Field Guide to Functional Content Marketing  


Functional content marketing is ultimately about empowering your audience through brand messaging—and empowering yourself and your clients with an understanding of the impact of your marketing.

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About the Authors


Keith Kawasaki and Gene Bedell are vice presidents at iostudio, a marketing agency headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Both Keith and Gene have developed the marketing strategy for hundreds of branded publications, digital experiences and integrated campaigns for monolithic brands, microbrands and government agencies. They enjoy talking about marketing to anyone who will listen, and sometimes to folks who don’t.

Observation 1:
Nobody wants your cupcakes.



As marketers, we are already in a fragile relationship with our audience. We must deliver immediate value in a meaningful way. For every content component you create, ask yourself, “Does this impact their lives in a positive way, furthering their engagement with us?” 

Don’t give your audience cupcakes; they’re just empty calories. Essentially, this is meaningless content that looks pretty and tastes great on the first bite—and is often regretted if finished.

Observation 2:
I like my phone, but tomorrow, I’ll be excited about the electronic contact lens of the future sending signals directly to my brain.



Technology and how we engage with it is perpetually changing. So, rather than chase platforms, shift your thinking to design for habit. Yes, this still entails knowing how platforms and devices function. But designing for habit permeates your entire marketing strategy as you tailor your content to slip into your audience’s habits.

This takes continuous learning. Lots of it. Dive deep into their daily lives and discover the emotional, environmental and physical influences that impact their media habits. Find that sweet spot where you are meeting them where they want to be met—and add meaningful value to their day. But stay flexible so you can easily scale to their changing habits.

Observation 3:
Communication preferences are rooted in nostalgia.



Whether it’s a printed book or magazine, a website or a video game, your audiences’ preferences stem from personal, habitual experiences that were instilled in their youth. People over the age of 35 are quick to say, “Print is not dead.” Whether or not that is true, when print champions are hard-pressed for answers on why they feel that way, they always cite an emotional connection to a print product from their past.

Well, what if you grew up in today’s world, where magazines are not the primary or habitually relevant source of information, but instead it’s social media? Then in 20 years, when society has moved on to another source of information sharing, you’ll be waxing poetic on the simpler times of Twitter. Regardless, it’s important to analyze your audiences’ preferences with this in mind. Why do they love platform X so much? What emotional or habitual connection do they have with it? Rather than pushing another new—or your preferred—platform on them, leverage their connections.

Observation 4:
Browsing is Dead



The times of meandering through a video store, checking out the back of the box to read the summary, or browsing staff picks … all that is gone, right? Well the same goes for info searching. Patience is nil. We can now shout questions to little AI receivers that politely speak back our answers. Your audience wants answers now with as little effort as possible. Give the people what they want upfront. Consider each engagement as a first impression. If you deliver it in a way that adds value to their lives—without referring them somewhere else for the answer—they in turn will value you. 

To create value in your product, conduct audience research, get your audience involved in its creation and ultimately empower your audience with the content. You then create a magnetic experience, retaining their attention and attracting their sphere of influence.

Observation 5:
Loyalty in Marketing is an Imaginary Concept



You’re the world’s best brand … until the other guy beats you to the punch. It’s critically important to be the first to answer your audience’s need and answer it in a useful and memorable way. You must have meaning in the moment. It just comes down to not being afraid to deliver free information. Don’t just tell your audience where they can get information, but give them some of that information for free upfront. And if you’re doing your research right, you’ll know your audience’s needs before your competition does, giving you a head start on engagement.

Observation 6:
Data is King



Content marketers like to fill conference halls to proclaim, “Content is king!” Content that isn’t directly informed by data is fluffy creative. Enlist smart data analysts and research partners to fully evaluate your client and audience (the two perspectives are often not the same but are equally important to your success). To augment what the numbers and interviews tell you, embed with your client and audience (see Observation 13). Get into their daily world to best understand their influencers and media habits. All of this will then fuel hyper-focused creative messaging that resonates every time and offers tangible return on investment for your client. Of course, you have to continually audit and innovate your approach because client and audience interests and habits change often.

Observation 7:
Beating Around the Bush Just Kicks Up Dust



Think of your content as messaging. Literally. In all instances, swap out the word “content” for “messaging” and you’ll find yourself driven to create purposeful marketing. What are you messaging to your audience? Too often, marketers and advertisers are distracted by the fun of creativity, which leaves the world littered with Super Bowl ads: shiny jokes or tearjerkers with a logo at the end. You can’t find the point. Some might argue brand awareness is a win. But if you are going to put in the effort to instill brand awareness, leave them with a nugget of wisdom while you’re there.

When you have purpose, you instill value. Next time you develop a social media post, produce a video, or write editorial, ask yourself: What is the message you are telling your audience? Does that message have real value? Is it worth their time?

Observation 8:
G.I. Joe was Wrong



Characters such as Duke, Hawk and Flint often ended episodes of the popular 1980s cartoon G.I. Joe by declaring, “Knowing is half the battle.” Knowing isn’t just half the battle. Knowing wins the war. Every marketing audience has roadblocks, myths or mysteries that get in the way of engaging with your brand. It is imperative to create engaging educational experiences that demystify your brand and its purpose. In-depth research and embedding with your audience will provide critical insights to identify the roadblocks, myths and mysteries and inform how best to dismantle them.

The more your audience understands your brand and its purpose in a way that directly adds value to their lives, the more they will engage with you. Remember to create that experience in a format that fits into their media habits. In some cases, that might be a mobile-friendly web app with gamification; in others, it might be a how-to guide.

Observation 9:
Absolutely, Whenever Possible, Say it in a Video



We all suffer grand delusions that the public will patiently and attentively read our narrative (case in point, this guide). If you invest the time to craft a compelling video production, and strive to not only add esteem to your brand but also reveal something useful about your brand, it will pay off in recognition, recollection and transaction. Four times as many consumers prefer to watch a video about a brand versus read about it (according to one of 8,000 video marketing studies published on the internet, and your own common sense).

The key word is “compelling.” It doesn’t have to be a multimillion-dollar shoot. It doesn’t have to be a $10,000 shoot. What matters is that the message is enriching your audience’s experience with your brand—which brings us back to really knowing your audience. Let that dictate the aesthetic, the message and published channels.

Observation 10:
You're Special and People Like You



Every brand and every individual has an intriguing story to share. It just takes the right minds and the right hands to help tell that story (along with the right medium, see Observation 2). And your audience wants to know that story.

Humanizing your brand position allows your audience to relate to you as genuine people who care about the service they provide, rather than a faceless, capitalist giant. As they relate to you, it enables positive emotional connections to magnetize between you and your audience. Campaigns like this don’t resonate with 100% of your audience, but for those who do connect, you’ll find that one extra pulse to be the differentiator for their purchase decision and a magnetic pull on their sphere of influence.

Observation 11:
People Would Rather go to Disney World than the Disney Store



Take a step back and look at your total marketing strategy. Are you creating a transactional visit or an immersive brand experience—a brand universe? Consider ways you can motivate your audience to follow you deeper into the wormhole to arrive in your brand universe, where they can see how useful and far-reaching your brand can be. Each step forward must be rewarding, and the final destination must be continually rewarding. You’ll need intensive audience and client research and audience involvement to foster and maintain this level of engagement. From there, be bold by empowering your audience to control and customize aspects of that universe (perhaps even to the extent of influencing brand offerings).

Empowerment instills a sense of ownership, which helps distance your brand from the competition.

Observation 12:
Don't be a Mirror



Too often in content marketing, brands believe they are communicating with their audience by reflecting them. “Hey, customer, this is the story of a guy we think is just like you enjoying our brand. Look at how he’s smiling!” Instead, give your audience a view into the possibilities of your brand, product or service (see Observation 8).

Go beyond just awareness and elevate the conversation. Provide fresh perspective and value to your audience to expand perceptions and, most important, add meaningful and memorable value to their daily lives.

Observation 13:
If Your Idea is Cooked up in the Office, Then it's About as Fresh as the Lunches Left Over from Last Week



You must travel into the ecosystem of your audience and client to develop a rich understanding of how your strategy can integrate with the habits, needs, challenges and desires. Physically, get out there and be a sponge, absorbing all the insights you can handle. And while you’re out there, sign up an audience representative—a subject matter expert—to weigh in on each iteration of your strategy to check your thinking. Pair that with continuous data analysis and you will retain authenticity in your message, your creative and your call to action. Through an authentic, grounded perspective, you will identify ways to reach the ultimate goal of empowering your audience with your brand.


There are two simple formulas to ensure your strategy delivers functional content marketing:


Formula 1

Audience & Client Research + Audience Involvement = Audience Empowerment 

If you dig deep into research and keep your audience’s input integrated into your production cycle, then you will create content that empowers your audience. And an empowered audience creates a magnetic experience that retains their attention while attracting their sphere of influence. Don’t hide your brand’s value. Proclaim it freely.

Formula 2

Data + You = Fantastic ROI

Data is king. It is imperative to track everything in every way possible and for you to be enthusiastically and intimately involved in monitoring and analyzing the data. Tip: Have your data analyst create a real-time data dashboard that will help you keep a continuous eye on your KPIs. Your marketing savvy, supported and validated by data, will inspire you to produce innovative solutions for your clients while wowing them with quantifiable results. 

Be obsessive about demanding functionality— purpose and action—from your content. From the fleeting social media post to the broadcast ad, be meaningful in the moment. 

The path of functional content marketing can be arduous. But taking these steps empowers you to be confident in knowing fully where you have been, why you were there, what value came from it—and where to go next.