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The Command Line Heroes podcast is best described as branded content. Branded content is a type of content marketing where companies raise awareness and build brand affinity by creating content that’s valuable, useful, and does not interrupt the lives of our audiences.
Branded content like Command Line Heroes supports our company identity. It establishes Red Hat’s commitment to preserving and growing the open source movement and benefits both communities and enterprises.
Here are a few of the strategies the team used:
Using third-party "ambassador" Saron Yitbarek to tell the story instead of Red Hat marketing
Avoiding classic B2B marketing and advertising, which relies on features and benefits instead of a human connection
Engaging a specific audience—developers—with valuable, entertaining, and informative content
Using B2C content marketing that meets both the informational and emotional needs of the audience
Creating cross-channel social and web content with lots of opportunities for the audience to engage
Since the start of Season 2, we’ve surpassed 500,000 downloads.
Branded content shows up in many formats—podcasts, films, long-form articles, apps, and more. To illustrate, here are two examples of highly successful branded content. I chose these examples because the value they provide is very different.
While one successful approach capitalizes on users’ needs for detailed information, the other appeals to emotional needs. To succeed, branded content should balance these two values and not attempt to sell products or services. The point is to connect, not to sell or persuade.
Nike and Dove: Branded content winners
Nike+ Run Club app
The Nike+ Run Club application helps users manage their workouts and health. It's been successful because it provides valuable information to runners: pace, distance, goals, and other stats. It even integrates with Headspace, so users can listen to encouraging guided meditation exercises while they run.
There’s no question Nike+ Run Club is branded content. It has prominent Nike branding and the color palette and design are familiar to anyone who’s seen an ad from the shoe company.
However, the app does not sell sports attire. Rather, it’s meant to show that Nike understands athletes and can provide them with valuable insight about their goals and milestones. Thus, the app builds trust and brand partiality, an extremely valuable sentiment in an era of content bloat and rampant digital advertising—most of which interrupts or distracts us from what we actually want to do.
Dove Real Beauty sketches
In 2013, Dove launched a 6-minute video called Real Beauty Sketches, which still stands as one of the most-cited examples of successful branded content. Unlike the Nike+ Run Club, the Dove campaign appeals to viewers by eliciting positive emotions.
The video revolves around two portraits of a woman—one created based on her description of herself, and the other based on a description provided by a stranger. The contrast between the images was stark. Whereas the self-described portrait emphasized perceived flaws, the stranger’s portraits were simple and elegant.
The Real Beauty Sketches video is not an ad and does not feature Dove products. Instead, it delivers the message that beauty is highly subjective and that self-criticism erodes our sense of personal inner and outer beauty. The video is a reminder to the audience of how harshly we judge ourselves and how those judgments affect our confidence.
These two examples shed light on key aspects of building successful branded content: a focus on value to the audience, authenticity, and a light brand touch.
Branded content vs. advertising
Stephanie Oakley, a film director at 72andSunny, says about creating branded content, "The craft will always matter in terms of being able to engage people with a conversation...It’s a way for brands to be relevant and to matter to people. Not just through a television commercial or a print ad, but to connect in many different ways. I have great hopes for it."
Creating branded content can be tricky, because it needs to provide value to the audience, whether or not they are a customer. It’s not intended to persuade someone to make a purchase but rather to bolster a company’s authenticity and visibility in a crowded media landscape. At Red Hat, in addition to brand awareness, it demonstrates commitment to our values while also providing something to our audience that is useful, relevant, and entertaining.
Command Line Heroes as branded content
In addition to the brand awareness and affinity goals of Command Line Heroes and other projects, branded content helps us accomplish simpler, more concrete objectives. Here are just a few of them.
Branded content is an opportunity to create content to fulfill important, overarching editorial objectives. One of our mandates is to connect with the developer audience, and Command Line Heroes is an experiment in reaching out to this (rather niche) audience, instead of speaking to the entire public.
The podcast also supports other important themes like the power of open source, containers, hybrid cloud computing, and more, without sacrificing the authentic voices of non-Red Hatters sharing their perspectives about the tech industry. In fact, the Command Line Heroes crew decided to limit Red Hatter interviews, both to avoid over-branding the podcast and to highlight the voices of the community we serve.
It is difficult to juggle product launches, events, and other company milestones with editorial priorities. Branded content is one way to close the gap between what we need to create to support our organization and what we should create to grow our audience by making a platform where people can talk about topics that matter.
Appreciation for long-form and audio content
Command Line Heroes and its supporting content boosts the authority of our brand, which in turn benefits our perceived value by the public. It also helps with search-engine optimization (SEO), largely because of the detailed, authentic content we provide to our audience.
Research from the Brookings Institution shows that digitally savvy audiences favor long-form content and freely engage with lengthy articles. When mobile-first exploded onto the content distribution scene in the late 2000s, publishers worried that small screen sizes and endless distractions meant that readers would not engage with long-form content. In fact, the opposite is the case—people are willing to read, listen to, and engage with long pieces of content when it is useful and authentic.
Early estimates from Apple analytics on podcast listening show that 80-90% of listeners complete podcast episodes once they start. Command Line Heroes enjoyed a 90% completion rate during season 1. You can clearly see how audiences prefer detailed content over traditional advertising.
According to research from Hubspot, the average click-through rate (CTR) for paid search ads is less than 2%, and the average CTR for display ads is 0.35%. Further, 65% of skip digital video ads on platforms like YouTube. Together, these statistics suggest that delivering brand messages "the old-fashioned way" is getting harder by the day. This shift is one reason branded content (done the right way) is so exciting.
Cross-channel content experiences
Branded content projects at Red Hat are inherently cross-channel, building a consistent experience across numerous platforms. We want our audience to engage with us in many ways, and projects like Command Line Heroes are well-suited to multichannel content distribution.
Below is a screenshot of the Command Line Heroes page for season 1, episode 1. There are numerous ways for the audience to get something valuable from the page and the project. There are show notes and a blog post about Linux that sheds more light on the OS wars between Apple and Microsoft. There’s interesting art that makes the computer nerds of the ‘80s look like ancient Greek warriors. For folks who really want to get their hands dirty, the page features a blog post about installing SQL Server on Red Hat Enterprise Linux using Red Hat Ansible Automation.
Command Line Heroes is on social media as well, encouraging conversation with the audience. For instance, take a look at this Twitter poll that ties into the Season 2, episode 1. The episode focused on classic video games, and the associated poll got enthusiastic results.
Social proof and trust
The show host Saron, podcast guests, and other members of the open source community lend their authority to Command Line Heroes. This sort of social proof, where non-Red Hatters create buzz around our work, can make the content (and thus our message) more accessible than traditional marketing materials. As a result, we expand our reach and offer the audience many different ways to participate.
Saron is an important part of establishing trust for the podcast, partly due to her contributions to the tech field— including founding CodeNewbie and serving as editor for Tech Jobs Academy. Her credibility in the developer community and curious, open way of exploring the topics welcomes listeners of all skill levels.
Trust is one of the most important currencies of the internet age, and people are inclined to trust their networks. A recent report found that 38% of people trust influencers more than brands. Appealing to people’s humanity is a key benefit of branded content.
Search engine optimization experts claim that Google favors well-established brands in search because they attract links and are an authoritative source of information. Content that supports a coherent identity for our brand can increase our domain authority and rankings in Google search. This is not to say that brand itself is a ranking factor, but Google’s algorithm is (in part) designed to identify trustworthy sources of information, and brands that routinely publish high-quality, useful content reap rewards in organic search.
Command Line Heroes and similar projects typically produce two other kinds of content that can be useful in search: long-form content and engaging social media posts.
Google does not simply rank long-form content higher than shorter pages, nor does it (officially) take social media into account, except for links to our web domains. However, some search experts Neil Patel, Rand Fishkin of Moz, and SearchMetrics—to name just a few—argue that social traffic has an important and positive impact on SEO. And this article from Search Engine Land sums up the view that (good) long-form content is great for SEO.
Red Hat branded content projects like Command Line Heroes and the open hardware article series Because We Had To are assets to SEO strategy. Why? Both long-form content and social engagement are signals that the content we produce is useful and interesting to people, and these projects rely heavily on social engagement and an audience that really digs into the content.
A tale of 2 Dungeons & Dragons magazines
This final example of branded content is in the spirit of Command Line Heroes’ emphasis on gaming in the first episode of season 2.
Dungeons & Dragons is a popular pastime for nerds of all kinds, myself included. I was a Dungeon Master (DM)—technically, my group called me the Dungeon Mistress. I spent countless hours hurling pretend orcs and goblins at my friends, rolling dice, and snacking.
One of the problems with being a DM was that it was hard to come up with new adventures. That’s where Dungeon and Dragon, the 2 branded magazines from TSR, the company that made D&D, came in. Each magazine served a distinct purpose. Dragon was full of new rules and chatty articles and reviews of the best games. Dungeon was a bimonthly filled with adventure plans, complete with maps and artwork, written by members of the worldwide D&D community.
Although you had to pay for the magazines, these branded content projects helped TSR build a wider community of gamers and generate excitement about D&D.
What we’re doing with Command Line Heroes, Open Source Stories, Because We Had To, and other branded content projects at Red Hat is basically the same—we’re telling our audience that open source matters, that it’s exciting, and that we are here as a company to nurture and protect it.