Time and again we see brands say they have embraced content marketing and have a compelling content marketing strategy, yet when you dig beneath the surface and ask for numbers of what the new strategy has delivered it suddenly goes quiet. But this is not necessarily the fault of marketers leading the charge on the content strategy, more the fact that as with anything new, best practices take time to figure out, develop and mature. The good news is that the industry is on the cusp of realising maturity within content marketing through the application of tried and tested methodologies and the effective use of technology.
But first it is important to understand the current state of content marketing maturity within the industry, which we are sure you will have observed or been through yourselves. Typically brands go through three phases of content marketing before they start to have a mature strategy.
First they just start producing content as it is the “new thing” they must do to engage customers and help with SEO. This often results in a series of disjointed and irregular pieces of content as brands try to get their head around this new way of doing things.
The second phase is to commit to content a little more by introducing processes on how to produce content more effectively, often with the introduction of new skillsets and production processes. This often includes the hiring of content production resource either in house or at an agency, templates for how different types of content should be produced and encouraging internal staff to produce their own (carefully monitored) content. Some of the more sophisticated approaches use an MRM (Marketing Resource Management) tool to review, edit and approve content before it is pushed live, which makes it easy to see where the phrase ‘brands are becoming publishers’ comes from. However, although these formal processes improve the rate of content production and there is often a strategy on how to ramp up this production further, the outcome of this phase is just more disjointed content being produced than was the case in phase one, adding yet more noise to the audience experience.
Phase three starts to look at things like a content calendar and building out a plan for what content to produce next as all the obvious topics have already been covered. This results in things like “shared idea” documents to dump ideas of what can be written about next and this is again fed into the content production team who are by now getting much more efficient and professional in their production and variety of content. Here some crude linking between content topics can be done as there is some level of planning, but this planning is still often done from a content and company perspective and not a customer one. This results in the same problem still existing in that the majority of content is disjointed, and despite it being engaging doesn’t actually have any commercial purpose behind the engagement. Hopefully you are noticing a trend, namely that all “content strategies” to date have been nothing more that content production strategies and the marketing industry has become pretty good at doing this to the point where virtually all content marketing programmes are nothing more than a series of disjointed articles/white papers/infographics/videos sitting under an umbrella theme. But addressing the issue of connecting the content as part of an audience journey to deliver real business value is yet to be tackled properly, with the only ROI often being that content X was produced on channel Y and there was an uplift in another area (normally an area of sales), so they must be related? Hardly a compelling argument. And it is this post rationalisation that affects the credibility of the marketing department to the wider business.
Therefore, if a mass of disconnected content and lack of ROI is the problem with phase three, naturally the next phase of content marketing is where the content produced is no longer disjointed and ad-hoc but instead part of a wider and more holistic audience journey, which in turn allows tracking and accountability. This ability to map out multiple audience journeys towards a defined business goal (often sales) is the basis of any good strategy as it gives everyone in the business clear direction and focusses them on the customer. And it just so happens that content is the tool that is used to facilitate audience engagement along this journey.
We call this mature approach to content marketing an Audience Engagement Strategy (AES). The reason why AES is a truly mature “Content Marketing Strategy” is because the focus has shifted from the strategy of the content marketing programme being how to produce more content, to how best to meet the needs of the audience and what content they need in order to achieve a mutually beneficial goal.
What an AES does first is identify the following:
- What is the goal you are trying to achieve as a business but will also benefit your customer? E.g. sell 5% more of a product that you know fits a specified audience’s needs.
- What are the personas of your target audience – Look at your existing data: who has bought before, are there any similarities or trends?
- What is your point of mutuality – You now know what you want achieve (goal) and who your audience are (personas), so what topics do you both have in common, e.g. a hardware store has DIY in common between themselves and their audience.
Once identified you can then map these against a structured journey that we call the ‘Hero’s Journey’ that is a proven psychological storytelling journey that emanated from Harvard and has been used in multiple blockbuster films, the biggest being Star Wars, to engage audiences and take them on a structured journey. Here you breakdown the journey of the audience from their ‘Ordinary world’ i.e. their current situation, and using your personas and points of mutuality you can start to create briefs for content that fills each step of that journey, with each piece of content moving the audience closer to your identified business goal.
The important thing to acknowledge, however, is that within your AES there will be multiple content journeys for different goals. The reason this is important is that audiences are so empowered and informed that they self-select/choose what content they want to engage with and as such, they craft their own journey. But if you have already mapped out multiple journeys then you just need to make sure you can make your audience aware of the most relevant next piece of content based on their real-time interests, which in turn makes you relevant to them. Here you are moving from the old marketing model of broadcast at to engage with, simply by providing helpful content your audience wants and enabling them to find it easily. And this ability to find your content easily is where technology comes in with the advent of next best content and real-time analytics. But before technology can be applied, the underlying strategy needs to be defined otherwise you risk wasting a lot of time, money and effort.