Cookies & Cognition: The Sesame Street Approach to Content Marketing

I hate to be the bearer of bad, awful news, but there isn’t a patented formula for successful content marketing. No matter how much we all wish that every post we publish would set the web on fire, rarely does that ever happen. More often than not, it feels like a cruel game of attrition trying to find the right topic, angle and frequency.

When Nothing Goes Right, Go Left

Let’s take a step back and simplify what content marketing is. Content Marketing Institute founder Joe Pulizzi explains in his thought-provoking book, Epic Content Marketing, that there are four primary ways to communicate with your audience:

  • Inform
  • Entertain
  • Self-promote
  • Advertise

While the latter two options are perfectly viable for any business, it’s the first two that Pulizzi deems absolutely critical to audience engagement. And what differentiates content marketing (1 and 2) from traditional marketing (3 and 4) is how valuable the audience perceives the content to be. After all, 70% of people would rather learn about a company through articles rather than ads, according to Demand Metric. Moreover, the combination of information and entertainment is where content marketing really has the potential to shine, and nothing proves that more than one of the most beloved children’s television shows of all time.

Hitting the public airwaves in November 1969, Sesame Street captured the minds and imaginations of kids everywhere with its unique blend of puppets, vocabulary, math and science. More than four decades later and the series is still going strong, having enriched the lives of over 77 million Americans in the process. So what’s the key to this show’s success?

Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained

Children want to learn. They want to grow. They want to explore. But until Sesame Street came along, no one was willing to gamble on a program that tried to teach kids through a TV screen.

Research at the time showed that young children didn’t have the attention span to follow an hour-long lesson, so the show’s creators decided to try something different. They used educational goals to shape the content and then chopped up the format to create a faster, more engaging pace tailored to their audience. Standalone, curriculum-based segments were interspersed with fun sketches and animations, keeping kids tuned in not only from beginning to end, but also episode after episode.

Of course, that’s not to say the show was flawless right off the bat. Continuous research was needed to hone in on the ideal characters, most effective segments and best overall structure. The series underwent countless adjustments until it reached its stride. For example, do you remember Professor Hastings? Exactly! He got the axe during the first season because he was found to be too dull in comparison to his energetic cohorts, and the show was better for it.

And when new studies came to light decades after the debut, showing that children were more capable of following stories than originally believed, the Street began to incorporate evolving narratives to captivate a different generation. It never stopped evolving.

From Muppets to Marketing

You may be thinking, what do a bunch of fuzzy puppets have to do with my business’s content marketing plan? Well, let’s look at what Sesame Street is really doing here. Yes, they’re teaching children. Yes, they’re pleasing parents. But they’re also selling tons of merchandise. If you look at it through this lens, the show is actually the ultimate form of content marketing.

In Epic Content Marketing, Joe Pulizzi defines the practice as “the marketing and business process for creating and distributing content to attract, acquire, and engage a clearly defined and understood target audience—with the objective of driving profitable customer action.” Tickle Me Elmo would gleefully agree!

Understandably, very few businesses are in position to launch a wildly popular television series, but Sesame Street is sunny day inspiration at its best. The show’s constant experimentation to find the perfect mixture of education and entertainment is something all content marketers should strive to emulate. Only by understanding what your audience needs and delivering it in a compelling way can you begin to cultivate a loyal group of consumers.

Now, I can’t tell you how to get to Sesame Street, but I can help you follow their lead. Here are some things to think about as you develop your content marketing plan:

  • Figure out what your audience wants to know. Kids love stories and naturally want to learn how to read, so Sesame Street enlisted a lovable cast of characters to teach those lessons. It’s up to you to figure out the curriculum that clicks with your audience.

  • Choose the right media. Obviously, children are more likely to watch a colorful show than page through a lengthy case study, but every audience has its preferred content format. You need to find out where your prospects turn to first when they want to acquire new knowledge.

  • Balance the information with the entertainment. Should your content marketing be a profound Big Bird production or an all-out Cookie Monster extravaganza? Maybe the tone needs to be dialed in somewhere between the two. Only your audience can decide.

  • Research. Readjust. Repeat. Track your KPIs constantly to see what’s working and what isn’t. Oscar isn’t as grouchy as he used to be. Snuffleupagus is no longer a hallucination. Your content will need to change over time to keep up with your audience’s shifting preferences, so don’t be afraid to deviate from your original plan.

Keep these guidelines in mind every time you create new content and you’ll be well on your way to where the air is sweet.

This blog post was brought to you by the numbers 0, 2 and 5.

By Justin Schorah /