How Washington D.C. Leverages Content Marketing Strategies

How are some of Washington’s most recognizable organizations leveraging content marketing strategies to achieve their business goals? That’s what the DC Communicators (a project of Environics) set out to learn. We invited representatives from PhRMA,, Association of American Railroads, and Nothing But Nets to the National Building Museum on June 26 for coffee and conversation. We wanted to examine their previous campaigns and corresponding content marketing strategies. Moderator Lisa Rothwell (Account Supervisor at Environics) led Thursday morning’s discussion with the goal of finding out what has proven to be successful.

Here are the key takeaways from each panelist:


How does a communications team of two, with no advertising budget, get the public and press to care about issues that often don’t affect people in the United States? They get creative.

Without an advertising budget, Rachel uses content marketing and partnerships to drive donations to Nothing But Nets, the world’s largest grassroots campaign to fight malaria. The disease claims the life of a child every two minutes. And while more than 70% of malaria deaths are children under the age of five, 3.2 billion people are at risk—nearly half the world’s population. The numbers are staggering—and awareness drives all of Nothing But Nets’ goals. The more surround-sound they achieve, the better. Enticing people to take action through their content is critical.

They first gained traction through a Sports Illustrated story that helped bring awareness to malaria. Rachel attributes visual storytelling and celebrity partnerships as keys to their success. With Stephen Curry pledging to send three life-saving bednets to sub-Saharan Africa for every three-pointer shot he makes, his support creates visibility into an otherwise overlooked epidemic. But celebrity isn’t enough.

People need to hear the message on many platforms—multiple times—before being driven to take action. Rachel explained that your message needs to be heard 7-8 times before an action is taken. Through content marketing strategies, Nothing But Nets raises awareness, funds, and voices to send life-saving bednets to protect families in Africa from malaria. They connect people, ideas, and resources with the United Nations by building expert coalitions, developing large-scale partnerships, and carrying out issue-based grassroots campaigns that make it easy for people to help the UN create a better world.

Additionally, Rachel believes that virtual reality is the future of content marketing. It allows markets to transport their audience to Africa and visually show malarias impact on global health.

Matt Higginson, Politics, Government & Advocacy,

Matt, who believes that there will always be an appetite for compelling storytelling, joined us from Created by the founders of Twitter, who believe the internet is a horrible, busy, and cluttered place, Medium is a blogging platform. It was designed with the intent of sharing compelling stories (that are longer than 140 characters). It’s a space where people with ideas of consequence are able to self-publish and interact meaningfully with an engaged, thoughtful audience. After all, the right audience is more important than the biggest audience.

Matt explained how Google approached them because Medium had “the perfect audience for [Google] to have a conversation around the future of security.” Together, they created The Future of Security: A Roundtable partnership with Google. The goal of the roundtable was to lead a conversation around tech and security on Medium. Working with a prolific tech publication (Backchannel) and their editorial team, Medium connected industry leaders across major relevant organizations like Facebook, Twitter, Square, Google, and Dropbox to host a two-week digital roundtable. Backchannel posed relevant questions and key players weighed in on the answers.

The roundtable was successful both from Medium’s “total time reading” metric and partner satisfaction. Matt explained how “clicks” and “page views” are not meaningful metrics of success—time spent on the actual page and the volume of shares illustrates the value of the content. 

Kristin Smith, Assistant VP, Strategies, Association of American Railroads

Native advertising is how Kristin takes control of the media message. Through native advertising, she is able to create content for the Association of American Railroads (AAR) that bears a similarity to the news. The big difference? The content is hers, not the media’s. She controls the message. 

Kristin explained that while sponsored content isn’t always cheap, if it is properly optimized for search, it’s worth the investment. Unlike news articles or blog posts, where Google’s algorithm allows for less than a 6-month shelf life, sponsored content is always findable and recyclable.  

In 2014, the AAR released 26 pieces of content which were seen organically by a total of 44K people. Seems like a lot, right? Well, in 2016 they released only one piece of content which has been (at current time) seen by 308K people. That is a 700% increase in reach! After tracking the performance of their content over the years, Kristin has seen native advertising to be the most successful piece of their content marketing mix (particularly among millennials). Since AAR controls the message, they are able to tell impactful stories that resonates best with their audiences. 

However, marketer beware. As the FTC explained in Native Advertising: A Guide for Businesses, transparency is critical. “An advertisement or promotional message shouldn’t suggest or imply to consumers that it’s anything other than an ad.” Review your native ads from the perspective of consumers who don’t have your industry expertise about new forms of promotion. Always make sure the source of the article is clear.

Allyson Funk, Senior Director, Strategies, PhRMA

With the goal of breaking down the healthcare coverage process into digestible bites, PhRMA launched the Access Better Coverage (ABC) campaign. They created a full suite of content aimed at providing insight into how accessing different services works. Allyson works with her team to offer simple yet effective tools for consumers to utilize while making decisions about their coverage. 

Similar to most content marketing strategies, a main element of their campaign is an educational blog. They achieve blog syndication through PR Newswire to drive awareness and traffic. From there, they lead topical conversations by tapping into their blogger community.

From the microsite and blog series, to old-school printables, PhRMA looks at their backend analytics to discover which type of content works best. First they research what their audiences are searching for online, then they create content around what has the highest engagement rates. Knowing when your audience needs you is key, and so they ramp up their content during open enrollment for health coverage. As part of their strategy, PhRMA recycles the content that resonates the most, freshening it up and repackaging it for ongoing distribution.

And they don’t stop at the written word. Allyson found that succinct storytelling pieces that incorporate video have the highest engagement. She explained that “video needs to be to-the-point.” If their videos got to the punchline in the first 30 seconds, their audiences were more likely to stay the whole way through. 

So, what is the common theme across all panelists?

If you want your content to be read, it needs to be presented in a way that entices readership. The best way to do this is through powerful storytelling. Don’t just tell the facts, share the story. 

Want implement your own content marketing strategy? Download our guide, Content Marketing: A Practical Field Guide.



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