How does one develop content that aligns business goals with user goals? Getting both these goals in balance is not simple. Joe Pulizzi recently wrote that content marketing may be heading toward a “trough of disillusionment” following a period of “inflated expectations.”
Expectations of content are often inflated. Content professionals frequently expect the wrong things from content. But paradoxically, much value that content can offer is widely overlooked.
The challenge is to have realistic expectations of what content can accomplish, while knowing one is tapping the full potential value from content. To do this, we need to reimagine how we think about the relationship between the business goals for content, and the user goals that content fulfills.
Why Content Expectations Are Often Unrealistic
Inflated expectations about what content will achieve are common. As more organizations define performance metrics for what their content is expected to achieve, the rampancy of unrealistic expectations is becoming more obvious.
Three kinds of erroneous thinking can result in inflated expectations:
- Considering Content as a Magic Black Box
- Engaging in Wishful, Over-Optimistic Projections
- Making Attribution Errors
Black Box Content
Many people have a fuzzy concept of precisely how content is expected to produce a business outcome. Instead, they rely on the idea that content has some sort of X-factor that can produce desirable outcomes. Consider two popular perspectives that contain kernels of truth, but can be dicey when treated as dogma. The first is what might be called extreme customer centricity: Produce great content that audiences love, and the business benefits will follow. The second considers content as a driver of business growth: Great content is a magnet for reaching customers who want what you have to sell. Both perspectives skim over the mechanics of how customer use of content gets translated into profitable outcomes. That it happens is taken on faith. Yet companies are discovering that launching content initiatives in the hope something will stick to the wall can be an expensive undertaking.
Black box models result in free-floating goals that seem independent of any specific activity needing to happen. One can set a business goal one hopes to achieve as result of delivering great content, but that goal won’t be realistic unless it is grounded in a plausible model to realize the outcome. The reality is that specific business outcomes depend on more than producing great content that audiences love. Without a causal model defining how one expects the content to influence audiences and their behaviors, one has no way to test how realistic one’s goals are.
Wishful, Over-Optimistic Projections
Here, the brand is clearer on what precisely it wants to happen, but it overestimates its ability to influence the outcome. The strategy may seem sensible. The brand plans to offer content audiences would be interested in. And the outcome they expect doesn’t seem overly ambitious. But outcomes depend on more than linking together a sensible-sounding business goal, with a sensible-sounding user need addressed by the content. Various external factors introduce friction into the process.
Consider the user’s deliberation process. First you need to get their attention. They may have a goal, but aren’t seeking advice. Or they may be checking out advice from your competitor. If you get their attention, you need to build credibility with them. They may follow your content, but start to wonder what other brands have to say about the topic. Or they may get bored. Once they feel they’ve heard enough on the topic, they are ready to make a decision. Not only are they considering your content, and possibly the content of your competitors, they are weighing other considerations. Many decisions ultimately have little to do with the content. People make decisions based on price, or perceived convenience, or a host of other factors that can wipe out any advantages offered by your content.
The path from content to conversion is long and twisting. Brands often want to believe if they are liked, then people will take actions they want them to. They sometimes believe that they can change the behavior of their prospective customer if only those customers view great content promising something better than they have now. Often such assumptions reflect wishful thinking. Conversion is tough. It’s tempting and easy to ignore all the external factors that can get in the way of people deciding on your solution. But brands have to accept they can’t control everything.
Attribution assesses how user events or interactions contribute to desired outcomes. Attribution models can be reliable when measuring tightly controlled and monitored sequences of actions. But attribution gets much trickier the more variables that are involved, especially when they are spread over a long period of time. The bolder the vision for what content might achieve, the less reliably one can say that any particular factor will make it successful or not.
The first type of attribution problem can arise when the business goals of the content, and the user goals of content, are based on different definitions of customer segments.
There are numerous ways to segment people. Content strategists are inclined to segment audiences according to their goals, which can be expressed as tasks to accomplish or topics of interest to peruse. Businesses don’t segment customers based on their content preferences. They segment them by their propensity to buy products or services. The business defines the segment they want to reach, based on the perceived financial value of that segment.
Depending on who is doing the defining, sometimes segmentation reflects business goals, and sometimes segmentation reflects user goals. These two kinds of segments don’t automatically overlap. One erroneous assumption is to believe that a group who shares a common personal goal are equally likely to buy something. Conversely, just because a group of people all want to buy a certain type of product or service, that doesn’t mean they share the same purchase motivations or care about the exact same features or benefits.
Segmentation problems occur when content professionals assume that buyer segments and audience interest segments are the same, but in fact they diverge in some way. They fail to consider the genuine motivations of a group: both the financial means of a group, and the group’s willingness (based on their personal needs and preferences) to consider and potentially buy a product. They make erroneous assumptions about how content will influence customer behavior, or what kinds of customers will be attracted to certain content.
Confusing Content Outcomes and Content Purposes
Another kind of confusion happens when brands aren’t clear on how different kinds of content have different purposes. They expect content to deliver outcomes that aren’t realistic from a particular kind of content. They assign the wrong kind of goal to content that’s not designed for that purpose.
At a high level, we need to distinguish two broad kinds of content: transactional content and deliberative content. Each has different purposes. Transactional content is all about getting you to do something. Deliberative content is about helping you think through an issue without forcing you to make a decision. (I’m using the phrase deliberative content to express the customer’s perspective of needing to deliberate before making a decision.) In practice, these represent two ends of a spectrum, where it is possible to blend elements of each. But one can’t expect a single piece of content to address both goals equally: trying to do that merely shows that a brand is confused about what it is trying to accomplish.
Transactional and deliberative content work in tandem, but have distinct roles. Deliberative content helps audiences consider their needs. When they are ready, they can transition to transactional content. If they feel overwhelmed by the choice they face when viewing transactional content, they can pivot back to deliberative content.
Content professionals often confuse these kinds of content, and expect the wrong things from them. For example, a company may produce wonderfully interesting content about a topic that people view. But they are disappointed with the performance of this content, because they assumed it would result in more sales of a product they make. They commit a common attribution error of expecting deliberative content to support conversion goals. Such deliberative content can play a role in supporting sales indirectly, but will not by itself be responsible for lifting sales. Another common scenario is when companies produce a series of transactional content, and expect audiences to stay engaged. A company may produce a hard charging newsletter that is constantly pitching its products, but is disappointed by the drop out of subscribers. They are expecting transactional content to deliver engagement goals. Audiences never build a long term perspective of the brand and how it might help them meet their bigger goals, because the brand is constantly testing them to take an action they aren’t ready to take.
Reimagining Content’s Value in Marketing
Inflated expectations about content performance are often the result of failing to draw critical distinctions about the purposes of content and the goals of users at different times.
A couple of years ago I argued that one of the major benefits of content marketing is developing insights into the needs of segments by looking at analytics of their content usage. More recently, I explained how the chief value of content is that it can influence profitability. I want to dig deeper into these themes to suggest how to translate content insights into actions that benefit businesses.
Content As Attractor
The key to attracting audience interest is to talk about issues and topics that are important and motivating in their lives. These themes may intersect with your product or service, but are not about your product or service. For example, a brand that makes an organic pest control product may want to talk about controlling pests with its product. Audiences are interested in nice gardens and how to create them. The pests are a nuisance they’d rather not have to think about too much. They’d rather read about how to create a flourishing garden, not about controlling pests — until they need to deal with the issue.
Nothing revolutionary here: this is basic content marketing. Expand the discussion to center on the issues that matter most to customers. What many organizations fail to do is develop good insights from this effort. They don’t calibrate how their content marketing reflects the intended positioning of their products, or measure how much interest different themes are generating from different segments. Marketers get caught up trying to answer “Is it working?” instead of asking “What’s happening?” with the interactions between audiences and themes.
Uncovering insights comes from focusing on the interactions between different themes and different groups of people. Here we return to the gremlin of segmentation. Content professionals often rely on personas that are overloaded with assumptions about user interests. These personas assume certain people will be interested in certain topics, instead of allowing segments to indicate for themselves what they are really interested in. Rather than try to define all-encompassing personas that are overloaded with assumptions, marketers should unbundle segments so they can separate the situational characteristics of a segment, from the interests of that segment. Situational characteristics express some material motivating factors such as personal values, life stage or income. But segment definitions shouldn’t express goals, or assume intent to purchase a specific product. These are dimensions that are best learned from the segment’s interactions with the content.
Leveraging Feedback from Content Interactions
When interacting with content, audiences provide signals that express what interests them most. They indicate what themes they are attracted to, and also indicate the strength of this attraction. By considering segments independently of their interests, we can see that segments can be attracted to multiple themes. A segment might mostly be interested in one theme, but also care a bit about another. More than one segment might relate to a theme, while another theme appeals only to a certain segment. All this feedback provides valuable data to support marketing.
The first benefit of harnessing insights from deliberative content usage is to fine-tune related transactional content. By tracking audience interests according to segment, marketers can adjust how they present information about their products to appeal to specific segments. Indications of interest in certain themes will suggest what features and benefits of a product to emphasize to certain segments. Thus insights from content marketing (deliberative content) can improve the effectiveness of marketing content (transactional content).
The second benefit is less obvious, but potentially even more powerful. Insights from segments’ interests in deliberative content can influence the product offer. Consider a product that is associated with two themes: doing something faster, and doing something more cheaply. The business audience viewing the content is under pressure to increase how quickly they move inventory, and control inventory costs. Audience interest indicates that the theme of doing things faster resonates more than doing things cheaply. A product manager might take that insight and switch the product strategy. She might decide to add features to the product that enhance the product’s performance speed even though it might add slightly to the cost. Or the product manager might look for ways to enhance other aspects of the product that are related to speed, such as how quickly the product can be repaired.
How Content Interactions Support Big Picture Marketing
Small picture marketing evaluates content in terms of number of conversions. Big picture marketing looks at how content shapes customer perceptions, and anticipates what customers want and need.
The growing interest in customer experience over the past decade has been unleashed by a core insight: that experience is now the most important factor effecting customer decision making, ahead of traditional factors such as price. Competition has flattened the obvious differences between products and services, so the intangible dimensions associated with one’s own personal experience have a big impact on whether individuals choose brands, leave brands, and stay with brands.
Content is vital to shaping the customer experience. Every customer interaction with a brand touchpoint involves content in some way. And every interaction provides valuable feedback to a brand that can help it understand customer decision making. Brands can analyze this data to develop greater insights into who specifically is expressing certain needs, what they need, and when they need it.
Colleen Jones refers to the feedback from customer interactions with content as “content intelligence,” a phrase that nicely captures the principle that the data organizations collect should make them smarter about what they should be doing. Content feedback can inform development of both deliberative content and transactional content to improve the customer experience. Let’s consider how content intelligence can support various types of marketing functions.
Branding: Branded content is especially important in the consumer sector, in such industries as fast moving consumer goods, fashion, and food and beverages. Much branded content is intended to position a product or service in terms of emotional needs rather than instrumental ones, and implicitly speaks to the routines and aspirations of an individual. Content intelligence provides insights into how different segments relate to lifestyle themes.
Demand generation: This phrase screams jargon, but it tries to capture how marketing automation is changing purchase scenarios. Content supporting demand generation contributes to two goals: suggesting what customers might need based on concrete knowledge of them, and being ready for the customer when the customer is ready to act. Transactional content needs to address “What’s urgent about now?” Such content combines the ability to anticipate and respond quickly. Content intelligence helps companies understand customer preferences and the timing of needs in greater detail.
Customer journey optimization: The presence or absence of friction in service delivery is the difference between retention or churn. Both deliberative and transactional content play an important role in the marketing strategies of service oriented businesses such as finance, travel, and healthcare. Content intelligence supports two important service delivery functions. First, it can enhance service automation — making it easier for customers to do things. Content intelligence can be used to provide more targeted content explaining how and why to use automated services, and it can inform development of enhanced customized information for customers who use these services. Second, content intelligence can be used to fine-tune the setting of service expectations, by tailoring messages about what services customers get and don’t get, and when services are available or will be delivered. When customers are clear on what to expect, they enjoy a more positive experience.
Product enhancement: Earlier I mentioned that content insights can inform the composition of the product offer. Insights from content intelligence can applied to many areas of product management, such as extending product categories to address additional needs, or identifying new buyer segments.
Realizing the Opportunities Available from Content Insights
The answer to getting better performance from content is not simply to measure the performance of the content. Measurement is important, but not sufficient. What one measures is vital. Measure the wrong thing, and you reach the wrong conclusion. Measurement needs to be aligned with the purpose of the content. Measurement needs to go beyond surface activity to look at how different dimensions interact in combination. Critically, the measurement of content interactions needs to examine the interplay between segments, the themes they are attracted to, and how they use content across their journeys.
With a robust framework for tracking content interactions, companies can develop better insights into what the performance of different content represents in terms of business opportunities and potential revenue. Most companies measure content to learn how to change the content they are measuring. They can achieve even more if they measure content to learn how to change other related content, or even change the products discussed in the content.
— Michael Andrews