Profitable insights from content marketing

In a previous post, I explained why a brand should not expect their content marketing programs to drive sales growth, because such expectations can interfere with a brand’s ability to build long-term relationships with audience segments.  In this post, I examine how building relationships with audiences using a content marketing program can lead to greater customer insights, support the development of the brand, and enhance profitability.

Marketing is fundamentally about identifying the needs of a segment, and understanding the profit potential the segment represents.  Content marketing enables long-term relationships with audiences.  Content marketing plays an important strategic role precisely because it has a long-term focus, rather than the short-term focus of promotional content.  As Philip Kotler notes: “marketing is not a short-term selling effort but a long-term investment effort.” Brands need engaging content to support that long-term effort.

Relationships enable understanding of marketing segments

Understanding customers for marketing purposes requires a higher resolution picture than offered by personas.  Personas may be a starting point for thinking about segmentation, and may have value helping content writers develop their content, but they don’t provide the deep insights available from data.  Personas should reflect data, but can’t themselves represent that level of detail.

Content marketing can be a fantastic tool for understanding customers.  The more you talk about the interests of your customers, the more they will open up and the more you will learn.  While customer research using content marketing is not a substitute for ethnographic research or other qualitative techniques, it can deliver tremendous insights that can deliver profitability.

Businesses exist to be profitable, and a key part of that is knowing who is profitable.  Audience directed content can help answer at.  When content is focused on the natural interests and motivations of people, they will share their views and preferences in ways more faithfully than in surveys or focus groups.

Part of the purpose of content marketing is to learn what segments are most profitable for which products you offer.  Targeting content helps to distill target market segments according to actual motivations.

Brands can learn many things about potential customers through content:

  • the interests of different people, according to how attracted they are to content of different themes and genres
  • what their attitudes to different topics are, and how their attitudes may shift according to different dimensions of a discussion
  • their values: what they spend time on, what they most talk about and share with others
  • demographic information: household characteristics or profession, either self revealed or inferred through content usage, which can be cross-referenced with offline research sources
  • financial orientation: concerns about finances and willingness to spend on certain kinds of products and services, which can be cross-referenced with offline market data about income, assets, spending and credit

Content can foster audience activity by presenting audiences something they care about, and offering them something to talk about.  This activity produces data on:

  • content consumption behavior
  • search terms used to discover content
  • social interactions relating to content

Through the use of standard digital analytics techniques involving cookies and IP address identification, marketers can learn more about who is engaging with the content, and where else they spend time online.

The process is iterative.  As marketers learn more about distinctions that matter within a segment, they can refine their segmentation to adjust the focus of content, potentially creating new areas of content focus that are even more closely aligned with the interests of a group.  They may also conclude some segments aren’t likely to be profitable, and avoid actively marketing to them.

Even though this content is not aimed at selling, the insights that can be developed from it are useful for developing sales oriented content to present when people from a segment have a need to purchase something.  First, the insights provide guidance on how to message to a segment by using criteria that matter most to them.  Second, the insights help to personalize the offer.  The marketers understand how a segment evaluates a product, and how their values, interests and general circumstances come into play.  They get better insights into what are the chief dis-satisfiers for a segment, can tailor what they recommend based on expected satisfaction of a particular model for a given segment, and offer incentives as necessary to prevent “buyers remorse”, be they discounts codes or coupons, upgrades or membership award perks, or after sales service.

The exact mix of the personalized offer has a big impact on the profitability the brand realizes, so being able to optimize the mix through data developed from audience interaction with content is highly valuable.  Content can clarify how personal values translate into revenue value.  To cite a basic example, some customers will be more time sensitive than others, so they will value time more highly.   The widely variable pricing and service levels the airline industry offers different passengers is based on projected customer profitability.  Some of the this profit yield maximization is starting to be adopted by other industries (without the baggage of having high fixed costs for an essentially undifferentiated product.)

Aligning brand values with values embraced by market segments

Since the purpose of content marketing is to develop a long term relationship rather than a short term sale, it provides an excellent vehicle for brand building.  Calculating the ROI on brand activities is more involved than calculating the profit margin on sales, but it is well established that strong branding reduces sales costs, since you have to do less “selling” when people already trust your brand.

Emotionally engaging content is a powerful way to develop a sense of shared connection with audiences.  You have enhanced your brand with the target segment to the extent your content captures a sense of shared identity with the audience engaging with it.  Customer segments will share common concerns and interests (the segmentation), and the brand needs to learn what these are and how they relate to the brand’s values.  Brands can promote and contribute to the interests of the segment, by offering them exclusive content resources not available elsewhere.  Content can be tailored to match segment’s interests, and highlight common values between the segment and the brand.

The role of content marketing is to translate high-level brand values into content that embodies more specific brand attributes that will resonate with various audience segments.  The content will have a niche focus, but by using a coordinated content marketing strategy, individual segments can be aggregated into larger groupings to align with products and divisions in an organization.

Applications

To see how brands can use content marketing to enhance profitability without resorting to using content as a sales tool, we will examine an example from a unit of HSBC.  While many consumers rate their bank as being unhelpful, HSBC Expat, a unit that manages funds for people who live in foreign countries, has managed to develop content that shifts common brand perceptions.  They have created a community open to all (one doesn’t need to be a customer) that focuses on issues of vital concern to expats. Some of these issues are financial, but most of them relate to other life concerns such as housing or schooling. HSBC contributes some of the suggestions, while community members supply their own tips.

A screenshot of HSBC's content marketing aimed at British expats
A screenshot of HSBC’s content marketing aimed at British expats

The content works well on many levels.  While I don’t have any visibility into the internal metrics of the site, one can see that it has been successful attracting participation.  The content is valuable to expats who access it, and it also provides HSBC with insights into the concerns of expats, and what they most value.  Many comments concern issues like language, or making friends.  Other issues are more specific to financial topics such as taxes.  HSBC can understand more about the various audiences who interact with the content.  Some people will already be expats, while others will be thinking about becoming expats, and some may be ready to give up the expat life and move home.  By providing an emotionally safe space to discuss these topics, free of sales content, HSBC can understand how to serve needs of prospective customers in different situations, and be seen as a brand supportive of their needs.

This example uses a community model, but other media such as videos and games can be used to foster greater engagement.  The focus of the content can be anything that matters emotionally to an audience segment that has relevance to the brand.  In many cases brands develop content around a theme that isn’t directly tied to the brand’s products, but represents aspects of the brands values that resonate with audience segments, which could be values such as performing at one’s best, or innovation and creativity.

Content marketing’s unique role

When brands embrace the possibilities of content marketing as a living laboratory that supports their evolution, they can gain precise insights from small, well-defined segments.  In contrast, when brands expect content marketing to deliver sales growth, they have to chase large numbers of people, and can’t offer content truly targeted to the interests of any group.

There remains a role for persuasive sales content to support the customer’s buying journey, and task focused content to support after sales support.  People who are motivated to do something expect to be persuaded that your choice is the right one.  When they decide what they want to do, they want to get on with it, and need content to facilitate that.  But recommendations only work when people are ready to make a decision, and are interested in listening to the opinions of the brand.   Persistent persuasion, even when subtle, is exhausting, and people’s attention will wonder elsewhere.

To become engaging and sustainable, content marketing needs to provide emotional safety for audiences.  Content marketing also needs to provide brands with actionable insights that can enhance their profitability in order to become a sustainable strategy.  Neither of these things is easy to do.  Engaging content requires enormous creativity and sensitivity to audience needs.  Insights also require creativity to identify, and imagination to see how they can create big opportunities for brands.  Despite the effort required, the payoff can be great precisely because so few brands do either of these things well.

—Michael Andrews