When people learn that I am a digital marketing consultant, they often ask, “What kind of consulting do you do?” I sometimes surprise them with my answer: “I help companies make money from their marketing investments.” That’s usually not the answer that they are expecting, which is OK with me.
Too often, consultants answer that question by explaining what they know. And yes, I know search marketing, and Web site marketing, and social media marketing, and Web analytics—and the list keeps growing as digital marketing keeps growing. But knowledge isn’t enough. What’s really important is the ability to analyze your organization and help you identify what’s missing.
For some companies, they know exactly what to do, but they don’t know how to get everyone in their large organization to do what’s needed. That’s a problem I’ve solved while working for IBM and with many other large clients. Other companies need technical advice in search, social, or their Web usability. Still others need to integrate all of their digital marketing programs into a cohesive and measurable system that helps them continuously improve. Sometimes I take on these projects alone, but often, especially for large enterprises, I work with my teammates at Converseon.
My consulting centers on:
Newspapers and magazines—and later radio and TV—created a new way to communicate. They were considered to be cool new technology when each of them came along. And while some people used mass media to inform and entertain people, others realized we had stumbled on the greatest way to sell things ever invented. They discovered that media can drive demand for products. Those people were the first marketers. What they invented was advertising.
Marketers discovered that advertising can deliver the message for your brand to your target market. In fact, mass communications is what begat the need to have brand names at all.
Let’s face it. Your customers don’t need a name for what your salesperson is pressing into their palms. But without a brand name in your newspaper ad, your customers won’t know what to ask for at the store. Or have any way to connect the ad with what they now want to buy. The invention of advertising requires that products have brand names.
Now when all this advertising stuff began, no one knew what they were doing—that’s true at the start of just about anything. Whenever the world changes, there are no recipes for success, at least at first. They were experimenting like crazy because printing presses caused the invention of marketing—a big change. Any new world order forces experimentation, and the bigger the change, the more massive the scale of the experimentation.
And you won’t live to see a more massive change in technology than what marketing is facing now. The world is changing and the old ways are not working the way they once did. When you’re born into a time of change, you don’t get to coast along.
Now, in the face of such changes in the past, marketers always knew what to do. When radio made newspapers less important, we bought ads on the radio. When TV pushed radio farther back in the line, we flocked to TV ads. So, now digital media is the next big thing. We’ll just buy ads there, right?
Maybe, but advertising was also uniquely suited to traditional media. Why? Because advertising is designed to accompany media. Advertising is the commercial break within the show. It’s the print ad next to the story. It’s the radio announcer between songs. Advertising is designed to go along with the media that actually attracts the audience.
While there are advertising opportunities online, there are many kinds of marketing that don’t depend on advertising, because it is more likely that online behavior consists of active choosing of what to do next, rather than the passive viewing, listening, or reading of traditional advertising, where it is relatively easy to predict what most people will see next. TV viewers are likely to keep watching the show that is on. Radio listeners are likely to listen to the next song. Magazine readers are likely to turn to the next page. In contrast, it is a lot harder to know what someone who comes to your website is likely to do next—you probably have 100 different links on that page.
So, not only is traditional media usage on the wane, but advertising is a form that was designed for traditional media, and might not translate as well to the new digital forms.
Advertising has traditionally been about interrupting people to blare your message when they wanted to be doing something else. Digital media can change that model. Instead of showing a zillion car commercials in the hopes that customers remember your brand when they actually want to buy a car, what would it be worth to be able to talk to customers at that moment of readiness? To know exactly when your customers want to hear everything about your car?
Another way of describing this shift is “push” (interruption by the marketer) vs. “pull” (permission from the customer). Permission can happen one time (when your customer searches for your product’s information) or continuously (when they follow you on Twitter or subscribe to your email newsletter). The antidote to unwanted advertising is to get permission from your customer to contact them with your message.
And why would customers grant you such permission? With advertising, we bribe customers into experiencing our messages with free information or entertainment. They endure the ads to get what they want. But what if our message is what they want?
Customers do sometimes want to hear from us. Sometimes we have a solution to their problem and they will happily listen to our message.
That’s the difference between “push” and “pull”—content marketing turns advertising on its ear. Instead of using interruptive advertising to reach people when they are trying to do something else, content marketing is pulled closer by the customer—because the marketing message helps people reach their goal. Getting your message is what they want to do—you’re not interrupting them.
Search is the best example here—searchers happily wade through dozens of marketing messages each day because they are trying to learn more on the way to a purchase decision for something they want to buy. But your message can be shared on social media, through email, and through old fashioned word of mouth, when it is a message that might help someone else.
So, the real challenge of content marketing is not the mastery of a new way of interrupting people. It’s a lot harder than that. How do you get people to actually want to listen to you? Why should anyone choose to hear what you have to say? When you figure that out, you will know why people should grant you permission.
Human rating panels have been around for a long time—some believe that Microsoft has been using them in Bing and its previous search engines for a decade. Google joined the game in 2012—and in a big way. Google introduced its Panda change to its search algorithm and it quickly became a telling factor in the search rankings.
Each search engine uses a quality score imposed on sites by human raters that decide whether the site would be worth visiting again, for example. Dozens of human raters might visit the same site and Google averages their answers. High quality sites get boosted in the rankings, with lower-ranking sites, well, not so much.
Now, this wouldn’t be terribly interesting if that is all there were to it. For even Google, with its vast resources, can’t afford to pay human raters to visit all the sites that reside on the web–not when they need many raters to judge each site and when those sites change regularly and need to be re-rated. No, they needed something a lot cheaper than that approach.
Enter machine learning, a technology that looks for patterns in data. Instead of Google having to use human beings to rate every site, they instead rated a small number of sites and then applied those ratings to all the unrated sites that were similar to the rated sites. So, if your site wasn’t rated, but it has the same characteristics as sites that are low in quality, your site will be treated as low in quality.
You probably want to know which patterns the search engines use to detect low quality, so that you can avoid them, but no one is saying. In fact, the very way that the algorithm works makes it a difficult question to answer. Machine learning algorithms are trained with some of the human data that the search engines collected, and then tested on the rest of the data. So the algorithm keeps trying to find more and more patterns until it can actually predict the answers that the human beings gave. At that point, the algorithm is unleashed on content that has not been rated, assuming that the training it received against known answers will now allow it to predict the quality level of sites that have not been rated.
Does this mean that human rating algorithms never downgrade a site unfairly? Hardly. All of this technology is imperfect, although search engines are constantly tinkering with the training data and algorithms.
In the past, only big companies had to worry about a media exposé, because no one cared about the bad behavior of small companies. But now every company can be held up and be made accountable. It costs nothing for one of your customers (or competitors) to write a blog entry or otherwise cause a ruckus. You might as well take a hard look at yourself and decide where your ethics need an overhaul. Then you can air your own dirty laundry with an apology and a commitment to fixing the problem. That’s what “getting real” means in marketing today.
And don’t assume that getting real is about only the big, Enron-style, horrible behavior. Being authentic is not just about preventing enormous lapses of ethics. Despite what the anti-consumerists say, the great majority of business people are not evil and they have high moral standards. We just need to raise the bar.
We need to realize our customers want authenticity in every interaction, big and small. They want us to tell the truth even when we could get away with covering it up. Because that is what really builds trust. That’s what long-term relationships are built on.
So shut off the hype machine. Your customers want facts. They want you to be authentic. They want to be able to trust you. Setting that authentic tone and providing the information your customers really want to know—that’s the quickest way to “get real.”
If you’ve always prided yourself on having that “just right” turn of phrase, don’t worry. Being authentic means that you need to avoid the bombastic, overblown hype of typical marketing copy, but it doesn’t force you to market sushi as “cold, dead fish.” You can put your best foot forward in clear language.
Content marketing works because it attracts customers to spend time with your message. So, as you might expect, bombastic hype isn’t terribly attractive—it is mainly designed to get attention by “breaking through the clutter.” But content marketing that is designed to answer the precise question of your customer is inherently attractive to that customer—it isn’t clutter.
And content marketing is designed to raise trust—to get your customers to become more likely to be from you. Hype and tricky claims do precisely the opposite.
Today’s customer just doesn’t suffer fools gladly anymore. So don’t act like a fool. Get real.
The irony is that publishers are under attack from these very marketers who are learning to play the publishers’ own game.
My friend Paul Gillin has a blog called Newspaper Death Watch that chronicles the slow decline of an entire publishing industry. Lots of attempts have been made to resuscitate the business, everything from free newspaper websites to subscription websites to hyperlocal news and more, but the steady exodus of readers continues as online news is not only cheaper in many cases, but it is more personalized and more convenient.
But it isn’t just newspapers.
When is the last time you bought an encyclopedia? Wikipedia has crushed them all. Do you still have a phone book in your house or do you Google every number you need? But you knew this already. Everyone knows that some parts of the publishing business are dying because the Internet gives content away. But I don’t think everyone understands what is looming.
Home Depot has uploaded hundreds of videos to help you make repairs around your house. Everything from how to install a storm door to choosing the right color of paint. They’ve received tens of millions of views. Why does Home Depot do this? Because the hope is that if you know how to do it yourself that you will troop down to Home Depot to buy the tools and supplies needed.
You know what this used to be called? A fix-it book.
Kraft has a smartphone app called iFood Assistant. It lets you put in some ingredients and shows you possible recipes. It lets you search for dishes and get a list of ingredients to buy. You can be standing in the grocery store and it can help you plan dinner. Expect them to start personalizing the recipes based on your family’s diet–they already have a function that helps you find low-priced meals. A free version of iFood Assistant makes sure to recommend Kraft products as part of the recipe, but there is also a paid version of the app replete with coupons. That will set you back a whole buck. Does this move more Kraft product? They sure think so.
You know what this used to be called? A cookbook.
Scotts, the lawn care folks, offers a free newsletter that is personalized to your own location and grass type. You tell it your postal code and the kind of grass you have, and then every few weeks Scotts tells you there are grubs in your area, or a drought, and what you should do about it—including which Scotts products to buy.
You know what this used to be called? A gardening book.
Johnson & Johnson has an interesting program called BabyCenter that sends information to parents about their impending baby. All you need to do is to provide your due date and you’ll get lots of information about how your baby is developing in the fifth month of pregnancy, what things that you should be doing for the baby’s health, and what preparations you should make. And after the baby is born, you continue to get developmental information about your child as she grows. Yes, there are coupons for baby shampoo, but there is a wealth of really useful information that comes along, too.
You know what this used to be called? Parents Magazine.
Why are these smart marketers doing what publishers once did? Because they know that marketers must act like publishers to succeed online. They can’t interrupt people with ads the way they used to, because ads don’t work online unless they are laser focused on what people are doing (such as search ads). Mostly, people are looking to solve their problems and if you solve them, you can sell them something. Kraft evidently believes that spending money on content and apps to solve the problem “What’s for dinner tonight?” is money better spent than on a few more TV commercials for macaroni and cheese.
These are all consumer examples, which everyone can understand, but B2B companies often have even more to work with here. IBM’s Smarter Planet is a huge content marketing initiative because it plays on solving problems–big problems–and marks IBM as an expert you need to engage to solve those problems. Most B2B companies are already loaded with case studies and other deep content to use here, and they have the experts to match.
If you create content that people really want to spend time with, suddenly you’ve got the marketing approach that everyone is looking for.
Today’s typical digital shopper behavior is not to head to a favorite online store—shoppers go instead to their favorite search engine and let fly. The most relevant sites, as judged by the search engine, are where they go next. Sure, sometimes shoppers go directly to eBay or Amazon, but there are far fewer brand-loyal shoppers online than in the old world of physical proximity.
If customers have any loyalty, it might be to their search engine (“I always use Google”) because it saves them time. So the best test of relevance is whether your site helps customers do what they want to do at the moment they want to do it. Is it easy to find your site with a search? Easy for customers to find what they want on your site? Do you provide all the information needed?
And relevance continues to be important after the customer visits your store. At any moment the customer might decide that your store is no longer relevant enough—a few clicks of the mouse can bring up another one. Economists like to talk about “switching costs” (the drawbacks of changing to patronizing a new business). Those living in small towns served only by Walmart had very high switching costs. They might have been forced to pay more to shop elsewhere and also suffer from less selection—perhaps having to drive further as well. But on the web, switching costs are extremely low.
Think about it. Few shoppers leave their half-full carts in the aisles of physical stores, but some websites find as many as half of their shopping carts are abandoned. The reason is low switching costs. It takes just a few minutes for a shopper to find a desired item at a rival Web site, while driving to another physical store takes considerably longer (and so is not worth the time).
In such a world, brand loyalty is a thing of the past for many customers. Not for the majority of customers—yet. Brands continue to be strong in many areas; even Internet denizens respect brands such as Google and Amazon. And strong brands built offline have power that will last for years to come. But, as with old media habits, brand loyalty is becoming less strong than it once was, especially in countries with high Internet usage and especially with younger customers.
Brand loyalty is gradually being replaced by relevance. Obviously, your offering must be promising and you must deliver on your promises. Your prices must be competitive. You must reliably provide your product or service. If your claims are hollow, then it’s impossible for you to seem relevant for very long.
Relevance is at the top of your customers’ list. They want what they want when they want it. They increasingly expect you not to waste their time. You can’t keep finding more and more ways to interrupt people with irrelevant offers for products they don’t want to buy now. If your customers don’t want to receive your message, you can bombard them and still get no response.
So how do you make your interactive marketing the most relevant choice for your customers? You must adopt search marketing and website personalization approaches—relevant content is winning content. Instead of blanketing everyone with your 30-second TV spot, relevance-based marketing isolates the people most interested in what you are selling today.
Time was that there weren’t any easy ways to find out what your customers were interested in. But now your customers are talking to each other on blogs, Twitter, message boards and many other social media venues. Do you know how to listen to what they are saying? Can you tell whether they have positive or negative comments?
One reason to use social media listening as part of your content research is that it is inexpensive. It might seem like a cacophony of social conversation out there, but with the right text analytics and machine learning technology, computers can provide nearly the accuracy of human beings nowadays. The right technology used well can deliver insights you can’t get any other way—and do it much cheaper than traditional focus groups and surveys of old-time market research. And cheap is important when you are starting something new—the less money required, the more you can get done without asking permission
But social media listening is appealing for reasons other than cost. Traditional market research works. Whether it is a focus group or a survey, market research gets answers to your questions. But, in a sense, that’s the problem. Traditional market research gets answers only when you know which questions to ask. If you ask the wrong questions, you don’t get all the answers. Maybe you’ll fail to ask the most important question of them all.
That’s where social media listening can come in.
It’s unprompted. No one asks a question. You just eavesdrop on your customers and they tell you what is on their mind. If you do enough listening, you’ll undoubtedly uncover all the issues out there. You don’t need to worry about whether you’ve asked all the right questions. In fact, some of the most important content needs out there are in areas you might never have thought of.
Some people might object that the people using social media aren’t completely representative of your whole market. That’s true. But it is also true that the people willing to sit through a two-hour focus group for a $200 gift certificate aren’t completely representative of your entire market. Some data is usually better than no data, which is what we might have if we need to justify more expensive content research techniques.
The best listening tools use text analytics and machine learning technology to identify relevant content—it knows the difference between brown patches on your skin and brown patches on your lawn, which matter a lot depending on which remedy you sell. They also use a technique called sentiment analysis, to tell you whether conversation is positive or negative. Often, negative conversation helps identify problems, which is where your content marketing can come to the rescue. Happy subjects don’t pose the same pain points that cause people to buy.
Once your content marketing program starts to prove itself, you can invest in fancy listening tools, but free tools such as Hootsuite, can get you started. Start listening and learn what problems and issues people are talking about. That can spur your best content marketing topics.
Perhaps you buy the idea that differentiation makes sense for big companies whose products must appeal to different market segments than their competitors, but small businesses must differentiate, too. This presents some big challenges, because small local businesses have always based their differentiation around their location. If you own a retail store or a local service business, your marketing has probably been lame, but you’ve never had to pay for that before. With content marketing, you must differentiate or die. Let me explain.
Recently, someone came to me not understanding this concept. He has a successful store that sells eyeglasses and other vision aids. And he wants to sell online. Great idea, except what does he have to offer?
When I asked him this question, he quickly rattled off his time-worn pitch. “We have great selection, great service, and low prices.” Well, OK. So, I asked him a few more questions:
Problems for our heroes.
To compete on the Internet, you need to have something special. That hoary marketing pitch (selection, service, prices) worked just fine when you were competing against a couple of places a few miles from you. I bet you could beat them in all of those areas if you knew what you were doing.
But you can’t compete on price with mail-order contact lens shops. Or on selection either. And who is doing any service?
What should they do instead? They must find a way to differentiate, which usually involves specializing. It forced them to think about what they do well that is unusual:
Now, this company is still a long way from being a content marketing powerhouse. It is not simple for them to sell online. Frames are one thing, but contact lenses and eyeglass lenses require explanations for customers for getting exact measurements that aren’t always on the prescription. And they have to ship things and manage returns and…it isn’t a breeze.
But expecting to sell whatever they have in the store with nothing but a catalog is even more unrealistic. By thinking through the first steps of differentiation, at least they have a fighting chance. It at least gives them a couple of areas to start to create content for. Isn’t it easier to write about the vision challenges of the mentally challenged or of athletes than blabbering on endlessly about their great customer service? You can at least imagine some search keywords and some topics they might be able to dominate.
Now, understand that their walk-in store can continue to sell eyewear to whomever walks in the door. They don’t have to turn anyone away. But their content marketing online can focus on niche categories that help them to stand out in a sea of “best selection, lower prices” blather.
You need to approach differentiating your business so that you can create content that people find you for—your differentiation should not be easily copied.
Marketers are the new publishers—which is bad news for publishers, because marketers are giving it away. It’s bad, unless the publishers figure out what their new market really is, which is not selling information but getting paid for producing information. Instead of going out of business, a computer magazine might want to ally with Best Buy. Instead of closing its doors, a home finance publisher might want to take its book content and talk to Charles Schwab. You think it was a fluke that Google bought Zagat? It’s only just begun.
And for you marketers that don’t think you need to ally with a publisher? Or can’t afford to acquire one? What does it mean for you? It’s good news for you, too. You can scoop up the writers and other content providers that once worked for publishing companies at pennies on the dollar. As each pillar of the publishing world starts to fall, lots of people who once had steady jobs are now available. They don’t know that they should become marketers, but you know what they should be doing and you can hire them.
There are countless examples of marketers taking credible, objective information of things we once bought and giving it away to further their marketing. But to me, one of the hidden stories on how publishers might need to become the new marketers. As publishing’s traditional sources of revenue for printed materials–advertising and subscriptions–both dry up as content goes online, publishers need a new source of revenue.
Instead of thinking of themselves as the creators of credible information that they sell advertising next to, should publishers be selling that information directly to the advertisers to use as their content marketing? If marketers now need credible information to do their selling, and they don’t always know how to do it, why not call upon publishers who live for catchy topics and helpful information? What’s more, there are well-worn processes of publishing ranging from editorial calendars to plagiarism detection that marketers now need to understand.
If publishers are finding their traditional businesses under pressure, it’s in part because advertising doesn’t solve their clients’ problems as they once did. Advertising is no longer in the same demand by marketers but credible content never goes out of style. If publishers don’t change their model to solve marketers’ current problems, marketers will begin hiring away the people that work for publishers, rather than sending their money to the publishers themselves.
If marketers must become publishers, then publishers need to become marketers–or they are destined to be hired by the marketers.
Know that most content marketing campaigns live or die based on search promotion. Over the life of your content, the vast majority of people who see it will come from search, so don’t overlook this key promotional technique for your content marketing.