There is a revival of high quality branded content happening right now. Brands like GoPro, Red Bull and Marriott know what Procter & Gamble knew when they created Soap Operas at the dawn of TV; nothing is more powerful than great content. And to create great content you need great talent.
We recently launched the final episode of our series FOOD FOR THOUGHT with Matt Santoro. It is our highest performing series to date with over 1.5 million views and is responsible for doubling our YouTube subscribers from 60,000 to over 120,000 in just two months.
I’ve distilled some learning from the process into three techniques you can use to help you work with YouTube stars and create impactful content.
- Beyond subscriber count: Pick the right talent.
At Quest, we have always taken an innovative approach to building talent relationships and handle them in-house. We don’t write checks in hopes people will say nice things about us. Nor do we blindly ship product to influencers with a note saying “talk about us online!”. Instead we develop a genuine relationship over time and look for opportunities to create something great together. To do that, we move past…
Talent: ”I love your chocolate chip cookie dough bar!”
Brand: “You have millions of subs!”
…to a deeper understanding of our shared values, mission, and why content is central to our collective goals.
Matt Santoro discovered Quest Bars at Buffer Fest in 2014 as he was getting serious about living a healthier lifestyle. He liked Quest Bars so much he vlogged about us. His vlog prompted an amazing phone call about shared passions and goals. That led to a dinner at Playlist Live. After an evening of connection, conversation and Hibachi, we knew we had to make a series together.
Back home at Quest HQ after the Playlist Live dinner, we assembled the team, developed creative, then pitched it to Matt. He shared some feedback and was on a flight to Los Angeles a few weeks later (things always sound so easy in retrospect).
Matt is a huge YouTuber with over 4 million subscribers. That is appealing, of course. But there are many social media stars out there with equal clout. Brands need to dig deeper and understand the purpose of their content (see Simon Sinecks ‘Start with Why’ as a primer) and why a certain YouTuber is the right fit, both for the brand overall and the series itself.
There were three big reasons why Matt was a great fit Quest and Food for Thought:
- Matt is a true super fan and Quest Protein Bars and Powders have helped him live healthier.
- Matt’s style of content speaks to an audience obsessed with learning and growing, two key attributes of the Quest brand
- Matt lives and breathes the Quest lifestyle. He transformed from an office drone to a man who owns his life.
A mismatch between brand and talent will misfire the series and worse, the community. It will erode the fan equity of both the brand and the talent. An easy rule of thumb: If you don’t personally like the talent then your audience probably won’t either. Trust your intuition and pick the right talent, regardless of how many subscribers they have. You can make a great series with someone who has 1,000 subscribers or 10 million but if you’re just writing a check they’ll just be collecting one.
- Content is ubiquitous: Make it good.
YouTube is oversaturated with content; 400 hours of footage are uploaded every minute. When information is cheap, attention is expensive. That means you need to make your content great, or don’t make it at all.
To make great content start with what you want to achieve with it. If you want to see a direct increase in sales or website traffic, then use the tried and true 30 second spot. We leverage our YouTube channel to release commercials during product campaigns. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as you don’t overload your subscribers (brand channel programming is a topic for another day).
If, on the other hand, your aim is to create a series that fans will want to watch and share, then put the content first and the brand second. The digital audience is sophisticated. Don’t think you can just sneak in a commercial and get millions of views. When done correctly, the audience will appreciate how the content came to be – and the brand behind it. But if you turn your series into a commercial, expect a revolt. Or, even worse, crickets.
With Food for Thought, direct mentions of the Quest brand were brief and tongue-in-cheek. I never asked our editors for more Quest shots. In fact, a few times I did the opposite. Matt’s audience seems to appreciate how we enhanced his vlog format and introduced a fun new animated aesthetic. They enjoyed the content and knew we made it with them in mind.
- The Community Dimension: Connecting audiences through Content.
Social content adds an interactive dimension that can not be an afterthought. In fact, interaction must be built in at the planning stage. It’s one thing to hire a YouTube star for your video, hand them a script then call it a day. It’s another for a brand to connect with that star’s community in a meaningful way. When scripting, consider your fans and the YouTuber’s fans. How will they react? How will you comment and share?
All communities have customs, shared vernacular, favorite brands and unique ways of behaving. For instance, Matt has an alter-ego character named Eugene. He makes rare appearances in Matt’s videos and his fans love him. Eugene makes a brief cameo in Food for Thought. We weren’t sure how Quest fans, and others unfamiliar with Matt, would react since they weren’t in on the gag. In retrospect, we could have used Eugene for the entire episode. Those who understood loved it. Those who didn’t weren’t turned off and instead were brought deeper into Matt’s ecosystem.
When entering a new community, a brand must enter with grace. Know the customs of the community – both in the content itself and in the way you interact in the comments – to earn your place within the community.
Matt’s audience and Quest’s audience are very similar according to YouTube analytics (although he skews more male) so the Quest voice wasn’t forced or off center. The similarities made Food for Thought an effective bridge to bring Matt’s audience to Quest. Our other content will, hopefully, keep them engaged.
We picked the right talent, made compelling content and authentically bridged Matt’s community to Quest’s. By executing the three techniques we doubled our YouTube community and, in the process, raised awareness for all things Quest. Matt has been incredibly generous in sharing Food for Thought across his social channels and even gave us a main channel shout out. He went above and beyond what any contract said because he was proud of the show. Matt wanted his fans to see it, which in the end is the ultimate litmus test.
At Quest we are obsessed with learning. It all started with reading at 3x speed through Audible. That allows me to go through three books a month during my commute.
But that’s not enough.
So we decided to create a weekly talk show called Inside Quest. On it, we bring on amazing people like Tim Ferriss, Ryan Holiday and Robert Greene and get them to reveal their secrets.
And reveal they do.
Check out the Tim Ferriss’ episode below (which you can play back at 2x speed) to get a taste but you should really subscribe to the channel.
I had a great time on Eric Siu’s Growth Everywhere show. See embed below for the full episode. Eric knows the space better than most, so he asks great questions and surfaces a lot of actionable advice.
We cover content creation, hiring, culture, SEO, the media mix and more!
Pro Tip: Playback at 2x speed. It doesn’t look like that feature is live yet on YouTube embeds, but if you click through to the episode page, the settings icon appears and you can select 2x there. It’s how I listen to all interviews and lectures on YouTube. All the info in half the time!
Watch how Quest went from an impossible dream to the food company loved by millions.
I had a great time at Playlist Live and joining their business panel with guests Shay Butler, ShayCarl / Shaytards; Chrystina Woody, VP of Communications, StyleHaul; Will Keenan, President, Endemol Beyond; Jonathan Weilbaecher, VP of Optimization and Content Strategy, Collective Digital Studio; Adam Klaff, Head of Business, Development, VHX; Ali Adab, VP Content & Partnerships, BroadbandTV.
It was late 2012. If Quest was a child it would have been at the peak of the awkward puberty stage; A middle schooler who just returned home from the dentist with a full set of braces. Quest was becoming something special, but it wasn’t fully formed.
Case in point: the back of the box of Quest Bars.
It all started with a late night email. I don’t remember what the email was about anymore, but someone said that Quest needed to be “less intense” and “a little more normal”. In a 10-minute fury of passion, I wrote the ‘You Are Intense’ manifesto, originally as a reply to the email.
The Quest Manifesto was a hit internally. We had long bemoaned how hard it was to put the Quest spirit into words. It would always come out as trite. ‘You Are Intense’ seemed to actually do the trick.
We turned the Manifesto into posters that were included with orders. We hung it around the office. When we launched Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Quest Bars, and needed copy for the back of the box, the obvious choice, of course, was ‘You are Intense’. All subsequent flavors got it too.
There are now millions of boxes out in the world with those words printed on them. We receive emails from fans around the world describing how they’ve hung the back of our box on their wall. A kindergarten teacher sent a picture of it in her classroom. When I first interviewed Jessica-Rose, who would eventually become the head of our customer support, she told me the back of the box changed her life.
We put the soul of Quest into words. People responded, loudly. But was it the right external representation? It spoke to us as people, but was it Quest the brand?
It was time to define our brand position.
Brand position is communicated by the gestalt of what you release into the world. It’s the totality of copy, colors and images. You can’t declare your brand to be something. Your brand is something. All of the elements add up to a cohesive whole. Small day-to-day choices make up that whole. And as evident by ‘You are Intense’, those choices can spread across the entire brand quickly.
Later in 2013, Quest President Tom Bilyeu, our community manager Clark, and I locked ourselves in a conference room. We weren’t going to leave until we had a campaign that accurately described who Quest was. We wanted to show people how amazing, fun and delicious a healthy lifestyle can be. We wanted to spark people’s creativity and get them to find joy in healthy food.
Our brainstorm took less than an hour. We left the room with a clear position and a new mantra: #CheatClean. It was one of those lightbulb moments. The brand position had always been right under our nose. Now it was completely defined; Make healthy eating fun.
At the 2013 Mr Olympia, our new position was brought to life. Mr. Olympia is one of the biggest sports nutrition trade shows with over 50,000 fans in attendance. Tom and I were looking at other booths and exclaimed how the Quest booth stood out. We were full of clean and delicious food. Every other booth had images of sweating six pack abs, veiny biceps, and necks draped in chains. We would later dub this ‘Chains and Veins’. It perfectly describes the standard brand position companies in sports nutrition employ.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of doing what everyone else in an industry is doing. It’s safe. It’s obvious. It’s expected. But it tricks you into being one of many. ‘You are Intense’ is the written version of Veins and Chains. As was clear at the Mr. Olympia, there are plenty of fitness companies reminding people to be intense. But Quest’s job as a food company is to show fans that healthy eating can be fun. ‘You are Intense’ didn’t do that.
Having copy that wasn’t perfect didn’t slow down our growth. Using it for the back of the box of Chocolate Chip Cookie Doug was better than delaying for something better. As Steve Jobs said, “Real artist ship”. Often times, something is better than nothing. ‘You are Intense’ worked in the moment, for the moment. It will forever live on as an important part of the Quest spirit. An internal rally cry. A revealing glimpse at what it takes to be part of this family. The words ring just as true today as they did in that first email. It just isn’t our brand position.
The new design for the back of our boxes rolls out in a few months. Anyone who follows the Quest brand won’t be surprised by what they see; Recipes with beautiful photography. With the introduction of the new back of the box, our braces will be removed to reveal a bright Quest smile. Our spirit may not be normal, but our brand is clean and delicious. We now fully reflect that.
It’s very exciting to finally release our 30 second spot for Quest Protein Chips! We created this entirely in-house from script to screen. Our design, media and 3D teams came together to make this something special.
The spot will run organically on YouTube and Facebook first and we’ll follow it up with targeted media buys. Depending on performance we’ll bring it to other platforms across the web. This is our first ‘traditional’ ad so we had a lot of fun working in the 30 second format.
Check it out below!
It was the beginning of a non-stop day at Quest HQ with questions and ideas coming from every corner of the office; YouTube series ideas and talent questions, chips retail launch specs and what about that new ad format? Keeping up with the outside world, I checked Google Analytics to see how e-com was doing.
I stopped in my tracks.
We had more than five times the active users that we should see on a normal day. How could that be possible? It was not as much traffic as we’d get during a new product launch but the numbers were huge. Too huge.
I raced over to our social team. Nothing was out of the ordinary. All systems normal over at E-com and customer support. Tech confirmed the traffic spike and said the site was holding up fine (This much traffic would have killed our site just two years ago).
We weren’t getting a Denial of Service attack nor had Justin Beiber tweeted about us. Still, I needed to know what was going on. The mystery remained until, a few hours later, our community manager found it. A tweet from Orange is the New Black actress Alysia Reiner. It was an US Magazine article.
“Snacks in my bag, thx jimmy choo (big clutch)”: The actress made sure to stock her clutch with snacks to get through the long night ahead.
The magazine article is about Alysia at the Emmys. Nothing health or fitness related. Quest isn’t mentioned by name. There’s no link to our website. It’s just the above image. A high barrier to entry for a new visitor requiring the disruption of their current flow (browsing US Magazine) to open a new tab and do a Google search for ‘Quest Bar’.
Yet tens of thousands US Magazine readers came to the Quest website.
Quest is built around the social experience, so blending social with a celebrity and a mainstream source like US Magazine is a big win. While I’d like to take credit for the magazine placement myself, or give credit to our PR team, I can’t. Alysia Reiner is simply an authentic fan of our products. Ultimately, that is better than any orchestrated post could ever be. All good news then, right? Countless people were being introduced to Quest for the first time. Protein shakes for everyone! Not so fast.
This massive influx of new visitors brought with them the opportunity for me and our team to learn. And there was a big lesson waiting to be learned. Throughout the two-day traffic spike one key metric wasn’t budging. Sales.
Most of the new visitors landed on our Protein Bars page (third organic Google result) instead of our home page (first and second organic Google result). That’s far from the ideal flow. The Protein Bars page isn’t helpful to a new customer – and is rarely the first thing they see. The user experience of that page was designed to easily select and order different flavors of Quest Bars. It wasn’t made with an US Magazine reader in mind; a person who knows nothing about Quest. Over half of these new visitors didn’t make it past the Protein Bars page. Conversions didn’t increase in relation to the traffic either. Tons of impressions, high bounce and a low conversion rate – the stuff of e-com nightmares.
By 7pm the traffic spike was holding strong but the office had finally started to calm. I took a moment to consider the US Magazine audience and put myself into their mindset. I thought about their experience as they spent an average of 2.5 minutes on our site. What did they see? What did they think? How did they feel?
They didn’t see our amazing community, our fun content or delicious recipes. Since most people didn’t click past the Protein Bars Page, they didn’t even know what makes a Quest Bar special – the features and benefits that any Quest fan could recite in their sleep. Without a broader context, these new users simply left the site, hungry for some more celebrity gossip.
Not all is lost, however. We got our first ‘touch’ with a lot of new potential fans. In the coming weeks, a retargeted banner ad, a 15 second recipe, or a Transformation of the Week will hopefully bring them back. Maybe one of their friends is already a Quest fan and will share one of our Wednesday memes. Quest is now the radar of a lot of people who had never heard of us. A classic PR win.
More importantly, however, the traffic surge prompted us to think about user flow from different entry points and demographics. Our UX designer is re-thinking how to layout the page and our E-Com team is working on our sales funnel. It’s useful to challenge base assumptions (no one is landing on the Protein Bars page) that may lead to new opportunities (what if they do?). These basic techniques are easy to lose sight of when you’re growing fast but can be more profound than a fancy new software suite or behavioral ad targeting solution.
It’s helpful to take a moment and think about your site from the perspective of someone outside your niche market. What will happen when US Magazine posts a picture of your product?
Picture tens of thousands of fans waiting by their computers, refreshing a website to pre-order the hot new product. Is it the iPhone 6? Oculus Rift? Nope, it’s a bag of chips.
How do you pre-sell chips on the internet? Through the power of community.
Quest’s product launch strategy is unique within the food and fitness industries. By building a massive community, we are able to market and build buzz for new products to over 1 million consumers. We fuel Quest’s online ecosystem with high value content (videos, images, blogs) that fans love to talk about and share on our social channels and their own. And when it comes to launching a new product, our fans get just as excited as we do.
Read on for the three stage product strategy. Note: All social posts are embeds from the original source so the Likes, Shares and Comments are in real time.
Stage 1: HYPE
It had been almost 8 months since we launched our latest Quest Bar flavor, Cookies and Cream. Fans were hungry for something new. When we teased the above image the fans were ignited and immediately began speculation in the comment thread, on personal social channels, message boards and blogs. Most assumed we were releasing another Quest Bar flavor. The image contained a clue however; to a discerning fan, the wrapper was clearly not from a Quest Bar.
The next day we made it clear we weren’t just releasing a new protein bar flavor, but a whole new product line. At this point, speculation shifted from bar flavor ideas to new product ideas. Some users went so far as looking up our trademark filings in hopes of discovering what the new product was.
It’s fun to see fans getting excited and it would be easy to prolong the hype stage for weeks. But this is a short marketing cycle. 15-second attention spans mean that your marketing campaign will only stay top of mind for a few days. Build hype for too long and fans will either forget about your product or get tired of the message. React in real time. Think of yourself as the director of a film, adjusting performances to get a specific audience reaction.
Quest Memes consistently garner the highest engagement, so we used them as part of the chips hype cycle. These images get a lot of shares, tags and regrams, which help circulate the message to an extended audience who may not engage with the Quest brand.
People have been burned for decades with the notion of ‘healthier’ chips which have slightly fewer carbs and a little more protein, but are not actually good for you. We had to make it clear that our product really was different from a nutrition standpoint but still tasted as good as traditional potato chips.
The first few hundred bags of Quest Protein Chips that came off the production line were next-day aired to key influencers. The influencers received a cryptic email letting them know we had sent them a new product and asking them to record their reaction. The turnaround would be tight. We needed their reaction videos back within 24 hours so we could edit the clips into a teaser and a reveal video. The influencers would then post their reaction videos to their social channels the day after.
STAGE 2: REVEAL
While the fans couldn’t sample the chips themselves, if taste-testing influencers liked the new product, chances are the fans would too. While a bigger brand may have controlled product sampling and feedback tightly, we wanted honest reactions. The influencers didn’t receive talking points or rules dictating what the could or couldn’t say. All we wanted was the truth — and we were willing to share that truth with the rest of our fans in a very transparent way.
Videos often gets lower engagement for us, especially on Facebook. This image announced the Protein Chips along with the flavor assortment and release information. Ultimately, the video generated thousands of organic impressions with an amazing reach and outperformed the image. Our core fan base and their friends all knew about Quest Protein Chips before we even began accepting orders. Our ‘talking about’ on Facebook jumped 60% and new fan acquisition increased 66% over the week prior.
Our influencers began uploading their full unboxing videos to Instagram and YouTube which have over 180,000 views on YouTube.
STAGE 3: RELEASE
Unique views to QuestNutrition.com spiked to over 220% above normal throughout the day. Our Amazon Web Services hosting scaled to match the task, unlike years prior when our site would go down minutes after we opened up a pre-sale.
There’s social capital gained from being the first amongst your friends to post a picture of the new Quest product. It’s a signal that you are not only part of the club, but a top-ranking early adopter within it.
Our #HappyFriday image became our most Liked image on Instagram, ever. It was the first image of the Protein Chips in the hands of a consumer. We had a different image ready to post for this day, but a fan submitted image was far more powerful than what we generated internally. It’s a case of letting go of your marketing and giving the fans control.
The entire week saw a unique traffic lift of nearly 100% with sales to match.
Bonus stage – STAGE 4: RETAIL
One benefit of releasing direct-to-consumer first is that we get feedback on the new product, ranging from taste to how it arrives when we ship. Hearing directly from our fans allows us to make changes before going out to our 10,000+ retail partners. When done correctly, it’s only a matter of days before fans post asking when they can purchase the new product at GNC, Vitamin Shoppe, 24 Hour Fitness or other sports nutrition retailer. With Protein Chips, the requests started before the pre-sale even began.
It was clear that our fans wanted Quest Protein Chips in stores as soon as possible. Our retail partners felt the same way. Sending a new product through the retail channel takes time to coordinate and ship, but Protein Chips will be in stores soon. This will create a second round of fan excitement and opportunities that are unique to the in-store environment with in-person interaction.
Your relationship with your fans is like any relationship, online or off. It’s a give and take. When it comes to the fan/brand relationship I’d reframe that to give and ask. I suggest to give exponentially more than you ask for. When you do, fans will come out in a big way to enjoy the excitement and support a brand that they love. Break down your release schedule, be aware how long you can stay top of mind, react in real time and give your fans control.
When I last posted in 2011, I had left Michael Eisner’s new media company, Vuguru, and was recruited to lead marketing for Quest Nutrition. My decision to join Quest, a young and unknown protein bar company, seemed crazy to most. But I saw it as the perfect opportunity to combine my passions for community-building, innovative storytelling and technology to help create something great. My vision was to build the Quest brand by creating a dynamic online community fueled by high-quality content. From the beginning the company’s founders knew that social media would be the key to the brand’s success. It was never a question of IF we should do social, it was only how we would do it and how far we could take it.
After joining Quest things moved quickly. By tapping into existing communities in the bodybuilding space we got instant feedback and early adopters. Word spread and soon there was a grassroots movement, powered by the fans, to get Quest Bars stocked in specialty retail like GNC and The Vitamin Shoppe. By providing high value niche content our fan base grew by hundreds – then thousands – per day. Super fans emerged. People engaged with Quest – and those interactions turned into conversions. Our vision of leveraging the power of social to build a strong brand was becoming a reality.
Quest is now the best-selling protein bar in the sports nutrition category with more than 1.2 million fans across the primary social networks. Our headquarters has a 10,000 square foot soundstage used by a team of full-time directors, editors and producers creating world-class branded content. Social is at the forefront of our every decision, from product release strategy to how we discount our once-a-year sale. Nearly every marketing dollar goes toward our online platforms or product sampling and events. Quest has achieved best-in-class status while completely avoiding traditional marketing channels. And I’ve made quite a few protein bars along the way.
The journey at Quest has barely begun. By working side-by-side with three incredible entrepreneurs, and pushing myself and the brand everyday, I’ve learned a lot about what it takes to walk the path. After a three year blogging hiatus I am excited to relaunch so I can add to the social marketing conversation. So join me here as I explore brand building in the social age…