Category Archives: Content Efficiency

Content & Decisions: A Unified Framework

Many organizations face a chasm between what they say they want to do, and what they are doing in practice.  Many say they want to transition toward digital strategy.  In practice, most still rely on measuring the performance of individual web pages, using the same basic approach that’s been around for donkey’s years. They have trouble linking the performance of their digital operations to their high level goals. They are missing a unified framework that would let them evaluate the relationship between content and decisions.

Why is a Unified Framework important?

Organizations, when tracking how successful they are doing, tend to focus on web pages: abandonment rates, clicks, conversions, email opening rates, likes, views, and so on. Such granular measurements don’t reveal the bigger picture of how content is performing within the publishing organization. Even multi-page measurements such as funnels are little more than an arbitrary linking of discrete web pages.

Tracking the performance of specific web pages is necessary, but not sufficient. But because each page is potentially unique, summary metrics of different pages don’t explain variations in performance.   Page-level metrics tell how specific pages perform, but they don’t address important variables that transcend different pages, such as which content themes are popular, or which design features are being adopted.

Explaining how content fits into digital business strategy is a bit like trying to describe an elephant without being able to see the entire animal. Various people within an organization focus on different digital metrics. How all these metrics interact gets murky.  Operational staff commonly track lower level variables about specific elements or items. Executives track metrics that represent higher level activities and events, which have resource and revenue implications that don’t correspond to specific web pages.

Metadata can play an important role connecting information about various activities and events, and transcend the limitations of page-level metrics.  But first, organizations need a unified framework to see the bigger picture of how their digital strategy relates to their customers.

Layers of Activities and Decisions

To reveal how content relates to other decisions, we need to examine content at different layers. Think of these layers as a stack. One layer consists of the organization publishing content.  Another layer comprises the customers of the organization, the users of the organization’s content and products.  At the center is the digital interface, where organizations interact with their users.

We also need to identify how content interacts with other kinds of decisions within each layer.  Content always plays a supporting role.  The challenge is to measure how good a job it is doing supporting the goals of various actors.

Diagram showing relationships between organizations, their digital assets, and users/customers, and the interaction between content and platforms..

First let’s consider what’s happening within the organization that is publishing content.  The organization makes business decisions that define what the business sells to its customers, and how it services its customers.  Content needs to support these decisions.  The content strategy needs to support the business strategy.  As a practical matter, this means that the overall publishing activity (initiatives, goals, resources) needs to reflect the important business decisions that executives have made about what to emphasize and accomplish.  For example, publishing activity would reflect marketing priorities, or branding goals.  Conversely, an outsider could view the totality of an organization’s content, by viewing their website, and should get a sense of what’s important to that organization.  Publishing activity reveals an organization’s brand and priorities.

The middle layer is composed of assets that the organization has created for their customers to use.  This layer has two sides: the stock of content that’s available, and digital platforms customers access.  The stock of content reflects the organization’s publishing activity .  The digital platforms reflect the organization’s business decisions.  Digital platforms are increasingly an extension of the products and services the organization offers.  Customers need to access the digital platforms to buy the product or service, to use the product or service, and to resolve any problems after purchase.  Content provides the communications that customers need to access the platform.  Because of this relationship, the creation of content assets and the designs for digital platforms are commonly coordinated during their implementation.

Within the user layer, the customer accesses content and platforms.  They choose what content to view, and make decisions about how to buy, use, and maintain various products and services.  The relationship between content activity and user decisions is vital, and will be discussed shortly.  But its importance should not overshadow the influence of the other layers.  The user layer should not be considered in isolation from other decisions and activities that an organization has made.

Feedback loops Between and Within Layers

Let’s consider how the layers interact.  Each layer has a content dimension, and a platform dimension, at opposite ends.  Content dimensions interact with each other within feedback loops, as do platform dimensions.  The content and platform dimensions ultimately directly interact with each other in a feedback loop within the user layer.

On the content side, the first feedback loop, the publishing operations loop, relates to how publishing activity affects the stock of content.  The organization decides the broad direction of its publishing. For many organizations, this direction is notional, but more sophisticated organizations will use structured planning to align their stock of content with the comprehensive goals they’ve set for the content overall.  This planning involves not only the creation of new content, but the revision of the existing stock of content to reflect changes in branding, marketing, or service themes.   The stock of content evolves as the direction of overall publishing activity changes.  At the same time, the stock of content reflects back on the orientation of publishing activity.  Some content is created or adjusted outside of a formal plan.  Such organic changes may be triggered in response to signals indicating how customers are using existing content. Publishers can compare their plans, goals, and activities, with the inventory of content that’s available.

The second content feedback loop, the content utilization loop, concerns how audiences are using content.  Given a stock of content available, publishers must decide what content to prioritize.  They make choices concerning how to promote content (such as where to position links to items), and how to deliver content (such as which platforms to make available for customers to access information).  At the same time, audiences are making their own choices about what content to consume.  These choices collectively suggest preferences of certain kinds of content that are available within the stock of content.

When organizations consider the interaction between the two loops of feedback, they can see the connection between overall publishing activity, and content usage activity.  Is the content the organization wants to publish the content that audiences want to view?

Two feedback loops are at work on the platform side as well.  The first, the business operations loop, concerns how organizations define and measure goals for their digital platforms.  Product managers will have specific goals, reflecting larger business priorities, and these goals get embodied in digital platforms for customers to access.  Product metrics on how customers access the platform provide feedback for adjusting goals, and inform the architectural design of platforms to realize those goals.

The second platform loop, the design optimization loop, concerns how the details of platform designs are adjusted.  For example, designs may be composed of different reusable web components, which could be tied to specific business goals.  Design might, as an example, feature a chatbot that provides a cost savings or new revenue opportunity. The design optimization loop might look at how to improve the utilization of that chatbot functionality.  How users adopt that functionality will influence the optimization (iterative evolution) of its design. The architectural decision to introduce a chatbot, in contrast, would have happened within the business operations loop.

As with the content side, the two feedback loops on the platform side can be linked, so that the relationship between business decisions and user decisions is clearer.  User decisions may prompt minor changes within the design optimization loop, or if significant, potentially larger changes within the business operations loop.  Like content, a digital platform is an asset that requires continual refinement to satisfy both user and business goals.

The two parallel sides, content and design, meet at the user layer.  User decisions are shaped both by the design of the platforms they are accessing, as well as content they are consuming while on the platform.  Users need to know what they can do, and want to do it.  Designs need to support users access to content they need when making a decision. That content needs to provide users with the knowledge and confidence for their decision.

The relationship between content and design can sometimes seem obvious when looking at a web page.  But in cases where content and design don’t support each other, web pages aren’t necessarily the right structure to fix problems.  User experiences can span time and devices.  Some pages will be more about content, and other pages more about functionality. Relevant content and functionality won’t always appear together.  Both content and designs are frequently composed from reusable components.  Many web pages may suffer from common problems stemming from faulty components, or the wrong mix of components. The assets (content and functionality) available to customers may be determined by upstream decisions that can’t be fixed on a page level. Organizations need ways to understand larger patterns of user behavior, to see how content and designs support each other, or fail to.

Better Feedback

Content and design interact across many layers of activities and decisions. Organizations must first decide what digital assets to create and offer customers, and then must refine these so that they work well for users.  Organizations need more precise and comprehensible feedback on how their customers access information and services.  The content and designs that customers access are often composed from reusable components that appear in different contexts. In such cases, page-level metrics are not sufficient to provide situational insights.  Organizations need usage feedback that can be considered at the strategic layer.  They need the ability to evaluate global patterns of use to identify broad areas to change.

In a future post, I will draw on this framework to return to the topic of how descriptive, structural, technical and administrative metadata can help organizations develop deeper insights into the performance of both their content and their designs.  If you are not already familiar with these types of metadata, I invite you to learn about them in my recent book, Metadata Basics for Web Content, available on Amazon.

— Michael Andrews

From Labor Intensity to Value Intensity

Writing is at the core of nearly all content.  That’s true for articles, but also for video, and even the explanations that accompany a photo essay.  Writing is labor-intensive, and labor is expensive.  Many firms try to control labor costs by hiring writers willing to work for less.  But depressing wages is not the path to quality content.  The smarter approach is to focus on ways to reduce unnecessary labor when producing content.

When a process is labor-intensive, it is hard to develop sustainable value.  Each project involves dedicating people to produce something, and starting anew with the next project.  Content strategy fundamentally is about streamlining the costs associated with the labor-intensity of producing content.  Each item of content should ideally become less labor-intensive to produce.

Content strategy relies on three approaches to reduce the labor-intensity of content:

  1. Process Efficiency
  2. Prioritization
  3. Automation.

Process Efficiency

The first task is to ask how an organization may be wasting time producing content.  What unnecessary steps are being taken?  Sometimes inefficiency is the result of a badly set up infrastructure.  Perhaps a content management system requires authors to jump through too many hoops to get something published.  But more often the culprit is organizational.

Content strategists examine process efficiency as part of workflow analysis and governance development, but those descriptions can disguise the true nature of the problem, which is often political.  Many organizations have too many people involved in the production of content, involving too many steps, because they are unable to assign responsibility to the proper staff.  They may be risk averse, and consequently add unnecessary steps to the process.  They may be unwilling to empower staff to make decisions themselves, because they are unwilling to pay to hire sufficiently competent staff to do the work on their own.  These problems may manifest themselves as functional deficiencies, where people complain they lack the right tools for editorial review or collaborative editing, instead of asking why those steps are necessary at all.

Prioritization

The second task is to ask what time is wasted on producing content that delivers little value.  This involves assessing both the effort involved to create different content, and the value that the content delivers.  Some content may be deemed necessary, but delivers limited business value, so ways to streamline the creation of it are merited.  And some content may ultimately be deemed unnecessary, especially when it involves much effort to create and maintain.

The effort to create content reflects both how much labor is involved with creating the content, and how much time is required to keep the content up to date.  An e-commerce site might have a size converter to help foreign customers.  Even if foreign customers represent a small portion of sales, the effort to create the size converter is minimal, there is no maintenance involved, and so the incremental benefit is positive.  The same site would be ill advised to offer advice on customs duties for different countries, since these are complex and always subject to change.

Effort must be evaluated in terms of the business value of the content.  Content’s business value reflects the strategic goals that the content supports, combined with how the content performs in practice.  Determining business value of content is complicated.  It involves setting expectations for what the content is intended to achieve, based on its visibility and the critical impact it is expected to contribute.  The performance of the content reflects its actual contribution to business goals.  The interplay between expectations and current reality leads to a process of calibration, where content is evaluated according to its contribution and contribution potential.  Underperforming content must be examined in terms of its realistic potential contribution, weighed against the effort involved creating and maintaining the content.

Automation

The final task is to ask how to reduce duplication of effort when creating and maintaining content.  Duplication is evident when organizations produce many variations of the same content, but do so in an unsystematic and unplanned manner.

Content provides more value when a single item of content can support many variations.  One can distinguish two kinds of variation: vertical and horizontal.  Vertical variation looks at different ways to tell the same story.  Content about a topic is broken into modules that can be combined in various ways to present the topic.  Horizontal variation looks at how different stories on similar but different topics can be generated from the same basic content framework.

When duplication in content is understood, it can be planned around.  Content can be reused, and the maintenance effort associated with content is reduced.  Automation performs the donkeywork of piecing together the different variations as they are needed.

Value Intensity

Writing is hard work. Unnecessary writing, reviews and rewriting are a waste of money.  In order to get better value from content, one must first recognize how labor-intensive it can be.  Only then can one consider how the make the creation and maintenance of content less labor-intensive, and discover how to be more productive when producing content.

In an ideal situation, an item of content requires little effort to produce, but delivers critical business benefits.  The path to achieving that ideal is to develop a streamlined process centered on producing prioritized content that can be assembled from reusable components.

Value-intensive content delivers incremental benefits that exceed to the incremental effort required to create and maintain it.

— Michael Andrews

Content Strategy Formation and Competitive Advantage

How does an organization form a content strategy?  How does it know what it should be doing differently with its content?  Content strategy can be more than just a program to improve the performance of content.  It can be a part of business strategy and help to inform how a firm should compete.

As content becomes an increasingly important element in business, it moves beyond being a support activity like human resources or accounting. It becomes a core activity, and joins the ranks of cost, technology, service, logistics and design as a potential source of differentiation and competitive advantage.  By competitive advantage, I am not referring to simply outperforming a competitor at a given time, perhaps following a content refresh in response to an assessment of competitor content.  I am referring to a more systematic approach to finding profitable opportunities relating to content that competitors aren’t pursuing.

Many content strategists associate strategy with planning and process.  A number of popular definitions of content strategy mention planning as the engine driving content strategy.  You need a plan: you can’t just wing it.  Yet in business theory, the notion that strategy is synonymous with planning has become dated. The business strategy guru Henry Mintzberg wrote an influential book in the 1990s on the decline of strategic planning.  He considered the centrality of objectives and programs in strategic planning as a frozen perspective, placing an unrealistic emphasis on control. Elaborate planning has fallen out of favor as businesses confront an increasingly unpredictable environment.

Michael Porter, another business strategy guru, criticized the view of strategy as “benchmarking and adopting best practices.” He argued that strategy should be based on delivering something others can’t.

Planning and process are used to execute a strategy, but they don’t define a strategy.

Popular Perspectives on Strategy Today

Many content strategists present content strategy in terms of a circular diagram.  It starts with discovery and planning, proceeds to creating content, and then moves to assessment before starting a new cycle of discovery and planning.  Many more steps may be involved in this cycle, with more specific descriptions, but the basic pattern draws on classic Plan-Do-Check-Act process for process improvement developed in the 1950s by W. Edwards Deming.  The image is so generic that it’s become a standard PowerPoint template that countless people fill in for business review meetings, a sort of mental comfort food.  No one will disagree with a circular diagram: it doesn’t say where you are going, so there’s nothing controversial about it.

Content strategists also emphasize an organization’s mission and values.  Strategy is more than mission and values.  One needs these things, and it’s important that all content conforms to them.  But values by themselves won’t suggest how to proceed into an unknown future.

Most discussions of content strategy don’t talk about how strategy is formed.  They reference the need to establish goals and to have content strategy reflect those goals, but don’t discuss how decisions are made, and what criteria are used to establish goals.

Three popular ideas color discussions about strategy. Because they are so familiar, people rarely question their limitations.

The first idea is optimization.  Optimization assumes analytics will tell you where you should be heading.  If you apply best practices, you can incrementally improve performance.  It assumes what you are currently doing is basically sound; it just needs tweaking. Sometimes this concept is referred to as performance-based strategy.  But as mentioned earlier, following best practices isn’t a genuine strategy.  By definition, best practices are the same tactics that countless others are using.  With its focus on incremental improvement, optimization can result in a blinkered perspective, where brands myopically follow the same basic course of action even as the operating environment shifts dramatically.  Optimization doesn’t tell us what we should be doing differently with our content, except in the most limited manner.

The second idea is growth hacking.  Here, the approach is trial and error. Firms try something that’s been done by someone else, and sees if it works for them.  If not, they try something different.  Many start ups embrace this approach.  They have a core idea, but have no idea how to make money from it, so they keep trying different things, pivoting along the way.  At its worst, growth hacking provides customers with an exhausting stream of alpha release products based on the hunches of alpha males.  User needs are stress-tested rather than solicited as design inputs.  When big organizations try this approach at scale, it can result in wild gyrations, and can hurt the brand’s standing and customer retention, as high profile initiatives are suddenly and publicly abandoned when they don’t produce their expected magic.

The third idea is goal-setting.  The necessity of having a vision and goals seems self-evident.  Airport kiosks are full of books promising a better tomorrow by setting goals.  TED talks exhort us to ask big questions, and be driven by big ideas.  Why are we here?  What do we want to become?  A goal fetish, however, can generate vague, wishful thinking, along the lines of “we want to be awesome so we can help our customers be awesome.”  Unless the goal is viable, building a strategy off it is pointless.

Goal Viability: the Critical Success Factor

Finding the right goals is key: goals that are both achievable and have competitive impact.  If your goals are tired, or ill- defined, pursuing them won’t result in a big difference.  Tired goals are those that reflexively follow past practices, target obviously achievable outcomes, or simply imitate what others are doing.  Ill-defined goals are those that vague and aspirational without sufficient consideration of constraints and tangible outcomes.  Promising goals, in contrast, blend both realism and imagination.

Conventional thinking about strategy is anchored in the notion that goals shape the strategy, which is the foundation for the plan (Goals > Strategy > Plan).  Strategy based on goals communicates the idea that “failure is not an option,” since the goal is not questioned once selected. Consequently, the goals are often either safe or fuzzy, since no one wants to fail.  There is plenty of need in our personal lives for both safe and fuzzy goals: to exercise three times a week, or to try to be a better parent.  But large organizations face different needs: to find goals that can transform their practices when there’s no obvious script to follow.  They need to change, but don’t know exactly what are the right changes to make.

Rather than have goals determine strategy, it may be more insightful to reverse the process.  We need to create a strategy that can identify viable goals we can plan around.   In this revised formulation, the strategy drives the discovery of goals (Strategy > Goals > Plan).  We then stop thinking about strategy as a declaration, and start thinking of it as a discovery process.  Strategy becomes a way of finding viable goals to pursue.

Viewing strategy as a way to choose goals means the emphasis is on making appropriate decisions.   Strategy is ultimately about making the right choices.  We need a framework for making decisions.

Two themes dominate recent strategic business thinking: the rapid and unexpected changes that can occur outside of organizations from technology, competitors, and consumers, and the vast volumes of data being generated that are difficult to interpret.  These themes impact all areas of business, the field of content included.  In 2011, the World Economic Forum (the Davos conference for global CEOs) sponsored a review of the Future of Content to try to make sense of some of these changes.  The review examined the need for organizations to adopt “transformative business models” to address changes in the content landscape.

Content strategy can draw on recent thinking in business strategy, particularly ideas relating to options thinking and hypothesis testing.  These tools can help organizations answer what they should be doing differently with their content.   Strategy should generate interesting and worthwhile options to pursue.  Options need to be tested for their viability.  Viable options can be put into the plan, after which they are executed and optimized.  In this formulation, the front-end of strategy formation involves the discovery of viable goals, and the back-end involves the testing, selection and implementation of these goals into plans.

“One of the toughest strategy challenges is still the creation of options—creating them is the black box of strategy. It’s easy to write ‘diverge’ on the strategy-process map, but it’s darned difficult to create truly innovative strategy options.”  Dan Simpson (Clorox) in the McKinsey Quarterly

Goal-finding: Generating Options

Three approaches can generate innovative content strategy goals that can be evaluated for their viability.  These are:

  1. Dilemma exploration
  2. Hidden value opportunities
  3. Refinement of beliefs concerning differentiation

Each of these approaches can identify and develop specific goals that seem viable — levers that provide leverage.  Dilemma exploration looks at where to put emphasis. Hidden value exploration looks at opportunities to offer things differently.  Belief refinement is about tightening up beliefs about the capabilities of the brand, and behavior of audiences, so that goals are more specific and potentially achievable.  All three approaches help brands to develop fresh ideas that might become candidate goals.  Candidate goals can then be expressed as hypotheses that can be tested to see if they hold.

Strategy can be a discovery process focused on developing and selecting viable goals
Strategy can be a discovery process focused on developing and selecting viable goals

Dilemma Exploration

Dilemmas are about choices, where two or more options seem desirable.  Strategy is similarly about choices: what to emphasize, to the exclusion of something else.

Organizations face resource trade-offs.  The choices they make when allocating resources can impact their overall effectiveness with content.  While it is easy to allocate content spending in direct proportion to revenues from lines of business or customer segments, doing so might overlook the possibility that a different mix might yield a higher overall impact from content.

Some trade-offs are global ones relating to approach, such as whether to emphasize:

  • Breadth of content, or more limited but highly produced content
  • Targeted content addressing specific niches, or content with wide appeal
  • Succinct, compact content, or expansive content using rich media

Brands need to know where to spend their money.  Let’s imagine that 25% of a budget were devoted to discretionary spending on content: some forms of content receive special emphasis, with the intention that such content would be unique and distinguished from the general content offered by competitors.  What should that emphasis be?  Is it better to do a few splashy things that will get the attention of a particular group, or to try to broaden the reach by creating content more targeted to various specific interests?  For example video is more expensive to produce than written content.  It might yield higher engagement from people not ready to buy, compared with those doing serious comparison shopping, who are reading detailed specs.  Does the attraction of video outweigh the thoroughness of detailed product information?

The interesting thing about such dilemmas is that there are answers, but they are not obvious.  The answers are situationally dependent.  No one can know in advance what the best choice will be, because of the many variables.  There is no best practice that everyone in the industry is following, so there is an opportunity to make a choice that is different from one’s competitors, and potentially benefit from this choice.   As soon as conventional wisdom takes hold about what’s the best approach, the competitive advantage disappears — unless conventional wisdom is wrong and one tacks differently.  Dilemmas therefore are a rich area to explore: decisions with two or more tempting choices that sound promising, but only one of which will yield the biggest overall payoff in terms of value for spending.

Trade-offs also exist concerning whom to target, and which lines of business to emphasize.  This is especially urgent for areas of emerging interest that look promising, but where no reliable information is available.  For example, firms may need to decide whether it is better to emphasize:

  • Segment A (single millennials who travel) or segment B (home-oriented millennial families)
  • Product C (cashless payments) or product D (social lending)
  • Platform E (Apple watch) or platform F (large wall public displays)
  • Marketing theme G (the future) or marketing theme H (nostalgia)

Many marketing campaigns are pitched around a tidy story about how various choices will synergistically work together to yield a perfect outcome — without addressing missed opportunities.  Campaigns may fail or succeed without any clear understanding as to why, and with no learning that can be leveraged later.

All well-considered alternatives offer some value, so it is important to understand the potential value of each. The benefit of dilemma exploration is to determine which alternative provides the most leverage.  Brands may be tempted to try to do everything to some degree, but that would provide no emphasis, and would simply dissipate efforts.  Unfortunately, trying all options at once won’t work.  Dilemma exploration is unlike the superficial comparisons of options done in much A/B testing.  A/B tests generally compare only minor differences, rather than more fundamental differences in emphasis.  Exploring options associated with a dilemma can entail a small special project.  Test an option by making a guess as how big an impact it might offer, and comparing the actual result.  This provides a baseline to know if the option performs better or worse then expected.  Rotate options to try different possibilities and develop a comparison between them.

Discovery of Hidden Value

Hidden value exists when the brand and audience both derive value from a change.  Such value can be discovered when one questions the assumptions embedded in the existing brand-audience value exchange.

Start by asking a probing question: What does the customer want from us that we aren’t providing?  The answer to this question, if grounded in user research and customer feedback, can uncover unmet needs.

Next, respond to each customer “ask” with a question from the brand: What does the brand want from the customer?  To be insightful, the question should be answered candidly, revealing both ideal outcomes and feared ones.

An example will illustrate how hidden value discovery can be applied to content.  Suppose your customer insights indicate that customers are frustrated by your complex terms and conditions.  You benchmarked your terms and conditions, and found them no more onerous than your competitors.  Nonetheless, customers want more clarity in the terms and conditions.  While not at a disadvantage, the brand isn’t using terms and conditions as a competitive advantage either.

When the question is turned on the brand — what it wants from the customer — two themes emerge.  The brand is concerned about possible legal actions from customers, or bad PR if they seem to over promise.  The wordy and weasely terms and conditions are a way to discourage too much attention to what is promised.  The brand’s ask of consumers is: Don’t sue the brand, and don’t create negative PR.

Once the needs of both sides are explicit, one can see common ground that adds value to both parties.  Simpler, clearer terms and conditions would benefit customers, who will then trust the brand more.  Such trust could also benefit the brand, by encouraging more sales.  The brand could feel confident simplifying terms and conditions if it improved its risk management, perhaps by assigning warranty fulfillment to a third party or improving communication regarding scheduled maintenance.  The simplified terms would then be a competitive advantage.

“Framing questions is the other tough challenge, and it’s one of the most important yet under appreciated parts of strategy development. Questions are the lens by which problems are defined and addressed. Generating great answers to bad questions is all too common and not all that helpful in strategy.” Dan Simpson (Clorox) in the McKinsey Quarterly

Beliefs about Differentiation

Everyone wants to be different and special: brands and consumers alike.  Differentiation is a major motivation in strategy. Companies want a competitive advantage compared with their peers, and content needs to stand out in some special way for it to get noticed by audiences.  Differentiation attempts to address two issues simultaneously: things that a company can do that will benefit them but that their competitors are not doing, and things that audiences want but are not getting from the industry segment.

How can the brand be more relevant to customers than other brands?  Unlike the optimization approach, differentiation  does not simply ask how to become better than one has done in the past: it asks how to be better than anyone else.

Three core questions are at the heart of differentiation:

  • Why this?  What’s really unique about the product or service, and in what ways is existing product discourse commodified?
  • Why us?  How do people compare vendors and brands, and where are these factors being addressed inadequately?
  • Why now?  How might content influence the readiness of the customer to take action?

The product and vendor questions are familiar to those involved with market positioning.  Because of their familiarity, it takes a special effort to break free of routine points of comparison: features, benefits, and likability.  Last weekend I walked by a shop in Rome I assumed was a jewelry store.  Something was intriguing about it, so I stepped inside, and realized it was a pastry shop.  The shop had redefined pasty as jewelry: precious and regal, simultaneously reframing my conception of the product, and what a pastry vendor can be.

Brands less often think about how to position their communication with customers to bridge the gap between the customer’s readiness to act, with the brand’s readiness to meet pre-purchase and post-purchase customer needs.  Most brands behave by assuming customers will decide when they decide; the brand keeps badgering them in the meantime to stay top of mind, without probing into how customers decide.  But content has tremendous potential to close the gap between customer readiness and action. It can simplify choices, help customers evolve their preferences over time through dynamic customization, and address buyer concerns about risks and future needs for change.

Refining Beliefs and Testing Hypotheses

Being different can involve having a different set of beliefs from the rest of the field.  We embrace various beliefs about what differences make a difference.  Perhaps beliefs about what makes a company successful: Companies that do certain actions achieve outcomes as a result.  Or beliefs about how customers and audiences behave: Audiences that receive content with certain characteristics will behave in a certain way.

Beliefs about both industry behavior and audience behavior can be expressed as hypotheses that are testable.  With a hypothesis, it becomes possible to refine ideas and determine what precisely might be successful.  Consider the area of content marketing.  Content marketing is common: many brands are doing it.  At the same time, there is widespread debate about how effective content marketing actually is.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that some firms in some sectors can benefit using content marketing with some customer segments.  But there is no consensus that simply doing content marketing is valuable — it may be a waste of money, or even counterproductive if it prompts segments to opt out.

Beliefs many times reflect a hidden goal or wish the believer desires.  Consider some beliefs brands may hold:

  • Customers who share content from a brand are likely to become repeat buyers
  • Our brand can create content for customers that will encourage them to identify with us
  • Our brand can gain new customers by producing non-sales oriented content
  • People who do not typically use our brand may be willing to read helpful content from us if it was available
  • People want to be entertained, and will think highly of us if we provide them with content they enjoy
  • Storytelling is the most effective way to reach customers
  • People expect brands to provide advice about daily life issues, and want such information from our brand

These beliefs vary in their generality and plausibility.  Some may be true in some circumstances, but deserve to be teased apart to appreciate different dimensions involved.  Sweeping generalizations are rarely true in all cases. Some beliefs involve a leap in logic, and should be unpacked to identify intermediate causal dimensions.  Some beliefs may raise a “so what?” response: they sound good, but it is not explicitly clear what the broader benefit is.  Umbrella beliefs about firms and customers can be compared with available cross-industry evidence to see what general patterns and special circumstances may apply, if solid data exists at all.  People can falsely assume their beliefs about one industry or segment are valid for different sector or segment.  People may miss the possibilities of borrowing ideas from a seemingly unrelated area.  Once beliefs are expressed as a statement specific to a brand, or to an audience segment, they can actually be tested.

This kind of rigorous examination of beliefs helps find the kernels of truth in various beliefs that can be usefully developed into hypotheses that can be tested.  Once several plausible beliefs about industry behavior and audience behavior are identified and woven together, the brand has a unique proposition that it can explore.  Examples might be:

  • If our brand creates stories about fun romantic holidays that prospects like (hypothesis 1: brand can successfully create fun romantic holiday stories), they will book more travel services with us (hypothesis 2: bookings influenced by stories).
  • Millennials need, but can’t find, information about their long term disability risks (hypothesis 1: unserved need for content on millennial long term disability risks exists).  If we provide them with relevant information (hypothesis 2: target millennials, and see if they find information relevant), we will make gains with the millennial demographic selling insurance related to this.  (hypothesis 3: some sales activity results).

In the second example, we still see signs that wishful thinking might be at work, but we don’t know for sure.  If people can’t find content that doesn’t exist, that doesn’t mean it is needed or wanted.  What’s seen as relevant information may depend on the segment.  Insurers might consider information relevant to a segment, but the target fails to be interested by it.  Perhaps the insight gained from the hypothesis testing is that targeting millennials is not productive, but targeting their parents about the financial risks of a long term disability to their twenty-something year old children is effective.  In this fictitious example, the pursuit of a hypothesis leads to a genuinely novel goal to execute.

Goals Worth Pursuing

I’ve presented a range of approaches on how to identify fresh ideas that could have strategic value.  There is no need to pursue all these approaches at once, but each might be useful at different times when reviewing high level content goals.  By having tools that invite questions, the development of goals can happen continually, rather than being tied to an event trigger such as a content audit or redesign.

The process for testing and evaluating hypotheses is similar to processes used when monitoring analytics and optimizing content.  Unlike with optimization, a specific answer is sought.  One is looking for confirmation of an effect, rather than just trying to improve what’s happening.  In this sense it resembles the experimentation of growth hacking, although it is focused on innovative ideas screened based on their suitability to the challenge, rather than on copying and trying out marketing tactics widely used by others to see if they fit the problem.  Since the option was chosen because it looked promising, it should show some confirmation that it’s a viable goal, even if it has room to improve.  Testing a hypothesis triggers a decision: whether to keep the candidate goal and try to develop it further, or drop it and try a different candidate.

One benefit of having strategy centered on the discovery of viable goals is that it produces many candidate goals.  The brand can avoid the temptation to make a big bet on one audacious goal.  There are many possible goals worth pursuing, and that encourages creativity and experimentation.

Getting Strategic with Content: the Ultimate Goal for Content Maturity

Many organizations are still trying to close the gap between their current operations, and known best practices.  They are playing catch up, and haven’t yet reached the level of maturity with their content to focus on doing things differently, with the intention of out competing their peers.  They are understandably focused on improving their operations so they can execute plans and goals effectively.

But as content strategy takes root in organizations, and as processes and planning improve, the work of content strategy will be less reactive to fixing quality and operational problems, and more proactive, searching for ways to offer greater value to the brand and its customers.  Firms will stop thinking of content as a commodity to cost-manage, and think of it as a product with defined value.  The evolution of content strategy from process improvement to innovation would thus resemble the evolution of product manufactures from their past focus on total quality process improvement as the central competitive concern, toward considering design and innovation as contributing sources of competitive advantage.

All firms, no matter how mature their content operations, face the challenge of uncertainty.  They face resource dilemmas, and make decisions based on faulty assumptions.  In this respect, all firms need a way to work with imperfect information.  They can’t just follow the example of others.  They need their strategy to empower them to choose goals that meet their specific needs.

— Michael Andrews