content as value creation tool
How content marketing can help your brand create lifelong consumer value.
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY Content marketing is all the rage. In a distracted world, where consumers are bombarded with advertising and overwhelmed by media and device choices, brands are searching for a new ways to connect—ideally over the long term. And many marketers are turning to content with varying degrees of success.
What does it mean for a brand to engage in content? What, exactly, is content anyway? What value is it to brands? Do brands have the right to compete against publishing companies? How do brands know whether or not their content is driving business results?
This whitepaper will touch on all of these topics. But, if there’s one thing to remember, one cardinal rule for brands to follow when starting a content marketing program it is this:
Content is often categorized as art or commodity, but for marketers, that misses the point. First and foremost, it needs to be thought of as a tool for driving discovery, engagement and trial. And, like all tools it has a purpose—to provide value to the consumer. On that score, content can always be optimized to provide ever more consumer value, which translates into ever more brand value.
Written by Craig J. Heimbuch—award-winning journalist and author, best-selling ghostwriter and Senior Content Strategist at Barefoot Proximity—this whitepaper provides a framework for brands looking to stand out by creating lasting, even lifelong relationships with consumers via content.
CONTENT marketing The Path to Lasting Value All brands seek to connect and bond with consumers. And most brands rely heavily on advertising to help achieve this. But has there ever been a brand that has bonded deeply with consumers by just advertising its products’ utility? Has an ad campaign alone ever done the really hard work to create that special bond? Probably not. Sure, there are those campaigns that strike a deep chord with people, but in general it’s not the things a brand says in its advertising that make the difference.
Rather, it’s the qualities the brand embodies through content—which includes but certainly goes well beyond the bounds of advertising—that create real and lasting value. And the world we live in makes this both harder and easier to do than ever.
Think about it: We live in an iPhone culture. Access to information is relatively standardized—TV, radio, podcast, website, social media, print, etc. But the technology that allows us to be connected makes it easy to create (you might even say ) a unique experience just for yourself. We all have an iPhone—and an iPod, iPad, desktop
and laptopâ€”but the chances that the media on any two are exactly the same is pretty slim. Such media commonality no longer exists. And herein lie challenges and opportunities.
The new content paradigm requires a fresh, consumer-first approach, and content can be a key asset in developing lifelong consumer relationships in this ever-changing world. This is particularly so if your content seeks first and foremost to help and inspire consumers and aims to sell something second. Focus on the former and the odds of the latter happening rise exponentially.
CONTENT AS TOOL Defining content is both simple and complex. Literally, it’s the words, pictures, videos or sounds that your user experiences when they come to your platform. That’s the easy definition. The harder one doesn’t so much describe content, but the opportunity it affords, which is a more difficult to speak to so succinctly, but necessary to cover.
The content opportunity for marketers begins at a very important intersection where a person’s desire for specific knowledge, insight and experiences meets a brand’s ability to serve them up. That service—and it is a service—is rendered through expertise, voice, format, function and genuine authority, all of which make content valuable.
You have probably heard brands, agencies and media companies talk about content and noticed some differences between those who create it and those who procure it. The former views content as art. The latter as a commodity. The former believes they are creating something of lasting aesthetic value. The latter believes they are buying words in bulk, much the same way that a company buys paperclips.
Both points of view are sort of right, and sort of wrong. More to the point, they’re both missing the point.
Digital content can be art or commodity, but it’s better thought of as a tool. And this tool’s primary purpose is to create value for the consumer and the brand through a conversion of some sort, be that from uninterested to interested, from unregistered to registered, from no purchase to purchase. As such, with the
Content IS A TOOL Depending on host of circumstances, content
right approach regarding performance, the
may or may not be art. It may or may not be a
digital content tool can, like most tools,
commodity. But it most definitely is a tool and
be calibrated, refined and optimized
should be thought of that way. Content
to create more value for both the
is a value creation tool.
consumer and the brand.
Content IS A CHOICE Unlike traditional push marketing—TV, radio, print and online ad campaigns—the effectiveness of content begins and ends with consumer choice. In order for content to be impactful, content needs to be relevant to her life, it needs to help her, be about her, entertain her or provide insight into her life.
THE MUTUAL EXCHANGE OF VALUE The Internet was created for communication, but it spawned a mass proliferation of choices, overwhelming most with the range of options. (It is estimated that the amount of information created from the beginning of civilization to 2003 is now created every three days online.) The economy has moved from one based on goods and services to something else entirely. An information economy, which is really an attention economy. And it’s a buyer’s market, not a seller’s, as is evidenced by the millions of websites, blogs, videos, news outlets and lifestyle sites all multiplying faster than Tribbles of Star Trek lore. Information of virtually any and all types is but a Google search, a link or a ‘liked’ item away.
But what if reaching consumers wasn’t just about having a product to sell and trying to find the right size, placement and creative approach for a banner ad? What if it were about taking what you know about your consumers—their lives, passions, interests, curiosities and problems—and serving their needs? What if brands focused on developing lifelong relationships based on a mutual exchange of value?
What if it were about taking what you know about your consumers—
their lives, passions, interests, curiosities and problems... These are the right questions for those intrigued by content marketing to be asking. For marketers, content is, or at least should be, a service for consumers, not a ploy. Content wins when it moves beyond the aforementioned metaphor of an intersection to one of a traffic circle, where a mutual exchange of value between the consumer and the brand spins in something of an always-fluid, harmonious cycle.
Don’t forget the foundational belief underlying this entire whitepaper: content has, or at least should have, a ton of value for the consumer, which means that they’re willing to give something in exchange. It’s worth noting that approximately 60% of all shared content has a specific brand message in it. Brands clearly aren’t an impediment to content value. To the contrary.
Content IS A CONVERSATION
Consumers derive value from the information, entertainment and community that a brand provides through its content. In turn,
What you publish is what you say, but like any good
brands derive value from consumer
conversation, the most important thing you can do is
actions, whether those be on
listen. A content program needs a solid plan for collecting
the platform (registering and
and studying analytics and user input. Those learnings
providing data), on social
should be used to optimize existing content and influence
media (championing a
future creation. And your analytics strategy should be
brand) or, of course,
mapped to your desired business results. If you want
action at the digital or
more sales - and who doesn’t - what consumer actions
can be measured and mapped to your path to purchase?
At Barefoot Proximity, we call this analytical strategy Content Efficacy.
Content IS CURRENCY Content is the best means of getting as close as possible to consumers by providing non-product value to their lives. A brand’s expertise in areas beyond the shelf can provide value beyond product claims. It is value given to the consumer with the hope that she will appreciate it—and pass it on to her friends.
Content Marketers vS Brands as Publishers Time was, publishing was defined by the person in control of the printing press, the one who bought ink by the barrel and paper by the forest. It was Guttenberg’s gift to Hearst and Pulitzer. But Steve Jobs and Bill Gates took it away by putting the printing press in every pocket, every messenger bag and on every desktop in the world. It’s a natural thought for marketers—afraid of declining shares in the attention economy—to pursue the “Brands as Publishers” model.
However, few brands truly manage to do this well. One notable exception is American Express and their highly regarded Food + Wine and Travel + Leisure magazines. But most brands that pursue a publishing model find it to be beyond their budgets and, frankly, their abilities, too, without some rather sweeping changes. It also distracts from their primary business objectives.
This is why the content marketer model is, generally speaking, more inviting and promising for a broader range of brands. Content marketers, like any other marketers worth their salt, tie their activities to KPI’s related to the core business. How will starting a company blog or
content marketing platform enhance our database, create deeper consumer engagement or move more pallets? Those are the questions you should ask at the start. Not whether or not you should try to compete with the glossy magazines speaking to your key demographic.
Content marketing isn’t about trying to duplicate a traditional publishing experience, it’s about creating a user experience that engenders trust, that serves a consumer’s need for information and satisfies her curiosity in such a way that she bonds with your brand. It’s about having the right information presented in the right way at the right time. And it’s about creating an experience that encourages discovery and exploration, which enhances value for her.
Participation and Optimization Publishers value exposure, content marketers value participation and conversion. It’s not enough to know that your content is enlightening users, but encouraging them to take action – sharing,returning, opting-in and, ultimately, purchasing. This is why optimization for content marketers is so vital. It’s not enough to press “publish” in your Content Management System. In fact, your only part of the way through the process when you do push that button. The real work begins by measuring the level of participation and conversion that piece of content is causing and optimizing against those desired actions. If the first step is conception and creation, the second step publishing, steps three to five are related to analysis and optimization.
Content IS A PROCESS There’s no such thing as a perfect piece of content. That’s the whole idea. So long as the consumer relationship can be strengthened, the ability of content to bolster that relationship can be improved. It requires always-on analysis, constant optimization, and diligence in continuing to find meaningful opportunities to create value for her.
CONTENT IS NOT A CAMPAIGN Obviously, relying only on the perfect ad campaign to build this new, sustainable and mutually beneficial relationship is problematic. Not only are campaigns fickle in terms of length of duration, but they are designed to pique curiosity, not satisfy it. Once a consumer has tried a product, or decided not to, then what? What additional value can they gain from the campaign?
Content is not—and should not—be made subject to such temporary limitations. Content, the always-on, always-searchable currency of the attention economy creates an alwayson opportunity to move from speech to conversation, from the hard sell to the often more effective softer sell.
“The moment of truth” for any campaign is often defined by store-shelf decisions, when a potential consumer becomes a customer. But the moment of truth for content often happens much earlier—and far away from the store shelf. It happens in the Google search bar, on a Facebook feed, a Twitter timeline, a Pinterest board or in an e-mail from a friend with a link embedded.
Success in content is not wholly determined by the number of cases you sellâ€”though that is certainly importantâ€”but in the number of consumer needs, questions or curiosities you identify and deliver against. Take care of the latter and the former will take care of itselfâ€” perhaps even for a lifetime.
SUSTAINABILITY NOT VIRALITY While the desire and wish of every marketer, the virality of content is rarely, if ever, truly predictable. It is not something that can be planned for with certainty or manufactured with complete confidence. Virality is more result than strategy. For instance, Judson Laippley had not even planned on filming his appearance at a university before his “Evolution of Dance” video skyrocketed him to fame. He was an inspirational comedian, doing just another college gig. It was students who filmed it and, after the show, asked if he would mind if they put the video up on YouTube. Half a billion or so views later and the Toledo-based speaker is still riding that accidental wave. Yet, he’s still asked for his “secrets” of the viral video. He has none. No one really does.
Virality is as much a content strategy as lightning is an effective means of illuminating your living room. Smart brands understand this. Smart brands also understand that a good content strategy is about consistency and service. Search authority—organic search authority—is derived from many factors, but one of the most important is how recently and regularly content is published. Good content marketing is marked by consistency. Can users reliably check the platform and find something new? Or do they find the same content time and again? Be consistent and aim to provide daily value, rather than going for the occasional big splash.
QUALITY VS QUANTITY The question that always comes up when brand managers decide to pursue a content marketing strategy is this: How much content do we need?
There are no hard rules as it relates to content volume. There is no formula that states X-number of pieces of content published everyday = Y conversion rate. Every content strategy has to conform to the realities of budget, platform limitations and expectations. But here are a few guidelines to follow:
More content is better, provided that the content gets consumed and shared
A lot of content does not necessarily mean better engagement
Regularity of publishing is more important than quantity – it’s better to publish one piece every day than to upload 500 new pieces of content every other month
There is an interesting relationship between quality and quantity when it comes to content and this relationship may serve as a guiding principle when establishing your content model. Quality and quantity are both critical factors. You can develop strong audiences and deep engagement by focusing on one above the other, though ignoring either one is problematic.
The Huffington Post, for instance, is one of the internet’s largest and most welltrafficked sites. Every day thousands of articles, videos, slideshows and other content are uploaded by bloggers, media outlets and all manner of content producers. Every day, the Huffington Post publishes content of every stripe for every conceivable consumer. And, as such, it is able to serve the interests, needs and curiosities
of nearly anyone who visits. The Huffington Post creates connection and value by volume. In order to continue to grow, the site must add more and more perspectives and voices, inputs and outputs.
From a publisher’s perspective, The Huffington Post is an incredible success. It reaches millions of screens every month. But is their high-volume, shotgun approach the right one for content marketers? Probably not. Content marketers need to create a specific experience for users in order to drive business results.
In this respect, content marketers have more to learn from bloggers like Ree Drummond, “The Pioneer Woman.” Drummond, a Utah-based home, garden and cooking writer has Ree Drummond, The Pioneer Woman
built a content brand. Her straightforward, tough-yet-artful approach
to serving her audience is proof positive that quality can drive engagement better than quantity, and that engagement will drive additional reach. Drummond has more than 500,000 engaged, active users who have connected with her content—because it satisfies their interests and curiosities. Consumers know what they will get when they visit the Pioneer Woman and, because of that, they visit often. She doesn’t overwhelm with quantity, but puts a premium on quality and consistency. Her regularity and focus on quality are as much a part of her content brand has what she’s writing and talking about.
When it comes to the quantity vs. quality argument, brands should not be afraid to start small. Produce as much content every day as you can, while maintaining high standards of quality and consistency. Grow from there. Focus on engagement over traffic volume. That’s how brand content becomes more valuable to the audience and the audience engagement becomes
stand for something
Have a point of view, a way of viewing the world that
more valuable to the brand.
comes through in your content. Show your audience that you understand what’s important to them. It’s counter-intuitive, especially for brandmarketers who want to get the widest possible consumer base, but important. A singular point-of-view does not always mean a singular voice, a single author or single topic covered. It’s about having an equity, something readers/viewers/users can identify with. The mistake is not risking alienation of some users by having a pointof-view, but of not connecting with any because you don’t.
CONTENT DARWINISM™ If the substance of content is designed to provide value to consumers, the actions taken by those same consumers is the source of the value derived by brands. It’s sometimes difficult to quantify the intrinsic value of content to the consumer. That’s because it’s often more about a feeling, a notion that resonates with, or perhaps even changes, one’s “inner map,” than an immediate action. Nonetheless, brands still have an opportunity to understand and maximize the value of content through measurement.
Traffic and page views are the most-often cited units of measurement when it comes to content. How many people are coming to your platform? How many pages are they looking at? But, if you are a brand mounting a content marketing initiative, these two metrics alone don’t give you a clear enough understanding of your efforts’ value.
For instance, let’s say your platform publishes 50 articles in a month. They are written based on your editorial guidelines, but are of various formats, by various authors working for various media networks and blogs. Overall, site traffic is pretty strong, but you sense it could be better.
If you are looking at traffic and page views, you’re able to see which articles are driving the highest percentage of both. But what does that really tell you? Just that they were read
or shared more. These are both positive things, for sure, but they don’t give you the best sense of the bigger picture. If you have established deeper analytical criteria—criteria that match to desired business results—you might notice that the most visited, read or shared article was not, in fact, the most valuable. Perhaps the twelfth most popular article leads to a greater proportion of direct sales and the number eight story was shared
DARWINISM IN ACTION While serving as editor-in-chief of digital platform, our search and optimization team believed we had an opportunity to do well with a story on the topic of maintaining a career during tough economic times, So I assigned a story titled “10 Ways to Keep Your Job in a Down Economy,” and published it high expectations.
with greater frequency than any of the seven above it.
So start with your business results. Sales are obvious, but if the content is part of an eCRM program, opt-ins, sign-ups and referrals can be just as valuable. What are the consumer behaviors that are indicative of these desired results? Simply reading an article may have some value, but a consumer sharing that article with her Facebook friends is an explicit endorsement of its value. Site visits are good, but repeat visits are better, and opt-ins are better still. Site exits generally aren’t good, but they sure can be when a consumer is exiting your site to visit your brand’s social platform or an e-commerce venue.
In short, brands should also have a clear idea of the behaviors they hope the content will inspire—and a means of measuring those behaviors.
I was frustrated by the lackluster results. Looking for an answer, we turned to the data. It showed that, on our site, negatively worded headlines earned a greater percentage of organic click-through than positively worded ones. So, we changed the headline to “10 Ways to Not Lose Your Job in a Down Economy.” We saw an instant, though incremental, gain in search traffic. Still not satisfied, we studied the data even harder and found that odd-numbered lists had a higher percentage of click-through than even-numbered ones (perhaps because odd-numbered lists seem more authoritative and less formulaic). So we added a ‘way’ and changed the headline once again to “11 Ways to Not Lose Your Job in a Down Economy.” This tweaking resulted in traffic well beyond our initial expectations for the piece. The lessons here are clear: Getting the most out of your content means vigilance beyond publishing a piece and simply hoping for the best. And a lock-step relationship between your editorial team and your analytics team will definitely pay dividends.
We, at Barefoot Proximity, call this Content Darwinism. It’s based on the idea that the content that works the hardest to drive specific results—the content with the greatest efficacy—should influence other content decisions and planning. A survival of the fittest mentality, ensures that your platform’s content is always evolving, always improving. By mapping micro (pageviews) and macro (opt-in, social following, etc..) conversions affiliated with each step along the path to purchase to individual pieces of content, we are able, thanks to our handy-dandy algorithm, to understand the business value of different pieces of content to the brands we serve.
For example, we can understand what content on a site is working the hardest to drive discovery, engagement and closing conversions and optimize not only our content mix, but the consumer journey on the content path to purchase. Perhaps even more importantly, we can see what content is not working or is hurting conversion and remove it. And the only way we can do this is by matching the value of content to the business value for the brand.
A Lesson in Vigilance: The Panda Update If constant maintenance and optimization of your content sounds like an expensive hassle, consider the costs of not being awake at the switch. In April 2011, Google released its Panda update, which, among other things, sought to curtail the authority given to content, created by “content farms.” These are broad networks of loosely affiliated content creators who sold inexpensive content to brands and publishers. Their content was inexpensive because it was being duplicated on sites across the internet. Again, this seemed to those purchasing and selling this duplicative content like a low-cost solution to a content
problem. But then the Panda update was released. As a result, content farm articles dropped precipitously in Google’s search ranks. (One content farm saw its downstream traffic decline 40% within a month and a half of the Panda update.) The content farms’ output became less valuable to the consumer (it was harder to find) and less valuable to the brand (it wasn’t pulling consumers to their platforms). The lesson? Good content is not just about proper syntax and grammar. Good content on the web is that which has the best chance of being found, admired and shared, and this requires some degree of originality versus an avalanche of the same old content found in countless other places. Being vigilant in understanding search trends in the content marketplace is not only important, but also vital to protecting the health of your investment in content.
Optimize Everything A data-centric approach to content goes beyond knowing what content is resonating with consumers. Your content analytics plan should include device and time-of-day insights to help answer key questionsabout what content is making an impact, when and on what screen? Optimization is an on-going process, not an end-state.
The content Sourcing Conundrum If you are responsible for developing your brand or scale content marketing program, chances are pretty good that you’ve been on calls with publishers, media networks and platforms, all of which promise that they’ll make the whole content puzzle a no-brainer for you. Sit back and relax, they’ll tell you, they’ll take care of it all. But can they really? And how do you know?
A traditional publisher may boast 12 million page views a month. So might a digital media network and a content creator network. And they may all be telling the truth. What they may not reveal is that those millions of page views take very different shapes and forms. The traditional publisher may be getting those page views across a couple hundred magazine sites around the world. The digital media network may have 5,000 sites in North America alone in its ranks. And the content creator network may be getting page views on its content distributed across hundreds, or even thousands, of sites.
How do you, as the brand’s content manager, know which will provide the best solution for your platform? The simple answer is: You don’t. And there are problems with trying to apply publishing, media and network measures of success to a content marketing program. Chief among those problems is that simply having page views on other platforms does not ensure success on yours.
Brands have a unique opportunity to level the playing field—between content types, content vendors and content creators—by redefining the value of content. No longer do content marketing results need to be compared on publishers’ terms (traffic and page views, mostly). Success in content marketing can now be determined by the success of the content in driving business results—sales, opt-ins, renewals, trials…whatever your business seeks to achieve. And when the brand determines the measurement criteria, then the content formats, creators and vendors all compete to deliver results for the brand based upon tangible actions taken by consumers.
If content efficacy on a brand platform is defined as content’s ability to achieve business goals, the Content Darwinism model affords marketers the opportunity to create competition among partners to see who can create the most value. In the lush and varied world of content, only the fittest will survive. More to the point, only the fittest should survive.
Things to Take Away 1.
Use your understanding of her problems, her concerns, her interests and curiosities to guide your strategy. Look for potential intersections and seek to provide her value beyond your product offering.
Learn from her actions what content is most valuable to her and optimize toward creating yet more value.
Turn that intersection of her needs and your offering into a virtuous, harmonious circle of mutual appreciation.
Set the terms of value without falling subject to those dictated by publishers and media networks with different measurements of success.
Focus on creating a unique experience for the user, not on replicating (poorly done) ones she can get elsewhere.
Remember that content creation and evaluation is a process that can always be improved.
Target consistency, and don’t get sidetracked by virality.
LESSONS LEARNED Content marketing is not a fad. It’s a way for brands to create lasting, even lifelong, relationships with consumers based upon the mutual exchange of value. It’s here for good. And it’s only getting more popular. In research done in August 2012, content thought leaders Outbrain and Econsultancy found that 92% of in-house brand marketers and 71% of agencies and consultants already have or are planning a content marketing program.
But, like a lot of big opportunities, success will be had by those who embrace the challenge and experiment without losing sight of what’s most important, namely the relationship you must build and nurture with consumers.
In an age when content is the currency of the attention economy, some things have not changed. The brands people will find the most valuable are the ones that help them make better sense of their worlds and find more enjoyment within them.
About the Author CRAIG HEIMBUCH is the Senior Content Strategist at Barefoot Proximity. An award-winning journalist and author and best-selling ghostwriter, he leads content strategy for large-scale eCRM programs around the world. Contact Craig email@example.com o: 513.618.0635 m: 513.545.0366 @cheimbuch facebook.com/craig.heimbuch craigheimbuch.com
WRITTEN BY CRAIG HEIMBUCH
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How content marketing can help your brand create lifelong consumer value. A Proximity Worldwide white paper.