and 'Is this something that if you received you would instantly want to share it with a number of other people?'
“Without content strategy there’s a good chance the content creation will be a waste of money.”
“I think it’s very easy to convince yourself that you have answered those two questions affirmatively,” says Bloom, now comfortably seated back at his office. “But I think the easiest way of really testing that is to look at what people are asking for in social, what people are sharing in social, what people are looking for in search, what people are clicking on in terms of existing media, and asking yourself if you can see a good corollary to relevance there.”
“There are clients who realize that for them, advertising in the more traditional sense probably wasn’t the way to go.”
We asked Jonah if the agency's clients who are buying into content are spending less on traditional advertising. He told us it differs from client to client. “We probably have clients who tap content, content strategy or content development or some kind of content measurement in some very small way, maybe less than a percentage of their budget, and we’ve probably got a couple of clients now, the majority of what they do is essentially content marketing and they have some pretty big budgets. That's the difference, really: There are clients who realize that for them, advertising in the more traditional sense probably wasn’t the way to go. They want to be constantly publishing things that demonstrate they are thought leaders, unearthing the real stories of what they’re doing.”
kbs+ serves as the lead editorial strategy partner for iQ, an Intel content portal, providing content strategy and newsroom management services. They also develop original content for iQ, such as this piece on the future of DJ technology »
“They want to be constantly publishing things that demonstrate they are thought leaders, unearthing the real stories of what they’re doing.”
Jonah believes the process of educating brands is nearly complete; most of them “get” content. As I rise up to leave, I say to Jonah that the one thing that brands consistently ask is whether they can scale content, whether they can use it to talk about a variety of offerings.
He counters: “The number one question that any brand who’s been producing content for any length of time should be posing is, ‘How do we make better content?’”
Agreed. “And that’s why they call us,” he says.