A Blog by Jonathan Low


Sep 20, 2019

Who Isn't A Media Company These Days?

It's all about attempts to grab attention, engage and monetize. And if consumers want to mention your brand on their social media feed, so much the better. JL

Josh Sternberg reports in Ad Week:

“We’re at the nexus of content, technology and distribution.” A content strategy needs to fit into a company’s business strategy. All tie into a basic yet vital function: the relationship with customer. Marketers say you have to measure what you can measure, and trust the rest. “We never ask a member or anyone to post on our behalf. “This is about their experience, what they feel comfortable doing. We will see that they tag us or talk about us. And this is a content lever, with zero media spend." Media companies structure what content performs around topics that have audience behavior underneath them. Why wouldn’t brands insert themselves into that?”
A feature-length piece about the history of Venice’s oldest Jewish ghetto (dating back to 1516) with a dollop of suggestions for modern visitors. A mini-profile on a mixologist, with an informative Q&A (apparently, the shape and size of an ice cube matters for your drink). A tips-and-tricks post on five places to go on the bullet train when in Tokyo (Kusatsu Onsen looks heavenly).
This mix of high- and lowbrow content, written by journalists who have been published in outlets like The Washington Post, The Guardian and Travel + Leisure, could easily slot in any mainstream travel publication. And that is exactly what Marriott wants you to think.
The 92-year-old hotel chain is placing a big bet on what content—from advertising and marketing to feature stories and documentaries across digital and video—can do for its business. In one jam-packed weekend in late February, it unveiled a brand new loyalty program (Marriott Bonvoy) with a coordinated worldwide marketing blitz that leveraged big-time sponsorships at the Oscars, World Golf Championships in Mexico, a Manchester United-Liverpool soccer match and the Dubai Jazz Festival as its coming-out content party.
For Marriott, the world’s largest hotel brand, storytelling-as-a-service is a guiding light for its 30 individual hotels, like the Ritz-Carlton, W Hotels and the Westin, with each staying true to its brand but connected to the broader Marriott content strategy of “enabling the stories of travelers.”
“Our members are at the center of the narrative,” says Scott Weisenthal, vp, global creative and content marketing at Marriott. “And that’s really, really important. Everything we do is about their stories, enriching their lives. And then in essence, by doing so, we turn our guests and our members into brand advocates.”
"We’re at the nexus of content, technology and distribution."

This process doesn’t just happen serendipitously. The content marketing team led by Karin Timpone, Marriott’s chief marketing officer, comprises four different divisions that are ultimately responsible for creating, distributing and analyzing content. Staff count can number as high as 90—a melange of full-time personnel, freelancers, and agency partners and vendors—depending on the projects.
“We’re creating almost, if you will, like the [TV] network [model],” Timpone says. “And the individual brands have their unique and distinct point of view and their programming voice; that’s … the entirety of what is possible here.”
(Timpone announced at the beginning of September that she is stepping down from the company at the end of the year, after six years on the job, to “pursue new opportunities.”)
Marriott is not alone in creating content for the traveler, of course. Hilton, with its 17 hotel brands, for example, pushes content out to its roughly 94 million loyalty members across various media. With the hospitality and travel industry growing for myriad reasons—e.g., consumer desires for unique, local experiences; growing popularity of home shares—Hilton has pushed advertising and marketing campaigns to urge travelers to book directly through its own site. But the marketing is still focused on celebrity. In this case, Anna Kendrick. Marriott, conversely, focuses its marketing on an individual’s travel experience—like an ad featuring guests playing golf, swimming and enjoying dinner at one of its properties.
“The emphasis in both the Hilton and Marriott campaigns is building sustained relationships between a traveler and the brand,” says Debika Sihi, an associate professor of economics at Southwestern University. “The Marriott campaign takes this a step further and highlights local experiences with the comfort of the tried-and-true Marriott brand.”
Marriott took Adweek inside its content-marketing operations, providing an insightful look into how and why the heritage brand is placing such a big bet on storytelling.

The ‘wheel of content’

M Live is Marriott’s real-time social-marketing command center, focusing on reputation management and mining for trends and insights.
Its content studio creates films and documentaries, which are “upper-funnel storytelling about inspiration and aspiration,” Weisenthal says. This team is made up of creative directors, producers and strategists, but also will tap outside production companies “to get more bang for our buck,” producing hundreds of pieces of content to strategically support the Marriott Bonvoy program and 30 portfolio brands, all distributed across paid, earned and owned channels.
Four-Pronged Strategy: 1) M Live, the hotel giant’s real-time social-marketing command center. 2) The Marriott Bonvoy Traveler hub provides 'inspiration from a destination lens.' 3) The content studio produces films and documentaries. 4) The company’s in-house creative agency handles brand design, marketing and advertising content.
Marriott Bonvoy Traveler is its storytelling hub and the editorial voice of its loyalty program, zeroing in on “inspiration from a destination lens.” Content here is about the customer, mostly written with travel pointers in mind, like a story on what to do with kids while visiting Amsterdam (since you won’t be smoking weed or visiting the red-light district) or a piece about the secrets of Los Angeles.
(A source says the site gets 500,000 visitors per month. ComScore says it doesn’t measure, and Marriott declined to give numbers but did mention that it tracks unique visitors, returning visitors, pageviews, time spent—you know, publishing metrics.)
The fourth capability, the company’s in-house creative agency, is a combination of brand design, marketing and advertising content.
Internally, they call these capabilities the “Wheel of Content.”

Going full circle

M Live looks for trends in people’s social feeds, pulls them out and feeds the ideas to the content studio, which leverages those insights for its films or series. That content, along with the stories from the content studio, can sit on the Marriott Bonvoy Traveler’s platform. Marriott Bonvoy Traveler will then leverage what M Live is bringing to the table, those sexy insights. Ultimately, the in-house agency will then create the promotional work that will raise awareness, portfolio preference and brand perception.
A circle has no end.
“We’re at the nexus of content, technology and distribution,” Weisenthal says. “We have the content that [we and our members] are creating. We have the technology of M Live. We have the distribution of Marriott Bonvoy Traveler, as well as the distribution of Marriott Bonvoy TV.”
In other words: a media company.
Of course, a content strategy needs to fit into a company’s business strategy. For Marriott, that means getting people to come back time and again. Timpone says that content strategy and business strategy all tie into a seemingly basic yet vital function: the relationship with its customer.
Marriott has been hit hard from competition, both internally and externally. Internally, the dust is now settling from its 2016 SPG acquisition, forcing the company to investigate how content can help customers who feel the merger has negatively affected their loyalty.
Externally, Marriott and other traditional hotels are constantly looking over their shoulders at Airbnb, which has eaten a good chunk of their market share over the last decade, and which is also spending time, energy and money on creating content. For Marriott, using content as the pathway for getting new members and—just as important—getting members to come back is an imperative.
“The most visible way of seeing it,” Timpone says, “is when somebody stays at our hotels and uses their Marriott Bonvoy app to check in, make a booking, what have you. It’s about that relationship with the customer, and making sure as marketers that we express and tell that story really well.”

The power of stories

More people are traveling (according to the United Nations’ World Tourism Organization, the number of international travelers topped 1.4 billion in 2018, a 6% increase from 2017), so there’s more content about these experiences—from both the traveler and the travel industry—and there are more experiences because more people are traveling. So Bonvoy (a word that Marriott created as a play on the French bon voyage, meaning good travel) as an umbrella works, too.
In general, it’s a good move to focus on the Bonvoy loyalty program above individual hotel brands because of the subtle underscore: Bonvoy is not about the hotels; it’s about the customer,” says Ann Handley, chief content officer at MarketingProfs.
Take what Marriott did at Coachella. The company saw that a loyalty member was posting from the Renaissance Inn at Indian Wells via its always-on, real-time social command center, M Live (Marriott geofences all of its hotels), and then offered her VIP access to the music festival. So the loyalty member now gets a kick-ass experience and, again, does what comes so naturally to us: takes pictures and posts them on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.
“We never ask a member or anyone to post on our behalf. Ever,” Weisenthal says. “This is about their journey, their experience, what they feel comfortable doing. But in most cases, we will see that they will then broadcast their experience to their followers, usually tagging us or talking about us. And this is a content mechanism—a content lever, if you will—with zero media spend. And we always look at our engagement rates, where 2% is usually the benchmark. In this instance, the engagement rate was 15%.”

But are the numbers real?

For all the feel-good aspects of content essentially created by consumers, Bonvoy has its skeptics. Critics say “engagement” is a smoke-and-mirrors KPI, pointing to a couple of pieces of Marriott content as perhaps not telling an accurate story.
For example, according to SparkToro’s follower audit tool, @marriottbonvoy, the company’s Twitter account, has 58% fake followers, and the @marriott handle has 35% fake followers. Additionally, the Marriott Bonvoy debut video has more than 7 million views on YouTube, but has only 970 likes and 381 dislikes.
“Doesn’t that seem weirdly low to you compared to the view count?” asks Kristina Halvorson, CEO of Brain Traffic and the person who literally wrote the book on content marketing (Content Strategy for the Web, 2009). “It’s because they were pushing that video to every platform known to humankind. These were not engagements. They have forced views.”
In response, Marriott says that brand awareness, not engagement, was the main KPI for this video, and “this asset was created originally for TV and digital advertising distribution.” There was no paid media on YouTube; however, third-party campaigns did embed the player, which may account for the types of engagement, the company said in a statement.
Others say the measurement of content as a business driver is still a bit of a black box.
“This is the thing about content marketing—everyone wants to put a number to it,” says Joe Chernov, vp, marketing at Pendo.io. “But how can you really say the image or sentiment a brand creates through its content is directly responsible for booking a reservation it wouldn’t have otherwise secured?”
Marketers say you have to measure what you can measure, and trust the rest. Chernov points to the fact that Marriott’s stock has grown in value during the rise of the putative hotel killer Airbnb—it has jumped from 61.28 on Jan. 29, 2016, to 140.66 on July 31, 2019. Is that because of a strong economy during that period? Smart business decisions by executives? Clever content by the brand team?
“It’s some combination of all, but how much of each? Nobody really knows,” he says. “That’s where the trust comes in. It’s sort of like lighthouses in the 19th century: Just because you couldn’t quantify the number of shipwrecks they prevented doesn’t mean they weren’t necessary.”
"It’s about that relationship with the customer, and making sure as marketers that we express and tell that story really well."

Timpone will be the first to say that it’s still too early to tell if the content is working. The company says that it relies on proprietary research to determine the efficacy of content against marketing objectives, with the main KPI being brand awareness for Marriott Bonvoy. Of course, each project has its own KPIs from brand awareness to brand affinity, to driving lift and shift in brand position. Marriott says since the introduction of Bonvoy at the Oscars in February, there’s been “significant increase in consumer recognition,” though it won’t provide numbers. Also, starting at 0% brand awareness, there’s only one direction that can go.
What Timpone does say, however, is that we live in an “and” world, where marketers need to look at both content marketing and advertising. It’s not one or the other, but when it works properly, marketers should be able to use all the tools available, whether paid, owned or earned.
And this brings us back to the coming Marriott media network. Timpone is tight-lipped on exactly what form it will take, but looking at how the company has set up its M Live social command center, its content studio, its Marriott Bonvoy Traveler website and its in-house creative agency, coupled with its Marriott Bonvoy TV, the channel that is in 1.5 million hotel rooms, and its newsletter channels of 130 million members, it’s not hard to see how the company might want to open up inventory to other advertisers.
Could be display ads for local restaurants. Could be discounts for items sold in a Marriott lobby. Could be anything, because the company has different brands for different types of people looking for different types of experiences. Kinda like a media company.
“If I think about how media companies structure what content performs, it tends to be around topics that have audience behavior underneath them,” Timpone says. “Why wouldn’t brands get that know-how and insert themselves into that?”


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