Most marketing conversations these days revolve around terms such as "omnichannel" and "programmatic," or topics such as the ever-evolving social media channels and the need for brands to produce click-worthy content.

Many more conversations are waving a red flag that we're approaching "Peak Content." Brand-produced content was up 35% in 2015, while consumer engagement with that content was down 17%, according to TrackMaven.

For digital marketers, content is still one of the best ways to engage your customers, but you must rethink it:

  • From: Beautiful stories about your brand
  • To: High-value, behavior-changing content about and for your customers and their aspirations

How to Create Content That Engages: Start With Your Customer's Journey

Engaging content is content that people care about—content that gets their attention, captures their interest, and, in best-case scenarios, brings them back, time and time again.

Engaging content gets shared and goes viral. It causes people to open your emails and to click on the links in them, to read your blog again and again, to click on your Facebook links, to watch your YouTube videos, to like your Instagram posts.

I could write pages and pages about how to develop engaging content strategies and optimize content for engagement. I won't be doing that here.

But I will provide you with five principles that every engaging content strategy I've ever worked on, and have ever even seen, adheres to.

Five Rules of Engagement

Rule 1: Engaging content is not beautiful messages about your brand; content that engages is high-value content that removes resistance and triggers progress along your customers' journey

To create content that truly engages your customers, you must give up one of the most pervasive misconceptions about content and social media. The goal is not to publish stories about your brand, no matter how big, beautiful, or emotional they might be. There is a short list of things people care about, and stories about your brand are not on it.

Instead, create content about your customers and for their journey.

By journey, I'm talking about their journey to improve their lives. In my Transformational Consumer Insights Study, I discovered that 50% of American consumers see life as a never-ending series of projects to live healthier, wealthier, wiser lives. They spend a great deal of their time and money on the products, services, and content that can help them make those changes.

This means that most of the content you publish should fall within a story line that either alleviates the frictions your customers are experiencing as they try to create change or inspires and excites them about the possibilities for their lives. The role you play within your customers' stories is the role of mentor, adviser, or instrument that helps them along the way.

It also means that most of your content should be about your customers, their lives, and their issues.

That's not to say people never want to hear about your product. It just that most of your content should be beautifully executed, high-value content that is effective at helping people on their transformational journeys, in ways that your product implicitly and, occasionally, explicitly facilitates.

Rule 2: Customer journey + resistance and progress triggers + natural language = your evergreen message pillars

Engaging content strategies also feature recurring messages that collectively do two things:

  1. They tell the big story of your customers' transformation.
  2. They imply or suggest the role that your brand and product play in that transformation.

I call these recurring messages "message pillars" because they stay the same for long periods of time, they span your entire content program no matter the channel, and they constitute the foundation for how you or your team will execute individual content programs, campaigns, and even individual blog posts.

Every one of your message pillars should map back to something meaningful about the stages of your customers' journeys or to some significant category of the things that get them stuck and unstuck.

Your message pillars can be declarations, values, or beliefs, and they should incorporate your company's broader vision. Think of message pillars as a manifesto of sorts but for your content channels. Be bold and public about them, and use them as a decision rule for what content to create and what not to.

Rule 3: Business objectives + micro-moments = which content to put where, when

Micro-moments tell you where your customers tend to go online at the points in their journeys when they want to know, go, do, or buy something to help them achieve their goals. Knowing that empowers you to put the right content for those stages of their journeys in the right places to reach them.

Three fundamental factors should line up for each piece of content and content campaign: medium, format, and substance.

  1. The medium (email, social media channels, PR, online portals, even search/SEO and print) must be available to you and be one that customers are prone to consuming your type of content on. Also think about what medium you have unique access to, such as an email list or other way of reaching your customers.
  2. The format of the content should be optimal for the content itself, such as rich pins for your blog posts, blog posts for recipe roundups, and so on.
  3. The substance itself should solve frictions that your customers are experiencing. It should further specific objectives of the business and should be executed in accordance with high production values, your brand's voice, and storytelling basics.

Rule 4: Ongoing listening + real-time content-performance data = engagement marketing

Customer research and online listening are not projects that end when the customer journey map is complete. Make them an ongoing practice. Treat all content marketing as lean marketing and build a discipline around monitoring whether and how your audiences are engaging with every piece of it.

Then do more of what works and less of what doesn't. Any natural language patterns you spot will empower your teams to rapidly innovate new content topics and programs.

Rule 5: Content = R&D for product

At MyFitnessPal, our content program hit some remarkable customer-engagement milestones—and fast. We started in April, and by the following January we had 50 million pageviews and 10 million unique monthly readers. We increased the number of people who used the app on a given week by 22%, and the number of people who used it in a given month by 24%.

For a while, we were reactivating around 500,000 lapsed users every week, just with content.

But with all that, the most exciting part of that process was that every team in the entire company was aligned around the same customer journey. So instead of us producing content about things the app couldn't help with, the product and engineering teams built a set of recipe-logging tools to make it easier for people to track food when they cooked at home. They built restaurant-logging tools to help people track their food (and stay within their nutrition goals) when they ate out. And the business development team spearheaded partnerships with restaurants and menu data sources.

* * *

Your content and marketing can connect with your customers, too. Make it about them, not your brand, and follow these Five Rules of Engagement.

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The Business Case for Behavior-Changing Content: Five Rules of Engagement

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image of Tara-Nicholle Nelson

Tara-Nicholle Nelson is the author of The Transformational Consumer: Fuel a Lifelong Love Affair With Customers by Helping Them Get Healthier, Wealthier and Wiser. She is the CEO of TCI, a data, insight, and strategy consulting firm  that creates transformational marketing and growth experiences.

LinkedIn: Tara-Nicholle Nelson

Twitter: @taranicholle