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