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Imagine hosting an event for prospective students. In a dimmed room, you play a beautiful video showcasing your school’s small class sizes, world-class professors, gorgeous campus, thriving student life and the high percentage of employed graduates. The audience is engaged because it’s their sole focus.

Now imagine showing that same video at a carnival, where the audience is free to do whatever they want amidst the blinking lights, noises, laughter, cotton candy, rides and games. Your school’s greatness doesn’t seem so appealing next to all the instant gratification options.

For better or worse, some version of this carnival is playing out right this moment, and you’re a part of it. People are lining up all day long to be entertained, to connect with their communities and to grow personally and professionally in this place called the internet.

As marketers and content creators, how do we effectively draw people into our message amidst so many digital distractions? The answer is to offer them an entertaining ride, not a sales pitch.

This is the function of side-door content. The obvious messaging choice, the front door, is to directly talk about your brand, values, features and benefits. But good content marketing takes a roundabout way in—a side door. It’s hooking your audience with something that serves, entertains and provides value to them first, building trust and rapport before making your ask.

Here are a few examples of side-door content in practice:

  1. Greater Good Science Center: University of California Berkeley has a YouTube channel by this name with nearly 70k subscribers to date where they unpack real-life topics affecting psychology, neuroscience and human behavior.

For example, a video called “How to Apologize | The Science of Happiness” features a real conversation between a married couple where the wife is swallowing her pride and demonstrating an uncomfortable four-step apology about a situation the two of them faced, and then we see the husband’s heartfelt reaction to her humility.

The great thing about this is it’s all playing out visually through a lighthearted Claymation, and it’s quite funny to watch. There is zero mention of UC Berkeley other than a brief showing of the Greater Good Science Center logo at the end. But for some of these 70k subscribers who are interested in how psychology and human behavior works, when it comes time to apply for colleges, UC Berkeley will have a leg up in their minds, having already forged a connection.

  1. The Genesis Story: This free online course provided by Hillsdale College is a deep dive into the poetry and meaning of the book of Genesis in the Bible, taught by Professor of English, Justin Jackson.

I was in the waiting room of my physical therapist’s office recently when I overheard an elderly gentleman talking to his therapist about this course as they were progressing through a series of stretches. It was remarkable to me how this side door content had permeated the small talk of someone who wasn’t even an enrolled student at the college, and yet the value of the college was being spread organically in an unlikely setting.

  1. Freakonomics: This book, written by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner takes real-world scenarios and shows how economics and incentives are at the root of it all. I once directed a video where I interviewed an alumna from University of Chicago’s Data Science Institute who told me that she chose to study at UChicago because she read Freakonomics and learned that Steven D. Levitt is a professor there. When I told this to a colleague of mine, he got really excited. He was bitten by the same bug, having applied to UChicago after reading Freakonomics himself.
  1. A Physics Teacher Risks His Life: There is a wildly viral old video of Walter Lewin, a retired physics professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, releasing a 15.5kg metal ball on a string for it to swing to its climax and then swing back toward his face. If the ball had hit him, he would have likely died. Spoiler alert: He’s still alive.

To date this video has 53 million views and 19,265 comments, and illustrates the type of experiential learning that goes on at MIT.

In each case, the brand is present but not the star. The content leads with audience value, and the brand message is simply implied.The true stars in these examples are the faculty. This calls to attention the need for marketing and communications departments to develop meaningful relationships with key faculty that can help support content efforts with their expertise. The same goes for side-door content that features students. Marketing and communications leaders need to be keeping an ear to the ground for compelling stories and content opportunities with students year round. This means remaining curious about what stories exist not just when they need a video, but all the times in between.

As you approach content creation in this way, over time you will build trust and loyalty, which positions you as a valuable and welcomed resource, not just a brand selling something that people may or may not tolerate.

Today, attention is in high demand with limited supply. Side-door content earns us the right to be heard and forges meaningful connections. When planning your content strategy, consider inviting your audience in through the side door rather than knocking on the front. It could make all the difference.

John Azoni is a video producer working with higher ed institutions on their storytelling efforts. He is the Founder and Executive Producer at UNVEILD, a higher ed video production company.

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