Imagine for a moment a world in which programmers plot to overthrow the world economy.
In this world, your tech-savvy and curious neighbor becomes a millionaire overnight, only to lose it all again months later. The largest bank heists in history happen not at the hands of armed robbers, but opportunistic hackers. The news reports on a fringe faction of anarchists who want to enable black-market trade, while the fringe group cries foul on media attacks and unfair treatment.
This, in a hyperbolic, Hollywood sort of way, is the story of Bitcoin.
While the real story might be slightly less sexy than high-tech hackers and revolutionary movements, it still presents itself as one of the first truly original stories born entirely from the digital age. But most importantly for marketers, Bitcoin’s path from a niche Internet curiosity to a currency traded at a price that rivals the top three American stocks is a beautiful case study in how, when, and why content reaches well-defined audiences.
On October 31, 2008, on a forum board dominated by cryptography enthusiasts, programmers, and privacy anarchists, a nine-page white paper appeared from a user going by the name Satoshi Nakamoto. Entitled “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System,” the paper succinctly, but in specific technical detail, explained a framework for what would months later serve as the first release version of the Bitcoin currency.
That’s right—one of the great economic disruptions of the 21st century started with a white paper.
The paper also brought with it a mystery: No one is yet sure who Satoshi Nakamoto is. Some have theorized it may have been Nick Szabo, a developer who pitched a framework for a never-implemented digital currency called BitGold in 1998. Many argue that the Satoshi name is a handle, likely being used by a group of developers who wanted to remain anonymous while developing the currency. Regardless, Satoshi would remain active in forum conversation, currency development, and the overall Bitcoin community for a few years before slowly backing out to allow the first of many volunteer boards to take the helm of the Bitcoin project.
Right from the start, before any technical implementation has hit the ground or a single coin has been “mined,” there are some key content principles on display here, particularly for financial marketing.
Despite ongoing theories, investigations, claims, and refutations, the identity of Satoshi Nakamoto has never been fully established. While the name lives on in Bitcoin history, it doesn’t present a brand or influencer presence that can actually be leveraged anymore—the anonymous nature of the figure means that people are now quick to distrust any identity claims, in the absence of reliable means to verify them.
But this doesn’t matter.
Satoshi’s trust and fame in the community wasn’t a product of branding; it was the result of transparency. Trust grew in the Satoshi brand because everything it said showed thinking on the page, sought to explain difficult concepts to laypeople, and took the time to work with those who were struggling to understand. From a content marketing perspective, it would be like the difference between a brand that posts light content pointing users to purchase an advising service and a brand that actively produced deep educational content and interacted with community concerns via social and other direct channels.
Be like Satoshi. Be transparent, and aim for trust through content rather than recognizability through branding.
The Satoshi paper can be a bit of a bear to read for a lot of folks. It assumes knowledge of cryptographic principles and uses terminology that swings between assuming computer savvy and requiring a degree in computer science. But that’s OK, because the paper wasn’t meant for “a lot of folks.” It was meant for a crowd of decentralized privacy and currency enthusiasts.
The story of Bitcoin didn’t start with a megalomaniac vision for a world entirely dominated by a new means of trade. It started with a highly specific audience in a relevant space being given content that showed them all the cards at a level appropriate to their knowledge.
In short, Satoshi treated the forum’s audience as if they were intelligent and capable. Your brand should do the same.
Content marketers are often guilty of creating for the lowest common denominator of knowledge to ensure they reach as many people as possible. But in doing so, we split our audiences—technically minded users become annoyed by the review of fundamental concepts, while lay people become frustrated by trying to grasp basics while slogging through technical language.
Rather than always trying to grab your audience in a single net, approach content specifically and with segmentation. Provide for every facet of your audience rather than trying to support them in aggregate. Treat your audience intelligently, and more often than not they’ll rise to the challenge.
Marketers often talk about the importance of “trust” in relationships with their audience. It some ways, this widely understood term becomes a sort of buzzword—an idea assumed rather than actively pursued.
This dynamic isn’t particular to the marketing industry. In fact, Bitcoin was built to fill a vacuum of trust in the financial world.
Financial marketers today have to struggle with audiences that have ever-waning faith in their institutions. In the financial world, this results in a near fifty-fifty split between people who trust in the work of banks and financial institutions and those who don’t, even in periods of gaining trust.
Without going into the technology behind it, Bitcoin was built to tackle this split by asking, “What would currency look like if people’s trust in it was held by the community, rather than by banks?”
In the past, gold standard currency value was based on the ability of a holder to “back” their currency with a hard asset. Today, fiat currency largely bases value on the combined ability and faith of a protecting institution (issuing governments, enforcing banks, etc.) to pay back debts. Bitcoin creates value based on the trust of the people using the currency by securing transactions with a single, public ledger that all users have access to.
But how much is trust actually worth? At the time of the writing of this article, it’s $4,194.17 USD per coin.
Take the time to ask yourself, “What does it look like for a reader of my blog to then put trust in my brand?”
Often, our natural inclination is to assume that a generated lead or a purchase means trust earned. But if this is where the valuation of your content marketing stops, you’ll quickly find that a sole focus on lead generation doesn’t create communities that sustain through hard times.
Bitcoin has seen two massive rises in the past decade, but only because it also weathered a massive drop-off following regulation from New York, an enormous digital heist, and public legal issues concerning Bitcoin’s role in digital black markets. If the value of the coin was all that mattered to the community, such a massive recession so early in the currency’s life should have been its swan song. But because the community was built around trust beyond the value of the product—a common vision, an open-source community that wanted to work through their project’s issues if only to prove concept—it was able to weather its most recent storm.
Brands that build product-based content marketing will never be able to reach their audience in more than a transactional manner. Brands that learn, however, to think about and measure their content from the perspective of trust will not only see transactional returns but will also establish inroads to meet the challenges of what PR crises come down the pike.
So you’ve established a highly focused audience or a collection of highly focused audiences, but you’re concerned about your brand’s ability to reach outside the fold and grow. Now what?
A similar problem was faced by the Bitcoin community, where conversations began, for the most part, in tight-knit communities of technical knowledge, and participating in Bitcoin meant diving into the world of Bitcoin mining machines: small computers designed specifically to calculate the complex equations necessitated by the network.
Not exactly user friendly.
But the community reacted. Numerous tutorials, guides, and training resources began to crop up from various pockets of the community. Entrepreneurs jumped on making more accessible features for the currency, including attractive, user-friendly exchanges for laypeople to buy and sell in digital currency. Slowly, the pool of resources available to Bitcoin enthusiasts grew from being solely technical to being a wide, organic collection of resources that crossed all levels of knowledge and need.
Endorsing or engaging with user-generated content is a powerful way for your brand to earn both transparency and trust when engaging with your community. Insights and (kind) critiques serve to demonstrate your knowledge and provide useful learning for users. Curating excellent content creates a sense of camaraderie that earns transparency from users who might otherwise be concerned about an overemphasis on selling.
Following and interacting with the growth of user-generated material related to your brand will be key for identifying what spaces to expand your content marketing strategy into. Take advantage of this opportunity while simultaneously improving your relationship to your audience.
One of the big critiques of the Bitcoin system is its liquidity. Currently, the network can only support about seven transactions per second, which may sound pretty fast for a currency that can’t be widely used for purchases yet. But when considered in comparison to services like PayPal with its average of 115 transactions per second, or Visa’s staggering capacity to support 56,000 transactions per second (they only ever utilize up to about 4,000), it becomes clear that Bitcoin has an immediacy issue in a rapidly paced world.
While Bitcoin has begun to tackle these issues by implementing exchanges and changes to the code, marketers have to address these issues in more creative and varied ways. Many financial marketing teams, for instance, are embracing interactive content as a way to win over impatient audiences. But even elements as simple as ensuring your triggered email sends are happening in a timely manner or reducing the amount of friction between your users and gated content can go a long way to keep your audience content in an ever-accelerating world.
Image attribution: Shopify
This has been perhaps one of the quickest primers on Bitcoin you’ll find online today (for something much more detailed, check out this interactive timeline). I’d encourage any reader to dive a bit more into the developments of the technology over the years, to learn more about the controversies, issues, and opportunities it affords, and all the while to think critically about what this case study offers marketers in terms of operating with an audience-first focus.
The digital world continues to shape the way we interact with our audiences, particularly when it comes to their relationship with their money. Trust and transparency have never been at more of a premium, and earning it has never been expected on so fast a time scale as today. But for content marketers who are willing to rise to the challenge, there is clear interest (and, of course, volatility) in the financial world to take advantage of. Do so with your audience in mind at all times, and watch the rest fall into place.
Featured image attribution: Gerd Altmann