Category Archives: Content Marketing


I recently visited the Smithsonian’s American History Museum to see an exhibit on food in American culture.  I noticed a Tappan microwave oven in an exhibit case, the kind of microwave that was in use during my early childhood.  If I ever needed evidence that I’m getting older, it’s seeing something from my childhood in the Smithsonian’s collection.  My family didn’t own a Tappan microwave, but I recall a neighboring family did.  When it came to microwave technology, my family wasn’t what, in today’s parlance, would be called an early adopter.

We take microwaves for granted today, but in the early years of microwaves they were exotic.  They were radically different from conventional ovens, and expensive: originally over a thousand dollars.  Selling something so “disruptive” to families required making them seem enticing, simple, and idiot-proof.   The product needed to promise to be easy, and deliver on that promise.  We all want to feel competent, even when using a microwave oven.  We don’t want exploding liquids or gooey muck being our payback for committing to a new technology.

In addition to its historical cultural significance to the Smithsonian’s curators, this particular model was also notable for an unusual feature not normally seen on ovens of any kind.  At the base of the microwave was a drawer that contained recipe cards.  I started to wonder if the designers included the recipe card drawer as content marketing to get hesitant shoppers to buy the microwave, or as product content designed to make sure owners get full satisfaction from their decision.

Early microwave with recipe drawer at the base
Early microwave with recipe drawer at the base

Content marketing and product content are two widely used terms that are sometimes applied to similar circumstances.  Are they distinct ideas, do they overlap, or are they fundamentally the same thing?

Let’s consider another example that’s more current.  Last week I got a sample of shampoo to try out.  Unlike the normal shampoo I use from the same brand, this shampoo involved two parts.  That doesn’t sound too challenging: I just needed to figure out which part to use first.  As I’m about to step into the shower, I open the package and see instructions.  Fortunately they weren’t long, as I wasn’t wearing my eye glasses at this point.  I can see the instructions mention the phrase “apply vigorously”.  Every time I’ve ever read instructions for shampoo or any other soap they implore me to apply the stuff vigorously.  The instructions seemed to convey no information worth noting.  However, at the end of the instructions is a call-to-action telling me to go to a website to watch a video that provides more detailed information on how to use the product.  I suppose some people have waterproof tablets to watch videos in their showers these days, but I again am not an early adopter in this area.  A week later, I have half a container of Part Two left over, while Part One is finished.  I still have not watched the video.

Is the video for the shampoo content marketing encouraging me to try the product, or product content telling me how to use the product?

In the view of some people, trying to make a distinction between content marketing and product content is counterproductive.  They will recommend integrating the pre-sales and post-sales experiences.  Many people who develop instructional information for products argue that this content is increasingly important to customer purchase decisions.  I agree that many synergies are possible between content focused on pre-sales needs, and those focused on post-sales needs.  But I don’t believe we can yet declare that distinctions between pre- and post-sales content have disappeared.

Historically, there was a clear division between content to support marketing and content to support product use.  Marketing content made people want the product, while support content told people how to use the product.  The terms content marketing and product content have emerged over the past decade to address new priorities.  Products and services can involve a growing number of features that consumers expect will work together to solve their high level problems and make their lives more enjoyable.  Consumers expect proof for outcomes promised, and to understand differences between choices offered.  Content marketing focuses on promoting the value of using a product or service in the context of the customer’s life situation, instead of making vague promises or touting meaningless advantages as was traditional in marketing content.    Product content highlights choices and options available, instead of having a remedial focus as customer service content historically has.  Both content marketing and product content aim to be useful to customers, but they still have distinct roles.

Content marketing is still largely focused on pre-sales, or in encouraging repeat sales.  Content marketing collateral is generally distributed and accessed separately from the product or service it concerns.  Product content — any information relating to specific decisions customers must make relating to product features — will frequently occur after the purchase, or at least very near the time of purchase.   Often, product content is embedded in the product itself, rather than being accessed separately.  In the case of services, product content is often integrated in smartphone apps that let customers use the service, and choose options.

Two critical questions face corporations today:

  1. When is the content accessed?
  2. Where is it accessed?

When and where content is accessed has become more murky because sales is increasingly a process, rather than a discrete event.  In the past, the period before the sale, and after the sale, were distinct.  Today, sales is an ongoing process of evaluation.  Companies may sell platforms on which to sell additional products and services, such as when Amazon’s Kindle displays ads for book titles it promotes.  Customers need to configure products prior to purchase, and may reconfigure them after becoming a customer. Many digital products are sold as services that have a limited duration, and must be renewed.  Many products are sold on a trial basis, where customers can try before they commit to buying.  A growing range of content can be embedded in product user interfaces or service apps, but often companies need to rely on email and web channels to communicate, educate, and complete transactions.  The product is not always the ideal channel for the audience to consider the content.

These questions don’t have predefined answers.  They require thinking deeply about the ultimate purpose of the content.  Even if content can support multiple goals, helping existing customers use a service while encouraging them to expand their usage, it doesn’t follow that all these goals be given equal emphasis.  When the same content seems like it exists to serve several different purposes, it can confuse both audiences, and stakeholders in organizations.

Let’s return to the example of the video explaining the shampoo.  I initially wasn’t aware the video existed.  The content wasn’t in the right channel for me to access it when I became aware of it.  I wasn’t clear if it was promotional content, or truly instructional content.  I didn’t know if I needed to see it before using the product, while using the product, or perhaps after using the product.

The content’s purpose also impacts how organizations divide responsibility for the content.  Who was responsible for the video, marketing or customer service?  Sometimes it’s not obvious who should own the content, because organizations can’t dictate to customers what to do.  I routinely get a message from a cloud service that I’m approaching a storage limit, and can buy more storage.  But I may wish instead to learn how to reduce my usage of storage, rather than hear about how I can get more of it.  I’m annoyed that I seem to be hitting the limit, since I’m not aware I’m using the service that much.  This is a common situation, where companies look to up-sell at a moment when customers are starting to doubt the value of the service itself.  There’s a mismatch of views about the purpose of content needed.

When designing content, companies must always be clear about the customer’s purpose.  Even though good support content can increase customer loyalty, support content is not the same as marketing content.  Customers have different purposes when looking at marketing content and support content.  They want it at different times, and often through different channels.  Both content marketing and product content are becoming more user focused.  These content types are inter-related and should be coordinated.  Yet content marketing and product content still serve distinct roles, and it’s important to offer the right details at the right time in the right channel.  Be wary of those who repeat the slogan that all content is marketing content: they are likely to deliver the wrong content to audiences.

— Michael Andrews

Calls to Action: Compelling or Inviting?

Many publishers are obsessed with developing the perfect call-to-action (CTA).   That obsession can end up being a turn off for some audiences.  Audiences don’t necessarily want to feel compelled to act, or feel rushed into making a decision.  In certain circumstances, publishers can ultimately achieve more by making their CTAs less compelling, and more inviting.

There’s little argument that CTAs matter.  A well optimized CTA can have real world consequences.  The UK government experimented with how to word a call to get people to donate their organs.  The best performing option yielded a significant increase over the worst option, and may be indirectly responsible for saving more lives.

But even the best performing CTAs are ignored or rejected by many if not most visitors.   Those visitors might not be ready to act, and the publisher can’t assume they’ll return to the website once they are ready to act.  They may head elsewhere.

Traditional CTAs, focused on urging the reader to do something specific, are not the only path to forming a relationship with audiences, nor are they necessarily the most appropriate path.  Publishers’ emphasis on action can sometimes presume a desire for commitment by readers that really isn’t present. When readers click, they are often not taking action as much as they are “poking” at the content, and seeing what happens.  They explore topics incrementally.  Their actions are tentative as long as they are still deliberating.

Before plotting the ways CTA buttons can wield power over readers to get them to comply with our wishes, content designers should consider how content users evaluate these buttons.

CTAs are most often crafted to support transactional content that discusses why a certain choice is a good one.  With transactional content, all the information needed to make a decision is right there.  The only unknown is whether the reader is sufficiently persuaded to act.

But much content is geared to building interest, instead of supplying cold hard facts or making bold assertions.  Such content is deliberative rather than transactional: it helps audiences think through a range of issues they need to consider before they are ready to make a decision.  When perusing deliberative content, readers often encounter CTAs that ask them to make a decision based on incomplete information.  What kind of CTA is appropriate to present when audiences aren’t ready to take action?

In many cases publishers serve up pushy CTAs while users of content are still trying to understand and evaluate a topic.  They aren’t yet sure how interested they are. A CTA is seen as pushy when the next step proposed is not aligned with the next step the user would be likely to take.   CTAs shouldn’t jump ahead of where the audience is likely to be after reading the content.  CTAs need to match the intention of the audience.

Getting CTA Alignment Through the Audience Perspective

The conventional advice about CTAs is to not offer choices to online visitors.  They will only get confused, distracted, or riven with doubt, according to this advice.  They won’t take action, and the outcome will be failure.

But a CTA that isn’t aligned with the visitor’s readiness is also a failure.  No matter how visible and clear the CTA, or how compelling the benefit, if the reader doesn’t feel ready to act, the call will be ignored.  No amount of  behavioral economics theory will nudge the viewer of the content across the chasm between figuring out their level of interest, and being ready to take action.

Choice Architecture in CTAs

Most CTAs shy away from offering readers any choices, but some exceptions exist.  The most common case is when a CTA for buying a service offers more than one package at different price points.  There may be a starter plan, a value plan (positioned in the center of the price spectrum and shown larger), and a deluxe plan.

Brands often offer multiple CTAs when the content system does not have sufficient information to segment the visitor accurately.   A website may not be able to assume everyone has the same reason for visiting and that everyone is seeking to do the same thing.  Uber’s homepage, for example, might include two calls-to-action: one seeking new drivers, and the other inviting new customers to join.  A common segmentation question is whether someone is an existing customer, or a prospective one.  Visitors are given a choice: to sign up for a service (new customers), or to sign in (existing customers).

The most common CTA that truly cedes decisions to visitors is used in product explorations.  Many landing pages give visitors the option of a trial or a tour.  They can choose to make a deeper commitment immediately, or they can explore the product more superficially with less effort.

CTA Variables: Payoffs and Obligations

Most CTA research focuses on wording changes.  For example, a marketer might test “Get your free evaluation” and compare it to “Download my no-cost evaluation.”    The wording is different, but the net outcome for the user is identical.  They are testing variant presentations of the same CTA, instead of offering alternative actions reflecting genuinely different choices.

Rather than focus entirely on wording, CTAs can be more dynamic and powerful when the outcome for the user is variable. Users then have more of a stake in what they are deciding.

Readers consider two aspects in a CTA: What do they get, and what kind of commitment are they making?  In both cases, CTAs are frequently vague on these points — often intentionally.  Here, the reality of CTAs collide with the lip-service many marketers pay to the concept of “value exchange” — that customers get something valuable in return for providing their personal details.  Customers need to trust that the publisher will give them something worthwhile in return for their effort.

The Reader’s Perspective on CTAs

Audiences encountering CTAs consider how the CTA meets their needs now, and in the future.  Past experiences with prior CTA interactions can influence these decisions, sometimes subconsciously.  A extended loop of micro-interactions with content shapes how valuable audiences believe the exchange with a brand will be.

Audiences may ask themselves:

  • What do they get now, and how valuable will it be?
  • What might they get in the future, and will it be valuable or not?
  • What personal details do they need to supply to get this information?
  • If they change their mind, how easily can they change the arrangement?

At the heart of the reader’s decision is an assessment of how much control they have in the process.  By clicking that button, what kind of commitment are they signing up for?

Commitments can be:

  • One time transaction [exchanging personal data for a defined information product]
  • Temporary commitments can be reversed [usage-based trial]
  • Commitments for a predefined time period [time-based trial]
  • Indefinite commitments with periodic windows inviting adjustment [open ended advisory relationship].

The reader wants to know how much of the content they will be able to experience immediately, verses how long they will need to wait to experience the full value of content offered.  Savvy readers are aware that signing up can involve an escalation of interaction from a brand.  They will get more messages from the brand unrelated to their specific request, and these will involve pitches for other informational products, requests for more personal data, and attempts to sell the brand’s product directly with offers.

As they are second-guessing what they may be committing to, audiences may simultaneously be unsure what they really want.  When brands focus exclusively on trying to get readers to agree to a specific proposition, they can loose sight of whether that proposition truly reflects what an individual wants.   Let’s assume the individual is interested in getting further information related to content they’ve read online.  The brand has successfully built sufficient interest to encourage the individual to listen to more of what the brand has to say.  Yet the presence of interest does not mean that the brand can simply craft some kind of “get more info” CTA and satisfy the individual.  The individual may be thinking the the current content is good for now, but not exactly what they want moving forward.  If the brand truly wants to build interest, they need to accommodate the preferences of readers, not just pressure them to take action.  Audiences may want options relating to:

  • Scope of the content — electing for broader or narrower content, based on what they consider more and less valuable in what they are reading
  • Pacing of the content — electing for more or less frequent content, based on how urgent or important the topic is to them at the moment
  • The convenience of the content — choosing formats based on convenience of consuming (such as audio podcasts) or sharing with others (such as worksheets and templates that can be repurposed).

The invitation to choice

Providing options signals to the reader they are important, and not just a means to an end for the brand.  Consider the case of the online political news publication, Politico.  They offer a premium service called Politico Pro that costs many thousands of dollars a year to subscribe to.  One of the key features the premium service offers over the free one is that readers can specify specific topics to track and get alerts when news is published about these topics.  That customization is simple, but provides enough value that thousands of readers elect to buy the premium service.

Instead of trying to control user behavior, calls to action that invite choice can help uncover what people really want.  That can be a key benefit when trying to understand the motivations of readers who might be interested in the product or service of a brand.  By inviting readers to request more tailored information, the content supplier can be more targeted in what they highlight.

The invitation approach is an alternative to the next-action approach, where readers are exhorted to “convert” by signing up, or at least reading one-more-thing while they are on a website.

What kinds of invitations are possible?  Brands can invite readers to indicate their interests by asking how the brand can be of help.   “How can we help you?” is not common wording in CTAs.   CTAs are generally geared to acquiring prospects and customers, and accordingly have a decisional orientation.  An invitational orientation steps back and emphasizes the relating and confirming stages of interaction with the audience.

How CTAs differ in deliberative and transactional content
How CTAs differ in deliberative and transactional content

Many kinds of companies can help readers by offering content options.  Some typical scenarios where readers can be asked for their interests could include:

  • Let me know when new information is available about [choices presenting informational topics of potential interest].
  • Suggest solutions that let me [choices presenting outcomes of interest]
  • Show me current offers on [choices presenting packages of services]

Better Content, Better Knowledge of Customers

Publishers can move beyond the passive feedback of click-based analytics by giving readers an active role in specifying their interests.  Behavioral analytics rarely answer why users take actions, and user motivations must be inferred from behaviors driven by a mix of factors.  When offering users choices, publishers get active feedback on the appeal of their content, and understand the motivations of their readers much better.

Publishers can gauge the depth of interest by providing audiences with choices.  Some readers may want to expand the range of topics the content addresses.  Other readers may want more focused content.  Some will indicate a continuing interest in the content, provided there is genuinely fresh material to see.  Such indications provide tangible information for publishers about the readiness of readers to consider actions.

This approach can be particularly useful in contexts where the factors involved with making a decision are complex, and the lead time for consideration can be long.  B2B marketing is one example, as are high stakes consumer decisions such as where to attend university.

All successful CTAs rely on experimentation and testing.  Introducing choices into CTAs brings a richer layer of information with which to experiment.  The specific options that customers care about, and ultimately act upon, might not be obvious until different variations are implemented and tested.  Only some options will perform above expectations: the challenge is uncovering which options matter the most to both audiences and the business of the publisher.  Content about high interest options may become more extensive and frequent.  Content about options that are of interest only to select groups may be offered less frequently or extensively, while low interest content can be withdrawn.

Providing precise, relevant content depends on publishers knowing their audiences.  Publishers prepared to make such an effort will gain far richer insights into the customer journey beyond what is conveyed through more generic approaches to modeling how people make decisions.

— Michael Andrews

Aligning Business Goals With User Goals in Content

How does one develop content that aligns business goals with user goals?  Getting both these goals in balance is not  simple.  Joe Pulizzi recently wrote that content marketing may be heading toward a “trough of disillusionment” following a period of “inflated expectations.”

Expectations of content are often inflated. Content professionals frequently expect the wrong things from content. But paradoxically, much value that content can offer is widely overlooked.

The challenge is to have realistic expectations of what content can accomplish, while knowing one is tapping the full potential value from content. To do this, we need to reimagine how we think about the relationship between the business goals for content, and the user goals that content fulfills.

Why Content Expectations Are Often Unrealistic

Inflated expectations about what content will achieve are common.  As more organizations define performance metrics for what their content is expected to achieve, the rampancy of unrealistic expectations is becoming more obvious.

Three kinds of erroneous thinking can result in inflated expectations:

  1. Considering Content as a Magic Black Box
  2. Engaging in Wishful, Over-Optimistic Projections
  3. Making Attribution Errors

Black Box Content

Many people have a fuzzy concept of precisely how content is expected to produce a business outcome.  Instead, they rely on the idea that content has some sort of X-factor that can produce desirable outcomes.  Consider two popular perspectives that contain kernels of truth, but can be dicey when treated as dogma.  The first is what might be called extreme customer centricity: Produce great content that audiences love, and the business benefits will follow.  The second considers content as a driver of business growth: Great content is a magnet for reaching customers who want what you have to sell.  Both perspectives skim over the mechanics of how customer use of content gets translated into profitable outcomes. That it happens is taken on faith.  Yet companies are discovering that launching content initiatives in the hope something will stick to the wall can be an expensive undertaking.

Black box models result in free-floating goals that seem independent of any specific activity needing to happen.  One can set a business goal one hopes to achieve as result of delivering great content, but that goal won’t be realistic unless it is grounded in a plausible model to realize the outcome.  The reality is that specific business outcomes depend on more than producing great content that audiences love.  Without a causal model defining how one expects the content to influence audiences and their behaviors, one has no way to test how realistic one’s goals are.

Wishful, Over-Optimistic Projections

Here, the brand is clearer on what precisely it wants to happen, but it overestimates its ability to influence the outcome. The strategy may seem sensible. The brand plans to offer content audiences would be interested in.  And the outcome they expect doesn’t seem overly ambitious. But outcomes depend on more than linking together a sensible-sounding business goal, with a sensible-sounding user need addressed by the content.  Various external factors introduce friction into the process.

Consider the user’s deliberation process. First you need to get their attention.  They may have a goal, but aren’t seeking advice.  Or they may be checking out advice from your competitor.  If you get their attention, you need to build credibility with them.  They may follow your content, but start to wonder what other brands have to say about the topic.  Or they may get bored.  Once they feel they’ve heard enough on the topic, they are ready to make a decision.  Not only are they considering your content, and possibly the content of your competitors, they are weighing other considerations.  Many decisions ultimately have little to do with the content.  People make decisions based on price, or perceived convenience, or a host of other factors that can wipe out any advantages offered by your content.

The process of user deliberation can involve many turns
The process of user deliberation can involve many turns

The path from content to conversion is long and twisting.  Brands often want to believe if they are liked, then people will take actions they want them to.  They sometimes believe that they can change the behavior of their prospective customer if only those customers view great content promising something better than they have now.  Often such assumptions reflect wishful thinking. Conversion is tough. It’s tempting and easy to ignore all the external factors that can get in the way of people deciding on your solution. But brands have to accept they can’t control everything.

Attribution Errors

Attribution assesses how user events or interactions contribute to desired outcomes. Attribution models can be reliable when measuring tightly controlled and monitored sequences of actions. But attribution gets much trickier the more variables that are involved, especially when they are spread over a long period of time. The bolder the vision for what content might achieve, the less reliably one can say that any particular factor will make it successful or not.

Segmentation Confusion

The first type of attribution problem can arise when the business goals of the content, and the user goals of content, are based on different definitions of customer segments.

There are numerous ways to segment people. Content strategists are inclined to segment audiences according to their goals, which can be expressed as tasks to accomplish or topics of interest to peruse. Businesses don’t segment customers based on their content preferences.  They segment them by their propensity to buy products or services.  The business defines the segment they want to reach, based on the perceived financial value of that segment.

Depending on who is doing the defining, sometimes segmentation reflects business goals, and sometimes segmentation reflects user goals.  These two kinds of segments don’t automatically overlap.  One erroneous assumption is to believe that  a group who shares a common personal goal are equally likely to buy something.  Conversely, just because a group of people all want to buy a certain type of product or service, that doesn’t mean they share the same purchase motivations or care about the exact same features or benefits.

Segmentation problems occur when content professionals assume that buyer segments and audience interest segments are the same, but in fact they diverge in some way.  They fail to consider the genuine motivations of a group: both the financial means of a group, and the group’s willingness (based on their personal needs and preferences) to consider and potentially buy a product. They make erroneous assumptions about how content will influence customer behavior, or what kinds of customers will be attracted to certain content.

Confusing Content Outcomes and Content Purposes

Another kind of confusion happens when brands aren’t clear on how different kinds of content have different purposes.  They expect content to deliver outcomes that aren’t realistic from a particular kind of content. They assign the wrong kind of goal to content that’s not designed for that purpose.

At a high level, we need to distinguish two broad kinds of content: transactional content and deliberative content. Each has different purposes. Transactional content is all about getting you to do something. Deliberative content is about helping you think through an issue without forcing you to make a decision. (I’m using the phrase deliberative content to express the customer’s perspective of needing to deliberate before making a decision.)  In practice, these represent two ends of a spectrum, where it is possible to blend elements of each.  But one can’t expect a single piece of content to address both goals equally: trying to do that merely shows that a brand is confused about what it is trying to accomplish.

Deliberative and transactional content involve different purposes
Deliberative and transactional content involve different purposes

Transactional and deliberative content work in tandem, but have distinct roles.  Deliberative content helps audiences consider their needs. When they are ready, they can transition to transactional content.  If they feel overwhelmed by the choice they face when viewing transactional content, they can pivot back to deliberative content.

Content professionals often confuse these kinds of content, and expect the wrong things from them.  For example, a company may produce wonderfully interesting content about a topic that people view. But they are disappointed with the performance of this content, because they assumed it would result in more sales of a product they make.  They commit a common attribution error of expecting deliberative content to support conversion goals.  Such deliberative content can play a role in supporting sales indirectly, but will not by itself be responsible for lifting sales.  Another common scenario is when companies produce a series of transactional content, and expect audiences to stay engaged. A company may produce a hard charging newsletter that is constantly pitching its products, but is disappointed by the drop out of subscribers.  They are expecting transactional content to deliver engagement goals.  Audiences never build a long term perspective of the brand and how it might help them meet their bigger goals, because the brand is constantly testing them to take an action they aren’t ready to take.

Reimagining Content’s Value in Marketing

Inflated expectations about content performance are often the result of failing to draw critical distinctions about the purposes of content and the goals of users at different times.

A couple of years ago I argued that one of the major benefits of content marketing is developing insights into the needs of segments by looking at analytics of their content usage.  More recently, I explained how the chief value of content is that it can influence profitability. I want to dig deeper into these themes to suggest how to translate content insights into actions that benefit businesses.

Content As Attractor

The key to attracting audience interest is to talk about issues and topics that are important and motivating in their lives.  These themes may intersect with your product or service, but are not about your product or service.  For example, a brand that makes an organic pest control product may want to talk about controlling pests with its product.  Audiences are interested in nice gardens and how to create them. The pests are a nuisance they’d rather not have to think about too much.  They’d rather read about how to create a flourishing garden, not about controlling pests — until they need to deal with the issue.

Nothing revolutionary here: this is basic content marketing.  Expand the discussion to center on the issues that matter most to customers. What many organizations fail to do is develop good insights from this effort.  They don’t calibrate how their content marketing reflects the intended positioning of their products, or measure how much interest different themes are generating from different segments.  Marketers get caught up trying to answer “Is it working?” instead of asking “What’s happening?” with the interactions between audiences and themes.

How content themes can connect audiences to what a brand offers
How content themes can connect audiences to what a brand offers

Uncovering insights comes from focusing on the interactions between different themes and different groups of people.  Here we return to the gremlin of segmentation. Content professionals often rely on personas that are overloaded with assumptions about user interests.  These personas assume certain people will be interested in certain topics, instead of allowing segments to indicate for themselves what they are really interested in.  Rather than try to define all-encompassing personas that are overloaded with assumptions, marketers should unbundle segments so they can separate the situational characteristics of a segment, from the interests of that segment.  Situational characteristics express some material motivating factors such as personal values, life stage or income.  But segment definitions shouldn’t express goals, or assume intent to purchase a specific product. These are dimensions that are best learned from the segment’s interactions with the content.

Leveraging Feedback from Content Interactions

When interacting with content, audiences provide signals that express what interests them most.  They indicate what themes they are attracted to, and also indicate the strength of this attraction. By considering segments independently of their interests, we can see that segments can be attracted to multiple themes. A segment might mostly be interested in one theme, but also care a bit about another.  More than one segment might relate to a theme, while another theme appeals only to a certain segment. All this feedback provides valuable data to support marketing.

The first benefit of harnessing insights from deliberative content usage is to fine-tune related transactional content.  By tracking audience interests according to segment, marketers can adjust how they present information about their products to appeal to specific segments.  Indications of interest in certain themes will suggest what features and benefits of a product to emphasize to certain segments.  Thus insights from content marketing (deliberative content) can improve the effectiveness of marketing content (transactional content).

Feedback from user interactions with deliberative content provides ideas on how to adjust transactional content and even the product offer.
Feedback from user interactions with deliberative content provides ideas on how to adjust transactional content and even the product offer.

The second benefit is less obvious, but potentially even more powerful.  Insights from segments’ interests in deliberative content can influence the product offer.  Consider a product that is associated with two themes: doing something faster, and doing something more cheaply.  The business audience viewing the content is under pressure to increase how quickly they move inventory, and control inventory costs.  Audience interest indicates that the theme of doing things faster resonates more than doing things cheaply.  A product manager might take that insight and switch the product strategy.  She might decide to add features to the product that enhance the product’s performance speed even though it might add slightly to the cost. Or the product manager might look for ways to enhance other aspects of the product that are related to speed, such as how quickly the product can be repaired.

How Content Interactions Support Big Picture Marketing

Small picture marketing evaluates content in terms of number of conversions. Big picture marketing looks at how content shapes customer perceptions, and anticipates what customers want and need.

The growing interest in customer experience over the past decade has been unleashed by a core insight: that experience is now the most important factor effecting customer decision making, ahead of traditional factors such as price. Competition has flattened the obvious differences between products and services, so the intangible dimensions associated with one’s own personal experience have a big impact on whether individuals choose brands, leave brands, and stay with brands.

Content is vital to shaping the customer experience.  Every customer interaction with a brand touchpoint involves content in some way.  And every interaction provides valuable feedback to a brand that can help it understand customer decision making.  Brands can analyze this data to develop greater insights into who specifically is expressing certain needs, what they need, and when they need it.

Colleen Jones refers to the feedback from customer interactions with content as “content intelligence,” a phrase that nicely captures the principle that the data organizations collect should make them smarter about what they should be doing.  Content feedback can inform development of both deliberative content and transactional content to improve the customer experience.  Let’s consider how content intelligence can support various types of marketing functions.

Branding: Branded content is especially important in the consumer sector, in such industries as fast moving consumer goods, fashion, and food and beverages. Much branded content is intended to position a product or service in terms of emotional needs rather than instrumental ones, and implicitly speaks to the routines and aspirations of an individual.  Content intelligence provides insights into how different segments relate to lifestyle themes.

Demand generation: This phrase screams jargon, but it tries to capture how marketing automation is changing purchase scenarios. Content supporting demand generation contributes to two goals: suggesting what customers might need based on concrete knowledge of them, and being ready for the customer when the customer is ready to act.  Transactional content needs to address “What’s urgent about now?”  Such content combines the ability to anticipate and respond quickly.  Content intelligence helps companies understand customer preferences and the timing of needs in greater detail.

Customer journey optimization: The presence or absence of friction in service delivery is the difference between retention or churn.  Both deliberative and transactional content play an important role in the marketing strategies of service oriented businesses such as finance, travel, and healthcare.  Content intelligence supports two important service delivery functions.  First, it can enhance service automation — making it easier for customers to do things.  Content intelligence can be used to provide more targeted content explaining how and why to use automated services, and it can inform development of enhanced customized information for customers who use these services.  Second, content intelligence can be used to fine-tune the setting of service expectations, by tailoring messages about what services customers get and don’t get, and when services are available or will be delivered.  When customers are clear on what to expect, they enjoy a more positive experience.

Product enhancement: Earlier I mentioned that content insights can inform the composition of the product offer.  Insights from content intelligence can applied to many areas of product management, such as extending product categories to address  additional needs, or identifying new buyer segments.

Realizing the Opportunities Available from Content Insights

The answer to getting better performance from content is not simply to measure the performance of the content.  Measurement is important, but not sufficient.  What one measures is vital.  Measure the wrong thing, and you reach the wrong conclusion.  Measurement needs to be aligned with the purpose of the content. Measurement needs to go beyond surface activity to look at how different dimensions interact in combination.  Critically, the measurement of content interactions needs to examine the interplay between segments, the themes they are attracted to, and how they use content across their journeys.

With a robust framework for tracking content interactions, companies can develop better insights into what the performance of different content represents in terms of business opportunities and potential revenue.  Most companies measure content to learn how to change the content they are measuring.  They can achieve even more if they measure content to learn how to change other related content, or even change the products discussed in the content.

— Michael Andrews