Monthly Archives: November 2013

How to create impact with shared content

The benefits of having your content shared are obvious.  You get “earned media.”  You increase your reach, and gain credibility by having trusted people distribute your message.  “Your customers become the channel,” to use the words of Forrester. But content that is shared is not necessarily content that is heard – at least by the people who you want to hear it.  If you focus too hard on increasing the number of times your content is shared, you loose focus on whether your content is having a real impact. Many publishers unfortunately focus on measuring sharing activity rather than sharing value.

The vanity of engineering followership

Publishers want to know how to get more people to use their content to further their business goals.  It’s an understandable target, but can produce a distorted approach.  The publisher starts to worry about behavior of audiences they don’t control, instead of worrying about what they do control: the qualities of their content.  The preoccupation with how audiences are conforming to the publisher’s plans can end up being counterproductive.

The publisher centric perspective will begin looking for “influencers” who can spread their message through their content. Publishers hope that if the content can get to the right influencers, those influencers can spread the content and it will be viewed by many others, and consequently have a huge impact. Grand expectations about the power of sharing are colored by concepts such as social contagion, the mechanism behind viral marketing.  Fans of viral marketing also point to research from behavioral economists and cognitive scientists suggesting that people respond unconsciously to various priming, and as a result can be “nudged” into certain actions.

As a practical matter, the mechanics of influence are messy. One forthcoming book on propagation in social networks concludes: “the existence of influence and its effectiveness for applications such as viral marketing depend on the datasets.” Duncan Watts of Microsoft Research notes in his book Everything is Obvious that influence is difficult to orchestrate, especially when confronted with a multitude of factors, each can intervene to shape people’s choices in differing ways. This is not to say people can’t be nudged; rather, the dynamics of influence are involved, and need to be approached with care.  Don’t expect nudging will necessarily provide magical results.

Not only is nudging complex, it can be a distraction. People are often most readily influenceable about things that matter little to them personally. Trying to sway the behavior of your audience fosters worries about follower numbers and fan loyalty – rather than whether audiences are getting value from what you provide them.

Never confuse your agenda with the audience’s

While the publisher may be worried about how to get audiences to do things with their content, the audience could care less about the goals of the brand. The audience thinks: how can I use this content for my personal needs? People have their own purposes for engaging with content that may differ from the publisher’s. Publisher goals can even infringe on audience needs when the brand has become too pushy in its messaging.

Brands often have vague goals for their content, and a vague sense of whom they are reaching and what impact that achieves. They often measure the wrong things as a result. The most obvious mistake is measuring loyalty and sharing rates, without respect to audience segment. A brand that has a core group of loyal fans that regularly shares their content sounds impressive. But who those fans are, and what business value results from the content shared is what matters. Brands need to dig deeper into what’s happening with their content to see what impact they are realizing from content that is shared.

One of the largest groups to share content routinely are middle age women on Facebook.  One could optimize content so that it gets shared on Facebook by this group, and increase the volume of shares. But one should first ask if this segment, defined in such broad terms, is the right segment you want to reach.  Does your audience you want to reach spend much time on Facebook?  Do they share on Facebook the kind of content you create?  What groups would you like to reach that aren’t active on Facebook?

The figments of trivial content

Light entertainment is some of the most shared content, things like cat videos and brand-themed games.  The mundane cat video shows several facets of the sharing process.  Some people will refuse to view a cat video.  Of those who do, some will view it, but wouldn’t think about sharing it, concerned they might look silly.  Others are happy to share the video with their friends, some of whom are annoyed and ignore it, others of whom are known to like the genre.  It is possible that the loyal fans watching the video can’t remember which brand was behind the video, while the annoyed recipients of shared video are very aware who’s behind it.  Attention can be surprisingly acute when annoyed.  A brand that simply measures the volume of shares, and their click through rates is in trouble because it doesn’t understand who is using its content or why they are doing so.

Social chit chat is the most common driver for sharing content.  Social media discussion is rarely momentous, and most content shared through social media is not momentous either. This characterization is not a judgement of people’s qualities, but a reflection of how humans communicate.  Linguists have long recognized that conversation performs a social function that is more important than its information function.  Social media is akin to spoken conversation.  Much content that is shared is a pretext for social interaction unrelated to the content itself.

Content acts a social lubricant.  It gives us something to talk about, when we feel like talking.  We comment on what we like or dislike, or agree with or disagree with.  These reactions are often superficial and predictable.  They involve little investment of effort, and result in little influence.  Much of the activity relating to sharing content creates no lasting impact at all.   Social chit chat doesn’t help brands much, because it neither changes people’s perception of the brand, nor spurs them to take action.

A lot of content that is shared is about vicarious experiences, imagining what you might do if you were the famous person in the news, or dreaming about places you might buy or visit.  Many people are happy to offer quick opinions to each other on topics with which they have no direct experience, relying on impressions and beliefs they acquired somewhere in the past. People never rethink their knowledge and perceptions when they engage with content superficially. They merely re-live old attitudes.

Trivial content doesn’t create an impact for a brand. Content needs to be meaningful for audiences for them to gain value from it.

Attracting brand awareness through sharing

Businesses should encourage the sharing of content to build favorable brand awareness with audiences they want to reach. Brands are successful when they know that people care about the content itself, and are not simply using the content as a way to size up their friend’s personality.  When the essence of the content has value for the audience, it reflects back positively on the brand.

Your content might be shared by people who are existing customers, have a strong interest in becoming a customer, or only have a casual interest in the brand.  Those who find your content may share the content with others who are not customers, who may or may not be looking to buy the services you offer, or even be familiar with your brand.  Whether or not either of the parties are actively in the market, if they match the general characteristics of the audience segments the brand is trying to reach, they can be valuable to engage with, since they may eventually want something from the brand, or be in a position to influence a peer who will want something.  We cannot predict what the buying status will be, so it is important to keep the focus of the content on being helpful for the viewer and to limit any hard sell.

Some marketers might prefer to have the content encourage people to take a specific action, instead of offering a brand focus.  Including a call-to-action can be appropriate for content when customers are in a buying mode, but is less appropriate for audiences who are getting information through the unsolicited referrals from peers.  In general, people will balk at spontaneously sharing content that seems sales-oriented unless the friend has already expressed interest in the product.  It feels pushy for one friend to recommend another buy something out of the blue.

Most content that gets shared will not have a call to action, or at most, a very weak one, such as signing up for more information.  Content that appears to be direct marketing will be shared little. People are less inclined to recommend things that have strings attached, that mixes friendship with commerce and feels like multilevel marketing. People don’t like feeling they are being nudged to do something, or feeling they are being taken advantage of. The sharing party has a reputation to maintain, of caring about the friend’s needs, not just their own pet interests.  While there is some variation in these social norms, people have a strong need to feel they are in control, rather than answering some else’s agenda.

Audiences need to care about your content

Even interesting, useful content that gets shared may not have an impact if the receiving party doesn’t look at it closely.  For the content to have impact, the receiving party needs to care about the content.

People face many choices when encountering content.  These choices indicate how much they care about the content.  Sharing content involves two basic steps, each with a series of associated decisions:

  1. The choice by the sharing party to share the content
  2. The choice by the receiving party to view the shared content

Someone encountering content will decide whether to ignore it, glance at it, or read it thoroughly.  From the brand’s perspective, it is vital that the content is read throughly, since it indicates stronger engagement that can shift perceptions.  After reading the content, the reader decides if she is done with the content or not.  She can save the content to use again later, or she may choose to share the content with friends or family.  It doesn’t matter if the content is shared through social media like Facebook, or simply email, as long as the intended recipients can access it easily.  The sharing party may also choose to add a note explaining their interest in the content.

The receiving party can ignore the content, glance at it, or read it thoroughly.  He may choose to respond to the sender with comments, developing a discussion around the content.  He may even refer the content to someone else.

Content creates an impact the deeper people engage with it, when they absorb the content and not just skim it.  As Nielsen notes, most pages are viewed for only 10 or 20 seconds. People get little value from most content they encounter. Audiences can be tough to please, but brands have a huge opportunity to distinguish themselves from the prevalence of ignorable content.

Content creates an impact when the receiving party has their perceptions in some way touched by the content they receive from friends.  If they discuss it, they likely thinking about how to apply it to their lives.

Content sharing also carries more impact when it seems like a personal recommendation, rather than an FYI.  The more the sharing seems like a recommendation, the more trustworthy it appears, and the more value it carries.  Some signals that the content shared is a recommendation is that it is unusual in some way (the sharing party doesn’t routinely share this type of content) or the sharing party offers personal comments, or engages in post-sharing discussion.

Design content that’s inter-personal

Some content invites discussion. To get a discussion started, create content that is intrinsically discussable: content that’s inter-personal. Consider creating content that provides for different perspectives, or include a discussion guide with questions.

Think about what people want to discuss with their peers.  People tend to have ties with others who are like them (a phenomenon known as homophily) and therefore are likely to share content with people who have similar interests, and similar ways of looking at things.  These people may not feel they belong to a formal “community” centered on a topical interest, but they will generally have common friends within their social circle who provide a ready forum for discussion.

People most often share news stories that are emotional, especially when stories are happy (creating attraction) and interesting (creating surprise), according to research by Sonya Song.  Brands can leverage these insights by developing aspirational content that defies expectations – content with hope.  Sharing is more common for stories that present problems and their resolution, compared with strictly factual stories.

The most important goal is to inspire trust in your content.  The more trustful that people perceive your content, the more they will share it with friends.  With cynicism pervasive, trust is precious.  When people discover something they didn’t know previously and are willing to share that with people who are like themselves, they show they trust the information.

How to improve content impact

There is no simple formula to create meaningful content that is valued and recommended.  Be wary of trying reliable gimmicks to drive up click through rates.  There are many techniques to create teasing headlines promising exclusive information (“6 free benefits you can’t afford to miss.”)  Such headlines tease without informing.  These tactics can get content noticed, by sensationalizing and over promising, but they undermine the content experience, and damage the brand as well.  As audiences get saturated with such subtly manipulative headlines, credibility is even more essential.

The best way to improve the impact of your content is to look closely at the patterns of usage in your content.  The best indicator that content is valued is when readers have spent an above average time on pages for a certain type of content, a longer than average dwell time.

Examine available analytic data to determine what kinds of content are being shared routinely, and what kinds of content are not being shared often.  This data can come from your web analytics, social media analytics, and data from referring sources and link sharing services.

For types of content not being shared, look for content with large numbers of page views.  Determine that these pages are being actually read rather than merely “viewed”: that they have a dwell time appropriate for the size and complexity of the content.  For content that is being used but not being shared, try to determine everything you can about the audiences using the content, and their social media usage, to see if there are opportunities to position the content in a way to encourage easier sharing.  Also do a content audit to see if the content is lacks the qualities of meaning that people expect when they share and talk about content.  Perhaps the content is too dry and factual, is unremarkable, and does not generate discussion.

For content that you believe is valuable but is not being shared, try to uncover why people don’t share it.  Confirm that people feel the content is as valuable as you do, and probe into why they share content in general, and how they feel about sharing your content.

For the kinds of content you offer that does routinely get shared, explore any difference in audience segments as to how frequently they share content, or the specific types of content they choose to share.  Compare these patterns with your goals for the audiences you seek to reach.  Notice if you are missing any key audiences, or if a lower priority audience segment accounts for a large portion of the sharing.  Examine any significant variations in the types of content different audience segments choose to share.  If a certain type of content is not popular with a segment that shares other types of content, make sure that difference is warranted.  Social network analysis can sometimes reveal other interests of audience segments.   Sometimes you can address those interests in your content where you find they relate to your brand.

The more you understand why segments choose to share content, the more you will be able to optimize your content.  By comparing what is happening with your goals for each audience segment, you can work on improving the performance of your content.

Audience satisfaction can be inferred through analytics, but it is useful to get other kinds of feedback.  Try small experiments to test hypotheses.  Talk directly with customers about your content, their needs, and how they relate to content.  Also, try to test how well your content creates unaided recall.  Try to work to improve the memorability of your content, just as TV advertisers do.

By knowing more about why content performs as it does, you can act more strategically, focusing on high value priorities.  Over time, you will improve and get a better sense of how likely it will be that a certain kind of content will be shared by a certain audience segment.

Content sharing plays a crucial role in content strategy.  It helps brands build relationships with customers and prospective customers.  At the heart of content sharing is how content is valued, and discussed.  Improving content sharing requires a sustained effort.   Customers will notice that they find your content is valuable and want to share it, and the perception of your brand will benefit as that happens.

— Michael Andrews

Content experience: how to address emotional needs and motivations

In the digital world, experiences are largely derived from content.  Audiences are not able size up the credibility of conversational partners in-the-flesh, or touch physical things to test their worthiness.  Instead they react to stuff made of pixels.  That reaction of people to pixels is the essence of what is often described as the content experience.  What follows are some insights into how content experience arises, and a suggested framework for how to plan to make experiences as good as possible for your audiences using four building blocks.

Content creators often have a naive view of content.  They believe there are two types of content, good content and bad content, and that good content results in good experiences.  The creator then concludes: my content is good, so people will like it.

When considered from the user perspective, content appropriateness seems like a moving target.  Content may be good for some people, but not others.  Content may be good at certain points in time, but not others.  When content isn’t quite right, it can seem mediocre, or even bad.

Understand your audience’s (sometimes complex) motivations

Experience is about emotions that arise from one’s thoughts and feelings.  In our heads we think and talk to ourselves (thoughts) while in our bodies we process various emotional, visceral or unconscious reactions (feelings).  We can have thoughts and feelings about ourselves (our self concept), and about other people or things, such as brands.  Thoughts involve interpretation and evaluation – a process of judging that can be curious or critical.  Feelings range in intensity and how they manifest.  Feelings and thought play off each other – thoughts drive feelings at times, and other times feelings drive thoughts.  Their interplay is most intense when feelings and thoughts are aligned or “fused”: the times when people are most convinced of what they encounter is real.

Psychotherapists warn of the danger when people can’t separate thoughts from feelings that are negative: when unconscious feelings spur critical thoughts about oneself or another, or when habitual negative “self talk” causes one to feel bad.  Storytellers like to encourage the fusing of thoughts and feelings in a positive way by getting people so absorbed in an enjoyable story so that they stop evaluating the story (and the storyteller) critically.  People tend to have positive experiences when they feel comfortable with the storyline: it is aligned with familiar, positive prior experiences of a person, so that receptivity goes up, and judgement and negative reactions are absent.

The interplay of thoughts and feelings influence perceptions your audience has of themselves, and of your brand.   Content can prompt people to evaluate themselves negatively (“I must be dumb for not understanding this”) or positively (“I’m so in the know.”)  Content also induces people to evaluate brands negatively or positively.    Consider the public reactions, both positive and negative, to a recent Dove soap campaign focused on beauty.  That campaign may not represent the kind of content you create, but it does illustrate the range of possible reactions that content can elicit, with people talking both about themselves, and the corporation that is behind the message.

Whether the content provokes thoughts and feelings about the person using the content, or the brand behind it, depends on the person’s self concept (expectations about oneself), and  their view of the brand or product (expectations of the brand.)

The following table illustrates some different aspects of content experience.   People may focus on how an experience makes them feel or think of themselves.  Or they may attribute the experience, good or bad, to what the brand did for them.

Relating to Self  (personalization) Relating to Brand (attribution)
Good Experience Affirms who am I, or want to be Has qualities or values I desire, is “on my side,” gets me where I want to be
Bad Experience Makes me feel inadequate, or under-appreciated Slows me down, wastes my time, insults me, bores me

Brands generally have limited influence over a person’s self concept, unless they have had – or will have – a sustained relationship that will influence a person’s expectations of themselves over time.  A community college may be able to reframe how a person thinks about themselves. A candy company generally can’t.  For the most part, brands can appeal to aspects of existing self concepts.  A high end chocolate maker might use content to cultivate chocolate appreciation and connoisseurship, and affirm a chocolate aficionado’s belief in their erudition.

It is helpful to know the mindset of your audiences, especially whether they have a superior (arrogant) or inferior (intimidated) attitude toward  aspects of your product, so you can adjust your content to work with their expectations.  For example, does your audience see themselves as geeks?  Does your content appeal to geeks, or does it seem too simple, or too me-too?  Unless people are looking for aspirational content (involving a transformation of self identity) people generally want content that reaffirms who they think they are.  When content is discordant with how people think of themselves, they often will blame the brand for being wrong.

It is also helpful to know any hot button issues different audience segments may have.  When faced with an emotional situation, people often personalize the bad ones more than the good ones.  Take the assertion that brands care about their customers.  Some brands like Zappos in the United States have been successful in getting people to view their organization as caring about the customer as an individual.  But generally customers have a healthy skepticism when it comes to believing brands “care” about them.  The idea that brands might genuinely care – really value the customer’s time and psychic needs – must be earned through repeated concrete action.  When something goes wrong, the same people who doubt that “care” (in the emotional sense) is a reasonable expectation to have of a brand will be quick to decry that the brand doesn’t “care” about them, as if they secretly believed the brand would prove them wrong.  While content is only one aspect of the brand experience, it can play an important role in offering palpable evidence to customers that can create a feeling they are cared for.

Given these variables, content will often need to adapt to different segments of the audience, to account for different priorities, both informational and emotional.  To understand the differences in audience segments, it is helpful to create content personas that address the informational needs of different audiences at different stages of time, their psychographic characteristics, media preferences, topical interests, their attitudes toward the brand, social media behavior, time scarcity, and attention habits.  To offer full value, content personas should go beyond the functional scenarios and device-centric usage profiles found in user experience personas.

Get ready for the “moments of truth”

Good content experiences are achieved when audiences sense their thoughts and feelings are aligned while using the content.  People hear messages when they aren’t distracted by how the message is being delivered to them.  They identify with content that seems as if it is part of their life stories.  The building blocks for good content experience need to come together during various “moments of truth” a customer will encounter: points in time when the customer will form a strong and lasting impression that will shape their expectations of the brand in the future.

During moments of truth, there is a big potential for content to make people feel bad about themselves, or bad about the brand.

  1. If the brand doesn’t offer content that’s on-topic, then the customer will feel the brand is not a credible source of information.
  2. If the brand doesn’t present content in an audience-appropriate way, it can destroy trust, or make some customer segments feel excluded.
  3. If the brand doesn’t offer a compelling articulation of how its various content relate to your bigger needs, then the brand has forgone the opportunity to establish a basis for an ongoing relationship.  Instead, the brand may even foster confusion about the brand, or even skepticism and cynicism if the audience is more focused on poor storytelling than the story itself.  When viewing individual items of content, the customer thinks: “yeah right” – it doesn’t add up.
  4. If the brand lets down a customer at a critical moment, because it failed to plan for how a customer might need content at a certain time, then the brand has lost the chance to build loyalty.

Implement the building blocks of superior content experience

It may seem self-evident that one should create content that makes people like themselves and the brand.  But the reality is that only some content does this well.  Even if we disregard all the badly produced content that people are often forced to use to get things done in their lives, we are still left with a massive amount of content that is unexciting for most people and offers poor competition for other outlets vying for their attention.  Correcting the most clumsy elements that spark bad experiences is not enough to attract audiences to want to use your content.

Delivering superior content experiences depends on a mix of components and methods:

  • what you say or show
  • how you say or show things
  • how you do your communication

What you say, and how you say and do that, can be broken down into four building blocks that address how you develop relationships with audiences, and meet their needs during their moments of truth when the are likely to form a strong impression that will shape their expectations of your brand.   These building blocks are illustrated below.

content experience building blocks address key audience needs
content experience building blocks address key audience needs

Content elements are the choices about what to talk about.  This includes the topics your content addresses, the level of detail offered, the selection of information to based on audience needs and priorities, and making connections to other topics that are related.   The content elements you offer are the DNA of your identity to audiences.  It reveals whether your focus is the same as the audience’s.  Content elements are the major factor determining how curious an audience segment will be in what you say.

Content presentation is about how content is styled, translated into media and distributed.  Yes, style matters, a lot.  Assuming the audience has interest in what you talk about, you need to determine how to present the content in a way the audience will find engaging and willing to offer their attention.  Presentation choices help create the rapport you establish with your audience, influencing how receptive they will be to what you have to say.  Content presentation includes editorial style, such as voice and tone.  Editorial style influences the mood your content conveys, such as being helpful, happy, respectful or funny.  The decisions relating to content presentation also include whether to show content about your topic, rather than simply talk about it, and selecting the appropriate media to convey your content, such as video, info graphics, or social media dialog.  The more a brand can communicate on the audience’s terms, the more the audience can identify with the content and see it as part of their life stories.

Content articulation is about how content elements come together to create meaning for audiences.  This can be the stories you tell about your brand, or the arguments you make to advocate a certain position or course of action.  Your content elements and presentation should support how your content is articulated and reinforce your messaging.  Audiences should be able to easily understand the big themes of what you offer, without feeling shouted at.  It is easiest to see the articulation with brands that have cartoon mascots (Ronald McDonald or Smokey the Bear) because both brand and audience think in terms of what the mascot persona says as part of its larger story.  Other brands use more subtle ways to tie together content into a larger message, such as when content consistently reflects brand values such as environmental stewardship.

Content awareness is about how your content responds to audience needs at different points in time.  Content awareness embodies the relationship your brand has with the audience by showing how responsive your content is to changing audience needs, and how well you can anticipate these needs.  Your content demonstrates awareness of audience needs by planning for customer journeys, and for detailed scenarios of use for your content.  Aware content makes the right content available where it is needed, when it is needed.  It does so by considering content needs across different device platforms, and anticipating how content may be needed in the context of secondary activities that are not immediately related to acquiring or consuming the content.  To deliver aware content, content resources need to be embedded within the overall design of your organization’s services so it is available exactly when the audience will want to use your content.

Great content experiences require more than an entertaining copywriter, or a clever editorial calendar.  It requires empathy for different kinds of people, who have an assortment of needs and motivations.  Empathy is not an intention; it is a measurable quality.  It is demonstrated by how successful your content is with different audience segments.   Truly empathic content is possible only from a deep understanding of the many aspects of audience needs, which should be validated through user research with audiences and content performance assessments. The ability to deliver that content, the capacity to create and position content addressing those needs, requires holistic coordination and planning.

— Michael Andrews