Can you help us cut through the clutter and share your views on how the best content marketers stand out from the rest?
In some ways, content marketing is a well-worn topic. But content marketing leaders offer more than great content. While innovative thought leadership and inspiration is important, it is not enough. Leaders use content marketing to build trust, and they do it in two critical ways. The first involves how they offer their content. And the second involves attentive “digital listening” as customers engage with their content.
Let’s take MarketingJournal.org as an example, which is underwritten by Harte Hanks. We have set a standard that the content is going to be good no matter what. We want our name associated with meaningful, thoughtful content. Our first obligation as a content marketer is to deliver value. But here is the clincher: We provide that value devoid of an expectation of return.
We don’t force the reader to give us their name or email address, or to jump through other hoops, in order to access our content. We never ask for an email before providing content. If you want to download a white paper, it’s there. If you want to read a section on the site, it’s there. We are not going to bar you from content if you don’t give us something first. We publish content with the belief and intent that because I provide a level of value that’s real, genuine and not requiring a return, you will see benefit and associate it with us. So we stress quality content and purity of intent behind the content. We want to educate the market and make people better marketers. We want them to be more comfortable and effective in their work.
At the purest level, the content marketer’s obligation is to deliver value with no strings attached. The vast majority of people who interface with that content are not likely to ever have a commercial relationship with you. Even if you never buy Harte Hanks services, we still want you to engage with our content and derive value from it.
This sounds a bit like dating, where you don’t get very far if the first thing you do is ask for a cellphone number. Another analogy might be the trust-fall: The content marketer hopes someone will eventually put their arms out and ask about your specific products or services.
What I tell clients is if you want my email before you let me read your content, it’s probably you telling me the content is not going to be all that good. Think of these first moments of meeting each other as the best ones. This is the best moment of the interaction, when the visitor lives in anticipation of reading what you have freely offered, and you wait in hope that the visitor reads and appreciates what you have offered. To ask for my email before I read it is to suggest that, after I read it, I may think it was really stupid stuff and regret I wasted my time on it. This spoils the moment. Whereas if you are confident in your content quality, then you trust that, after I read it, I will say, wow, those guys really know what they’re talking about. I need to learn more from them.
To do content marketing well, you need to appreciate the value given to you by the simple act of someone reading your free material. It takes time for people to read your content, and their time is precious. In these early moments, you shouldn’t try to capture them. If you want to stand out in the content marketing world, you need an editorial standard and a vision of providing value without any immediate benefit.
Of course monetization of your content marketing efforts eventually becomes important. There comes a time when it is effective and beneficial to both parties to be more aggressive. But that time comes after you’ve delivered value. And it can’t be a sliver of value. You need to prove your substantial worth in the interface before you attempt to convert that person to a customer or a client and make money from them or with them.
Does free, high-value content work in all industries?
The “value-first” approach to content marketing mostly applies to knowledge-based buying situations. This isn’t about selling paper towels. It is best for “considered purchases.” In the B2C world, some examples would be financial service products such as insurance or banking. It also applies to electronics, cars or fashion. Of course, the considered purchase is classic on the B2B side, such as software and other technology services, outsourced payroll, outsourced human resources, and so on.
In a considered purchase, the buyer goes through a self-education process to do two things. One is to get really comfortable with what their options are. Second, they want to make themselves an informed buyer so that they feel empowered, enabled and in a position to make a decision and not be dependent on being sold.
One thing we’ve seen, and it’s accelerating, is people don’t want to be sold. They want to make a purchase decision. This may sound like mere semantics, but it’s not. I don’t want you to sell me. I want you to give me information that allows me to make the decision to buy. So you’re not so much selling me as informing me, allowing me to process that information and letting me make the decision. That’s the kind of pendulum swing we’ve seen, all the way to where the buyer truly controls the entire journey. Don’t sell me. Give me what I need to make an informed decision and then allow me to process that information.
At the start of our conversation you mentioned digital listening. Does this relate to “informing” rather than “selling?”
We need to detect and interpret buying process cues or buyer journey cues. We need to make informed guesses about when a content viewer is inviting us to talk more with them, and when they are telling us to be patient and wait. In the B2B world, the buyer’s journey is north of 70% complete by the time they finally talk to the manufacturer or supplier. In the B2C world, it’s moving north of 50 and quickly catching up to the B2B world for considered purchases. Again, if a millennial is thinking about getting a mortgage, there’s a lot of self-education. This is very different from buying housewares. For considered purchases, the buyer journey is substantially completed or a fair way toward completion well before you ever talk to the buyer.
It is a shocking change if you think about it. Ten years ago most buyer journeys were face-to-face or on the phone. B2B journeys largely occurred across the table. B2C journeys mostly occurred in stores or on the phone talking to someone. In a person-to-person conversation, there are all sorts of human cues to inform the seller and guide their efforts at persuasion. Sellers could see the CMO sitting across the table from them. They either nodded emphatically as we made a point, or they folded their arms and sat back, telling us they did not exactly agree with what we’re saying. We could detect whether or not there was a real problem by the way they reacted to particular questions.
All those human cues helped us understand where we were in the buyer’s journey and the selling process; whether the client was interested, engaged, or so desperate to buy that we should expect a contract next week. Now all of these clues must be gleaned from the digital world, and most marketers do a horrible job of reading it.
One of the leaders in high-end content marketing is Christian Sarkar. He is a major driver behind our MarketingJournal.org site and has contributed much to our thinking in this area. His experience with a large management consulting firm was that, when you provide pure, high quality content, a portion of your readers self-select and seek a human-to-human conversation with the sponsor of that content. The next step in the evolution of content marketing is to interpret what your content site visitors are telling you. You need to read the cues about who is interested and who is not.
Could you give an example of inattentive or bad listening?
We have a client in the luxury fashion and jewelry space. To find out more about them, I signed in to their site and looked at some men’s shoes. They didn’t have the style in my size so I didn’t buy anything. Very soon after they sent me an email. I opened it because it was actually a shoe that seemed interesting. I looked at it, but it wasn’t exactly what I wanted. Then they launched a full-on, twice-a-day email assault. I read one more email, and that was it. I never opened another email and four days later I took my name off their list. Now I won’t even buy from them because they alienated me.
It’s a simplistic example but it illustrates the importance of digital listening. Yes, I was interested in shoes, but they missed all the subsequent digital cues I sent by not opening their emails. In digital language, they told me they were not listening to me, so I no longer wanted to do business with them.
When I first stopped reading their emails, they should have noticed. This would have told me they were listening. They could have dropped from twice a day to once a week. Even better, they could have sent me a simple survey to see whether I lost interest in shoes, was interested in other items, wanted less frequent contact or had general concerns about on-line consignment.
This is the second major way leading content marketers distinguish themselves from the rest: they listen carefully to the digital cues and use them to try and interpret the buyer’s journey.
Content marketers tend to do what this client did: once they get a site visitor’s email, they digitally stalk them with frequent product and service offers. They are not paying attention to whether a particular visitor read a cross-section of their content or multiple pieces within a narrow topic area. They don’t care whether the visitor opened the last email. The prevailing attitude seems to be: well, if they didn’t open the last email, maybe they’ll open the next one. What’s to lose? Well, the answer is: there is a lot to lose.
How does a content marketer estimate progress along the buyer’s journey?
That is a very big question, so I can only make a few key points right now. To start, we like to think in terms of three major stages in the digital funnel. The first stage, or the top of the funnel, is awareness. That is where you are providing free, no strings attached, high-value content. You are informing people in general and hopefully some prospective buyers. You are also associating your brand with quality.
At the second level down the funnel we move from awareness to dialogue. On our MarketingJournal.org site, we want to accomplish this by offering a unique, branded Harte Hanks point of view alongside articles written by our non-Harte Hanks authors. Most of the time our POV pieces will describe how to move from theory to action, or how to operationalize the various ideas presented by Marketing Journal authors through a commercial transaction with Harte Hanks.
Once a visitor has moved down the funnel to that second stage and is willing to look at a commercial POV piece, we think a minimal level of digital dialogue has started. Now we are ready to try some careful, considered outreach. Just because someone reads one of our POV pieces doesn’t mean they are ready to buy. It just means they are saying, not only does someone like John Hagel have a point of view I’m interested in, but I see Harte Hanks has information I can learn from as well.
What we look for at that point in time are indications about frequency, consistency and intensity. Frequency is how often you visit our site. One visit is very low frequency, and 10 times a week is very high. Consistency looks at the topics you are viewing. If you are visiting unrelated content pages, then you have low consistency. If you are visiting pages or downloading material on the same topic or family of topics, then you have high consistency. Intensity looks at how deeply you delve into a piece of content. For example, how much time have you spent on a particular content page? If it is just a few seconds, then that is low intensity. If you have spent 20 minutes on a page, either across multiple visits or on a single visit, then that is high intensity.
The frequency, consistency and intensity measures are used to create a dialogue score. The score is higher if someone registers on all three measures rather than scores fairly high on only one. For example, moderate frequency, consistency and intensity together can be a pretty strong signal that you are interested in us. If you visit our site twice in one week and spend five minutes on one topic, we pay more attention to you than if you visit three times and skim five topics for a few seconds each.
At this point in the journey when a visitor is starting to register a noticeable dialogue score, we try to pay very close attention. We look to see if you came over to Harte Hanks on a specific topic and then stayed with it by consuming additional Harte Hanks content on that same topic, or if you skipped around from topic to topic. We see these as very different dialog cues. While both encourage me to reach out and seek more dialogue with you, the topically consistent visitor is signaling that they might want deeper information on that particular topic, or perhaps even a phone call with an expert on the topic.
The person who is skipping from topic to topic on Harte Hanks material is sending a different signal. Maybe they are conducting more of an overall assessment of our capability and might be more of a relationship-oriented buyer. Perhaps they would be more interested in a person-to-person visit.
It is important to acknowledge that these interpretations are merely hypotheses, and we continuously monitor responses to our attempts to advance the dialogue. We want to determine whether our “informed guesses” are being confirmed or rejected by the buyer. At the slightest hint of discomfort, we back off. If someone does not respond to our outreach, we slow down. We think patience pays higher dividends than pressure. If you irritate someone by being “digitally unobservant,” you can lose that person for a long time. I would much rather stay in the wings than be blocked by the visitor as spam.
Once someone continues to respond favorably during the digital dialogue phase, we look for ways to encourage, and eventually reinforce, engagement with us. As I mentioned, we look for opportunities to offer the transition from digital dialogue to commercial engagement. On the B2B side, this often involves personal meetings. For B2C, it can be making specific purchase offers, price features, and so on.
The point here is that content marketing needs to move seamlessly from awareness to dialogue to commercial engagement in a well-informed, iterative and responsive fashion. Tracking and interpreting the digital cues along the way is essential, not only because it works, but because it is what today’s consumers expect and appreciate.
Frank Grillo is the CMO of Harte Hanks.
Interview by Mark Blessington.