I’m going to let you in on a little secret: I am a huge content marketing nerd… and sometimes I get REALLY excited when I come across really unique, powerful content marketing innovations. Of course, I love blogs, ebooks, white papers as much as the next guy – but what really gets me inspired is something that feels new or unexpected: a moving video that makes me cry, an interactive piece that blows me away with stunning visuals, or a game that keeps me entertained for hours. These content marketing creations are inspiring, and often, if they’re done really well, they have an impact not only on each person who encounters them – but also the industry at large.

We decided to dig around and come up with some of the most impressive content marketing innovations from the last several years. These awesome brands have been able to change the landscape of content marketing by doing things differently; their unique marketing tactics not only boosted business for a company, but also inspired, entertained, improved and transformed. Check out content marketing innovations from 10 of the top content marketing companies:

McDonald’s Canada – Our Food. Your Questions.

McDonald's Canada has one of the best content marketing innovationsMcDonald’s Canada’s Our Food. Your Questions “transparency” campaign is oft-cited as one of the best content marketing innovations ever created. The fast food giant’s site allows customers to submit questions about the food they’re eating, then receive answers straight from the company. One caveat: in order to have a question answered, a person must share the question they ask on their Facebook or Twitter page. This means that both sides benefit — the company gets extra exposure by showing up on peoples’ Timelines and Twitter feeds, and customers get answers to questions they’ve been dying to figure out.

The Our Food. Your Questions campaign does well: visitors to the site are spending an average of about 4.5 minutes reading the answers to about 12 questions. One of the campaign’s promo videos, addressing why hamburgers look different in stores than they do in ads, garnered about 8 million views on YouTube in less than a year. The success of the campaign can be attributed to several factors: first, it appeals to a long-existent desire to know more about the ingredients in fast food (what is that pink stuff in a Chicken McNugget, anyway?), as well as our culture’s new-ish obsession with health and nutrition. Also – it is a movement towards transparency in marketing; people don’t necessarily want a sugar coated version of the truth – they value honesty and knowledge.

  • Critical acclaim: Deemed by Marketing Magazine as 2012’s Marketer of the Year
  • First Brand to Ever: Successfully use social channels to directly face criticism and improve brand reputation

Ikea – “Happy Inside” Video

Ikea used cats as content marketing innovationsThe folks behind Ikea are kind of sneaky geniuses when it comes to content marketing. One of their best content marketing innovations was a video called “Happy Inside,” created with the help of the ad agency Mother London. The video was part ad and part experiment. In advance of their 2011 catalogue release, the company let 100 house cats loose in the Ikea store in Wembley and they filmed the event. After, they spliced together clips of the cats looking very comfortable on Ikea furniture for and created a television Ad and a YouTube video. The YouTube video quickly went viral (today, it has more than 5 million views).

“Happy Inside” was successful for several reasons. First, it played on peoples’ obsession with cute animal and cat videos: a recent Pew Survey on Video-Sharing found that more than 45% of content uploaded to (and watched) on video sharing sites contains cats and other household pets. And, according to a study by Reel SEO, cat videos receive an average of 12,000 views per video on YouTube (They also have their own offline film festival each year at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis). Also, Ikea’s cute cat video helped make their stores look friendly, inviting and domestic, which encouraged people to go physically shop where all the cats were roaming. Finally, the video allowed for other content marketing opportunities that played off of it: the company created a website using the footage where visitors could guess which piece of furniture a cat would settle down on.

  • Masterful use of: Content that lent itself to virality, in order to naturally encourage exposure
Download our checklist “Ideation Workshop” and go through it during your next ideation session to consistently develop innovative ideas.

Virgin America’s Safety Videos

Virgin America has several content marketing innovationsIf you’ve ever been on a Virgin America flight, there’s a good chance you still have that catchy “Tonight, get ready to fly” refrain still stuck in your head. And, if you do, you’re living proof that the company’s opening safety music video is a success.

(If you’ve never taken a Virgin America flight, here’s the deal: the airline plays an entertaining video on seatback television screens in order to educate people about safety info — instead of having a demonstration by a flight attendant.)

The safety video works for teaching people about what to do in case of an emergency: but it has also become a unique marketing device for the airline. In the 2 weeks after the company uploaded the video to YouTube, it receive over 5.8 million views, 430,000 Facebook shares, and 17,000 tweets! (Today, it’s garnered more than 11.6 million views).

Virgin’s current safety video isn’t their first foray into creative safety announcements-turned-marketing-innovations: the company is credited with actually creating the first entertaining, tongue-in-cheek airline safety video in 2007. That video, which was animated, included witty, dry lines like: “For the .0001 percent of you who have never operated a seatbelt before, it works like this.” Since the success of Virgin’s videos, tons of other airlines have followed suit, creating funny, entertaining, or unique safety videos.

Virgin America’s video strategy is smart because it takes a platform that isn’t necessarily well-suited to a marketing opportunity (a safety announcement) and turns it to a chance for promotion. The video also reaches people somewhere content marketing typically doesn’t – on an airplane flight. Lucky for Virgin America, the song in the current video was written by pop singer-songwriter Todrick Hall – and it’s EXTREMELY catchy – which means that it really sticks with the people after they hear it (you’ve been forewarned!).

  • First brand to ever: come at an airline safety announcement with a witty approach, creating an opportunity to strengthen brand voice and awareness
  • Critical acclaim: Shorty Award 2014, 2014 Webby Award Honoree, Ted Talks 2014 “Ads Worth Spreading” Challenge Winner

American Express – OPEN Forum

open forum is one of the best marketing innovationsIn 2007, American Express launched their OPEN Forum, and it was one of the most transformative content marketing innovations ever. The OPEN Forum (initially a resource available only to American Express cardholders) is a platform that provides resources and insights for small business holders. In 2010, the company made its contents accessible to the public, and it has since become a leading online destination for executives, entrepreneurs, startup heads (and more) looking for business inspiration. The OPEN Forum paved the way for companies who decided to offer content marketing as a service – and it continues to thrive today.

  • Masterful use of: Content marketing as a service

BuzzFeed – Tasty Videos

BuzzFeed Tasty used Facebook's video autplay for content marketing innovationsYou’ve probably seen (and drooled over) those delicious-looking recipe videos from Tasty in your Facebook feed. If you haven’t seen them, they show a person’s hands, from above, preparing a recipe (in fast-motion), set to catchy music. The Tasty videos are one of the genius content marketing innovations by news powerhouse (and now one of the top content marketing companies) BuzzFeed, who decided to create a video series that would draw in the same people its news stories appeal to: the masses.

The recipes included in Tasty’s videos are not haute-cuisines dishes; they’re delicious things that you or I would want to cook for a dinner party for friends or make after work: mini oreo cheesecakes, Greek yogurt veggie dip, and slow cooker shredded chicken tacos. Tasty has been around for a little over a year; but, today, the Facebook page has about 61 million likes.

The success of the Tasty videos can be attributed to many things. They make cooking seem easy and fun; they’re slick and pretty; and they pick recipes that appeal to a variety of palettes. But one reason that BuzzFeed’s creative content marketing approach was innovative is because they were one of the first companies to take advantage of Facebook’s autoplay video platform. Tasty videos are created for the sole purpose of playing on Facebook, and they play automatically when a user scrolls over them. This helps capture the attention of people – whether they were looking for recipe videos — or not. Also, the videos encourage virality, since they are easily shareable.

  • Significant Milestones: The company set the record for the most video views in a single month: 3 billion (across YouTube, Facebook, Vine, and Instagram) in January 2016.
  • Masterful Use of: Facebook’s Autoplay video platform

Marketo – The Big Marketing Activity Coloring Book

a coloring book of marketing innovations for marketersWhen you think B2B content marketing innovations, I bet you don’t think crayons, markers, and colored pencils. You should, however, because in 2011, Marketo hit it big with their very own coloring book about marketing for marketers, “The Big Marketing Activity Coloring Book.”

The downloadable book is 30 pages long, and it is filled with pictures to color, games to play (like Mad Libs), and quizzes (like matching the marketer with the book they’ve written). While creating a coloring book to teach marketers about marketing might seem out of the box – this creative content marketing innovation worked. According to an article about Marketo’s strategies on Contently, the book has been downloaded tens of thousands of times, and it’s helped the company net about $500,000 dollars.

Marketo’s marketing innovation reminds us that marketing doesn’t always have to be serious or “professional.” Sometimes, the best way to approach a campaign is by bringing in fun, entertainment, and lightheartedness – the stuff you liked when you were a kid.

  • People reached: marketers and influencers, who have the know-how and reach to further spread content and encourage virality
  • Masterful use of: play to boost work

Red Bull – Stratos Project

Red Bull is well known for content marketing innovations like the Stratos projectRed Bull is a company that has become well known for their unique marketing innovations. One content marketing innovation that made them pioneers in the field was their Stratos Project, which they began in 2012. For the project, the company live-streamed video of skydiver Felix Baumgartner dropping from near-space (23 miles up) on YouTube.

During the live stream, more than 8 million viewers tuned in – making it the YouTube video with the most concurrent views ever.

Red Bull got a lot of things right when they decided to take on the Stratos Project. First, their subject matter was just plain awesome – who doesn’t want to see a skydiver fall 128,000 feet to the ground faster the speed of sound? They also appealed to the right customer base: people who are interested in adventure, endurance, and pushing the limits. Also, they also made the broadcast an event: to catch the stunt you had to tune in live, which ensured that tons of eyes were looking at the content their brand was sharing with the world. Finally, the jump got a lot of press, and every report mentioned that Red Bull was behind it. This helped boost brand awareness – calling the attention of people who may not have previously known about the event or the brand.

  • Critical acclaim: Sports Emmy for “Outstanding New Approaches – Sports Event coverage”
  • Numerical success: In the 6 months following the event, Red Bull sales rose 7% — to $1.6 billion – in the U.S.

Charmin – SitOrSquat App

Charmin's app is one of the most useful content marketing innovationsSometimes, you just need to make a pit stop when you’re on the go – and it can be annoying when you’re not sure where the closest (usable) restroom is nearby. To solve that problem, paper goods brand Charmin (owned by Proctor and Gamble) decided to team up with an existing app called SitOrSquat Restroom Finder for one of the most useful – and ingenious- content marketing innovations.

SitOrSquat allows people to locate restrooms on the go. One of the best features of the creation, however, is that users of the app can rate each restroom based on its “sit-ability” (meaning, if it’s clean and nice – or not) – which helps encourage user engagement, and helps people avoid gross bathrooms as often as possible. To date, there are more than 100,000 bathrooms listed on the app.

Charmin’s decision to sponsor an existing popular bathroom app app is smart, and innovative, because it links the brand with a relevant, helpful resource in its industry. The branded app provides something useful – not an ad or a chance to shop – helping the company be viewed as a valuable influencer and a trusted resource. (In fact, even Everyday Health’s Crohns Disease Center lists the app as a helpful resource for sufferers of the disease).

  • Masterful use of: synergizing a brand with an existing app to create a relevant, reliable, trusted resource that appeals to the right customer base

WestJet – Christmas Miracle: real-time giving Video 

WestJet's Christmas video is one of the most emotional marketing innovationsCanada-based airline WestJet made a huge content marketing splash when it created the Christmas Miracle: real-time giving video in 2013. The video, which debuted at the start of the holiday season, features pre-flight WestJet passengers arriving at their airline gate, telling Santa Clause (on a television screen) what they want for Christmas. It then shows WestJet employees shopping for those gifts for passengers – then delivering them to passengers via the baggage claim at their destination airport.

WestJet’s unique marketing video is a real tearjerker (better have a box of tissues on-hand before you watch!) It is filled the emotional, joyous reactions of passengers receiving their gifts – which is infectiously happy and uplifting. In just a few days after the company released it, it had been watched more than 13 million times on YouTube – in more than 200 countries. (Today, the video has more than 45 million views).

The company got a lot of things right when it decided to create the Christmas Miracle video. First, it took advantage of the spirit of the season. As we explained in our blog on content marketing for the holidays, people are in a nostalgic, wistful, family-oriented mood during the season – and this piece of content played on that masterfully. Additionally, WestJet took advantage of social channels to encourage sharing. This meant that people disseminated the video on their own, cutting advertising costs for the airline. Finally, it painted the company as a generous, good-spirited, noble brand — awesome for business.

  • Masterful use of: emotion in marketing to create a positive brand image
  • Critical acclaim: Shorty Awards for Best Viral Campaign, Best in Travel, and Best Consumer Brand; Clio Award for Branded Entertainment and Content; Bronze Lions Award at the 2014 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity

The Furrow

Screen Shot 2016-06-28 at 10.33.29 AMWe saved the first for last… but it’s impossible to talk about content marketing innovations without mentioning the first piece of content marketing every created: The Furrow, a magazine created by brand John Deere.

121 years ago, John Deere decided to create a brand magazine to provide helpful info to their customers and potential customers: the American farming community. The magazine was full of farming tips, anecdotal stories about using plows, and more. The Furrow was a huge success: by 1912 (its peak), the magazine more than 4 million readers. Today (despite the decline in popularity of farming) it still has more than 2 million readers globally.

The innovativeness behind The Furrow is straightforward: more than a hundred years before content marketing even became a thing, John Deere was offering published content in order to brand itself as knowledgeable and a thought-leader. The company realized they could provide more value to the world than just their products, and they stepped away from traditional advertising to show that they were a brand with a lot to offer.

  • First brand to ever: use content marketing as a tactic to prove trustworthiness and authority

Using Content Marketing Innovations to Shine

Ultimately, content marketing is about sharing valuable knowledge with the world via publishing platforms in order to prove that you are a knowledgeable, trustworthy company – one worth doing business with. However, the Internet is becoming saturated with content, since people know just how important it is. That’s why content marketing innovations are key – they help top content marketing companies stand out in the vast sea of content that is the Internet – making sure your business gets noticed, and seen for the forward thinking organization it is.