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From content to experience to context - a buzzword debate that actually matters

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed August 30, 2019
Calling BS on "content experiences" and "contexual experience" paid off. A fun debate was joined, and the conversation advanced. Here's what I think B2B content marketers can apply from these discussions.


In my spleen vent, What the heck are content experiences, and why are we overhyping them? A skeptical riff, I took issue with the latest round of content marketing buzzwords, including "content experiences" and "contextual experiences."

I also took issue with the notion that we should obsess about influencing a constantly-shifting algorithmic context.

I believe a far better model - especially in B2B - is to instead focus on earning trust and credibility via opt-in subscriptions, and various forms of social follows.

Content can be invaluable in earning that trust, and building communities around your brand. Those communities are what draws prospects, buyers, customers, employees and none-of-the-above together.

Pull that off, and lead generation gets a whole lot easier - and a lot less spammy.

Like any piece meant to provoke, there were plenty of holes. Diginomica contributor and marketing maven Barb Mosher Zinck found them. She joined the debate in Content - marketing, experience, context, oh my!

Zinck took issue with my content marketing definition, but I don't think we ultimately disagree there. Where we may have a productive disagreement is where the emphasis should lie.

A useful definition of content experiences

Zinck's post is a must-read for marketers. She goes a long way towards successfully defining these often-elusive content buzzwords. Why do these buzzwords matter? Because they get to the heart of how marketers should apply their content, search, social, and "AI" investments.

I've never heard a customer say, "I need a more contextual experience," and expect I never will. So we need to be able to easily shift from talk about "context," to language customers can relate to.

I see consensus in this core position: content is no longer enough - even great content. That's why Zinck and others have shifted to talking about "content experiences." Here's how she defines that:

A content experience doesn't stop at one piece of content; it surrounds the consumer with related content and other information within the context of the situation. It's about helping the consumer continue through their journey as smoothly as possible by giving them the information and tools to push forward.

It's not about sinking budget into a trendy new format like podcasting:

Creating content experiences, or what I would more accurately describe as "content-driven" experiences, isn't about leveraging the latest content development craze - like podcasts, videos, interactive content, etc. It's about delivering the right (or task for that matter) to help a prospect or customer move forward in their journey through the customer lifecycle.

I like these definitions for B2B. They are less about the need to entertain, and more about solving problems moment to moment.

Next up - contextual experiences

Hold up though - Zinck did sneak in the word "context", so we need a definition of that also. She defines "contextual experience" as:

First, we are moving from the idea of one-to-one marketing to "human-to-human." Where one-to-one marketing involved the brand sending messages to one consumer, human-to-human is two people talking to each other in a specific context (e.g. sharing a love of extreme sports, discussing the best approach reaching an audience) where the human isn't the brand but is an advocate, an influencer, an employee or a customer.

Human-to-human marketing can work without technology, but if you want to scale it, then you need technology to help you figure out who are the right customers to talk to and what to talk to them about.

Zinck adds:

Why is human-to-human marketing important? Sweezey explained that the media environment we are in today has changed and it's is no longer about publishing information; it's about engagement and interactions. What that means is that a lot more people can create and share content and engage around topics, and brand need to think about how they can operate in this new environment.

Makes sense. I believe Zinck and Matthew Sweezey, the creator of the outstanding Electronic Propaganda Society podcast series, are correct in their view that marketers must therefore change.

The problem of "context" as a buzzword

I continue to worry about context as a buzzword. Let's suspend disbelief and assume that I am your desirable B2B prospect. I don't believe my "context" is something you can serve up to me. I have a shifting context and set of priorities hour by hour, and even minute to minute. It's subject to shift based on my mobile phone alerts and notifications, phone calls, texts, and what I see on my social media feed.

My context also includes worries about my friend's dog I'm looking after, an ailing classmate, returning my decaf coffee I mistakenly bought instead of the real thing, why my Internet just went out, and so on. My B2B/work concerns fade in and out of my "context," often the strongest signal, but sometimes not.

This notion that a brand can influence my context is problematic. I see that as priming up a "personalization with AI" sales pitch. I don't believe today's AI technology is anywhere near ready to serve up a personalized context to me, while serving up an equally different, personalized context to Zinck, adapting to my new context minute to minute, and so on.

But as long as we leave the AI sales pitch out of it, I think the "contextual experiences" framework is useful. It reminds marketers that us each of us is interacting around a piece of content, and those interactions may quickly become more to the B2B buyer than the content itself.

Rethinking B2B content

Zinck also does a great job of defining how storytelling works in a B2B context - something I critiqued in my piece. Zinck had a problem with my definition of content marketing. As she wrote:

Here's how Reed defines content marketing: "In a B2B context, I believe content marketing is about building opt-in audiences, out of which future buyers come ."

I think we need to push that definition a bit further. I don't believe we can separate the content we create between future and current buyers; content marketing encompasses all content we create for a brand that supports the needs of our customers and prospects. And yes, for me that can include some product-marketing focused content.

My definition was probably too concise to be useful. I believe that opt-in audiences should in fact encompass everyone relevant to your brand: prospects, customers, influencers, those who have an affinity for your brand but never buy from you, ex-employees, employees, and so on. And, as I articulated in my piece, great content can indeed be product-focused. In fact, that's a key gap in content needs Gartner's Hank Barnes has identified.

Sometimes I use the phrase "opt-in communities" instead of opt-in audiences. I believe the bar to achieve a real community is higher than audiences, but that's the more desirable goal.

Where Zinck and I may differ: I believe that a brand's content plan should span to reach everyone in those communities, including influencers, relevant experts and ex-employees who will never buy from you, but might influence those who buy.

The thing I love about subscription content: it allows you to worry less about my moment-to-moment context.

Example: I am a loyal subscriber to newsletters like Ben Thompson's Stratechery. I don't always agree with Thompson, but I love clashing against his aggregation theory every week. I might not read his blog the second he puts it out. I might not see it on my social stream, or any "context" a brand could really influence. It doesn't come up in "real-time" via Google or Alexa. But when I'm in a content curation/research mode, I see Thompson's latest in my RSS reader or my email inbox. I'm not a paid subscriber and may never be, but I refer paying customers to his site.

In that sense, I'm not on any kind of content or customer journey with Thompson. He has my intellectual attention, but on my terms (attention being a term that is now out of fashion, but not in my book). The journey-mapping paradigm falls down here, just as the sales funnel does (unless you do a journey map for influencers/media, which might not be a bad idea). But the opt-in audience model, in my view, holds up. I am a willing part of his audience; he's earned my trust and some of my data - more than he even asks for. And he's done that without hardly ever pushing his brand. His ideas spark me and earn my loyalty.

If I ever want to become a paid subscriber, he has "how to" content on that also. There are "ticklers" just often enough to remind me he has more if I want to get behind the paywall.

Content operations buzzword readiness alert

Zinck raises one more critically important question, one which I did not: how do you operationalize these content practices and sustain them?

Even if you think these are good ideas, you're not very far along yet. If you can't scale the content, the interactions and all the good community engagement around it, you're nowhere. That's what Zinck calls "dead-end content," and she's right. Her piece gets into the operational aspect. She expands upon that in her ongoing content operations series.

Part one: Getting content operations right - demystifying the roles of people, process, and technology.

Zinck was gracious enough not to bring up the ContentOps buzzword, but I expect we'll be seeing plenty of ContentOps marketingware soon enough.

Maybe brands are more on my side in terms of earning opt-in data and building communities around it. I suspect they are more interested in appearing prominently in a "context" impacted by algorithmically-driven social interactions. It's not really an either/or - we should probably balance the two. And: they intersect frequently.

But wherever you land, if you are committed to bringing this to fruition in your organization, I believe there are three aspects:

  1. Regular production of terrific content, within the three types of content I specify in my last piece (topic authority, emotionally resonant, or helpful/how to).
  2. Humanization of the brand, taking social media muzzles off of employees, and enabling externals to get involved in the conversation, and build on the story.
  3. Operationalizing all of this: across departments, across content types, software and analytics platforms, etc. And, as Zinck points out, you can't do that without a clear strategy - and a very firm grasp on the needs of your constituents.

Here's my issue, and where I think I clash with most marketers. I believe that the first two items on this list are often assumed to be "all set," or at least well on the way.

Whereas I believe most brands are NOT producing very good content, and not good at interacting with constituents or humanizing their brand. I believe the culture changes involved in achieving those first two are profound. In most cases, they are not happening - or are much more of a work in progress than even CMOs believe.

Then "content marketing" gets blamed when engagement is sluggish, and branded sludge gets slopped into newsletters with low open rates.

Example: you're not creating great content until the experts in your company embrace that as a mandatory part of their job description, not as something they'll get around to sometime if they can ever spare a moment in between the important stuff.

It's not all uphill though. At Taj Forer of Fabl said to me on Twitter:

Zinck is right though. None of what I just said holds up if you can't scale it up and sustain it. I look forward to seeing her next content operations piece this week. I'll try to resist setting off another buzzword debate by calling it ContentOps.

End note: updated Saturday, 9am UK time, with tweaks for reading clarity and additional resource links.

Final note on the Electronics Podcast Society: I was critical of Sweezey for what I felt was his emphasis on the universal power of algorithms. On the podcast, he said:

We use algorithms as middlemen to connect the right people to the right content in real time. Those algorithms are also tuned for engagement, meaning they're only going to surface up what they believe you're going to engage with most.

During a LinkedIn exchange, I told Sweezey I believe that in B2B, the power of our networks can (sometimes) trump the algorithm. Which is why building communities around content is so important. Otherwise we're subject to the whims of the algorithm. Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn exert far more control over our context than any content producer should be comfortable with. I believe our networks can subvert that, and perhaps even force the algorithms to shift a bit.

To my surprise, Sweezey agreed with me, though his language is different. He calls it "Human to Human Networks." He agrees this can bypass "AI" and algorithms, "which is why it is so powerful for us." So, maybe we are not so far apart after all. Either way, he says his upcoming book, Context Marketing Revolution: How to Motivate Buyers in the Age of Infinite Media fleshes out the concepts. I'll withhold further critique of the podcast series until I read that.

This piece is part of my ongoing diginomica series on the informed B2B buyer.

Image credit - Man with too many questions and no answer - by @pathdoc, from

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