Look beyond the hype of social media, and you'll see that social networks and community dynamics have fundamentally changed many of the most intrinsically understood truths of marketing communications. They have made marketing a much more complex process while creating a more measurable business practice.

This series of five articles explores those changes (see list at the end of this article for previous and upcoming articles).

Faster Horses—or New Paradigm?

Henry Ford once famously remarked that if he'd asked his customers what they wanted, they would have said "a faster horse." And had you asked B2B marketers a decade ago, back in the dark days of B2B marketing communications, what they needed to market more successfully, their response might have been along the same lines: more data, more information—faster and better. The features-and-benefits sell sheets of the late '80s became the features-and-benefits Web pages of the early '90s.

Instead of faster horses, however, Ford's customers got automobiles—and, with them, a whole new world of experiences.

Similarly, many marketers may think they just want ways to disseminate the same messages, only faster and better. Hence, complaints about Twitter turning into spam, and the advent of vendor comments on blog posts not really responding to the post but touting the commenter's own wares.

But an opportunity to do something different has developed that many marketers are missing in their search for faster horses: new ways of developing progressive, deep, and lasting relationships with their customers and partners. And content is the key to developing and evaluating the strength of those relationships.

By thinking about content as more than just words on a page, and by developing content experiences that are strategic, planned, structured, and measured, an entirely new customer narrative can develop that will bring companies closer than they've ever been to their customers.

Consider that only 10% of website visitors or searchers are ready to engage, make a purchase decision, or opt-in right away, according to research; but over the course of the subsequent 12 months, with the right value-added communication, that number skyrockets to 87% (source: BtoB magazine, 2004).

A New Marketing Landscape

To date, online marketing has really been a matter of putting old wine in new bottles. That is starting to change. Marketers are still primarily using digital channels as the faster horse: spray and pray, broadcast, and treat every campaign like it's going to a completely new set of eyeballs.

But within the set of digital relationships exists a cross-section of customers and prospects: new customers, current customers, prospects, media, and competitors—all following on Twitter, subscribing to an email list, or getting content via Facebook or an online community. All that has led to some interesting questions:

  • Where does the line between marketing and customer relationships fall?
  • Do we need marketers? Or do we need community managers?
  • Where is the line between public relations and customer support? What's the difference between a press release and a tweet?
  • In 2011, what is the difference between media relations and community management?

In some ways, however, those are the wrong questions. What every digital visitor needs and wants is information, entertainment, or engagement (support response/customer service). All of those fall into the new category of marketing content.

By developing experiences that revolve around information, engagement, and entertainment, marketers can move beyond what they have traditionally done, which has been to simply blast out the attributes and benefits of owning a product or service. Marketers can now do more than just ride in on a faster horse; they can actually understand customer needs, build community, and develop better, progressive customer relationships.

Content Is Not Messaging, and It's More Than Copy

Content is one of the primary ways of developing digital relationships. Content is not just words on a page, or even a message. In an on-demand universe, content becomes truly valuable information experiences that can be strategically disseminated in myriad engaging formats, from 140-character tweets with answers to the most popular questions asked by customers to triggered emails, catalogs, whitepapers, and more.

For content to help develop relationships, however, marketers must go beyond thinking of it as copy on a Web page or in an app. They need to embrace three central ideas:

  1. Information can be persuasive. The age of persuasion has not entirely yielded to the age of information, but marketers need to strike the right balance between the two.
  2. Relevancy is key to performance. Content must address topics that your audience has a genuine interest in, and it must provide a reason for people to continue interacting with you.
  3. Strategic content needs planning. By designing contained, linked content experiences that go past the app, Web page, or search call to action, marketers can piece together a picture of the customer narrative by measuring the audience's interaction with the content.

The Digital Customer Narrative

The digital customer narrative is a complete story of a customer's interactions with brand or corporate properties online and how they unfold: where they originate, what digital properties they engage in, what content they engage in, and what they do and when.

At Sequentia, we've been testing those interactions since 2002. Here are some of the things we've learned:

  • Different customers want different ways of engaging. They want anything from actual brand relationships to opting in to receive coupons or promotions. And, in most cases, an offer of useful content outperforms PR messages and cute but nonstrategic ad campaigns. (In other words, How's that Old Spice campaign generating results today?)

    Some customers are super fans who will engage in your community or with your content daily; others will read one article a year from a tweet or an email. Are you creating experiences for that breadth of desired engagement across your customer and audience base?
  • The more valuable the content or the experience, the more a customer is willing to provide more information. As long as the experiences are managed and triggered by their actions, customers will provide information that lets you customize information or entertainment intended for them, which can lead to deeper overall engagement. Not valuable: self-serving whitepapers or catalogs. Valuable: objective information driven by customer needs, such as what other customers are buying or what questions they are asking, road maps, selection guides, and similar tools. That valuable information should not necessarily be delivered as one contained experience, but as a sequence of experiences, engagement with which you can measure like a funnel or buying landscape.
  • Paid and earned media are the outer edge of awareness. social media content is—like search, advertising, and public relations—just the starting point of engaging an audience and drawing them into a relationship.
  • Owned media is highly trusted. The most meaningful interactions between a brand and a customer happen on venues like websites, communities, events, conference calls, and webinars. Email may be the most powerful medium for members of your audience, but how they prefer to receive content is critical to understanding how to deliver it to them.
  • Customers want meaningful direct interaction with companies and brands. They want the ability to turn up or turn down the strength of those relationships depending on whether they are researching, seeking customer support or information, or looking to buy a new product.
  • The customer narrative is far from just digital. Integrated programs that start with a television or out-of-home ad, or a press release or an event, and draw people into online experiences via content and engagement opportunities, will become the standard, with real metrics around what that engagement results in both short term (conversions) and long term (the extended customer narrative that those initial conversions result in).

A world of opportunity exists for building loyalty and relationships in the new marketing landscape that's based on progressive relationships, not just sales funnels. Marketers should start by understanding their customers' digital narratives via research that uncovers the digital habits and the content needs of specific types of audiences.

I guarantee that you will be surprised by what you find, and you'll be able to use an airplane, not just a faster horse, to build a sustained relationship with the people you are trying to reach. What Henry Ford gave his customers might not have looked like a faster horse, but the automobile gave them what they were really looking for.

Today, the world of marketing, customer relationships, and communications has its faster car; now it's a matter of understanding how to use it. When marketers figure that out, the new landscape of marketing communications, content, and measurement will open up the way America did when "faster horses" arrived, driving more meaningful marketing relationships of higher value to brands, companies, and customers.

Articles in this series:

  1. The first article explored how the role of long-ball big-idea marketing is shifting amid the rise of "small-movement" marketing—how marketers are starting to shift away from trying to hit only home runs and are instead trying to foster deeper brand and relationship interactions online at the beginning of the customer relationship process.
  2. The second article discussed the death of the so-called funnel and the birth of the measurable customer narrative.
  3. This article, the third in the series, focused on content versus messaging and what brands and marketers need to do with content to keep their customers' attention.
  4. The fourth article will look at the shifting role of brand management in the new, fragmented environment.
  5. This five-part series will conclude with an article focusing on the interplay between content and community and the role of community within the sales and marketing cycle. 

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Content vs. Messaging: How the Digital Customer Narrative Is Changing Marketing

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Jen Evans is chief strategist at Sequentia Environics, a Toronto-based firm providing strategy and services to help companies generate better business results from their online initiatives.