Monthly Archives: October 2013

Making your content relevant

Talk to people who use content, and you will hear complaints about it being too hard to find what they want, about having to deal with extraneous content, and about corporate content sounding like “marketing speak.”  Such complaints reflect a sense that the content people encounter is not relevant to them.  Too much of the wrong content, too little of the right content.

Making your content relevant involves matching what you offer audiences with what audiences want from you.  That sounds simple, but there are several dimensions involved.  Let’s consider how content can match, or mismatch, audience needs.

We will start with a few assumptions to keep the discussion manageable.  We will assume that your brand serves one or more audience segments, but for now we will focus on your relationship with a single segment.  We will assume that the audience segment, while comprised of individuals having multiple interests, can be treated as homogeneous in having a similar set of needs and expectations relating to the content they seek from you.

There are many ways audiences and brands can overlap, both imperfectly and productively.  This can be illustrated in the following diagram.


overlap of audience interests with content offered
overlap of audience interests with content offered

Looking at overlap

The worst outcome is when brands are largely out of touch with their audience.  Audiences feel estranged when they are interested in many things a brand might be able to talk about, but the brand chooses to talk about other things that have little interest to the audience.  The brand could be a trusted source of information on a topic, but instead talks at the audience and offers little content of actual value.  The situation is common, especially in the area of professional services: a bank, rather than provide genuinely helpful suggestions in the context of their products and services, instead promotes messages from the chairman and newsletters about their community involvement.

Another common situation is when audiences use a core of the content you offer them, but ignore the rest.  Audiences are serviced but not engrossed when they value a brand for narrow utilitarian content only.  People will say: “I just want to get an answer to my question; I don’t want to see all this other stuff.”  They engage with the product support content, but not with the content about the brand, because the brand content hasn’t been created in a way that matches the underlying needs of the audience.  People go to their local government website for a schedule of recycling, but ignore articles about public hearings related to the recycling program.  If the audience is not thinking about other things they might potentially want from your brand, you need to rethink your approach to building audience engagement to make your brand feel more inclusive.

People sometimes want more content from a brand than the brand is prepared to offer.  Audiences feel underserved when they need content from a trusted source, but the brand only wants to provide minimal factual content to support sales.  Ordinary people are not experts on tires, water heaters, or many other aspects of life, and want to understand how their situation or behavior will influence product performance in the long term.  But brands may offer only limited specific information, rather than relationship-building content.

Audiences feel supported when there is lots of content available that is relevant to them.  The brand has done a good job translating what it knows into content that speaks the language of the audience and addresses their needs.  From the audience perspective, most of the content seems relevant; from the brand’s perspective, little of the content created is wasted.  Achieving this happy state involves creating compelling audience centric content, where the brand qualities play a supporting role to the content itself.  By having content responsive to audience needs, the brand can build its audience, and have permission to talk about itself where appropriate.

A final possibility is when audiences become obsessive about your brand, and want your brand to take the lead in the relationship.  For brands it is a wonderful position to be in, to have adoring fans who want you to talk about yourself, rather than talk about the humble needs of the people who are interacting with your content.   For these brands the chief challenge is regularly creating highly original content that will impress your fans.  While this fandom brand situation clearly does exist, it is comparatively rare.  Fan-based brands require long term development, and tend to arise in exceptional situations, where extraordinary brand differentiation and identity has been achieved.  While brands should be cautious about directly pursuing this route, it may be possible to incorporate elements of this approach with certain lead customers provided the primarily audience already feels fully supported.

Reshaping your content

To broaden the overlap between audience interests and brand content, shuffle things around.  Enlarge the range of the relevant content:

  1. identify and understand the full range of audience interests through audience research and analytics
  2. build audience curiosity for content that addresses other topics of potential mutual interest by holding content exploration sessions followed up by content testing
  3. create quality content that address these audience interests

Generally this process involves moving toward the audience, away from self-referential content.  Ideally, relevant content is about “us,” but to get there, one needs to address the “me” in the audience before one can talk about “you” the brand.


Thinking about your return on content

Imagine a company that devotes 50 people to create an item of content that is used by only 10 people.  That scenario sounds absurd in the digital world, but companies often do such things when they create content for their executives.  Count the number of people on the email list – for example, the internal team and associated department reviewers who are charged with drafting a decision memo for the company board.   Do all these people really need to be involved?  Is the matter that important?  Even in the digital realm, companies are capable of unconsciously mimicking such behavior when they allow procedures for internal communications to shape their process for creating content for their customers.   You see this happen when the legal department needs to clear each revision, or the executive sponsor wants to approve the final copy.

The opposite situation is also common: a small ragged team of low level employees is responsible for mission critical content that has obvious financial implications, but it is overwhelmed by the task.

Balancing resources and content scope

So what is the right balance between resources for content needed, and the scope of content to deliver?  Determining the  balance reveals both how much content to create, as well as how much money to invest in content quality factors such as

  • creative resources
  • production hardware
  • software tools and platforms
  • review procedures
  • risk control

Apart from such big resource decisions, knowing the right balance can be helpful when deciding what specific content to deliver in a given quarter: for example, does it make sense to produce more videos and delay the project to tag community forum comments?

What is needed is a comprehensive and systematic framework for assessing the impact that all content achieves, measured against all the resources devoted to create that content. True, organizations commonly measure content resources and outcomes on a project basis for specific content initiatives (a campaign, a re-design, a mobile app, etc.) But rarely do they develop an overall picture of what value they are achieving from all their content activities.  Traditional media publishers, being in the more straightforward position of being pure publishers, probably have the clearest sense of the value of their digital content in terms of costs and revenues. Yet even they are struggling with getting scope and resource levels right (e.g., should they develop a new tablet app?)  For traditional product and services firms that are comparatively new to digital publishing, it can be challenging to track the true payoff.  There may be many different content initiatives, each having different goals and using different kinds of resources, including staff who are devoted to content activities only part time.

With organizations undertaking growing numbers projects and investments related to content, content strategists should help their stakeholders put together an integrated “portfolio view” showing how all activities are complementing each other.

Content value: effectiveness and efficiency

For content to have value it must satisfy the needs of both audiences and organizations.  Useful but expensive content can be poor value, as is cheap but inadequate content.  For audiences, content must meet a need to be effective.  For organizations, content must show return on investment.

In these heady days of content consciousness (embodied by the slogan “content is king”), many organizations seem willing to invest now in content, and worry about the precise payoff later, as long as baseline indicators seem to be improving.  But sooner or later, organizations, especially product and service companies new to digital publishing, will ask: Is all our content worth the effort?  Is our content costing us money, or making us money? If content is now a core business asset, can you show me what it returns?

At the heart of content value are two core concepts: content effectiveness, and content production efficiency.

Content effectiveness measures how audiences relate to the content.  Audience impact can – and should – be measured many ways, since audiences are looking for different things from content, and how they use content will vary as well.  The impact of content is related to it’s purpose:

  • content that has a direct purpose such as how many conversions did an email result in (tight coupling of content to outcomes)
  • content that fosters indirect impacts across the customer lifecycle such as building brand awareness  (loose coupling of content to outcomes)
  • content that has multiple purposes such as when a product tutorial video needs to reduce product returns and needs to enhance brand perception (diffuse coupling of content to outcomes)

There are many metrics relating to content effectiveness: number of visitors, dwell time, social media shares, loyalty metrics, reputation metrics, activations, to name but a few.  These metrics measure different kinds of outcomes and reflect different qualities of a brand.

Content production efficiency measures the resource intensity when creating particular kinds of content.  High effort content consumes many resources, both human resources and non-labor costs such as asset licensing, hosting, or paid promotion.  Efficient content production reduces total resources needed to create a type of content of a desired quality.  It is important to recognize that content that requires effort is not necessarily inefficient: efficiency depends on the type of content being created, and the qualities (impact) expected.  Video will often be more resource intensive than copy, for example, but it does not follow that all video is inefficient.  Efficiency is not solely a matter of cost, as quality (and potential audience impact) needs to be accounted for.  Generally, content that costs less to make, or takes less time to make, is more efficient than more expensive content or content slower to produce, provided the content is of comparable quality – it creates equivalent audience impact.

The costs associated with content are subject to two opposite influences.  On the one hand, the unit cost to create content is decreasing, as better content production and management tools make content creation easier.  However, these tools have not necessarily enhanced the quality of content (value to audiences), so that more content is being created of a substandard quality.  This situation has lead to recommendations for more human attention and more structured review processes in content creation, which can drive up costs.

Strategies for improving return on content

When organizations become concerned that they are not getting a desired return on their content, they will typically try one of two strategies.

The first strategy is to enhance the quality of the content, making it more engaging or useful, and potentially broaden the scope of content activities: adding videos, adding more social media, etc.  These tactics aim to improve the impact of an organization’s content, but do not typically lead to production efficiency.  Instead, expanded activities tend to involve more processes that need coordination, increasing the overhead.   A common downside is organizational fatigue, as proliferating content initiatives require more attention from staff who do not have content as a core responsibility.

The second strategy organizations use to get more value from their content is to focus on tweaking a narrow range of content to make it more productive.  Organizations may fine tune their SEO or their copywriting to drive more activation; organizations try to get a repeatable formula that yields predictable results.  Consider a finely evolved targeted marketing email: there are fewer wasted emails sent, and less editorial review, since a template has been optimized.  Predictability helps to reduce risk and contain costs, but such a focus may do little to increase long term brand engagement and improve the audience impact of content.  The focus on optimizing specific content products can result in sub-optimization for the organization overall, where separate activities are done in departmental silos without a broader vision for what customers really want and how to address those desires.


Few organizations seem to move along a direct path  from “bungling” to “enlightened.” Instead they tend to emphasize either content enrichment, or content streamlining, even though there is no intrinsic reason why organizations can not both fine tune delivery of established content at the same time they expand the scope of content activities into newer areas.

Why firms emphasize either content enrichment or content streamlining probably comes down to who in the organization is driving the effort, and the narrative they use to describe the problem and its resolution.  The content enrichers believe that the core value proposition of the existing content is inadequate, and that something better needs to be offered.  This approach appeals to creative marketers, agencies, and brand-conscious executives.  The content streamliners believe the core value proposition of the content is fine, it just needs refinement to yield better results more quickly and cheaply.  Such an approach appeals to analytic marketers, and IT departments interested in upgrading systems.

To avoid a lopsided strategy, organizations need to assess the total value of all their content operations: to compare the resources they devote to content with the outcomes achieved by looking at both content effectiveness and content production efficiency together.  Helping stakeholders understand this value will be a key responsibility for content strategists in the future.

Big Content requires bigger thinking

The notion of “Big Content” has been given a much needed identity and visibility over the past year or so.  It is no longer sufficient for content professionals to talk about content only in a generic sense, because the challenges change according to the scale of the content.  While Big Content seems easy for people to grasp when looked at in bits and pieces (such as specific items, types or categories of content), such content is difficult for people to comprehend and guide in the aggregate, due its scale, variation, and web of complex relationships with diverse audiences and organizational missions.  Without a proper framework, Big Content can be too big to fathom.

The IT consultancy Gartner has promoted the concept, and various vendors are starting to talk of how they address Big Content.  Most large organizations create and publish vast quantities of content – quantities of content intrinsically difficult to manage effectively.  The discipline of content strategy has been addressing the general issues of content effectiveness, but so far it hasn’t focused extensively on the issue of content scale.  Even though the same goals and principles of content strategy apply to both small scale content (thousands of content items) and large content (millions of content items), the tactics needed are fundamentally different.  Small scale content can be managed in a labor-intensive way and understood without extensive technical expertise, but large scale content can’t be.  The designation “Big Content” helps to highlight how fundamentally different the approach needs to be when trying to coordinate truly large scale content.   Content strategist Rahel Anne Bailie notes: “Big Content is consideration of content beyond the copy, and even beyond the content. It’s a consideration of the infrastructure and related elements that support the production and management of content.”

It’s perhaps tempting to view Big Content as an extension of Big Data; after all, both proclaim to be “big,” and data and content sound similar.  Indeed Gartner asserts: “Big Content is still Big Data.”  For some analysts, vast quantities of content look a lot like mountains of customer data: content is just unstructured data that, if cleaned up, can be mined for insights.  Gartner argues: “Unstructured content represents as much as 80 percent of an organization’s total information assets. While Big Data technologies and techniques are well suited to exploring unstructured information, this ‘Big Content’ remains underutilized and its potential largely unexplored.”

But Big Content is different from Big Data, and needs a different framework.  While it is true that content can be mined for insights, the core value of content is different than transactional and other data that is commonly the focus of big data analysis.  Unlike “data” – for example, the rows and columns of customer and product data stored in a data warehouse,  “content” – the articles, videos, photos and user comments – is created for humans to read, watch and enjoy, not for machines to mince and digest.  Enabling machines to process this content is an important issue to address, but only to the extent such processing delivers something that matters for customers.

So far, many discussions of Big Content focus entirely on the analysis of existing content (often user generated), rather than the management and dynamic creation and delivery of new content.  Such a business intelligence focus asks how Big Content can inform business decisions (which may have nothing to do with publishing better content), rather than how to manage and deliver large scale content to better meet user needs.  There is nothing wrong with analyzing content to inform executive decisions about investment or customer care, but the potential of Big Content needs to be far bigger.

Where the Big Data mindset views content as a means to obtaining business analytics (what are people doing with the content?), the Big Content mindset looks to business analytics as a means to producing better content (what content is needed?).  Where Big Data techniques are about consuming large scale legacy information, approaches to Big Content should be generative, examining how new information for audiences can and should be created on a large scale.   It’s not good enough to simply analyze what you get from your customers or your business divisions: you should be planning what you what to say to them as part of a large scale dialog.  Audience-facing content, not internally-facing business intelligence, is what creates the superior customer experiences that drive customer loyalty and revenue.

In forthcoming posts, I’ll explore approaches to addressing Big Content – what is useful today, what could be useful in the future, what content tools need to offer, and what emerging approaches are still lacking.