Social soloing: Outdoor brands take content production into their own hands

SNEWS takes a look at how outdoor brands are jumping into the content business — where they’re succeeding and struggling.
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With everybody from Borat to BatDad creating their own web content, it’s no surprise that outdoor brands are joining the party.

The process can be relatively cheap and easy, helping create brand engagement with consumers, not to mention the lottery jackpot of a blog post or video going viral. But there are challenges, too. Suddenly, it’s not just about who’s buying the brand, but who’s watching, reading and tweeting about it. Content can also stir up unwanted opinions or be tagged as bias and self-serving. And in a world of ever-increasing social media posts, videos and stories, there’s still the risk of getting lost.

SNEWS takes a look at how outdoor brands are jumping into the content business — where they’re succeeding and struggling.

Staying front of mind
“Today, there’s the ability to pretty easily self publish and get it in front of exactly the audience you want. Previously that was challenging,” said Charlie Lozner, director of marketing for Outdoor Research, which produces Verticulture, a multi-faceted blog featuring a range of topics from climbing while pregnant to instructional ski videos about how to do a “killer” kickturn. “Now you can put something up on YouTube in seconds and direct traffic at it,” Lozner said. “The barriers are so small right now that from my perspective it becomes one of the most cost effective ways to get the word out.”

OutdoorResearchVerticulture

Brands are spreading the word about their raisons d’etre through a multitude of different avenues. In addition to its Verticulture blog, Outdoor Research produced a 20-minute short film on YouTube, “Livin’ Tiny: A Quest for Powder,” which has reached a commendable 240,000+ views. Mountain Hardwear garners awareness largely through Instagram and Facebook, as well as Twitter, and gives retailers easy access to their content. Rab filmed athletes setting as many new routes as possible over a 10-day expedition in Arctic Norway for its “Project Strata” video. Mammut offers how-to videos about airbag inflation and beacon use and sponsored star athlete David Lama in the documentary “Cerro Torre: A Snowball’s Chance in Hell.” The North Face just announced the launch of its “Train Smarter” webseries. And that’s just a small smattering.

These social media posts all have one ultimate goal: Provide content, as well as product, in an effort to keep a brand top of mind, year round to consumers. That way, when someone gives into the urge to duck into a specialty retail shop on a lunch break or browse an online retailer during a slow work day, a product from brand X wins out over the lesser known brand Y.

The idea itself isn’t a new one — the king of outdoor storytelling, Patagonia, has been at it for years in multiple capacities — it’s just that today’s technology, from filming equipment to distribution channels, is a lot more accessible than the past.

“One of the neat things about digital is we can play with the big boys,” said Chris Harges, director of global marketing for Mountain Hardwear. “If you try to go head to head with The North Face in advertising, they can outspend you. You can get there with quality of content.”

Translating views into engagement
Although the long-term goal is to translate those views into sales, the marketing gurus behind these videos admit that people need to engage with the activities before they need the gear. Hence for most companies, the initial step is to inspire consumers to get outside in the first place.

“We have the opportunity to give our own perspective on what it means to get outdoors, how to do it safely and how to do it better. If we can tie that to product great, but we’re not necessarily trying to do that all the time,” Lozner said. “It’s intended to inspire people to get outdoors, and if they get inspired to get outdoors, (maybe) they’ll choose OR when it comes time to get a new hat or pair of gloves.”

In order to retain the consumer’s attention — and not make them feel like they’re watching an extreme fashion show — often requires that the product take a backseat. Dan Thompson, marketing director for Rab points to the brand’s short film “Project Strata” as an example.

“We sent a team of athletes out to Norway to explore an area with vast untapped potential for new routes. The focus of this short film was very much on the location, the people there and what they could achieve,” he said in an email. “The fact that they were also testing some new product with an amazing new technology from Rab and Polartec was a secondary story.”

MammutHowToVideos

In a similar vein, Mammut’s PR specialist Harald Schreiber considers their how-to videos “a service benefit that helps enhance the consumer purchase. It also helps to create another connection to the customer.”

The tangible benefits of this self-produced content may not be immediate, but they are real. Using tools like Google Analytics, brands can monitor what blog entries, posts and tweets drive consumers to their websites for online purchases. The evidence shows that while “it’s terrible compared to paid search, you get the double benefit: great branding content, low conversion rate, but high-volume traffic to the website,” Lozner said.

It’s not all about getting the most hits, likes and retweets.

“That number of people following you on Twitter doesn't mean a damn thing if they’re not engaged with you,” Harges said.

Retailer benefit
Retailers too, can benefit from the bulk of this material. Outdoor Research reps encourage stores to use Verticulture’s content on their own websites. Rab offers a toolkit with imagery, videos and copy text to retailers. And Mountain Hardwear has created “Content Lab,” an entire social platform where dealers can log in and republish the brand’s content with or without augmentation at the click of a button.

“As a store that has so many diff brands across so many different categories, it’s a lot of work to create content every day that covers all those brands,” said AJ Davidson of Bivuoac Ann Arbor in Michigan. “With the (Mountain Hardwear) Content Lab it’s the easiest thing in the world (to post content). I cannot believe that every brand does not do this.

On the flip side, some retailers say they prefer creating their own content with unique photography and text in an effort to stand out from the rest of the pack, particularly online.

Trial and error
As more brands delve into content creation, they’re also learning the ropes of the publishing business and its associated challenges. At times, a lot of work on a piece might translate into few views or little engagement, meanwhile, a cell phone photo of an employee’s puppy sporting the brand’s sunglasses could go gangbusters. Go figure.

Plus, content doesn't always automatically bring in views. Just like selling products, there is the need for promotion and spreading the word — marketing can sometimes require ... marketing.

And then there’s the question of bias, and if consumers really want brands to be content providers in their world. Companies admit they aren’t always objective, and when it comes to certain issues such as the environment, many are happily biased. Encouraging people to get outside is meant to create a personal relationship with the outdoors, and preserving the rivers, forests and snowcaps is a matter of self-interest.

“When you have somebody who is so passionate about what they do — whether it be a cause, a brand, an activity, even a place — then, where appropriate, a biased, but reasoned, piece is acceptable. Rab is constantly trying to inform and educate consumers to help them to make better decisions, instead of sway them with extraneous content,” Thompson said.

While most outdoor brands are preaching to the choir, there’s still a line to walk, Lozner said.

“We don't have to put these extreme videos or something that is really preachy environmentalism. At the end of the day, we just want people to have fun outdoors.”

--Courtney Holden

 Does your brand create content beyond the product — whether it be entertainment or education? What have been the biggest benefits and challenges?

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