In December 2012, The New York Times published a story that would change digital media forever. It wasn’t a blog post about data or brand strategy or digital transformation — it was a content experience. Specifically, it was the gripping and haunting story of an avalanche that had ripped through Washington State earlier in the year, told using a stunning array of digital tools NYT had never shown the world.

With “Snowfall,” the newspaper set the bar for full-on virtual experiences in content. The true story, reported by John Branch, was separated into six parts, and as the reader was pulled deeper into the tale, the site’s opacity changed as one’s vision might if obscured by snow. The text paused on cliffhanger moments and was seamlessly replaced with animations, infographics, real-time data visualizations, and looping videos, giving the reader the distinct sensation they were being slowly buried under layers of troubling information.

Suddenly, every publisher in America wanted to recreate the article’s immersive quality, and the effect stuck — industry experts still call a site design overhaul “snowfalling.”

What exactly is a content experience?

Eight years after “Snowfall,” many publishers and brands are still chasing that dragon, hoping to blow everyone away by marrying data to design. They understand how reader demands have changed as immersive content experiences, which means it’s vital to take big swings. Brands need increased time on site, deeper engagement through the buyer journey, and customer familiarity that eventually becomes loyalty.

Netflix, for instance, invested millions in hiring former journalists, TV writers, and critics to manage the brand’s social media channels and run them like independent content hubs. Netflix makes content, of course, but it also makes content about its content, and all of it is written in a punchy way. The brand divides each of its movies and TV shows into marketable gifs and algorithm-specific cover images, effectively creating ten times the promotional materials, posters, and merchandising created by studios ten years ago.

And it’s not just about social channels. Spotify created its own buzz by releasing its hotly anticipated annual Your Year In Music report, a personalized data visualization page delivered to each of its users. The brand capitalizes on its users’ desire to market themselves on their own channels and gives them interactive content to broadcast their preferences online.

Building a content experience is about grabbing a crowd’s attention where they already are. Red Bull’s death-defying stunts have made the brand famous for experiential, live content experiences, and pop-ups from dating app BumblePantone, and Glossier have followed suit. Barkbox, the premier subscription service for dog owners, oversees a blog answering questions about pet health, and companies like Curology build digital hubs about their interactive dermatology assessment tool. It’s easy to see how brands have gotten better and better at keeping people engaged. Content experiences tend to either entertain or educate, and that distinction usually depends on the nature of the brand’s mission and what the company is selling.

Why experience marketing is better than content marketing

Across industries, we’re seeing a dramatic shift in marketing tactics that’s driven by the preferences of up-and-coming consumers. The millennial generation and Gen Z simply don’t have the patience for content interruptions and transactional messaging that their parents tolerated. They’ll stop engaging with brands that overload them with pop-ups or CTAs, and they’ll skip ads however possible, even by signing up for premium memberships.

This means the brands that will thrive in decades to come to need to get better at delivering multimedia content experiences that truly enrich their customers’ lives, even for a brief (but memorable) few minutes. Content experiences often involve interactive tools such as calculators, personalized assessments, and data visualizations, and the end results are always either shareable (Spotify) or they lead to the brand’s product (Curology).

The rise of personalization (which has been sped up by the use of artificial intelligence and preference algorithms) has turned what was once a premium experience into table stakes for any consumer. Customers want short, bug-free interactions with the brands they trust, and these brands need recognizable, relatable voices as they describe the product or service they’re offering. Stitch Fix seeks to replace the personal shopper, Care/Of hopes to replace nutritionists, and Nurx hopes to help customers sidestep visits to the gynecologist. Although these brands sell very different products, their central marketing push is the same: deal with us digitally so you don’t have to deal with them.

Personalization, in many ways, is beginning to make the outdated concept of content marketing obsolete. Hinged on the idea that consumers crave long-term, deep relationships with brands, many content marketing firms and agencies will tell you that every company needs a blog filled with 2,000-word in-depth articles written by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists. But, of course, we’re learning that’s not the case, as the average consumer’s attention span shrinks along with their willingness to read long-winded sales pitches. According to Gartnercontent marketing is the process and practice of creating, curating, and cultivating text, video, images, graphics, e-books, white papers, and other content assets that are distributed through paid, owned, and earned media. Content experience marketing simply states that the emphasis on text-based content was well and good in, say, the early 2000s, but it has aged like milk in a rapidly changing media landscape.

Yes, customers want relationships with the brands they purchase products from, but those relationships don’t have to involve whitepapers, blog posts, and PDF reports of consumers’ data. In fact, they rarely do. A real and engaging content experience can only exist when a brand puts as much care and innovation into its digital design as it does its brand voice and marketing strategy. Customers want more than a landing page, a company blog, or a Twitter feed. They want an experience that feels as though it continues from platform to platform, the way we start conversations with friends via text message, sending articles and gifs and links and images while switching from Instagram DMs to Gchat to Slack. The only thing that remains is the same is the likable voice on the other end of the conversation.

How to build a content hub for experiences

There are a ton of tools you can use to make your brand’s website come alive through content experiences, but beginners should look to publishers for inspiration. Most major publishers and media outlets create long-form content for their central hub, and they cross-pollinate bits of data from these central pieces of content across social graphics, calculators, email newsletters, virtual reality, and direct mail campaigns. In 2019, Mattel and Wal-Mart teamed up to create KidHQ, an immersive and completely safe VR experience for kids to test toys, visit Santa, and build their Christmas lists online. The real ingenious part was designing most of the digital interactions after YouTube unboxing and “haul” videos, which marketers at both brands realized are wildly popular with the target age group.

Every piece of content in a cross-platform experience is cut up into smaller bits of information and those are marketed as their own content experiences — that’s divisible content. It’s also referred to as the hub-and-spoke model, and essentially it just means content that connects to content in the brand’s other formats. All of them together can create an immersive content experience, as evidenced in AirBnB’s Hearst-designed print magazine. Once customers get acquainted with the brand’s design aesthetic by flipping through the free publication, they’ll start to notice little updates as they search for rental homes on the brand’s website — some AirBnB listings are marked with logos that match the design of the magazine, and the layout of their listings is noticeably more stylish. This way, the brand puts its stamp of approval on certain spaces by carrying over the message from print to digital.

Drawing an audience deeper into engagement with your brand through content experiences can do more than breed familiarity. If a brand’s content experiences center around assessments or calculators, the results from these tools can help build the brand’s authority in an industry. NerdWallet, for example, lets customers use free assessments to find the right credit card, the right savings accounts, personal loans, and more financial aid tools. As readers engage with these assessments, which all feel impartial and data-driven, they’ll start subscribing to NerdWallet’s other content experiences regarding finances, as the brand has already become a trusted source of information on the subject.

The content experience is the next iteration of content marketing. It pushes marketers past the outdated interruptive advertising model and strives to create meaningful experiences for consumers. Once a brand replaces “sell” as the prime directive of its publishing with the desire to educate or entertain through immersive content, that brand is on its way to producing work that drives business outcomes and truly benefits consumers.

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