Jon Reed’s article, What the heck are content experiences, and why are we overhyping them? A skeptical riff hit a nerve with me. Much of what he wrote I do agree with, but there’s more to the conversation, and I thought I would share my perspective, along with some added context from experts in the field.
A different idea of content marketing
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.
Content supports brand awareness, account-based marketing, sales enablement, and customer service and support, employees, and much more, and much, if not most of this content, should not be brand/product focused.
If we separate content planning and development by which function of the business we are serving we run the risk of telling an inconsistent story, of focusing on different ideas and concepts and, as a result, confusing the customer.
I recently interviewed Ann Handley, Chief Content Officer of MarketingProfs,for the Content Matters Podcast (a thought leader podcast I host and produce for one of my clients). She explained that content marketing isn’t a tactic or a tool, but instead:
I think of content as infusing almost everything you do. [...] it's anything that you publish or produce that tells your story. And by your story, I mean, why you exist, what value do you bring to your audience, to your customers? And how do you do it differently than anybody else?
And that leads us to a better definition of storytelling. I’ll be the first to admit that term has made me scratch my head. What does storytelling mean in a B2B sense? Handley and I talked about this:
When we talk about storytelling in a business context, that’s not what we're talking about [entertainment]. We're not talking about, you know, fairy tales, or things that aren't true. We're instead just describing what it is that we do in the context of our customers. So, as I talk about a lot, make the customer the hero of your story and talk about what it is that you do in the context of them, how do you shoulder their burdens? How do you ease their pain? And that's a great way to approach your story, especially for B2B companies.
What does content experience mean?
We need to reframe the concept of content marketing and storytelling. What we need to do is get rid of “marketing” and focus on the content. And that’s where the idea of content experiences starts to evolve.
The term “content experience” was coined by Randy Frisch , CMO, and co-founder of Uberflip. His book “F#ck Content Marketing talks about the need to shift past simply creating content to creating content-driven experiences. I interviewed Frisch about this new way of thinking and what he explained made a lot of sense.
The reality is that writing content and placing content within context to our audience are two very different things.
What happens all too often is that a brand defines a persona, defines a journey to purchase to support that persona, and creates a list of content assets to create to support that journey. Then they create campaigns around a single piece of content or an email campaign that streams several pieces of content. They create a landing page with a corresponding thank you page that only refers to that one piece of content. These are all dead end experiences.
This approach to content marketing isn’t enough. 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.
Creating content experiences should also change how we design our website experiences. We have to make brand websites about the customer’s journey and create experiences that help them get the information they need to make better decisions - whether that’s to purchase a product or solution or do their job better.
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.
What the content type looks like should depend on the persona/audience you are developing the content experience for. And guess what? The written word isn’t getting replaced by video, audio, or cool images. Handley explained:
I don't think that we're either writers or we’re photographers, I don't think we're either podcasters or we're graphic artists, right? I don't think it's a binary choice. I think that writing is the backbone of so much that we, as creators, as marketers do, there's an awful lot of writing in marketing. [...] But an Instagram post is a whole lot stronger when you marry it with some amazing text, with some great writing when you describe what's going on when you have voice and personality. And that's true, whether you're an individual, or whether you're a brand. So, you know, to me, it's not a binary choice, you know, you don't need one or the other, you need both.
The world needs more depth; we don't need more scrolling.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t create videos, or a podcast series or whatever new idea comes next. But you should have the basics in place first before you start pulling budget for new things and that’s where many brands are falling down, they aren’t creating true content-driven experiences.
Are we ready for the next step - contextual experiences?
Contextual experiences are the evolution of content experiences. Mathew Sweezey talks about contextual experiences and context marketing in his podcast series that Reed mentioned, The Electronic Propaganda Society. I talked with Sweezey about the evolution of marketing in a podcast .
To understand what contextual experience is requires that we understand a few things:
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.
When we start talking about scaling, specifically, and looking at this idea of how do we motivate customers across a customer journey, we can then apply this idea of human to human, powered by artificial intelligence to see the next level. And that next level about is saying, All right, we have limited resources, i.e., we have humans inside of our office and humans outside of our office through advocacy, customers, influencers.
How do we maximize those efforts? When we apply artificial intelligence to that to say, who do we talk to? Who do we connect? And what do we connect them around? AI can answer those questions and direct the human capital to maximize that time and that value by knowing exactly who and what to have those conversations around.
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.
I would argue the definition of what a brand is, is radically different now than it ever was in the past. The old definition of brand is what the business creates and tells the world it wants the world to think about it. Right? […] The modern definition of brand is the sum of all experiences an individual has with you.
Sweezey is saying that brands can create better experiences by getting humans to have conversations with each other. And those conversations happen within the context of a specific situation. Those contextual experiences happen anywhere, on any device, in any format including voice, chatbots, social, even the phone.
A brand can leverage human interactions in the context of any situation to rise above all the noise. Although the conversation might not be with the brand directly, it still needs to ensure that all those conversations are consistent and deliver the right information. The brand is in charge of the experience across the entire customer journey.
Sweezey said there are companies creating contextual experiences today and provided one example. For most brands, it’s an approach that is going to be challenging because it means a complete redefinition of marketing and a new way of building relationships with customers. Most marketing departments are still trying to get the company past the idea that they are a cost center and past the idea of campaigns and ads and messaging.
I can see the potential in this approach, and it’s a future that we should aim for by taking small steps. Those small steps include getting a lot more “human” in our marketing and creating better content and content experiences that are consistent across the entire customer lifecycle.