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Attracting Half a Million Followers: the Sweat Behind lululemon’s Marketing Strategy

content marketing strategy

Stretched out across four lines and sixty-six words, the self-description on Instagram's FAQ page is—while decidedly thorough—not all that instant or in-the-moment:

“Instagram is a fun and quirky way to share your life with friends through a series of pictures. Snap a photo with your mobile phone, then choose a filter to transform the image into a memory to keep around forever. We’re building Instagram to allow you to experience moments in your friends’ lives through pictures as they happen. We imagine a world more connected through photos.”

Such a description might be ideal for early investors or particularly nostalgic smartphone photographers, sure. But those weighing the app’s utility in content marketing and growth hacking are deserving of a more targeted why.

Drop the name Instagram among the social media team at lululemon (current follower count: 1.3 million), for example, and you might hear a bit about filters and memories—but you’ll hear far more about the venue’s utility for sharing something else: stories.


Instants Evolved: It’s About You, Not Me

Recalling Instagram’s debut as “love at first sight,” lululemon social media manager Sairah Hearn originally saw the platform as a way to share in-the-moment, behind-the-scenes candids showcasing company culture—as did everyone else in the corporate world.

But browse through the photos and videos they’re putting out now, and it’s evident they’ve undergone a bit of a shift—aiming their cameras away from just their happenings at home and more toward the marathon-running, arm-balancing communities supporting them. 

“You generally won’t see anything that is highly sales focused on our Instagram,” explains Hearn. “Our goal is to inspire our guests through photos to live #thesweatlife.”

What does this mean in non-hashtag terms? Fewer product shots and more destinations.

Sometimes this means using pricey cameras and video crews, and sometimes not. Either way, it’s less about the filters and showing new clothing or materials—and much more about branding an approach to life. 

The same rules apply, of course, to effective content marketing and copywriting. Focus only on products and you'll gain isolated sales; help curate a way of living, and you'll gain sustained brand loyalty. 

Thanks to Sairah Hearn for the interview, who manages social media content for lululemon and lululemon men.




Never Underestimate the Will to Avoid Reading: A Case for Strong Design

Audiences excel at ignoring our words. To earn their readership, we have to weigh design as much as we weigh writing.

As someone who studied writing at three universities—and subsequently taught writing at three universities—it pains me to say this, but there’s no denying people will go to great lengths to avoid reading. 

Segments of my former students avoided it by means of SparkNotes. Others, by means of simply sleeping in or praying for snow (or, during final exam time, for plagues of blood and locusts). I wish I could say I only observed such allergies among students confirmed to be “academically at-risk,” but I can’t. 

While my students who went on to complete graduate work in the Ivy Leagues might not have avoided reading altogether, they certainly worked to minimize it (sometimes out of necessity, sometimes for reasons less admirable). And what eventually becomes of these students? They go to work, they realize they now have even less reading time than they had in undergrad, and they spend the next twenty years being marketed to as the prized 25-45 demographic (while copywriters and content marketers wonder why messaging goes ignored).

The result leads us—or those of us seeking attention by means other than irrelevant swimsuit models and covert product placements—to a crossroads.

Do we roll over and accept the low conversion rates facilitated by reluctant readership? Or do we heed the signs the newspaper industry largely ignored—and start modernizing our words and marketing content with proper design?

(Good) Design Is Everyone’s Friend

When the going got tough, the Chicago Sun-Times (among others) opted to spend less money on images. A lot less money. While I can sympathize with their budgetary challenges, I’m not so sure I’d have bet on reducing visuals as a means of rekindling an audience that’s increasingly favoring more vibrant multimedia alternatives.

There are enough studies confirming the affects of visuals in marketing as to make citing them redundant. However, there’s far less content focused on the quality of these visuals. Creating epic content by way of strong writing is important (it’s how I earn a living as a freelance copywriter and content marketing consultant)—but even the best content can’t undo the effects of poor design and graphics that essentially say “don’t read me.”

Good design isn’t everything, and it certainly doesn’t negate the need to create strong copy. However, bad design can negate even the strongest copywriting in its entirety.  

Are your images amateur and pixelated? You might as well include a caption broadcasting a habit of cutting corners in sacrifice of quality. 

Are your headlines painfully bright and typeset in unsightly capitals?Making reading more challenging probably isn’t the invite your marketing audience has been waiting for.

Are your design cues scattered and inconsistent? Why should prospects assume the nature of your product or service will be any different?

Strong copy and concepts will keep people reading, but only if strong visuals convince them to start in the first place. In the aggregate, an allocated design budget plays as much a role in your marketing campaign’s success as does your budget for a copywriter.

An investment in one without the other is an investment unlikely to yield returns.

*Fast Company published an abbreviated version of this post here: Never Underestimate Your Audience’s Will to Avoid Reading.

Behind The Scenes: How Bonobos Made Video Their Own

After shining some light on the content marketing strategy of Bonobos in the pages of Fast Company, I wanted to learn more about precisely how they’ve achieved such standings.

The answer, Bonobos vice president of marketing Craig Elbert told me, has had much to do with the role—and, subsequently, the expanded accessibility—of video.

Content Marketing 101: Driving Social Awareness and Brand Discovery

“The number of options for deploying video have exploded in the past couple of years,” says Elbert on the company’s motivation to embrace the medium as a marketing channel.

Subsequently, this explosion has paved the way for two primary objectives: using video as a medium to build social awareness and brand affinity, and using video as an agent to support online customer research and discovery.

In the case of the former, social awareness, Elbert and Bonobos have discovered firsthand that “humor is rewarded with strong word of mouth.”

Their Girlfriend Jean April Fools video, for example, generated traffic on par with the results of their previous Cyber Monday (a herculean achievement in itself).

“Creating truly humorous, timely, and relevant content marketing was definitely the key to success here,” explains Elbert. “That and showing a large man in tight, tight jeans.”

Transitioning from ill-fitting pants back to customer research and discovery, Bonobos also created a series of videos outlining the origin, features, and development mindset behind its core products.

The goal of creating such content, suggests Elbert, “is to help the consumer make a more informed decision while exploring Bonobos’ offering.”

Capitalizing on Customer Inputs

A common barrier for companies just getting started in content marketing, by means of video or copywriting, is the challenge of generating continual ideas. Crafting a video advertising nonexistent too-tight jeans is a brilliant outcome, sure, but one that took Bonobos months of planning and therefore represents something to aspire toward seasonally—not weekly or monthly.

In the aggregate, Elbert and his team also drew upon a more renewable resource by tapping their own customer base as a source for topics and inspiration:

“Another successful video [Bonobos created] is a really simple one. In it, Bonobos employees explain how to pronounce the brand name. We often get this question, and so we started including the video in various customer-facing emails. Again, humor helped drive success—but also some practicality, as many customers weren’t sure they were pronouncing the name right.”

This is the same winning strategy that supports FAQ copy as SEO and branding goldmines. It’s certainly good strategy for brands to audit customer concerns—but it’s far better strategy to spin these audits into organic content that proactively addresses these concerns.

Very rarely is media so efficient and multifaceted. Whereas typical marketing campaigns have long focused on creating messaging that runs only for a short period of time before vanishing indefinitely, Bonobos has been calculated in creating videos that run without limited shelf lives.

Their name pronunciation video hit YouTube in June of 2012 and is still reaching customers daily—a return-on-investment that’s about as close to perpetual motion as any marketer is going to get.

What Breaking Bad Can Teach Us About Branding

examples of content marketing from breaking bad

We’ve all heard the maxim “good artists copy; great artists steal,” but few of us know the writer from whom we’ve stolen this thought. Its closest roots trace not back to Pablo Picasso, Steve Jobs, or your pilfering uncle—but to poet T.S. Eliot: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.”

Fewer still have honored Eliot by stealing effectively. The truth is the best marketing execs don’t aim to steal execution; they steal the strategy behind it.  

It was very cute and all when Samsung went through that phase of packaging its tablets to look surprisingly similar to those of Apple (while following suit with their icons, USB cords, power adaptors and more), though I couldn’t help but equate this with every episode of Breaking Bad wherein someone tried to copy Walter White’s recipe for cooking methamphetamine without understanding the science behind it.

What was Samsung going to do when they got a bad barrel of precursor?

How’d they expect to produce an enantiomerically pure batch if they couldn’t tell whether catalytic hydrogenation was protic or aprotic?

What if they forget to add the aluminum?

You can’t usurp a television high-school-teacher-turned-meth-cook, it turns out, if you don’t understand the science behind his synthesis; and you can’t usurp a brand’s marketing success if you don’t understand the strategy behind it. Don’t believe me? Go watch the scene with the box cutter (season four, episode one).

Stealing Effectively

If you want to borrow from a company you admire, start first by determining why it is you actually admire them.

I buy my jeans from a company called Bonobos. Why? They make great jeans. But to be honest, they also make some jeans I haven’t been too crazy about—just like every other clothing manufacturer. The difference being that Bonobos has figured out how to add value to my experience by making shopping easy and entertaining.

Now I could probably find an equally great pair of jeans by visiting a mall, trying on ten or fifteen pair, and gesturing awkwardly before narrow mirrors—or I could email Bonobos, tell them I’m tall and gangly and have a hard time finding pants that reach my ankles, and ask them to recommend me the proper jean. In return, I’ll get an emailed recommendation from someone with the title of “Ninja” (the perpetual eighth-grader in me is easily peddled to) along with the promise of free shipping and free returns by way of included shipping labels. And while I’m adding their suggestions to my online cart, I might also come across an epic April Fool’s joke or be encouraged to write their Ninjas for a good chili recipe. These are things, to me, that no mall can compete with—and for that, they’ve earned my loyalty.

If I were a CMO wanting to emulate Bonobos, then, I wouldn’t change my company’s name to Ponobos and begin referring to my customer representatives as Samurai. I’d start by ensuring my staff were trained well enough to make encouraging recommendations; removing the pain points from my sales and return processes; and creating the right content marketing campaigns to keep customers feeling welcome, informed, and entertained. 

And then I’d follow up by running the rest of my most-admired brands through the same process.

Stealing Ethically

Still, stealing is stealing. Make a list of your favorite companies (and, if you’re so inspired, your favorite television protagonists) along with the real reasons you admire them—but stick to brands outside of your own domain.

If you manufacture tablet devices, don’t embarrass yourself by drawing inspiration from the closest tablet manufacturer. Instead, figure out why you prefer to order pizza from the place down the street rather than the place by your office, why you’ll never again let that barber with all the piercings cut your hair (you know who you are), and why you still pay to see every single movie starring Harrison Ford . . . and draw your content marketing and copywriting inspiration from there.

Custom graphics courtesy of Andy DiGuiseppi.

*Fast Company published an abbreviated version of this post (sans Breaking Bad them) here: The Right Way to Steal Ideas.