Why ‘Interstellar’ is the Holy Grail of content marketing

Mark Yeow writes that content marketers can learn a lot from the science-fiction film, Interstellar, which he says has done far more to encourage kids to study science than all the pledges and PR of government and industry.

In today’s information-saturated world, content marketers can only succeed if they think big. They need to seek out loftier role models and ambitions: not just more click-throughs or leads, but the sort of seismic perception-shifting impact that today’s leading filmmakers, writers, and artists create through their craft. Only by aiming for the stars can content marketers hope to stand out from the growing morass of really bad stuff flooding the market.

Interstellar (Christopher Nolan’s recently-released sci-fi epic) works on many levels, and one of those is as a brilliant piece of content marketing for science and space exploration. That’s because Nolan, unlike so many ‘professional’ content marketers, knows that the best way to get a message across is to follow the old axiom of story-writing: show, don’t tell.

Instead of telling us why we need to invest in blue-sky research areas like light-speed travel and quantum physics, he shows us a world where these things have become imperative to the very survival of humanity. Rather than tell us to acknowledge the contribution of scientists to our quality of life (like the invention of Wi-Fi, which came from radioastronomy research), he shows us the sacrifice and endurance of being a scientific pioneer through Cooper and Murph’s characters.

In other words, Nolan – just like any acclaimed director, writer, or game studio out there – puts the story first and the message second (or third, or fourth). For content marketers to really engage with their audiences, they need to ensure the KPIs of their campaigns don’t overshadow their creativity and relevance. I suspect Interstellar has done far more to encourage kids to learn STEM skills in Australia, for example, than all the hand-wringing and pledges from the PR organs of government and industry over the past five years.

Of course, KPIs are still important for content marketers. But we can only achieve these business objectives if we can give our audiences creative, compelling content which shakes the way they think and feel. In my work, I always come back to these three things:

 1. Forget content; think story

‘Content’, as the word suggests, is often just treated as filler: something static that just occupies a blank space on a website or an eDM. People don’t want content, they want stories which entertain, excite, and push them to contemplate things differently. And once an audience member is bought into a story, they’ll buy into other things too. I often cite The Lego Movie as perhaps the best content marketing ‘campaign’ ever, one which has spawned millions in sales of new merchandise and a dramatic refresh of an ageing brand in the public psyche. And Lego was at times hesitant about the movie being made!

To create powerful stories, content marketers would do well to take notes from their peers in the PR industry. PR’s heritage is in telling stories to the most jaded of audiences – journalists – which means we typically have a good sense for what will stick and what won’t. The best PR professionals also know that the best stories put what the audience cares about first and foremost. I’ve been involved in crafting everything from economic research papers to animated zombie films in order to directly address our audience’s interests and values. These stories ‘work’ because they’re not about just pushing a brand message – they’re about giving people something they want.

2. Your audience decides your channels

Stories, unlike content, can morph and adapt across media. And media influence the telling of stories: an infographic, for example, is going to result in a very different audience experience of narrative to a video game. Content marketers need to understand which channels their target audiences are already familiar with, and play to those existing preferences in how they shape their brand narratives.

The ‘IT Survivor’ competition for VMware, for example, told a story about taking remote working to the limits of Far-North Queensland – so we partnered with Lifehacker Australia to create blogs, videos, and social-media banter because we knew our target audience of efficiency-hungry professionals was already in love with their site. Interstellar will reach most people through cinemas, but the backstory of its research influences was shown as a documentary on the Discovery Channel, targeting the more science-minded of its fans in a channel where they’d be expecting this sort of insight. It’s the content marketer’s responsibility to court the audience on its home turf.

3. Give life to your narrative

If content marketers want to make their stories and channel selection as effective as possible, they need to listen to and act on audience feedback. This may come in the form of data (like click-through or conversion rates), or content marketers may explicitly ask audience members to have a say in the narrative (‘IT Survivor’, for example, invited Lifehacker readers to submit remote-working challenges that a competition winner would perform on Magnetic Island). As a result, content marketers may then change how they’re creating and distributing their content – much like a start-up or a scientist changing their experiments based on the data.

Content marketing is simply the latest adaptation of narrative techniques by brands. That means content marketers – and marketers more generally – would do well to verse themselves in narrative techniques developed over millennia: showing, not telling; understanding the audience member; and giving them a say. Many so-called content gurus make content marketing out to be an extremely technical and complex field – and in many ways, particularly when it comes to aligning narratives to data, it can be. But we’re all intuitively familiar with the basics. If you’re in doubt, just head to your nearest cinema.

Mark Yeow is Text100’s Content Lead for Australia and ASEAN. He works across everything from corporate blogs to animated short films, and takes pride in being his office’s resident space-opera tragic.