If you’ve spent any time around Internet culture, you’re likely familiar with the term ‘content marketing’. And you perhaps have noticed the change of language in how we describe media. Photography isn’t photography anymore; it’s content. Blogs, same story; content. Video, you know it. See our earlier piece on content marketing.
We’re in a content obsessed world. Content is having its moment in the sun. Maybe you know you need it. Or you might be more honest and have just heard someone tell you that it’s really important, and really not know too much about what is it or how it will actually help you. There’s a spectrum of views around content marketing, from regular social sharing, to growth-hacking, to the humble email. Most marketing activity in many ways can be considered to be content marketing. Let’s pause and look at what the term means. This is our definition, there are plenty of others.
Content: A catch all for words, imagery, audio, moving picture and the singular or combined use of each.
Marketing: The process of communicating to an audience for the goal of persuading thinking, changing beliefs, motivating hearers and encouraging purchase behaviour.
While there will always be nuance in these things, we think this is a great place to start. The first thing to note is that content marketing isn’t neutral. It has a direction, slant, message wrapped up inside of it. It’s the trojan horse of the marketing world. Why’s that? It’s not often that we’re aware that the content we consume comes with a message, a goal contained with in it. It’s that which makes it powerful. A TV advertisement is clearly an ad, it has a format, a channel, a medium, a framework most of us can recognise. What’s different about the content marketing bouncing around many of our screens today, the boundaries aren’t as clear. Is this a brand message? Isn’t this my friend sharing about her new shoes?
Our brains are lazy. Hopefully that doesn’t offend anyone. But unfortunately it’s true, we’ll default to using heuristics to understand our environments and the problems we face. See our summary of Daniel Kahneman’s ‘Thinking Fast and Slow.’ More often than not, our motivations, beliefs, desires are being driven by our unconscious minds. Perhaps the secret is not only understanding the desires consumers have, but – this is what we’re seeing now – adopting strategies to form desires in the first place. In all honesty this has been happening for decades, what’s different now is that businesses have been invited into our homes, our bedrooms, and to speak to our identities.
Edward Bernays, the founding father of public realisations, nephew of Freud has this to say.
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are moulded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of… It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.”
It’s a little bit scary. And it’s always a good question to ask who might be pulling the strings behind this ad, that message or your friend’s latest post. It’s where we make an important point, content marketing isn’t intrinsically bad, we know it can be used for so much good. Bernays later says “… I knew any human activity can be used for social purposes or misused for antisocial ones.” It requires responsibility, and integrity within business, to encourage consumers to understand the message behind the message.
Having now set a framework, what will a content marketing strategy accomplish? And where should you use one based on your goals?
Changing Thinking & Moving Brand Positioning
We know content isn’t neutral, it comes with a message and a desired outcome. It helps us form and shape ideas, how we see ourselves in the world.
Content marketing, especially so in highly socialised contexts, influences our thinking, shapes our desires and commercialises our motivations. Why especially social contexts? We’re social beings. How others see us, and relate to us has a large impact on how we see ourselves in the world.
Let me ask you this question. Why do you hold the views you do? How did you get the thoughts you have? Why do you think about Brand A like you do? And why do you view Brand B differently? In part, because the brands themselves have communicated a message to you, directly through a commercial, ad, email or post or indirectly through a friend, a conversation. At some point you didn’t know Brand A existed, but now you do. In many many cases, the first time you had heard of Brand A, the context in which you heard about it, and the message you received, is the position you hold today. You first heard about it, you became aware of it. Then through time, you learned about it. You learned if your initial perceptions were correct, or if in fact they were misperceptions. Your learnings become beliefs. Thoughts, emotions and desires that you act out in the world. Content marketing is powerful because it neatly guides people through the process, from creating opportunity for discovery, to learning, and then to purchase and post purchase. Good content strategies guide people through a process to the desired outcome.
This process will likely take place on a number of channels and mediums. It’s through this that consumers build a high resolution mental map of the brand, product or service. We know that increasing validation points, increases consumer trust.
As a fictitious example, I see an Instagram post for a new pair of shoes. They’ve been photographed beautifully, next to it sits an engaging caption that piques my interest. I view the website and browse the range. I read the stories behind the product and what the company is trying to achieve. Before I know it, I’m getting an email each month showcasing the latest release pairing the sneakers with inspiring stories of people just like me. I’m not sure but I engage with the brand over the next few months, being reminded each time I see a pair landing in my feed. They have a sale. I decide to buy. But I’m worried I’ve just purchased something that will just sit in the bottom of my closet. Alas, I receive a message that I have in fact made the right decision, I’m now part of a tribe. I’m one who lives life to the full, and I live life in my new sneakers.
The purchase journey isn’t often as clear cut as it can be painted to be, but you see what we’re getting at. At each point, content was used to deliver a message, or remind me of an existing message. With subtlety and nuance, and my willingness to follow, like, subscribe to the brand, I invited them to communicate a message to me. Which they faithfully upheld their end of the deal. This is where relational and content marketing intersect.
Content Marketing as Relationship Building
Not too long ago the only touch point marketing teams would have with customers was their shop front, and word of mouth. Soon enough print media came along, people could learn about a brand without ever having experienced the store or the service. Then radio, television, with this the definition of the message increased. Marketers could tell stories, capture imaginations and sell a future. It was like going from an 8bit resolution to 4K. The boundaries of reality were broadened.
The digital age, specifically new web technologies better enabled a two way flow of communication. It’s hard to believe, tapping on a poster never used to deliver the advertiser a ‘like.’ Brands now receive feedback quicker than at any point in history. Allowing strategists to pivot, adjust and refine messages for the most potent effect.
In the platform world, a number of continual messages can be sent, together the brand and consumer can go on a journey together. It’s the exchange of ideas, thoughts, feelings, messages, in the right direction, that creates trust, good will, and in a commercial reality, purchase intent and recommendation.
What Your Content Messages Says About You
If I looked at your content, what would it say about you? Would I be intrigued, or disappointed? Educated or confused? People look for direct connections with your content, and your business. It wouldn’t be too far off to say what people think about you, is what you really are.
Each and every touch point businesses have with consumers is an opportunity to send a message. Some of these messages you might have direct control over, others not.
While the old adage of not judging a book by its cover is nice, unfortunately the truth is we more likely do judge based on our perceptions. This is where being in control of the narrative surrounding your brand is crucial. If you can direct the tone, and the direction, it’s easier for people to follow suit. You could have the best product, the best people and the best business, but unless you make it accessibly clear to people that that is the case, some other message will take its place.
Mike Markkula, the second CEO at Apple, titled a paper, 'The Apple Marketing Philosophy', it had three points. Point three.
“People do judge a book by its cover. We may have the best product, the highest quality, the most useful software etc., but if we present them in a slipshod manner, they will be perceived as slipshod; if we present them in a creative, professional manner, we will impute the desired qualities.”
Through a designed content marketing strategy, Apple delivers a really clear message. One that connects with consumers the world over. Content is the vehicle in which the messages are sent and understood. Content takes an abstract message, and makes it understandable. This is what branding does too, albeit slightly differently. Branding is about creating a message, and setting a direction, a rule of engagement. This is what you can expect from us, these are the brand promises we’ll keep. Content marketing supports and leverages our branding messages in an ongoing way. Content marketing is branding in motion.
Content Marketing & Strategy:
Unfortunately throwing content into the feeds and inboxes of the world isn’t a sure pathway to success. While something might stick, a strategy moves us out of realm of luck and toward the realm of certainty. Simply, a good content marketing strategy will bring certainty and clarity to your business, providing a pathway forward with expected outcomes detailed.
Like any strategy, it starts at the beginning. The king doesn’t find itself in checkmate by accident. There were a number of deliberate and thoughtful moves to get to that position. Each unique piece playing its role in the broader strategy. It’s very unlikely in the world of strategists that a first time player will outwit them. Why? Well they’re bringing a strategy, they’ve played numerous games, they understand how to read their opponent, and to see their weaknesses, while playing to their strengths.
Content Marketing Systems:
The system you have is perfectly designed to give you the results you’re getting. While difficult to swallow there is much truth in this statement. Where there will always be outside influences, this statement puts the responsibility back on you, back on what you can control.
A strategy without a system is just a hope. Now hope is really important and plays a crucial role, hope without action however will not bring about the results you’re seeking. A content marketing system brings clarity to the organisation and its partners to make progress in the right direction. Who does what? When does that happen? Who is responsible, and who has the final say?
So, Why Content Marketing?
It helps businesses position in the market, build relationships, and change perceptions. Content is about sending a message, it’s not neutral remember, just ask which message you’re sending before you communicate it to the world. As always, develop a strategy, and a system that supports it. Wine is great, but good grape vines need a strong trellis.
If you’re interested to learn more about how content marketing can be used strategically, reach out.