5 Powerful Lessons from Steven Spielberg on Content Marketing

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Content Marketing

When you think about some of the most well-known movies in history – “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” the Indiana Jones series, “Jaws” and “Schindler’s List” – you’ll think of one person: Steven Spielberg. This filmmaker is the creative powerhouse behind these stories, but he didn’t start out that way. He was first a 10-year-old boy playing with trains on the living room floor. He loved crashing those trains, despite his father’s warnings the trains would no longer be fixed if he continued to break them. But the young Spielberg had a solution.

Making short movies using the family video camera, he would capture the scenes, and even if the trains broke, he could relive the epic crashes. As we know, the young boy grew into one of the most powerful movie makers in Hollywood, directing over 50 movies, many of which achieved stellar box-office success.

What does studying the model of Spielberg teach content marketers? Here are five powerful lessons you can start applying today.

1. The Right Partnerships are Critical to Success

Spielberg is an amazing talent, but it takes an army of talented people working behind the scenes, for months before, during, and after shooting, to make each movie a success. The director is notorious for working with the same people for long periods of time on multiple projects. Spielberg said, “I love creating partnerships; I love not having to bear the entire burden of the creative storytelling.”

Spielberg has collaborated with Michael Kahn, a talented film editor who worked on films such as “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Poltergeist,” and “Schindler’s List” over many years. Spielberg also maintained a long collaboration history with John Williams, who has composed music for many famous movies. If you can hum the tune to the introduction of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” you already know Williams’ work.

Content marketers can also experience huge gains from forging the right partnerships. Take, for example, the LinkedIn eBook titled, “The Sophisticated Marketer’s Guide to LinkedIn.”

The guide showcases industry leaders and B2B marketing experts, who shared their most helpful tips. Once the eBook was finished, these influencers shared it with their large audiences, which amplified results and translated into thousands of shares and millions of dollars in new business.

Key takeaway: Spielberg said, “When I was a kid, there was no collaboration; it’s you with a camera bossing your friends around. But as an adult, filmmaking is all about appreciating the talents of the people you surround yourself with and knowing you could never have made any of these films by yourself.”

Align your brand with powerful influencers in your niche to amplify the reach of your content.

2. Create a Sense of Wonder … What’s Coming Next?

Spielberg doesn’t give away the story in the beginning. He keeps the audience engaged by releasing little pieces of the story slowly, which leaves the audience wondering, “What’s coming next?” The filmmaker describes an early event in his life that created that same sense of wonder.

My dad took me out to see a meteor shower when I was a little kid, and it was scary for me because he woke me up in the middle of the night. My heart was beating; I didn’t know what he wanted to do. He wouldn’t tell me, and he put me in the car and we went off, and I saw all these people lying on blankets, looking up at the sky.

How can content marketers infuse their content with a sense of wonder to drive higher engagement? Here are a few tips.

  • Drop early hints. Allude to events that are coming in the near future, to capture attention and pique curiosity.
  • Create a strong narrative. People’s brains are hardwired to thrive on storytelling. In fact, storytelling lights up the same part of the brain as if they actually experienced the event. Creating a strong narrative will help you boost results.
  • Deliver on your promise. Building up suspense will keep the audience on the edge of their seats – but you must deliver. Avoid overhype, and deliver exactly what readers expect.

Key takeaway: Leave your audience wanting more at the beginning, middle and end of content. Never give them what they want up front – keep them hooked and engaged until the very end.

3. Take Note of the Trends … Then Do Something Different

There are many trends in content marketing, such as video, podcasting, and a steady stream of emerging social media tools. Test out these trends, but also seek overlooked gaps. What opportunities exist that nobody is taking advantage of yet?

For example, Spielberg described his work on the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” as different from what existed at the time. Historically, drama and movies about aliens were mostly antagonistic (a la “War of the Worlds,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “The Day the Earth Stood Still”) and highlighted conflict-based interactions between humans and aliens. Spielberg wanted to do something different by providing the audience with a new angle on this type of story. But it was risky. How would the audience respond?

The movie was released in 1977 and grossed $132 million. The risk paid off. (Interestingly, it might have created a mini-trend of imitators, but the most successful alien movies continued to be the scary ones, such as “Predator,” “Alien,” and “Independence Day: Resurgence.”) As a B2B marketer, what would happen if you took a new spin on old trends? Or if you fused two trends together for a new type of strategy?

For example, Microsoft knows that a large pain point for their clients is keeping data safe. As a result, the company wanted to leverage content marketing to explain how the company’s products address that pain point. They launched a new interactive microsite called Anatomy of a Breach.

The interactive site takes a new and different angle, explaining data security through the lens of a data heist. The website puts the reader in the hacker’s viewpoint, which helps them truly understand vulnerabilities and challenges with security. The piece looks expensive, but that helps underscore that Microsoft takes security very seriously.

Key takeaway: Don’t use a strategy because it’s widely adopted by other content marketers. Look at what everyone is doing, and then take a lesson from Spielberg – try something different.

4. Take Risks, Embrace Failure

Attending the University of Southern California film school was a dream of Spielberg’s. In fact, the aspiring filmmaker applied and was rejected three times. Some (probably most) would have become discouraged, but instead, Spielberg took another route – an unpaid internship at Universal Studios in the editing department.

This position led to an opportunity to create a short film that quickly won awards and harnessed attention. A studio VP took notice and awarded Spielberg a seven-year directing contract. So, what’s the lesson for content marketers?

You’re charged with producing results, driving engagement, generating leads, and a variety of other goals. With so much pressure to create success, it’s easy to play it safe and avoid testing new strategies. But even if a new strategy fails, you might discover something unexpected and amazing along the journey.

For example, Sir Alexander Fleming was a scientist who witnessed the death of many soldiers from sepsis in World War I; he was keenly interested in antibacterial substances. In 1928 he was investigating the properties of staphylococci, a type of bacteria. Before leaving on a vacation in August of that year, he had stacked all his cultures of staphylococci on a bench in a corner of his (famously messy) laboratory. On returning, Fleming noticed that one culture was contaminated with a fungus, and that the colonies of staphylococci immediately surrounding the fungus had been dissolved. He had discovered what came to be called “penicillin.” [Editor’s note: hurrah for messy labs and long vacations.]

Key takeaway: Some of the greatest discoveries are made from mistakes. Test new marketing strategies frequently, and if they don’t succeed, study the reasons why in order to make new discoveries.

5. Rally Against First Assumptions

Steven Spielberg explains that when he starts a new project, his assumptions are usually wrong. Neil Patel wrote something similar recently. He describes the dangers of assumptions here:

Want to hear one of the worst things that a marketer can do? Guess. … Guessing rather than knowing often produces serious marketing mistakes. Why is this true? Because our guesses are often wildly inaccurate and strategically dangerous. A guess-based approach to marketing could plunge your business into disaster.

So how can marketers use this information to create better content? In Patel’s article, he explains the most common guesses that marketers are making, including:

  • Making assumptions about their customers
  • Guessing about their social media strategy
  • Making assumptions about general trends based on surveys

For example, let’s say you read that a company experienced a 35% increase in website conversions by simply changing one color on the landing page. Therefore, if you were to change the button on your page, you conclude, it might drive similar results. Instead of trusting this assumption, make the change, then create a split test to measure results. And be aware that even if a general trend is dead on for most companies, it could be dead wrong for your unique situation.

Key takeaway: Identify and challenge your assumptions about existing content marketing strategies. Is there anything you’re assuming? If so, identify such assumptions and challenge each one, for better results.

The Best Ideas Start Out Bad

Spielberg explained “All good ideas start out as bad ideas; that’s why it takes so long.” This famed movie producer has much to say about ideas and creativity that apply for content marketers, but among the many lessons is to continue looking, listening, and seeking new opportunities to reach your target audience.

A topic may be old, like in Spielberg’s alien movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” but new approaches to old topics create surprising levels of engagement. Spielberg said:

Every day of your lives, be ready to hear what whispers in your ear.

Collaborate with others, seek overlooked strategies and iterate freely to design more effective marketing strategies with greater impact.