Content Marketing Blog

The A-Zs of Merriam-Webster’s great content marketing strategy

There are a tonne of great examples of businesses using content marketing in creative ways. However, the ones that typically get the most attention are brands with an established marketing presence, or a unique product that grabs headlines. These case studies are fascinating in their execution of content marketing at the highest level, but when it comes to solid takeaways that smaller, less-established companies can use, they’re not always particularly helpful.

Most small to medium businesses looking to dip a toe in the choppy waters of content marketing don’t have huge budgets to throw at campaigns which include high-quality video and supplemental physical advertising.

Fortunately, innovative strategy can make up for a smaller budget, providing a much better bang for your buck than the return on a multi-million dollar campaign. This approach even works with products or services that are difficult to market, and to prove it, we’re going to take an in-depth look at one of our favourite strategies of recent years – the one employed by everybody’s favourite dictionary, Merriam-Webster!

Merriam-Webster: A case study

Merriam-Webster has been publishing dictionaries since 1847, and over the last 160 years the brand has become one of the most highly respected sources of information and advice on all things English language. However, that doesn’t exactly translate to a cutting-edge online presence, or to huge levels of brand recognition and customer loyalty.

When was the last time you heard anybody passionately arguing about Merriam-Webster vs. Oxford as passionately as debates like Coke vs. Pepsi, Stones vs. Beatles, or Microsoft vs. Apple?

This problem should be relatable to most businesses without millions to put behind advertising campaigns and brand exposure. However, the team at Merriam-Webster took umbrage with the state of play and decided to make a change. Chief Digital Officer at Merriam-Webster, Lisa Schneider, explained this thought process in a recent interview on the Podcast ‘Unthinkable with Jay Acunzo.’

“It was really clear to me that there was a huge gap and that we were missing out on an amazing opportunity to show everybody how ‘cool’ we really are,” she said.

There are two key aspects to Merriam-Webster’s strategy. It all starts with great content, and this is supported by smart, strategised posting on social media. Let’s take a closer look at both components.

Part 1: Producing fantastic content

High-quality, shareable writing is the backbone of any effective content strategy. Merriam-Webster already had plenty of text on its site in the form of word definitions and supporting details, but the marketing team started to supplement this with some truly great blog posts that built on the brand’s dictionary service and provided a funny, informative counterpoint. The blog is called ‘Words at Play,’ and today it boasts a huge library of articles such as “‘Snotter’, ‘Groak’, and 6 More Words Associated with Bad Habits,” and, “What’s the past tense of ‘shrink’?” (Hint: It’s not shrunked).

Not only are these posts well-written and relevant to the overall brand of Merriam-Webster, they’re also quirky enough to interest people who have no real interest or need in the website’s service. Once you’ve found yourself on the blog, it’s possible to spend hours flitting from article to article – they’re that good.

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Data from Buzzsumo shows that some of these pieces have racked up thousands of interactions and shares online, especially when the writers manage to tap into a rich, topical angle. This is exactly what they did during the 2016 Presidential Election in the U.S. – posting regular content breaking down the exact meanings of the various words used during debates and in television coverage.

Overall, Merriam-Webster’s approach to producing content follows all of the rules that a good strategy should – regular updates, relevant, shareable blog posts, and just a hint of humour and controversy to add a bit of extra spice.

Part 2: Supporting content with social promotion

Quality content is a great start, but in such a competitive online space it’s hard for even the best-written articles to stand out without a helping hand. That’s where content for social media comes in, providing an incredibly effective way to amplify a message and promote it to the masses. For many brands, Twitter is the medium of choice, and Merriam-Webster is no exception.

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Taking the same tone that made the website’s articles so unique and applying that to short but immensely entertaining tweets, Merriam-Webster’s Twitter account is the perfect platform to push all sorts of different content from the dictionary. Whether that’s a word of the day, a definition relevant to current events or just a funny piece of blog content, the updates are regular and consistent. This is another hallmark of great content marketing, proving that quality and quantity don’t always have to be at loggerheads.

Tweets like these push people towards the Merriam-Webster site regardless of whether or not they need to know what a word means. This completely reframes how people view the brand, shifting perception of Merriam-Webster from a dull, old dictionary to an entertaining blog that consistently delivers quality content, without compromising on its style or other services.

Lisa Schneider describes the growth of Merriam-Webster’s Twitter account as a “natural, organic thing,” based on the simple fact that almost every current event can be boiled down to a question or definition to do with words. The example that she uses is the site’s infamous “the hot dog is a sandwich” post, which was published ahead of Memorial Day and gave the brand its first big social media splash – setting the tone for everything that would come over the next year.

The final word: Key takeaways

So, now that we’ve broken down Merriam-Webster’s strategy into two core components, let’s boil things down to the essentials with a couple of content marketing definitions to sum it all up.

Engaging content: High-quality, interesting and shareable material that will capture a reader’s attention and get them thinking, laughing and engaging.

Social promotion: Social media posts that reflect the tone and style of a website’s content, and drive an audience there.

Great content marketing: When, like Merriam-Webster, a business makes an effort to create both of these things!

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Ben Lange
Ben Lange About the author

A Castleford veteran now based out of England, Ben writes across a broad variety of industries, including construction, education, recruitment, banking and film and music. He’s a regular contributor to the Castleford blog and writes for clients such as Hilti Australia, TRC Group and Beyond Bank.

Read more of Ben's articles