A digital marketer explains the difference between an ad, a viral video, and content marketing

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Over the years, the one thing I’ve learnt is that content marketing is the exact opposite of advertising. When we’re brainstorming ideas for a video, I’m always cautious not to make it seem like an ad. I’ve realised that the first idea that comes to my mind is usually the wrong idea. Wrong, because it comes from a place that has grown up watching movies and ads on TV. Only when I go beyond the first idea and dive deep, making exhaustive lists from constant brainstorming, that newer, more relevant designs emerge.

Content to me starts with an obsessive focus on the users. In my fights with brand managers across companies, I’ve come to realise that while brand managers are the custodians of the brand and represent its interests, when it comes to content, we (the content creators) represent the audience, the users. The content must be in the interest of the users first, and the brand next. The user experience, right from the first second of the video till the end, will determine how they engage and interact with our content.

When we truly take the side of our audience and create for them, inspire them, solve their pain points, celebrate their life, help them express who they are or give them a vehicle to make the world a better place, that’s when we see true engagement. They then make the video their own and take it forward by sharing the content with their peers. You know your video has truly gone viral when you see others uploading your video as their own on YouTube and Facebook. It’s the content version of how pirated copies of bestselling books are sold at traffic lights in India.

They don’t really care about us

Ads, by nature, have been put in the BS category in our minds. Whenever we see an ad, we switch channels; we ignore billboards and look away; we switch windows when we see an ad, and scroll past their posts. As an audience, we’ve become ad blind. Our brains have evolved to ignore them. Ad publishers get nightmares just thinking of how ad blockers are on the rise on phones and browsers. Every year the number goes up.

People in the business of making ads usually get unsettled when I go on the offensive like this. But the reality is that if you ask anyone about the videos they remember sharing with their friends in the last week, nine out of 10 times, it would be a content video and not an ad. When we create content which attempts to make an impact on their lives and provide value, or help them express who they are, then we don’t just get fans, we get brand ambassadors, evangelists, tiny influencers, who will gather around water coolers and talk about our content, and our brand becomes a conduit in making that happen. That’s the game which we want to win at—rising above the BS and providing value first.

So, how do you integrate your brand in the content?

One thing I emphasised, right at the brainstorming stage of picking share-worthy topics, is that the brand DNA has to flow through the ideas. Not the brand, but its DNA. Figure out what’s that one thing your brand stands for, celebrates or is aligned with. It’s bigger than what you do; it’s more about why you do it, what’s the underlying purpose and brand identity. When all your ideas have the brand DNA in them and you’ve created the content, the next step is the subtle art of brand integration. My rule of thumb is that the brand must be part of the video, not as an interruption or plug, but as part of the narrative. It is to be included in such a way that it is required for the story and the video to move forward.

Sure, you can have it as a watermark logo on top of the video, show it in the beginning with the title, and end with it in the conclusion, but when we integrate the brand as part of the narrative itself, it works better. Also, in the end, be sure to add your brand with its CTA (call to action: “download now,” “signup,” “buy now,” “join us,” etc). For example, when we created the travel hacks videos, it contained the brand DNA of travel and was initially only about how to pack your bags, etc. But after a few hacks, ixigo’s features were shown as a travel hack itself. Or when we created the language video series (“How to Speak Bengali,” etc), one of the phrases was about travelling and ixigo was shown as the solution. Or when we created a rap song, the brand name was used as the rapper’s signature in the song. In all the cases, the presence of the brand was subtle and took the narrative forward. It did not exist as a blatant plug.


It’s all about the CTA

When it comes to content videos, there’s just one call to action (CTA) I care about: shares. The more people who take that action, the better the engagement and organic reach. But when it comes to performance ad videos, the challenge is bigger because, in my experience, there are two CTAs.

Every ad needs a call to action to drive conversions, that’s your first CTA. But, if your ad has higher engagement from users (since the ads live on digital media), then your cost per conversion goes down, because the platform gives your ad a high quality score as people are engaging with it. Shares, then, become the second CTA. So the ads which drive people to take intended action and also drive them to engage with it are the Holy Grail, and that is worth experimenting with. One such experiment we did at Ixigo became a case study for Facebook, where an ad had 15,000 shares and the cost per install came down to $0.04. Also, when creating ad videos, be sure to have multiple versions to test which one is performing better and then divert your budgets to the best-performing one. The most important thing when it comes to ads, in my experience, is experiments. The more experiments you do with different formats and different features of the platform, with varied insights from data, the more chances you have of finding growth hacks. We need the DNA of rapid experimentation in our teams—another reason why in-house video and content teams make more sense as they allow for greater agility.

Excerpted from Aashish Chopra’s Fast, Cheap and Viral with permission from Hachette IndiaWe welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.