I was recently watching Exit Through the Gift Shop, the 2010 documentary film directed by street artist Banksy, and it struck me that when it comes to content marketing we can actually learn a lot from street artists, and Banksy in particular.
(As a short synopsis- the film tells the story of Thierry Guetta, a French shop owner living in Los Angeles, who becomes obsessed with street art and the artists who create it. Over the course of the film Guetta becomes acquainted with a host of street artists, including Banksy. After months spent shadowing the artists, Guetta decides to take up street art himself, adopting the name ‘Mr Brainwash’, and in rapid time he goes from tagging on the streets to launching a full-blown gallery exhibition filled with hastily-created pieces, most of which are not even crafted by Guetta himself, but by a team of hired artists.)
Banksy is the most well known graffiti artist in the world, and the most bankable. His work generates headlines and sells for six figure sums in galleries worldwide. Art collectors and celebrities spend thousands of pounds on his work; in 2008 a Banksy version of a Damien Hirst painting sold for over $1.8m.
It’s the kind of commercial success that any business or brand would kill to emulate. So, what can an anonymous graffiti artist famous for painting rats on walls teach us about content marketing?
’Up’- graffiti term for when an artist’s work becomes widespread and well-known
Street artists don’t start out ‘famous’. At first they’re unknown, and the only way to become ‘known’ is to get their name out there, literally. In Exit Through The Gift Shop we see artists such as Invader and Shephard Fairey working to get their tags and pieces up on the city walls to create awareness of their name and what they’re doing.
The message here is simple: if you want people to get to know you, you’ve got to get your name out there. This applies to any company or brand, and in today’s market an obvious place to start is online.
As digital marketers, when we create content, we look at Browser, Researcher and Buyer targeting, the early stages of this process being ‘Browser’ (people who are not currently familiar with you/your brand) and ‘Researcher’ (people who may have a vague idea of who you are but are not currently a customer). The idea behind content created for Browsers and Researchers is that first and foremost, it should start to build your brand and grow your audience. It’s about presence and creating awareness, which is exactly what the street artists are also hoping to achieve by getting their tags and pieces up. And those who work harder to get their tags up frequently, and far and wide, are generally the ones who become more ‘known’.
Obviously, as digital marketers we don’t write our content on walls; we share it across variety of digital channels such as a company’s own blog, social media, and via outreach i.e. getting our content featured on other people’s blogs who share the same target audience, or shared via online communities.
Which brings us onto another similarity: if you’re creating content which other people find interesting, you’re more likely to increase your reach, and awareness of your brand, much further as other people will naturally share it. Shephard Fairey created his Andre the Giant Has a Posse tag in Rhode Island, but the stickers soon started being distributed by the skater community, and as a result the tag began showing up in many cities across the US, spreading the campaign much further- and more quickly- than would have been possible if it hadn’t caught the interest of other people.
(Of course, the million-dollar question here is how you create the kind of content that others want to share… but more about this later.)
The difference when we create digital content is that we naturally always have one eye on Google: content increases a website’s authority, both in Google’s eyes and the visitor’s. Plus, fresh content keeps search engines coming back to crawl the site, and therefore heavily impacts rankings.
But the basic message still stands: work hard to get your content out there and you’ll be rewarded for it, especially if it’s the kind of high-quality content that people want to see, and even better, want to share.
Which brings us nicely on to that million-dollar question…
In Exit Through The Gift Shop, when Guetta decides to ‘become’ Mr Brainwash, he immediately starts ‘tagging’ prolifically.
His name starts appearing all over LA, but as anyone who has seen the film will know, the whole premise behind his tagging is to simply become famous: there is no deeper message behind the campaign or meaning behind his tag: it is simply an image repeated many, many times. (This theme runs throughout the film: there is no focus or thought behind anything ‘Mr Brainwash’ does; even the pieces in his art exhibition are actually created by other people behind the scenes.)
In comparison, let’s look at Banksy’s (rather more commercially successful!) approach to see what we can learn from a content marketing point of view…
Banksy started out painting spray-can style graffiti in Bristol, but soon adopted the stencilling method for which he is now famous. Almost immediately his work displayed political messaging and anti-establishment views; one famous piece- Mild Mild West – referenced the Bristol riots of 1992, while other pieces illustrated his views on globilsation and corporate greed, such as his depiction of children pledging their allegiance to Tesco.
So, what does all this have to do with creating shareable content?
According to Econsultancy, some of the key principles for great, shareable content are:
- – Your content shouldn’t be all about you.
- – Your content should be more ambitious than everyone else’s.
- – Your content must have never been done before.
And Banksy achieves all this. The focus of his work is predominantly political or social commentary, never himself (unlike Mr Brainwash, the sole focus of who’s work is his own face). Banksy is fiercely anonymous, allowing his messages to be the primary focus.
He is also ambitious in the points he wants to prove, tackling issues from binge-drinking through to the Israeli involvement in Palestine. He is innovative in his techniques- from stencilling on walls, to hanging ‘fake masterpieces’ in galleries, to incorporating existing statues and landmarks into his work. He is also witty and subversive in a way that helps him stand out from his peers.
Hubspot compiled tips from 46 digital experts on how to create shareable content, and there are stand-out words and phrases: ‘relevant’, ‘entertaining’, ‘valuable’, ‘unique’, ‘authentic’, ‘relatable’, ‘share emotions’, ‘educate your users on something they care about’…
What we can learn from this- and from Banksy’s success- is firstly that people like to be entertained, or experience some sort of emotion. For example, people are far more likely to share something that they themselves have enjoyed, hence the huge number of photos of Banksy’s work that have been uploaded onto the Internet and now show up on Google Image search results.
People also like to feel that they’re seeing something new, different and ‘real’, especially if it feels relatable or relevant to them: a cause they care about, or a political message they agree with, for example. When content contains a message that people feel strongly about they are more likely to share it, to show support or to reflect their own views.
In that same Hubspot post, Michael Keshen (Content Marketer at Hover) was quoted as saying: “Don’t create content just for the sake of content. It’s better to write one amazing blog post a week than ten that no-one will care about”.
As content marketers, this is what we can learn from Banksy: get your brand out there, but do it in a way that truly interests, engages and informs. Give people something to think about, or to enjoy, or to care about, or that inspires some emotion. Give people a reason to notice it, share it, and remember you.
Exit through the gift shop
The quality of Banksy’s work means that he is naturally giving people something they want to own, and there in lies the key to his commercial success: if you’re providing a high-quality offering, people are more likely to want to buy into it. But work painted on council-owned walls is difficult to profit from, and that’s why Banksy has had to become commercially savvy.
Banksy has an agent and publicist, he takes commissions (Brad Pitt specially commissioned a piece), he holds exhibitions of his work, and his work sells in galleries around the world for six figure sums. In short- he has made it relatively easy for people to obtain his work (providing they have that sort of money!)
The lesson here is that there’s no point being the best content marketer in the world if people can’t easily access what you’re selling. You can raise awareness of your product and service, peak people’s interest, and get them to a point where they want to buy, but if your content is leading potential customers through to a clunky and unresponsive website for example, or a site that looks untrustworthy, then all your hard work will have been in vain. After all, the aim is always to get your visitors to exit through the gift shop.
Available to everyone
Banksy has always said he wanted his art to be available to everyone, which is why he tends to shun traditional galleries for his exhibitions, instead choosing unusual locations such as abandoned tunnels. And even since his huge commercial success Banksy still continues to paint on public walls; in June 2016 a Banksy artwork appeared on a Bristol primary school, apparently as a thank you from the artist after the children chose to name one of their school houses after him.
And Banksy also proves that commercial success can be available to everyone too. As we already said, graffiti artists don’t start out famous, just like most successful fashion bloggers don’t start out as Vogue editors- the majority just happen to be girls who like fashion- but it doesn’t stop them being invited to sit front row at fashion week on account of the success they’ve made of their blog.
This should give hope to all businesses embarking on a digital marketing strategy, however small or new that business might be. The way that search engines work is that they reward frequent, high-quality content; the kind of content that users want to read, and want to share. It isn’t just about the ‘famous’ brands anymore, or those who’ve always ‘ranked highly’ historically. Raising your online profile is now all about presence and quality, and being commercially savvy with it. Just like Banksy’s own rise to fame.