BCON 2017: We are all media companies

Keynote speaker David Beebe, who spent three years creating a media company within a brand at Marriott, told the crowd at BCON that marketing can go from being a cost to a revenue generator.

Should it really be that surprising that a hotel company now considers itself to also be a media company?

Not so, said David Beebe, the now former VP of global creative content marketing for Marriott International, addressing the crowd at BCON Expo 2017 in his opening keynote. After all, he insisted, we are all media companies.

“How many people sleep next to their cell phone at night?” he asked the crowd, as the majority of attendees raised their hands — some sheepishly.

“You should all consider yourselves publishers. We all create content across different social channels.” Beebe also pointed out that while most in the crowd wouldn’t consider themselves traditional publishers, they think about their audience — just as a traditional media company would — more often than they realize. “How many people on LinkedIn see it as a place where people start posting political stuff?” he asked. “How many people have made a post on Facebook or Twitter and then deleted it after it didn’t get the reaction they wanted?” Hands shot up and heads nodded. “Everyone here is a media company in a different way.”

(Later in the day, closing keynote Tom Curtis, managing partner and head of MediaCom U.K. Beyond Advertising, would dissent on this notion, telling the crowd “Not every brand should be a publisher… people don’t care!”)

But for Beebe’s point, what does that mean for brands? For many, Beebe’s former employer Marriott has been considered the gold standard in branded content since it first opened its content studio in 2015, the same year it dropped its 17-minute digital film Two Bellmen, shot at a Los Angeles Marriott hotel. Two years later, Marriott has produced two different sequels to Two Bellmen and countless other digital and social series and shorts. All three films are now being packaged for worldwide distribution — and Beebe said that’s a game-changer.

“This is where marketing goes from being a cost to being a revenue generator,” he said.

So how can it be done?

Make your brand a character

Whenever the topic of branded content arises, many are quick to agree that millennials don’t like being sold to. But Beebe emphasized repeatedly that branded content can still feel like too much of a brand showcase.

“Often, it turns into a commercial,” he said. “When sitting down with brands I will ask them, ‘Why are you doing this?’ And if it provides zero value to the consumer, we will send the brand back to the table to come up with something that as a consumer they want to engage with.”

The key to providing an experience that doesn’t feel like a hard sell is making the product a “character” or part of the setting, but not centering the whole piece of content around the product. While all three Two Bellmen films were shot at different J.W. Marriott locations around the world, Beebe pointed out that none of the films were about the hotels.

“People watch it, they see the restaurant, they see the pool… the idea is that you, too, can experience what you just watched.”

Insert yourself into relevant conversation (and pull away from irrelevant conversation)

Marriott first launched its M Live division in mid-2016. The self-described “real-time marketing command centre” is designed to create a more personalized experience through marketing by tracking social media use around its properties.

And, Beebe admitted, there were some misconceptions at first. “When we launched M Live, people first thought we were spying on our customers,” he said, “They don’t realize that an Instagram post is public. What we use is a bunch of proprietary data, as well as public data.”

He said the main goal of M Live is to tailor creative to customers in a way that feels immediate and relevant. “I can look at our data and say, ‘Okay, we have 20 people in the lobby. 10 are platinum members, five are next to the Starbucks. What custom creative can we send?’”

It’s using M Live to make sure the brand isn’t just relevant in its own properties, but in the wider social media sphere.

Sometimes, the efforts are small — like when Marriott responded to a story about 400 Moscow mule mugs being lifted from the opening party of the D.C. Marriott Marquis with a Tweet declaring, “This is why we can’t have nice things.” The social media friendly comeback resulted in a sizeable number of re-Tweets and some press coverage in local and online news, which Beebe said was “PR without having to pay for a campaign.”

Other times, the gestures are more grand. In 2014, Toronto resident Jordan Axani sent out a request on Reddit looking for a woman named Elizabeth Gallagher. The post wasn’t a typical missed connection but rather an offer for a massive worldwide trip. Axani needed to give the ticket belonging to his ex-girlfriend to someone of the same name, or lose his money. After finding his Elizabeth Gallagher, Marriott capitalized on the story by offering to put Axani and Gallagher up in complimentary rooms during the trip (separate, since as Beebe pointed out, Gallagher was spoken for), in exchange for Axani and Gallagher posting about their adventures on social media.

Beebe also presented times when Marriott has gotten it wrong with M Live, such as when they thought an incoming guest had a passion for Oreo cookies, based on their social media posting, and stocked their room with boxes of the cookie. As it turned out, said Beebe, the guest didn’t really like Oreos that much and found the offering a bit creepy. “It was a bit too personalized,” he said. “Especially in the hospitality business, you have to be careful. Our brands have a very personal relationship with our customers. They sleep with us, after all.”

M Live also works with Marriott’s media agency of record, MEC, to monitor what’s going on in current events and pulling creative from social and digital that isn’t appropriate.

But ultimately, Beebe said, capitalizing on what he calls “Generation C” (“connected”) is essential for boosting revenue. “Eyes on the screen means heads in the beds,” he said.

Passion points trump numbers

Marriott’s digital magazine brand, Marriott Traveler, debuted its digital content series Round the World in late 2016. The series, which was sponsored by airline Star Alliance, featured social and digital posts centered around the local flavour of global destinations — which Beebe said were all about the passion points of food, shopping, arts and culture, told through the eyes of travel bloggers in a way that felt genuine.

“It’s one piece of the campaign and it’s all content that has nothing to do with any hotel or any airline. It’s just about what to do, where to go in the city.”

And, Beebe said, when cashing in on passion points, it’s important to look beyond just numbers of followers and views.

“We would rather have 5,000 views and 5,000 people actually engage with the content than 100,000 views and five people engage with it,” he said. “We’ve moved away from just focusing on views.”

The same concept of letting go of numbers applies to working with creators. “We’ve worked with a lot of very influential YouTube stars,” he said. “And a lot of the mistakes that brands make around working with influencers is they see someone with big numbers, but there’s no alignment with the brand. The influencer may be huge, but can they get the word about your content out?”

He said the content needs to focus on passion points — which is well represented in Marriott Traveler’s Round the World series. “It’s about building a community around your brand,” he said. “A community of like-minded people.”

And from that community, said Beebe, drives commerce.

“At the end of the day, it’s about making [the audience] laugh, make them enjoy what we did, and then connect it with the brand.”