9 Lessons from an $11m Marketing Campaign

The author’s posts are entirely his or her own (excluding the unlikely event of hypnosis) and may not always reflect the views of Moz.

The John Lewis Christmas 2013 campaign has smashed it virally. Since it launched two weeks ago it’s had:

  • 8 million views on YouTube
  • 150k Twitter mentions
  • 70k Facebook interactions

As content marketers, those kind of engagement statistics seem incredible. Admittedly, brand marketers have much bigger budgets, but as content marketers, what can we learn from brand marketers about creating, launching and promoting content?

If you’re in the UK, then you will undoubtedly have seen it, but for everyone else, here’s the video:

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If you’re a bit skeptical and think that content marketing and big brand marketing are totally different, then read this quote from industry marketing bible The Drum:

“Shares are the currency of social success and for leading brand marketers discovering how to create and distribute highly shareable content repeatedly and at scale is now at the top of their wish list.”

Sounds familiar, right? Basically big brand marketing and content marketing are converging.

Hopefully you’ve bought into the idea that we’re becoming the same industry…so what can we learn?

Lesson 1: Don’t launch on your own site (launch where your target market is)

John Lewis is a big brand, but they didn’t launch their campaign on their site. They launched their campaign via Twitter and YouTube.

Why? Because that’s where their target market is, that is where they are going to get traction with their audience, and that is where they have the highest chance of virality.

Lesson: Could you launch your content where your target market is? A great example of this happening in the SEO community is Stephen Pavlovich’s Definitive Guide To Conversion Rate Optimisation. It’s a fantastic piece of content that was launched on Moz and helped to build Stephen’s name in the industry.

Pro Tip 1: If you’re worried about losing link equity, use the cross domain rel=canonical tag to transfer value back to your site.

Pro Tip 2: If you can’t get your content onto a platform where your target audience is, can you use paid promotion to get your content on there?

Lesson 2: Don’t make links your main objective

We all want more links. But at Distilled we’re now optimising campaigns for other metrics as well.

Question: Would you rather build your brand with new audiences or would you prefer a link from a DA30 site on a page that nobody ever visits and that provides zero referral traffic?

Lesson: Set your content objectives not purely on links or views, but on other levels of engagement. Still factor in links but consider other metrics like sharing, data capture, brand uplift, or online purchases/enquiries.

Lesson 3: Target your content broadly

When you’re creating content at the level of John Lewis, then arguably your audience is the entire population.

As content marketers, we’ve got narrower audiences, but there’s a fine line between targeting your content too broadly:

and targeting your content too narrowly:

Lesson: Make sure that the audience that you are targeting for your content piece is large enough to achieve your objectives. Otherwise you have failed from the start.

Pro Tip 1: If you’re worried about the reach of your target audience, try and combine several audiences into one content piece. Wiep Knol in his Searchlove 2010 presentation (no longer available, unfortunately) gave a great example of combining several target audiences with his piece the “70 Most Beautiful Churches In Europe,” which brought the travel blogging and religious communities together.

Pro Tip 2: Another way you can target content more broadly is geographically. Bingo site TwoLittleFleas has used a US/UK switch on their quiz to broaden their potential audience from 63m (UK population) to 377m (US and UK population).

Pro Tip 3: Another way of targeting your content is including many niche audience groups within a piece of content. This works as the piece of content speaks to pre-existing communities, and their automatic thought when seeing the piece is “that’s for me!.”

The “From Gospel to Grunge: 100 Years of Rock” piece is not just for people interested in music, it also references various music communities and that will encourage people to engage with the piece.

100 Years Of Rock

Lesson 4: Build influencers into your content

John Lewis has embedded an influencer with a massive online community directly into their content. Lily Allen is singing on the ad, which is a pretty clever play from John Lewis considering that she’s got 4.3m followers on Twitter.

Lesson: Build influencers into your content launch plan. Ask them to contribute or comment, give them a free trial, or offer them beta access.

Pro Tip: When doing outreach, find people who you can help out. This changes the mindset from “what can this person do for me” to “how can I help this person” (great tip from Marco Montemagno at SearchLove 2013).

Lesson 5: Focus your marketing on innovators/opinion leaders

Hat tip to Seth Godin (and his Purple Cow) for this one. Why did John Lewis launch their campaign online, even though TV is the primary channel? Because online is where innovators and opinion leaders hang out. These are the people that are on the lookout for something new or different. Innovators and opinion leaders have the ability to change the behaviour of the early and late majority.

Lessons: Opinion leaders matter. Use this process from Richard Baxter to find the influencer intersect for your market, and then build relationships with these people as a long term strategy for success in your space.

Lesson 6: Get your creative right (people need to love your marketing)

Didn’t you know? Google and other social networks (particularly Facebook), are filtering content through to you based on what they think you’ll like. Just because you’re publishing content doesn’t mean your audience is getting it. (not convinced, read this book).

If other people are reading and sharing though, then your content is likely to get through the filters. So people really do need to love your marketing for it to work.

So, how can you get your creative up to scratch?

If you’re just starting out with content marketing, then there are a few things you need to do first:

  • Manage expectations and educate internally that content marketing plays like this can fail.
  • Do something small first that requires limited budget. Build confidence. Get buy in from the C-suite. THEN go big!

Pro Tip 1: Mitigate risk. Offset some of the risks of content marketing by emulating the fundamentals of a piece that has ALREADY been successful in a different geographical location or industry.

Pro Tip 2: Need creative inspiration? Check out this great post from Kelsey Libert on creative ideation, or this classic from Larry Kim “How I got a link from the Wall Street Journal“.

Lesson 7: Spend more on outreach than you are spending on content creation

The John Lewis campaign cost £7m. £6m is going to promotion (advertising). £1m went to creative.

What ratios are you working on in terms of spend on content creation to outreach? The loud and clear message here is that in brand marketing outreach isn’t an afterthought. It’s fundamental to the campaign.

Lesson: Double your outreach budget. Do outreach yourself? Spend twice the amount of time on it for your next project.

Lesson 8: Keep your content non-promotional (but plan for sales post-launch)

If people feel that they are being sold to, they are less likely to share. So keep your content as non-promotional as possible.

Lesson: For your next piece of content, strip out your sales focused header and footer, and remove the sales spiel and the ‘buy’ call to action. This is an example piece of content marketing for Simply Business. As you can see, the content, sharing and utility of the piece is the main focus, not any specific marketing or commercial messages.

Pro Tip: Add remarketing tags to your content so you can promote to your audience at a later date (even if it’s just to promote your next content piece).

Lesson 9: Are you creating a reaction with your audience?

What reaction are you stirring up in your audience? Is it curiosity, surprise, sorrow or pride?

Interestingly, John Lewis adverts are deliberately sad and they evoke an emotional reaction with their choice of music and the story.

Lesson: At the concept stage, if your concept doesn’t evoke a visible reaction with a small group of users, consider it a no-go. No reaction = No social shares.


As content marketers, we know a lot of the strategies and tactics that brand marketers are using. But there’s a big difference between knowing what to do, and actually doing it.

In my opinion, there’s still a lot we can learn from brand marketers, specifically in terms of strategy, scale, reporting and measurement, and ultimately in the results they get. I’m excited about the way that our two industries are converging.

If you need more inspiration here are a list of resources that I follow to keep up to date with the creative digital sector, and of how I keep up to date with what people love online:

Ads/PR/content making waves:

Hope you enjoyed the piece, if you’ve got any examples of great content marketing or brand marketing that have blown you away, drop them in the comments. Would love to see them.

About jamesporter — James is a marketing consultant at Distilled. When not busy praying at the altar of Seth Godin, he can mostly be found writing about himself in the third person.

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