If Two-Thirds of Your Customer Conversation Happens Without You, Then Wherefore Branded Content?

In her excellent book Buyer Personas, Adele Revella gives us “Patrick”, a stand-in for an intrepid HR executive who sets out to acquire a new employee review solution.

Let’s see what we can learn about content marketing from Patrick’s buyer journey. But for fun, let’s see if we can picture Patrick more like Odysseus, whose famous journey was also more circuitous and fraught than he expected when he set out.

A “Patrick” Odyssey

Patrick makes many Aegean and Ionian landfalls before he purchases his new employee review solution. First, there’s the tale of the big human resources conference, where Patrick first learns of the sacred Better Way to review employees and thereby lower attrition. From there, Patrick sets sail for over a year, through various LinkedIn Groups and online forums, collecting treasures of information bit-by-bit.

As he makes port along the Peloponnese, he next asks his peers and colleagues their varied opinions as to which route (solution) he should choose.

Most notable in the tale is the one place Patrick saves until last: the websites and content of the solution providers themselves.

Up until this point in the story, Patrick has been a jovial and open-hearted explorer, landing here and there, and making conversation with anyone he finds. But now, at the point he makes contact with the potential vendor’s content (and, God help him, the inevitable salesperson that comes with it), his exploration phase is already complete.

Patrick has already settled on his HR solution finalists before venturing into the brands’ own website and content. Now as he actually approaches them, he prepares himself like Odysseus for the Sirens: he lashes himself to the mast and resolves to get through the experience without letting himself be influenced by their terrible sounds.

If a brand’s object is to lure you, after all, then why include them in the buying process at all?

To The Barricades

Mark Schaefer is a marketing strategy consultant, college educator, and author of such books as The Content Code and Known. His latest book, Marketing Rebellion, is his most ambitious in terms of insight and future-casting. It is one of the very few marketing books I keep at hand for reference.

Schaefer, at the time already well known for his books and marketing blog, made waves within the content marketing community a few years ago with the article “Content Shock: Why content marketing is not a sustainable strategy”. In it, he observed that the world would shortly be (and now is!) creating more content than customers could possibly ever consume. This imbalance changes the supply-and-demand dynamics of content marketing, shifting the advantage to those companies that have bigger wallets.

Schaefer received push back from several content marketing evangelists, who’d built their businesses on preaching the gospel of plentiful content-based search traffic. In a later post, he rebutted their arguments thoroughly.

As this episode suggests, Schaefer tends to draw clear, independent conclusions about emerging marketing trends, conclusions that may tend to rattle some more phlegmatic marketers out of their complacency. Marketing Rebellion is such a line of thought.

The Human Connection Manifesto

Newly enabled by technology and choice, our customers (inconveniently for us marketers) have a few modest demands. One big one, really: they demand full control of the buying experience. They want disinterested information about what’s best to buy. They want quick and courteous responses to their issues. Most crucially, they want to feel a human connection with a brand, because a human relationship is the only thing that they feel they can trust.

As Schaefer points out, that dynamic flies right in the teeth of a marketing fraternity that wants to rush headlong into automation, AI, analytics, and data-driven advertising. We like our marketing worlds scaled, measured and optimized. But our poor customer just wants to have someone step out from behind the curtain to say, “You know what, I hear you.”

These imperatives are at war with one another, and will not reconcile once AI passes the Turing Test, and fools us into thinking we’re interacting with another human. Technology may someday fake human connection, but no day soon. And once it does, we will never likely accept it as a total substitute for human connection with a brand.

Marketers cannot escape the hard truth that the way they prefer to interact with customers is fundamentally opposed to the ways their customers prefer to be engaged.

Where then, does this leave us with content marketing?

1, 2, 3, 4…Don’t Want Your Content Anymore!

Content marketing is ostensibly the act of entertaining, educating and/or engaging one’s audience through creating (usually) free, high-demand digital products for them to consume. Covertly, those who employ it often nurture the expectation of “free” marketing through garnering search traffic and social media engagement (not counting the cost of the content creation, which everyone mentally discounts).

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Instead of being an exercise in connection and giving of value, most content marketing is an exercise in trying to get—to extract—some kind of click or visit.

In this way, they are like the siren song against which Odysseus steeled himself: The titles of articles famously bait visitors into a visit. The posts are constructed to make you click onto other forms of content. The very pages on which this content sits are designed within an inch of their lives to entice you into further interaction.

This being the case, customers naturally distrust it and are increasingly making buying decisions without the “help” of branded content. Schaefer cites a McKinsey study suggesting that fully two-thirds of purchase process-related informational touchpoints are to human-driven (e.g. reviews, word-of-mouth, etc), rather than branded, marketing activities.

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If, as Schaefer puts it, “Two-thirds of your marketing…is not your marketing,” then what role is branded content to play in the future? Why race our competitors to create difficult, time-consuming material, that is being search-ranked lower and lower, shared less and less, and ultimately mistrusted by customers who seek disinterested information?

Schaefer discusses his specific thoughts on content marketing late in his book (which, by the way, I highly suggest you purchase). His attitude does not so much suggest that we fully abandon content marketing, as that we should find some strategic alignment with the realities of the Marketing Rebellion.

Based on Schaefer’s impressions, together with some personal experiences within this realm, here are a few points on content marketing in the age of the Rebellion:

1. Establishing a content niche is identical to establishing a business niche

There are differences of opinion as to exactly how much of all web content never ranks high enough to be seen by anybody. I’ve seen reports suggesting that the number is about 70%. Mark suggests in his book that it’s more like 80%.

These bleak numbers are reminiscent of the failure statistics for small businesses, and if you think about it, the reasoning could be related. Content, like new ventures, will not succeed without supplying previously unmet demand within a niche.

You should be as serious about your content’s strategic fit as you would be about the fit of your product or service.

Most marketing departments delude themselves about whether their content is differentiated in the marketplace. If one could just as easily attribute your content to one of your competitors, why shouldn’t it be among the 80% of content that effectively vanishes?

2. Do not harbor covert expectations

Why do you want a content program?

  • Do you have something to teach the industry, based on decades of experience?
  • Do you want support for answering prospect’s questions along the buyer’s journey?
  • Do you have connections to a network of thought leaders whose takes you could unite in interesting ways?
  • Is your sales department telling you that there’s an undercurrent of incorrect or insufficient information, which you could correct?
  • Do you serve a community prone to sharing their experiences with images and positive commentary, and you want to create a creative space for that dialog?

All of these would be reasonable answers. These answers all relate to untapped potential demand for unique information, for sharing, belonging, novelty, creativity, and service to a community.

Now, why do you really want a content program?

  • I believe that every time I blog, I’m rewarded with free search traffic.
  • I believe that I can make my company go viral
  • I believe that simply participating in social media gets my content shared exponentially
  • I believe that a content program will be cheaper than advertising
  • I believe that I will be rewarded with a traffic windfall after a few months of consistent publishing
  • I believe that my value proposition is so irresistible, once people simply become aware of it through content, they cannot help but purchase

These things will never, ever happen for you. If these are your expectations going into a content program, it will bankrupt you.

In the era of Content Shock, your competition will be tough and your route to ROI may never actually get you there. Mark says, “Unless you have the resources to land among the top three search terms in your market area, [content-based SEO is] a fruitless effort…” “Resources” means money, excellent niche strategy, superb content differentiation, and more money.

Go into the process for the right reasons. Be realistic about what success will cost.

3. Establish authority, or entertain

Those are your options.

In a low-consideration buyer’s journey, like buying a low-priced commodity, your central marketing goal is to build affinity and trust. You must build this before the purchase takes place because the purchase selection itself is done unconsciously.

If your content entertains, surprises or delights the buyer, it can kindle a relationship that leads to affinity.

In a high consideration buyer’s journey (e.g. B2B, expensive B2C like houses and cars), buyers are making a conscious, deliberate comparison and will trust you if you are an authority in your space.

Pick one of these. Be suspicious of other stated goals like, “to inform.” Simply informing someone does nothing to build a relationship. And if someone suggests the goal, “to build awareness,” throw them out of the nearest window.

3. It’s not YOUR story, it’s THEIR story

Do yourself an enormous favor right now, and delete your company’s “About Us” page from the corporate website.

Replace it with a page titled, “About The Community We Serve.”

No one cares about you or how you got here. They care about their connection with you.

Park Howell, The Business of Story

“Brand Storytelling” is a very cool buzzword right now. Park Howell, the creator of The Business of Story, uses a striking graph in his presentations showing the steep increase in the number of marketers calling themselves “storytellers” on LinkedIn. But, as Park himself would put it, very few of these “storytellers” ever actually tell a story.

Your brand story is almost entirely not about you. Your customer is the protagonist. It’s their ordeal you’re trying to aid. Your product or service simply helps make their life a little more fulfilled, or their obstacles a little less daunting—the magical veil from Ino, if you will, that saves Odysseus when his raft is destroyed.

The most successful content programs build a collaborative space to speak with customers in a creative way and to cultivate user-generated contributions. This is what Mike Brown of Brainzooming calls your “campfire”.

Mike Brown, Brainzooming

Brown’s model for “Social-First Content” aligns three content attributes that help brands create this kind of space:

  1. Starting with your audience’s needs and interests as the focus
  2. Creating content that’s compelling, visually striking, interactive and unique
  3. And finally, integrating the aspects of your brand that have a coolness or wow-factor

If your chief desire from your content program is to inspire progressive levels of interaction with your brand, your storytelling capacity is the “stickiness” factor. It’s the force that pulls your visitors deeper into your world.

If your content does not resonate at this very human level, expect that your visitors will bounce right off.

Returning to the Homeland

Mark concludes his thoughts on content by telling us that, “…it’s time to adjust our strategy from ‘cover the world in content’ to one precisely tuned to create conversations, consideration, and most important, social sharing.”

Executing this kind of consideration-forward strategy hinges on how you decide to treat the adventurer “Patrick”, when he broaches your waters looking for his employee interview solution. Or whatever.

When Odysseus encountered the Phaeacians, they welcomed him, showed him hospitality (that is to say, personal connection) and gave him valuable treasure. Crucially, they listened to his story. And Odysseus was grateful.

But that was after he had spent seven years marooned on an island, while the goddess Calypso held him prisoner. She tried to ensnare him, because when she looked at him she saw only what was in it for her. And Odysseus dreamt only of escape.

To create conversations and consideration with content, you aim fundamentally to give value away as the Phaeacians did. You answer questions. You forego speaking of yourself. You set out to understand, and to serve.

The moment you look at your content as bait, your audience will dream of nothing but escape.

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