Online marketing has become vital to an organisations success and ability to compete in the increasingly challenging marketplace - and it is no longer enough to have just a ‘presence’ in the digital space.
With the advancing state of technology and the creation of new, innovative ways to attract and retain customers and/or fans, brands are constantly challenged to keep up with the current trends, techniques and tools in order to remain competitive. Adopting these practises, they hope, will enable not only increased visibility and brand-perception amongst consumers, but a seamless customer experience that will differentiate them from the rest and position themselves in the lead.
Where a website would once suffice, marketers must now consider strategising and deploying an online marketing approach that is directly aligned and contributes heavily to the overall business objectives. The desired messaging and values of the organisation must be communicated over the wide range of platforms now available on all internet-enabled devices in order to reach and encapsulate their target audience. This will ultimately, if all goes to plan, drive sales.
In order to make the most effective use of a brand's attributes and reach the right people, at the right time, with content that they love, organisations are wise to invest time and resources into a digital strategy - of which communicating with the right content plays a huge part. In previous years, it was a case of convincing marketers that content was a viable use of the marketing budget, and as a result of that lack of solid buy-in, those organisations have been reluctant to spend on the strategic planning and deployment of the spectrum of digital initiatives. This has often resulted in the semi-adoption of techniques that are fragmented in focus, and sometimes incongruent with the wider strategy. For example, those organisations may have started deploying content - but it lacks in direction and meaningful purpose. It lacks strategy.
“Strategy is the key to performance for content marketing.” - Marketing Interactions
Having a digital strategy provides an overall direction for all online marketing initiatives as a result of holistic data-gathering on all aspects of the digital space from consumer online behaviour to the digital trends of the market landscape itself. This high level of understanding enables organisations to strategically utilise the core elements of online marketing such as content distribution in order to make a greater impact on their target audience and achieve their objectives.
Noise, noise, and more noise
IBM’s study on ‘Big Data’ suggests that 90% of the data available today has been created in the last 2 years alone - a vast proportion of which is content. Organisations are using the collection and analysis of this data to achieve competitive advantage over their competitors.
We live in a world where we as consumers rely on credible knowledge and information in order to influence our every day lives and purchase decisions. Buyers require a reason to buy one product or another, or indeed put their faith in one brand over another - so we must provide context to both raise awareness of our brand and cement ourselves as a credible source of information within our market.
We also live in a highly connected world where internet usage is the norm; with over 94% of internet users surfing/browsing the internet; and 73% of smartphone users using their device to visit social networking sites (up from 66% in 2012) (OfCom). With the mass-consumption of online content, created by both brand and consumer alike; we would be foolish to ignore the opportunity that lies in producing quality materials that people want to read.
Content marketing, however, is not a new concept, and as a result of the sudden recognition of content as a valuable tool in achieving business goals, and in parallel the trend for consumers to create their own online material, there has been a surge of online content creation. The mass publishing of content by brands, consumers and journalists alike in a variety of forms, distributed across a growing number of channels within the digital landscape creates what we call noise. Because of the high volume of noise within any market or product’s digital space, where messaging is overly similar from source to source, makes it increasingly challenging for marketers to stand out amongst the crowd.
As a result of this ever-increasing scale of competition, marketers are continuously challenged to develop methods and techniques to break through the smog of noise and reach their audience. ‘Disruption without conflict’ is key - where organisations seek to set themselves apart without ruffling the feathers of their competitors, and marketers use range of approaches to achieve this equilibrium - from social conversation to mass display advertising.
Impact through differentiation
Claude Shannon’s Information theory suggests that messages being sent over a noisy channel must be constructed properly, encompassing strong, relevant symbols in order to be heard without distortion (and thus deemed important) by receivers. In a noisy environment, you can shout a message as loud as you want - as many times as you want - but the influence (if any) it will have on the receiver will be consequential to it’s core make-up. If an intended receiver can predict the outcome of the message (eg. when flipping a coin, the odds are 50/50) the information is less visible and/or valuable to them as if they can predict the outcome less easily (eg. rolling a die, where the odds are far less certain).
In relation to online marketing and content within the digital space, this suggests that if your intended audience already expect the messages you send or values you portray - as it is ‘common’ in that space - the messages will ultimately have less gravity than if we portray something that is unexpected or unique in some way. In this way, messages that hold the right symbols are more likely to be retained in their minds.
Put simply, sending seemingly ‘standard’ messages such as the proposed ‘common traits’ of a product or service such as insurance being “affordable and simple” tent to cause the mind to naturally zone out on arrival.
“In a quickly changing world, what was distinctive yesterday comes as a standard today” - Bill Quirke; Making the Connections (2008)
Differentiation can be achieved by a number of approaches; the most common being ‘disruption’ - as the lines between ‘engaging’ and ‘obscure’ blur together in video campaigns featuring everything from terrifyingly poverty stricken children in Africa to bossy Russian meerkats comparing the ‘Meerkat’ - and everything in between.
However, as Quirke suggests in ‘Making the Connections’ (2008) - one way to be distinctive is to have a powerful brand, even if what you actually provide is unremarkable. Ensuring that the content and brand messaging that is being distributed are both aligned and consistent across all channels will strengthen your presence and identity amongst your audience.
In this way, brands must not simply replace their basic activities in their strategy with disruptive campaigns. Maintaining strong, consistent brand messaging across their basic digital landscape and distribution channels plays a huge part in cementing those ‘outside the box’ (halo) ideas in the mind of the consumer. And that requires a robust content strategy and sense of direction.
Differentiation can also be achieved through pure value-add.
In order to secure the attention of our intended audience and ultimately drive them to invest time and money in our brand, we should seek to truly engage them. Understanding what motivates and inspires our chosen consumer segment(s) to buy in to a brand and our surroundings is therefore essential. Articulating content that aligns with those values and behaviours and meets expectations will lay the foundations for not only our SEO, but our Social Media, e-mail, paid search and conversion rate optimisation marketing efforts.
Joe Pulizzi, author of Get Content, Get Customers defines content marketing as:
“How a brand creates, delivers and governs original or curated content to attract and retain customers, positioning the brand as a credible expert and, ultimately, motivating a change in behaviour.”
Success factors of content marketing
Shareable content drives awareness for your brand
Content drives results from SEO
Content drives purchases
Syndicated content drives purchases
User generated content drives purchases
Content on a range of platforms drives purchases
All too easily, brands have jumped on the idea of content as a powerful marketing tool - but do not be mistaken - content should not just be developed for content’s sake and sprayed around aimlessly. Each piece of content should focus on a purpose and value-add in both the end-user context and it’s ultimate goal: to drive brand-awareness, credibility and sales.
“Content Strategy, as a defined discipline and true necessity, is all about assessing (analyzing), planning (designing), constructing (building & placing), and curating (maintaining) content on a web property or properties. Wherever you have influence over your company’s / client’s content, you have to be acting in all 4 of these ways.” Wordsgohere
In Digital Marketing Analytics (2013), Henmann & Burbary discuss engagement as hinging content around the audiences natural habits and interests - the reason being that if you ask a group of people to change or replace a habit, it will be almost impossible. If, however, you fully emerge yourself in their natural behaviour both on and offline, brand expectations, and interests, then you have an opportunity to produce content that could truly add value to their lives without them having to make a sustained effort to adopt new skills or ways of living/ working.
In the same way that software developers view their innovations, content strategists view content as products, where they plan, design, and test content to make sure that it adds value to the end user and is an attractive proposition. There is little or no use in deploying content (especially if they are paying to distribute and/or target it) if it is just destined to simply blend into the noise and get lost. In order to avoid that scenario, there must be a huge emphasis, then, on analysing the end user so that content can be tailored to them, and measured post-deployment for future learning / development.
Digital marketing analytics plays a huge part in understanding the power of content in a specific market - and strategists will take into account the entire spectrum - from an in-depth digital audit and analysis of their organisation, to industry overviews, to data on user behaviours, consumption, habits and interests.
Essentially, offering a truly consumer driven content strategy, focussed on producing information that enhances audiences natural lifestyle and customer journey in order to attract and retain leads, will contribute heavily to achieving the overall business objectives.
It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it
“Every single visitor to an online property experienced some degree of personalisation. whether its through opt-in subscriptions, saved user account preference, or cookie-based targeting, your web experience isn't the same as mine, quite often even if we are on the same site” Henmann & Burbary 2012
In order to reach the maximum number of consumers, brands must also consider the channels that they deploy their content over over in order to reach their audience - as well as the nature of the messaging itself. By understanding the consumption habits of consumers in their market, and evaluating their own content as well as their competitors in relation to interaction and opinion, brands can strategically distribute their content over channels that their audience already use. In this way, users have a higher chance of consuming a particular piece of content if it is placed correctly.
One of my favourite examples of engaging content designed for the end user is the ‘Interview’ series by recruiters, Reed. Although I do not fit into their target audience as such, these are some of the few adverts on YouTube that I do not skip after 4 seconds. They have truly grasped the idea of adding value to their audience, by providing light-hearted solutions to job hunters biggest fears / issues - including ‘What not to wear to an interview’. Not only does the nature of the content itself portray Reed as a recruiter who is understanding of their clients expectations and habits, they have also chosen to distribute this over a channel that young people (as per the star of the show) use regularly, but in a format that holds the attention of and engages the viewer.
“Young people aged 16-24 are more likely to use YouTube (75%)” - Ofcom (2014)
Evaluation & continuous improvement
Content is the key ingredient to a successful digital strategy - an ingredient, however, that is often overlooked or under appreciated.
As with all digital initiatives, continuously measuring the levels of interaction with your content, post deployment is key to continued success. By analysing the reach and engagement achieved by strands of content, and it’s impact on online visibility strategists can begin to develop rich pictures of audience behaviour and preferences.
From here, they can develop, shape and form improved content production and distribution methodologies as part of the wider digital strategy.
Essentially, making a key ingredient; even more important (think Car with no petrol).
DONT MAKE CONTENT PRODUCTION A
COMPLEX & TIME CONSUMING TASK
We’ve established that content is important, so give it the time it deserves.
This simple list of tips will aid the content production process:
- Be yourself; do not simply replicate the efforts of others or tell your story in their words. If you can act authentically, you are producing unique content aligned to your overall business objectives.
- Do not act on a hunch: work with digital specialists who understand the digital landscape, content strategies and approaches, and effective distribution methods.
- Ensure that your content is deployed in formats and across channels relevant to the audience you are targeting- do not assume that they will find you, you must find them
- Base content around your consumers natural habits and behaviours, and the lifestyle around your product - do not just shout endless messages about your products or service - because they have probably heard it all before
- Earned content (eg. user reviews) is just as valuable as owned, so encourage it!
- Measure the impact of your approach and content - if they don’t like it, bin it - if they do like it, build on it!
- Remember that no two users or their experiences are the same. Segment, target and differentiate between your messaging to your audience (without changing your offering completely!)
Essentially, we live in a world where consumers are hungry for information and interesting content to brighten up their daily commute, expand their knowledge and inform their purchase decisions. For marketers to ‘guess’ what consumers want to consume, or to simply imitate their competitors is simply not enough to break through the vast level of noise created by consumers, brands and wider society alike. Having a content strategy aligned to the consumer (as opposed to content free-pour) as part of the wider approach to digital marketing is therefore essential in order to capture and engage their audience by offering them something that will truly add value. In this way, brands will increase not only their visibility, but their credibility in the wider market by showing a true understanding of the end-user, and better still the benefit that purchasing their product or service could provide.
Bibliography & further reading
Digital Marketing Analytics; Chuck Hemaann & Ken Burbary (2013) for more on listening to data to form ongoing, proactive communications