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Why No One Is Reading Your Marketing Content

2016 February 3
by Greg Satell

Marketing used to be pretty simple. To promote your brand, you used mass media to reach large audiences and create widespread awareness about your product or service. If you crafted a powerful message, the approach could work wonders. Most of the great brands of the 20th century were built that way.

Yet marketing in a digital economy is different. Not only have audiences fragmented, necessitating a more targeted approach, but digital activity is tracked. So even if you are successful in building awareness and creating action, your rivals can retarget those consumers with competing offers.

That’s why many have turned to content. Rather than paying to be sandwiched within ad breaks and between editorial pages, brands can communicate directly with consumers. Unfortunately, the result is often a longer form version of the same old ads. Marketers need to change their approach. Here are four questions that will help you create a viable strategy.

1. Why Do You Need Content?

In an overview of the subject, the Content Marketing Institute explains that marketers need content because, “traditional marketing is becoming less and less effective by the minute.” That may be true, but it doesn’t explain why content is the answer. In fact, it is exactly that line of thinking which makes it difficult for content marketers to succeed.

Traditional marketing, which was heavily skewed to broadcast media, worked because it allowed brands to reach a lot of people in a short amount of time at very low cost. Content does neither, so it’s hard to see how anyone could possibly replace a traditional broadcast strategy with a content strategy.

On the other hand, today’s digital environment does allow marketers to communicate directly with customers, partners and the general public in a way that wasn’t possible before. It reaches less people and takes more time than a traditional broadcast strategy, but it also opens up exciting new possibilities to create greater engagement.

Clearly, the solution to an ineffective 30 second TV spots is not ineffective 10 minute spots. So don’t treat content as a long form version of an ad campaign. Think seriously about what it is you expect to achieve. If the only reason that you are doing content is to replace traditional marketing efforts, you are almost certain to fail.

2. What Value Are You Offering For Exchange?

The main advantage of content is that, when done effectively, people see it as an exchange of value rather than an interruption. It offers the resources and expertise of an enterprise to customers and partners in a way that holds their attention and builds an ongoing relationship.

For example, Nike leverages its relationship with top athletes to create compelling videos that millions love to watch and share with their friends. American Express offers its customers expert business advice on its Open Forum. The Institute For Advanced Study invites some of the world’s top scholars to give personal accounts of their groundbreaking work.

So the first principle of any effective content strategy is to be clear on what value you are offering for exchange. Are their relationships you can leverage like Nike does? Are you offering valuable expertise, like American Express? Can you offer access to world class experts or within your organization, like The Institute For Advanced Study?

Notice how this approach is diametrically opposed to a traditional marketing campaign. Marketers have been trained to be consumer focused. But successful producers and publishers are mission focused and that makes all the difference.

3. What’s Your Anchor?

A traditional ad campaign has a defined beginning and and end. When it’s over, you compare the results to your initial goals to determine whether it’s successful or not. Successful content efforts, on the other hand, are open ended and often run for years. They must transcend changes in the marketplace, the audience and even the personnel who initiate it.

That’s why it’s important to anchor your concept. In Made to Stick Chip and Dan Heath note that Hollywood films anchor through “high concept schemas,” like “Diehard on a bus” for the hit film Speed, or “Jaws on a spaceship” for Alien. In much the same way, Life magazine was the “showbook of the world” and Cosmopolitan is “fun, fearless and female.”

Notice how the consumer target is implied—you certainly wouldn’t market “Jaws on a spaceship” to toddlers—but not a primary focus. What’s essential is the editorial and creative mission. “Diehard on a bus,” seeks to be exciting. A “showbook for the world” conveys understanding through pictures. “Fun, fearless and female” inspires confidence.

It is only through anchoring a concept that you can create a consistent experience that your audience can relate to. That’s how you hold their attention.

4. What Type Of Experience Do You Want To Deliver?

Publishers and producers pay close attention to their formats. It goes without saying that you write a different article for a daily newspaper than you would for a feature in a magazine, just as you would approach a TV pilot differently than you would a full length film. Structure matters and successful content efforts put a significant effort into creating standards.

Magazines have a clearly defined “brand bibles”, which designate flatplan, voice and pacing. Radio stations run on clocks. TV shows have clearly defined story structures, character arcs and so on. These rules not only set audience expectations and make content easier to take in and enjoy, but also form the crucial constraints in which creativity can thrive.

Most marketers have become aware of the importance of user experience in products and websites, but ignore it when it comes to publishing and producing. Instead, they fall back on traditional marketing conventions such as targeting and messaging. That may work in a 30 second spot or or ad page, but is less effective for creating a compelling experience.

We desperately need to shift our emphasis from crafting messages to creating experiences. Make no mistake, it is the experience you deliver that will determine whether you are successful or not. The goal isn’t to grab attention and deliver a message, but to hold attention and build a relationship.

– Greg

A previous version of this article first appeared in Harvard Business Review

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