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Everyone is doing “content marketing” right now, whether they need it or not (ok, in most cases they DO actually need it, but not ALWAYS and not always in the way they think it should be done).

Or are they?

There remain a core of industries that seem reluctant to embrace direct, meaningful interaction with their customers. Like the pimply-faced wallflowers of high school, these stodgy behemoths avoid going to the big dance for fear of rejection by girls (customers) and wedgies from bullies (regulatory and compliance agencies), never realizing that had they just traded in their glasses for contacts and switched to an acne-fighting facial cleanser, they would look like Fabio circa 1995.

This month, we’re looking at the financial services industry, and looking at them hard. In our last post on the topic, we talked about how formal finance writing doesn’t have to be boring finance writing. We looked at some basic strategies you can use right now to make your expertise and services if not exciting, at least interesting and useful (which is way better than exciting anyway). In this installment, we’ll be looking at some financial services companies that are doing it right. Some of them even manage to get people excited. Some of them manage to get a LOT of people excited, thus proving that it can be done.

On our madcap tour of the various vagaries of content marketing for financial service firms, we’ll look at some of the biggest names in banking, financial advice, investing, and insurance. Each of them captures, in their own way, the soul of good content marketing and runs with it to great success. Which is exactly the point. There’s no single right way to do this. It’s not just about getting customers. It’s not even just about telling a story. It’s about telling YOUR story to YOUR customers (and prospective customers) in a way that reflects YOUR values, ideals, motivations, and strengths. Think of content marketing as your company’s biography-in-progress and you’ll easily be able to take financial service content from bland to breathtaking.

1. Mint Life (www.mint.com/blog/)
Mint.com, Personal Finance Management Tool

Mint has been the Internet darling of financial services companies since it debuted way back in the stone age of Internet startup fever v2.0. Granted, a lot of that has to do with the fact that they offer a genuinely useful and cool product, but really, who doesn’t? Remember, flash is not the same as substance, and most financial planners offer tools just as useful, if a little less design-savvy and not as web-two-point-oh-y. What REALLY sets Mint.com apart, though, is their great content, and their even better content process.

First, Mint opted to hire professionals to examine their space and give them a plan for navigating it. The importance of having an outsider look at what you are, what you’re doing, and where you want to be cannot be overstated. An outside consultant can see things about your business and industry that you might have become blinded to from being in the thick of things every day. Then, once they had a solid sense of their space, they hired top notch editors and told them to keep the content quality high and damn the cost. That’s really all it takes – set the bar high, and make sure the culture in your marketing department is one of keeping it high instead of cost-cutting at every opportunity.

Oh, and cultivate partnerships. As many as you can. A good blogging network behind you will do wonders for your credibility and your SEO. There is no doubt that without a network of solid and excited bloggers, Mint would not rule their particular corner of the financial blogosphere.

2. Liberty Tax Service (https://www.facebook.com/libertytax/app_111917138820507)
Individual Tax Preparation Service

Most companies, especially of the midsize variety, still treat their social media strategy as a thing separate and apart from the rest of their content plans. This is bad. Others use their social presence as little more than a megaphone to throw their content out there and hope something sticks somewhere.

Not so with Liberty Tax Service. Not having the tremendous budget of H&R Block to swamp consumers in radio, tv, and print ads, the consumer tax prep service went directly to their ideal customers with a social campaign. Unlike most companies executing social, though, they opted not to simply use their facebook page as a giant billboard. Instead, they listened to the conversations already going on among customers they wanted and joined in when appropriate, posting things that were related to taxes and personal finance in general, but not directly advertising their services.

This strategy of extremely-soft selling has seemed to pay off in spades for Liberty, with the page garnering comments, likes, conversations, and customers by the thousands. To keep their fans engaged, Liberty cranked out games and other apps that did as much to entertain as they did to keep Liberty top-of-mind for consumers.

Of course, all is not rosy. The change in Facebook’s format for business pages has disrupted the previously beautiful landing page Liberty Tax Service built, though they have certainly rebounded from that. They also suffer from public customer complaints on their pages, but handle them with tact and aplomb (as every company should) which sends a strong message to other customers that if they have a problem, they will be taken care of.

3. Liberty Mutual (http://responsibility-project.libertymutual.com/)
Diversified Global Insurer

Some content marketers are content with a blog. Some back it up with a social channel or two. Really ambitious ons create videos, podcasts, and games to really drive home the message. Then there’s Liberty Mutual. Instead of opting for the mundane, they launched a massive global campaign called the Responsibility Project. Covering print, TV, radio, outdoor advertising, a stand-alone web magazine, and countless other media, the Responsibility Project is the pinnacle of content marketing perfection.

Spurred by a sharp decline in the trust consumers show for financial and insurance firms, Liberty Mutual decided to single-handedly try to change that perception. Building a branding push on the idea of responsibility, Liberty decided to forgo tooting its own horn and instead focused on responsibility as it is displayed elsewhere in the real world. A quick sampling of the headlines being featured while I’m writing this runs the whole gamut of the human experience. From an elderly couple discussing living in the same house for nearly half a century before moving to a retirement home, to a interview with a famous musician on responsibility and the arts, to a profile of a Brazilian rower hoping to win glory, fame, and respect for his nation in the Olympics.

The truly awe inspiring part of Liberty Mutual’s strategy isn’t that they have fully embraced content marketing. That’s just good business sense. The really REALLY shocking facet of this whole campaign is that in terms of content quality, Liberty Mutual far surpasses many current publications, online and off. What’s more, it does so in a way that doesn’t tarnish its writing with a patina of corporate sleeze and pay-for-play commercially bought editorials as is common in so many “real” publications. Sure, at the end of the day we all know that this bastion of quality editorial work is paid for entirely by a corporate giant that hopes to turn you into a customer, but it often feels more genuine and honest than reading articles in, say, The Huffington Post or other AOL properties and wondering how much a PR company paid for that particular placement.

The Responsibility Project teaches us that custom publishing can be phenomenally successful, and offers a glimmer of hope that a new model for publishing can emerge from the ruinous wreck of “click-bait” garbage produced by the current crop of publishing powerhouses.

4. thinkMoney(https://www.thinkorswim.com/tos/displayPage.tos?webpage=thinkMoney)
TDAmeritrade, Brokerage

TDAmeritrade is a lesson both in how to do content really well, and how to do content…less well. We’ll start with the good: thinkMoney magazine. Some people see a trend and they jump on it. Others see a trend and they decide to get so far ahead of them that they become the trend, while everyone else stands back to watch in awe. This was the case with thinkMoney, TDAs foray into custom digital publishing. It is incredible, both for the quality of its content and the overall production value. Really, it puts a lot of actual print magazines to shame.

As with Liberty Mutual, TDAmeritrade decided that the way they were going to capture customers was to give them the highest quality financial information possible and do so in a way that was easy to get to and visually appealing. Eschewing Liberty’s standalone blog/e-publisher strategy, though, they chose to go old-school and put out a magazine. This makes a lot of sense since TDAmeritrade likely has an older, more affluent, more conservative audience to cater to. A standalone site like The Responsibility Project might not have been of interest to their particular clientele.

It also makes sense since financial news is a lot less visually compelling. Putting a traditionally laid out digital magazine together offered them the benefit of having to worry less about stunning photo and cinematography and more about putting out fantastic financial advice that was of interest to their readers. Finally, they get to use it twice – once in electronic format, and once in print when they send it out every quarter.

Now on to the bad: login walling. For a long time, most of this content was hidden behind the nine little words that will kill any serious content marketing campaign: “Please log in or sign up to see more”. Now, I have no problem with paywalls, whether that payment is cash or your personal info, and I think more publishers should begin charging for content. Ad supported content simply isn’t sustainable. I DO have a problem with a content marketing strategy that treats the strategy as the product itself. Listen, TD, you aren’t selling magazines. You’re selling trading software. Putting up a login wall around your best content just means that less people will be able to see it, and since the whole point of content marketing is to get noticed, that seems a little silly. Luckily, TDA has since got the hang of this thing and no longer blocks their digital mag. At least they learned their lesson, and you should to: content marketing bait wants to be free.

5. Open View Venture Partner (http://goo.gl/sP3xs)
Venture Capital Firm

You thought that every item on this list would be shiny, flashy, and web 2.0-y, didn’t you? It’s not, and there are two reasons for that: One, great content stands on it’s own. Many people forget that long before web 2.0, there was web 1.0, full of pages upon pages of black text on a white screen that still somehow managed to grab the attention of millions. If the page was extremely well designed, it might have had frames or perhaps a colored background, but mostly it was just text. This is the case with Open View Venture Partners, a VC firm whose articles are so good, their newsletter doesn’t need amazing graphics design to make its point.

Two, you need to know your market when creating any kind of content. Open View, being a VC firm, has a much different customer than Liberty Tax Center. Their readers are big on facts and information, and rely on OVVP to be on top of the latest financial news and ready to make big decisions with large sums of money. This is not the kind of atmosphere that is conducive to or requiring of flashy graphics or slick interfaces. And it works. It works well enough that they haven’t seen a need to bring in the design house du jour to do an update, despite (presumably) being able to afford it.

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