I’ve just returned from an 8-day trip to Europe, the last few days of which I spent in Denmark, where I spoke at the country’s first-ever content marketing conference.
I felt warmly welcomed there—in part because I spent time with some truly warm and wonderful people. (That’s always the key to a great trip, isn’t it?) But I also felt welcomed for business reasons: The business culture seems so ideally suited to embracing content as a cornerstone of marketing, and I came away from both the event and the country feeling like there was a kind of perfect content marketing storm brewing there.
Why should you care, if you aren’t Danish or don’t do business there?
Because there’s a lot that modern marketers can learn from the Danish mindset. Sometime very soon, I think, this small Northern European country of 5.5 million will be creating and leading some truly innovative content marketing programs.
Content marketing is, of course, about creating and sharing information that is designed to attract people to your business. Here’s my working definition that I gave in Denmark (and earlier in the trip, in Istanbul):
Content marketing means you consistently create and share information that is packed with utility, seeded with inspiration, and is honestly empathetic to attract customers to you.
The best content has elements of all three; or, said more simply: Useful x Inspiration x Empathy = Innovative Content.
The Formula for Innovative Content from Ann Handley
Here’s why I think innovative content marketing is about to explode in Denmark, and why it matters to the rest of us:
Danes understand the content mindset. Championing the notion of a new approach to marketing can sometimes feel a Sisyphean task. Content marketing means abandoning a campaign approach—where the entity with the biggest budget wins—and embracing a new mindset: One where empathy and story are increasingly at the heart of marketing, a mindset that demands a certain measure of wit, courage and inspiration, instead of just… well, cash and cleverness.
Sometimes when I’m on stage, for example, and I’m talking about things like honest empathy, and how (quoting my friend Tom Fishburne) the best marketing doesn’t feel like marketing, I look at the faces of people in the audience and read a certain skepticism and (sometimes) flat-out disbelief. No matter how much I might show evidence of true business results, I nonetheless sometimes feel doubt emanating from the audience, like I’m standing on stage arguing that businesses should put all their budgets into something like performance dance or shadow puppets versus, you know, creating marketing people actually want.
I didn’t get that skepticism in Denmark, though. Perhaps people there are just more polite, but the auditorium full of people listened intently. I saw lots of nodding heads and lots of scribbling. Perhaps they were gathering evidence and scribbling plots against me and the rest of my content brethren… but I don’t think so. I think they were just taking notes. (I’m kidding about the plotting, of course. No audience has ever been quite that hostile!)
Advertising is less entrenched. Philosophically and culturally, the Danes are less about bold claims and big budgets—at least about most marketing. Unlike many other parts of the world, the Danes have less of a history of promotion and propaganda—those things traditionally aligned with marketing. This is a country that didn’t even have television advertising until the mid-1980s, as my new friend Signe Jepsen told me on a ride to Copenhagen.
Most Danish organizations, it seems, prefer a more subtle approach. The countryside isn’t littered with billboards and advertising flyers: Even their political signs tacked to utility poles (local elections are coming up on November 19th) adhere to what seems to be strict templated requirements: Aside from the names, faces and party affiliations, they could’ve all been designed by the same agency. (And, probably, they were.)
Danes love a good story. Unlike advertising, however, story is culturally entrenched. This is a place with rich narrative traditions, where the work and life of Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen, who adapted folktales he heard from oral storytellers, is a cultural icon. So is the work of other writers and poets and filmmakers—the philosophical essays of Søren Kierkegaard, the short stories of Isak Dineson (the writer Karen Blixen), and the films of Lars Von Trier. In other words: The Danes grok story. (Right, Trine Ellegaard?)
Local is beautiful. Instagram is big in Denmark; Twitter less so. Jesper Outzen presented an entire session just on Instagram at Content Day. And my take on Instagram’s popularity is because Instagram is an inherently more personal platform than Twitter is.
From a marketing perspective, you could say that this small country of only 5.5 million kind of likes its intimacy. That means a local organization can have a big impact for a relatively modest investment. As I always say, content innovation is more about brains that budget!
There’s a deep gladness and a deep need. In other words, there’s momentum. The first-ever content event was organized by the business training company IBC. It sold out in a matter of weeks.
If I’m being honest, I’ll tell you that I was a little nervous for IBC when, following an invitation to speak, organizer Mette Will and her team seemed to take some risks (by American standards) in marketing this event. There was no event website until September. The event was to be held not in Copenhagen, the business and cultural center, but nearly three hours outside the city, in Kolding. At MarketingProfs, I can’t imagine starting promotion of any event less than two months out. But astonishingly to me, Mette and her team filled the room, and they had to turn people away.
No matter how great a marketer you are, there’s no way that you can pack a room without also tapping into a deep hunger, to paraphrase the theologian Frederick Buechner (“The place God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet”). In other words, the Danes are ready.
There’s already some high-profile use cases. It’s easier to sow seeds when someone else has already plowed the first rocky furrow. And in Denmark there are already some great examples of companies effectively using content in their marketing:
Jyske Bank is the first (and only) Danish bank with its own TV station.
Copenhagen’s Saxo Bank also has its hand in content marketing with its community site for traders, Trading Floor.
Maersk Shipping has proved that social works for Danish business-to-business across the web, including Facebook and Instagram and Pinterest.
LEGO does a great job with microsites and a print magazine.
And Silvan, a Danish hardware chain, publishes handy-man videos on YouTube.
In part because of these early high-profile success stories, and because of the reasons I listed above, it seems that…
Globally, there are signs that many are past the Why of content marketing. The future is the How. Most of the questions I got after my two talks at Content Day were about the how of content, not the why or the whether.
Denmark is less advanced than the states or other parts of Europe, but the challenges are similar. The issues in Denmark, in short, are less about “why content” and more about “how content”: How do we integrate content into our organizations? How do we tie content to strategy? How do we make this work? How can we launch a pilot program to test our content ideas? And, then, how do we innovate?
That’s always an indication of the sophistication of an audience: They aren’t questioning the validity of the concept; they are already trying to figure out how they organize their culture and adapt their processes to enable it.
And in Denmark and elsewhere, that evolution happened (and is still happening) awfully quickly.
Tinu Abayomi-Paul says
I really really want to talk about the hows of content marketing. I could fill a book with just those ideas and cool case studies.
This was my favorite part of your post: “No matter how much I might show evidence of true business results, I nonetheless sometimes feel doubt emanating from the audience, like I’m standing on stage arguing that businesses should put all their budgets into something like performance dance or shadow puppets versus, you know, creating marketing people actually want. ”
I get that idea too. In fact in working with some of the slower-to-adopt agencies on occasion, it’s fascinating to see the agency mindset grappling with the content side of content marketing. The marketing side seems locked in though, which is the reverse for many businesses. Wouldn’t it be cool if everyone was on the same page for both sides of the coin…?
Ann Handley says
So true, Tinu. (My phone keeps wanting to auto-correct your name to “Tiny”… why does technology hate me?!)
Anyway, I get that change is hard. And I get that I’m steeped in it. But still: I love finding those people within organizations who have the wit and courage to try new things. (Content or otherwise!)
Nete Kaasen says
No, Anne. We weren’t polite. We were inspired. You managed to take content marketing to a level, that appeals to danes: doing good. Always be helping. P2P-marketing. We loved it. Danes are said to be the happiest people in the world. I think one of the main reasons are, that we like doing good for others. Content Marketing fits this mindset very well, as instead of marketing we get to add value and making lives better.
Thank you so much for all the inspiration.
Ann Handley says
Thanks, Nete. I really enjoyed Denmark, and I learned a new way to frame content and marketing, too. Thanks so much.
Douglas Burdett says
Another wonderful post. Thank you.
I can especially relate to your comment that sometimes explaining (with data) the effectiveness of content marketing is like “standing on stage arguing that businesses should put all their budgets into something like performance dance or shadow puppets.”
It brought to mind the notion of Galileo trying to explain (with data) to the Roman Inquisition that the earth rotates around the sun. They just weren’t going to have any of it.
Ann Handley says
LOL.. love that, Doug. Puts our issue into perspective, doesn’t it? 🙂
Joakim Ditlev says
Thanks for sharing your nice observations and thoughts, Ann. A pleasure to meet you in Kolding.
I’ve worked with content marketing in Denmark and in The States and I totally agree with your point that Danes are more into storytelling than raw marketing. The marketing tradition is limited and you’ll find more people working in Communications compared to Marketing over here.
That’s probably why we’re 5 years behind you guys. But things are changing now, the talk is on the street and I think your presentation at Content Day triggered a snowball-effect.
Ann Handley says
Good point, Joakim. I noticed that — “Communications” seemed more popular than “Marketing” in job titles among those at the event. Ultimately, I think that positions Denmark well for content — that’s a good thing, in other words, and I can’t wait to see what happens in Denmark.
Great to meet you in Kolding and thanks for chiming in here!
(PS I rescued this from Spam. You were hanging out with the designer discounters and “cheap meds” suppliers! 🙂 )
Joakim Ditlev says
My comments end up in spam folders all the time. Pretty sure it has to do with my email address including the word “marketing”. Marketing associated with spam…. hmm…..
Mette Will says
Interesting to hear your take on content marketing in Denmark! And thanks again for bringing such inspiration to Content Day 2013!
I do agree: In many ways the Danes and Danish marketers are well-suited to content marketing. Historically we have done a lot less “manipulation” and “hard selling” than many other places.
However: Lots and lots of work is ahead of us. I do look forward to it!
We still have a huge challenge to get agencies and top management to understand content marketing. Come on: Stop talking about the brand constantly. Stop talking about the product and the company constantly. Help the customer, for goodness sake 🙂
THANK YOU, Ann – you made such a difference!
Love this post. I’ve been trying to figure out a way to spend time in Denmark. One idea has been to lead a study-abroad semester in Copenhagen.
Content marketing is a big part of the social business course I teach. And storytelling is a part of all the courses I teach.
Now must ponder whether to pursue this idea…..
Rogert Münzberg says
I just love your article, Ann. Unfortunately I couldn’t make to the conference.
My first thought was that storytelling as being at the heart of content marketing, is all about to provide people (read customers) the right tools or means to bring forth and share their story – but then: That’s far from enough. Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook etc are but tools and in a way just simple (and great) content distribution channels!
From my work on innovative conceptual (fine) art I’ve come to the conclusion, that – first of all – we need to provide the audience with the right opportunities, and they will tell you endless stories in whatever form they find suitable.
Keep up the good work – and I can’t wait for your next article 😉
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Just came across this post and I find it extremely interesting. I have been working with online marketing both in Denmark (where I was born) and London where I have lived for about a year. In Denmark I worked in Communications and in London I worked in “Marketing”. I basically did the same kind of things! I found that quite interesting (and a bit confusing in the beginning of my London-year)
I totally agree that Danish people love a good story. They don’t want to be “sold” anything; they/we get turned off by ads. If someone is trying to sell you anything and it is obvious it doesn’t matter how amazing the product is. In my experience Danish people are even more aware of this than other nations. It’s all about the stories and the identity and not actually about the product. In UK you can get away with a lot of “hard-core” selling before you turn people off. Very interesting!
In Denmark we have the concept “hygge” which is hard to translate. But basically it means that we like to get together and have a nice time. It often includes good food, drinks and some good chats about life. We often meet at each other’s homes rather than a restaurant because it is more personal being “home” at somebody’s place. We want to connect to each other and we want to share our stories in a personal space. We don’t ask each other the question: “How are you” and accept an answer as short as: “good and yourself”. In London you are ALWAYS just “good”. In Denmark we want the full story and a real answer. I think that is very close connected to your points about the story telling and marketing.
I really enjoyed reading this article. It is also quite useful in my understanding of the Danish market since I am just starting up my own content-business. I love writing stories myself and I want to help companies tell their stories.
Thanks for sharing your great observations. I met you in Kolding, Denmark. My friend Joakim told me about your homepage. Excellent site
Muhammad Rizwan says
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