Main content

What the heck are content experiences, and why are we overhyping them? A skeptical riff

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed August 22, 2019
A provocative series of content marketing presentations has forced me back into content strategy. The only problem: I'm queasy from "content experience" buzzwords. And is context more important than content? What?

Taj Forer, CEO and founder of Fabl
Taj Forer, CEO and founder of Fabl at Oracle MBX

I (mostly) stopped writing about content marketing. Why? I arrived at a fairly clear place in my own thinking. In a B2B context, I believe content marketing is about building opt-in audiences, out of which future buyers come.

That destroys the limited concept of the sales funnel. It also provides a framework for all kinds of worthwhile content.

Granted, few B2B companies have really put this into practice - but if you want to reach today's informed buyers, it's the way forward.

But lately, I've been hearing an awful lot about why content isn't enough anymore. Now, if you want to have a shot in content marketing, supposedly you need to be providing "content experiences."

Tossing around "contextual experiences" - as if we know what that means

The provocative Electronic Propaganda Society future of marketing podcast series takes it a step further: it's now (supposedly) about "contextual experience." Content is subordinate to context - whatever the heck that means.

These newfangled terms are often tossed around carelessly, without properly defining them. The Electronic Propaganda Society is a welcome jolt to marketing business-as-usual, but they never adequately explain what "contextual experiences" really mean, leaving us to wonder if their view of web sites (eventually) going away, in favor of a simple conversational interface, is accurate. And what does context have to do with that?

Another related and over-hyped phrase: "interactive content." Barb Mosher Zinck just did an interesting piece on this. "Interactive content" is at least easier to define: content that users participate in, such as polls. However, it's less clear to me how to get B2B communities excited about interactive content. What works for the NFL or EA Sports might not work for procurement software.

B2B "experiences"? Just give me the info I need

When we talk about "content experiences", we must nail down what that means in B2B. We run the risk of believing our fundamental content job is to entertain. Suddenly it's not enough to answer a question or solve a problem. No, our content must literally transform the day of the person who is consuming it. That's a pretty high bar - and, in most cases, unnecessarily so.

Sometimes, a B2B consumer could care less about "interacting" or "having a content experience." They just want to get the information they need - quickly and conveniently.

With all this grandiose talk of experience, sometimes all we are looking for is to avoid a negative experience. What if we watch a powerful corporate video, and then, the next two times we are looking for info, the brand's web site is down? Or we have an crummy chatbot session? At that point, who cares about an entertaining video that made us laugh, now that the call center made us cry?

Fabl - brands must raise their storytelling game

These issues came to a head during a compelling presentation at Oracle CX/MBX this spring - by Taj Forer, CEO and founder of Fabl. Fabl's LinkedIn description sums up their approach: 

At Fabl, we believe that images speak directly to the heart; arresting us, arousing our curiosity and capturing our undivided attention. Fabl fosters instant connection between brands and their customers, with engaging, shareable, commerce-integrated visual storytelling across iOS, Android, and the web.

I'd argue that "undivided attention" is a fantasy, especially for B2B content creators. But: given how many vendors struggle with storytelling, I found Forer's angle on B2B content refreshing. Forer showed us this remarkable two and a half minute video from Vistaprint:

I'm not a fan of blowing out your content budget on a storytelling piece that may not relate to your brand's competency. In this case, the brand connections with Vistaprint come across well. And: they have more than a million views for their trouble. Forer showed another example, Johnny Walker's epic "Dear Brother" video, five million views and counting.

I do think B2B brands have a tougher time with this type of storytelling result. But: it's not impossible. Example: the It Gets Better technology company series has some fantastic videos. Those videos humanize brands, giving them a fresh appeal to young talent you just can't get from the typical trade show video fodder.

B2B storytelling brings risks

I see five risks for this type of vivid B2B storytelling:

  • It gets expensive pretty quickly - telling exceptional stories - especially in video with high production values - is a big content investment. (Fabl's platform is one example of a vendor that is trying to help with that).
  • Your main goal with all your B2B content is to be helpful, while establishing your topic or industry authority. Fabulous stories are great, as long as they fit into the core of earning trust with relevant communities. Trust is ongoing, not a product of a couple of time-consuming video productions.
  • Telling great stories is hard. Even Netflix struggles to produce truly compelling content, and they are all-in on the content business (I won't get into my critique of the disappointing second season of Mindhunter here).
  • Even if you pull off a great story that ties into your brand's positioning, customers will expect their future interactions with you to reflect that same emotional experience. If your support and or online purchasing experience stinks, the so-called "great experience" with your content is irrelevant. I see a danger in raising brand emotions too high - if you can't live up to them. Making no brand promises is better than breaking one.
  • A great story must fit into an overall brand narrative, as Freshworks' Alan Berkson explains. I think that works for Vistaprint. I'm not sure it works as well for Johnny Walker.

I didn't get a chance to talk through these issues with Forer on site. I wish I had; he's not your typical enterprise marketer. Forer and his team at Fabl aren't just pushing storytelling. They built a cloud platform intended to make content production more efficient - and engaging.

That's a big aspect of content marketing today: how can you scale your quality? How can you get passionate users involved easily? And how can you build in actions that bring people - and their data - closer to you?

Two types of B2B content - or three?

I used to insist that great content was the missing ingredient for B2B. I hold firm on that. The quality of B2B content remains mostly subpar. Attention dwindles quickly amidst the promotional schlock. The two "tent poles" of quality B2B content are:

  • Thought-provoking stuff that stakes your industry vision and customer know-how, making those who aren't even your customers want to follow you.
  • Helpful content from internal experts that covers the nitty-gritty of your products and services.

In other words, all B2B content should either entertain or inform. Informing is easier. In many cases, it's all you need. As for the entertainment factor, that could be more about a strong opinion than a polished video. Companies that take the social medial muzzle off their employees and let them issue strong takes - albeit within guidelines - have a big social/content advantage.

Fabl, I think, would add a third tent pole here: storytelling that draws people to your brand in a more emotional way. I see no problem with that - if the other two poles are in place. Helpful content doesn't have to be amazing storytelling. FAQs and how-to-videos still matter. Gartner's Hank Barnes keeps reminding me that vendors never provide enough of this type of content. The lack of it shows up in his team's buyer surveys. See It's time to reduce enterprise buying complexity - a dialogue with Gartner's Hank Barnes.

Here's what one B2B executive said to me about his firm's content quality problem:

We aren't able to produce either type of content. The "thought leaders" content - our execs are too busy. And that helpful content - our experts don't have time either. So a marketing person that can't do either type of content is creating branded content instead - and nobody cares.

After sharing this post on Twitter, I got this reaction from Shift:

diginomica cofounder @jonerp cuts through the noise over context vs. content to identify the three top traits of quality B2B content: thought-provoking, helpful, emotional connection.

I liked how Shift put that third part: emotional connection. After all, storytelling is really about fostering that emotional connection. But if "emotional connection" is identified as the third aspect, it serves as a connecting thread. Not just for resonant storytelling, but for all the little acts of transparency that humanize a brand - and make it relatable. Stories might include bigger productions, but micro-posts on Twitter or LinkedIn can also humanize, once employees and other stakeholders are freed to share openly. 

Assuming you have content quality nailed, you still need: a superior UX, and effective content distribution.

That's my middle ground with the "content experience" crowd. Content consumers want your content in the form they want, on the device they want. I conceded that point in Why UX has fundamentally changed content's winners and losers.

Steps to effective B2B content - my view

In sum:

  1. B2B content quality is a given. Quality beats quantity, but content scale does matter. Consistency counts.
  2. All content - including storytelling content - should tie back to industry niche and topic authority.
  3. Great content UX is expected.
  4. Effective content distribution is now part of the creative cycle.
  5. If user-generated content, comments, and reactions can be encouraged and featured, so much the better.
  6. Curation matters - refusal to acknowledge voices outside your brand is a fail. Expand your own content; curate the best in your field. Built topic authority and goodwill by amplifying external voices.
  7. These days, retweets and shares are cheap. True engagement - via thoughtful and passionate discussions across social platforms - is the elusive goal for all B2B content.
  8. All content should help to build opt-in audiences, encouraging sign-up actions and building trust - without screwing up that trust via overly aggressive pop-up boxes.
  9. Ideally, you have a progressive sign up process embedded in that content, where your audience shares more info over time, as the perceived value increases.
  10. Once you've earned that opt-in, you must keep earning it with more relevant/helpful/entertaining/targeted content. Otherwise, a subscriber is just an opt-out waiting to happen.

Yes, you'll need tools to measure it all. I don't want to minimize the analytics, but until people care enough to subscribe or follow, analytics don't matter much. With this list in mind, we now have a buzzword detoxer:

  • Did you do an entertaining video? Fine - as long as fits into these other objectives.
  • Did you make interactive content, like quizzes or polls? Fine - as long as it fits in here.
  • Did you attempt to "personalize" content, or provide a "contextual" experience? Knock yourself out - if it fits into this list.

But if you start by saying, "let's create a contextual experience," I don't like your chances. I've scoured the entire Electronic Propaganda Society transcript, in search of a proper definition of what "contextual experiences" are, and why content is dead in the water without them. I couldn't find that explanation. As I puzzled through it, here's what I wrote to Barb Mosher Zinck:

I think what he's trying to say here is that we value an overall "experience" with a brand over simply, a piece of content or one good e-commerce transaction. Example: if there is a really good article, but you can't read it properly on mobile, that's a failed content experience.

The "context" part is how that ties into who we are, our agenda at that moment, the device we are on at that moment, where we are geographically, our race/gender/age perhaps, our uniqueness tied into the moment we are engaged with, and the info we are seeking in that moment.

So a "contextual experience" is being able to give me the real-time experience I want, and you the experience you want and so on, all from the same core brand, services, content, web site.

I'm not sure if I'm close to the mark. If I am, providing a "contextual experience" to your brand audience is close to science fiction at this point. And I think, for now, it's the wrong goal.

A much better one, in my opinion:

Use content to reinforce your industry/topic authority. Earn trust by helping people, bringing them closer to your community. As they opt-in, your data increases - an obligation you must honor, but also a huge key to future products/services/insights.

If personalizing content is part of that, great. But it's really about earning the opt-in data worth measuring - where brute force stats like page views let us down.The ultimate B2B content goal remains:

Give me the information I want, exactly when I want it, in the form I want it in.

Good luck with that. It's blaspheme these days, but I still think super-user preferences conquer this problem much better than AI/personalization, which is still a shot in the dark more often than not. Whereas, for example, I have configured my Newsblur reader to give me most of the info I want every day.

However, most of your audience doesn't want to configure their preferences like old school super-users. They just want it when they want it. Therein lies the rub, the allure of AI/personalization, and the lofty idea of "contextual experiences."

My take - you can have your AI contextual experience; I'll take my personal network of experts

The Electronic Propaganda Society podcast was the first marketing podcast series I've ever binged. The show format is definitely what you might call an "experience." It covers plenty of topics I haven't addressed here; I consider it a must-listen. However, the irony is: I didn't find it via some intelligent contextual engine extolled by the podcast. (The podcast argues that algorithms control all the content we consume, so if we aren't relevant to the "context" of the algorithm, then our content is a non-factor).

I found this podcast via Mosher Zinck's private referral. I took some trouble to download the podcasts onto my iPod. I took control of my so-called experience. I think we all still do that. Yes, our algorithmic overlords might put our content into irrelevance by burying it - but our networks of those we trust can resurface it, forcing the algorithm to take notice. Here's how the Electronic Propaganda Society puts it:

What the consumer wants is context. In the infinite era, there is no way to break through without first being contextual, to the moment. Understanding that our world is curated by artificial intelligence. And that context is the key to breaking through.

There is truth to that. But I'd argue that the strength of our network and community forces the algorithm to adapt to our needs as well. That doesn't mean contextual personalization is irrelevant. It's just another tool that helps you to earn trust - if you can use it to be more relevant. Or "contextual," if you insist - though I'm not going to be caught dead using the phrase "contextual experience." If I ever do, feel free to yell out "bingo."

We do have a serious problem sustaining attention. Getting people to subscribe on their own terms, without driving our audience nuts with aggressive pop-ups, is clearly flummoxing even the most established brands.

As for storytelling, Forer gave me something to really think about. I'll close with his quotes from MBX. In an on-site video interview, he said:

We're focused on the experience around the content, not just the content itself.

That's a pretty straightforward definition of how content and "experiences" intersect. While Forer emphasizes "entertaining" and "delighting" and "great experiences" way more than I do for B2B, he also hits on building relationships - rather than placing misguided hopes in one-off content productions. And, Forer says, this emphasis on relationships shows up in his clients' lead conversion rates. During his show floor presso, Forer said to us:

Why tell stories? Well, stories are per human nature. We can all connect with stories. Stories are extremely memorable when there's a narrative, when there's character, when there is the type of human experience that we share that is communicated to us.

We retain about twenty percent more of the information than when information is delivered without narrative, without storytelling content. It's highly engaging, because we've all been participating in storytelling since we were born, and even further back than that, in human evolution and the success of our species is storytelling as a narrative.

Telling one story is great. Turning your brand into an overall story your audience relates to, and advocates for? Now that's a trick. Speaking of which, have I got a story to tell you...

Edited Friday 7am UK time, with a number of tweaks for reading clarity and additional resource links. Updated August 27, 2019, with more on the third type of B2B content.

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

Image credit - Photo of Taj Forer, CEO and founder of Fabl at Oracle MBX by Jon Reed.

Disclosure - Oracle paid the bulk of my travel expenses to attend Oracle MBX 2019. Oracle is a diginomica premier partner. The Electronic Propaganda Society podcast series was created by Matthew Sweezey, Principal of Marketing Insights at Salesforce. However, the podcast only mentions Salesforce a handful of times, and the content applies whether you are involved in the Salesforce community or not. Salesforce is a diginomica premier partner.

A grey colored placeholder image