Sunday, March 29, 2015

How to Develop Content "Astronomically"

Research shows that producing enough content remains one of the greatest challenges facing B2B marketers. (B2B Content Marketing:  2015 Benchmarks, Budgets, and Trends - North America) For the past several years, the volume of content needed to fuel effective marketing programs has been growing exponentially for four basic reasons:

  • The need to make content relevant for individual buyers at every stage of the buying process
  • The short lifespan of many content resources
  • The need to publish content across an increasing number of communication channels
  • The need to publish content on a frequent basis
To produce enough content on a timely and consistent basis, you need an approach to content development that will maximize the results you get from your content creation efforts.
An article in the latest issue of Chief Content Officer magazine by Amy Higgins, the senior content marketing manager for Concur's North American SMB division, provides a compelling model for an effective and efficient content development process. Ms. Higgins used an astronomical metaphor for her model, and her framework contains six major components:

  • Galaxy - All of a company's content across all topic areas
  • Solar System - A high level topic that supports a large library of content
  • Sun - A large content asset that exhaustively covers one topic (see below)
  • Planets - Larger content assets (white papers, e-books, etc.) that embody a story line about a "solar system" topic
  • Moons - Mid-size assets (articles, blog posts, etc.) that support the "planet" assets
  • Satellites - Smaller content assets, such as social media posts, etc., that point potential buyers to the other content assets
I would argue that the most important component in Ms. Higgins' framework is what she calls a sun. A sun is a single, very large content asset that includes everything your company has to say about a major, high-level topic, which in most cases will be related to a product or service (or a family of products or services) that your company offers.
The key point is that a sun asset is for internal use only. It is not written for a particular buyer persona or for buyers at any particular stage of the buying process. It's intended to be an all-encompassing statement of the substantive points you need to communicate about one topic.
What makes a sun asset so valuable is that it provides the concepts you need for all of your content relating to a given topic and guides the development of content relating to that topic. So, a sun asset makes it much easier and faster to develop the content assets that Ms. Higgins describes in her article as planets, moons, and satellites.
I'm a strong advocate of this approach to content development. Several months ago, I described a similar approach in a post that drew an analogy between content development and the use of mother sauces in classic French cooking.
Spending a significant amount of time to develop a major content asset that will not be distributed to potential buyers is counterintuitive. But this investment will make the rest of your content development efforts faster and easier.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Why "Easy" Content is More Persuasive

Creating persuasive content is a perennial challenge for B2B marketers. Producing engaging content has been one of the top three challenges identified by respondents in all five of the annual B2B content marketing surveys by the Content Marketing Institute and MarketingProfs.

Marketers have traditionally viewed B2B purchasing as a rational process, and as a result, we tend to believe that the key to creating persuasive content is to use logical arguments that are supported by credible and convincing evidence. We now know, however, that B2B buying behavior is not completely rational and that business buyers, like all humans, rely on non-rational mental shortcuts when making decisions.

Because B2B buying isn't totally rational, marketing content that relies only on logical arguments and credible evidence will not be as persuasive as content that also appeals to the intuitive aspects of human decision making.

Research from both psychology and behavioral economics has produced several insights that B2B marketers can use to improve the persuasiveness of marketing content. One of the most important concepts is cognitive fluency, which is the term scientists use to describe the ease with which our brains process information. It turns out that we humans have a strong affinity for things that are easy for us to think about. Psychologists say that cognitive fluency signals familiarity, and familiarity makes us feel comfortable.

Cognitive fluency shapes our thinking in many ways. For example, numerous experiments have shown that cognitive fluency:

  • Makes us more inclined to believe a statement is true
  • Causes us to believe that the author of a statement is more intelligent
  • Makes us more confident in our judgment about the truth of a statement
There are two variations of the cognitive fluency "formula" that are important for marketers to understand.

Easy = Familiar = True
This is the most common expression of the cognitive fluency principle, and it states that if marketers want to make content persuasive, they must make it easy to process. There are several basic tactics that marketers can use to improve cognitive fluency.
  • Use easy-to-read fonts and contrasting colors for text. (For an authoritative discussion of font "power," read this article.)
  • Do not use complex language when simple language will suffice. We actually view the unnecessary use of pretentious language as a sign of poor intelligence and low credibility.
  • Whenever possible, use images and simple diagrams to anchor and illustrate complex concepts.
Familiar = Easy = True
The second variation of the cognitive fluency formula is more subtle, but just as important for B2B marketers. It states that if marketers want to make content persuasive, they must make it familiar. 
This dimension of cognitive fluency explains why it is important to create content with a specific buyer persona in mind. When I develop content for a specific buyer persona, I use terminology and examples that will be familiar to the target persona. 
So, for example, when I write a white paper or an e-book "for" CFO's, I make liberal use of financial terms and financial concepts. Likewise, if I'm writing for a buyer in a particular industry, I'll use terminology and examples from that industry. These tactics will make the white paper or e-book "feel" more familiar to the target reader, which will make the information easier for the reader to process, which will cause the reader to be more likely to accept and believe my information.
Cognitive fluency is a powerful tool for improving the persuasiveness of marketing content. In a future post, I'll discuss how "framing" content can also improve persuasiveness.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

A Sobering View on Content Marketing Effectiveness

The number of digital marketing channels has grown at an exponential rate, and digital platforms have made it easy for marketers to broadly distribute content. In response, many marketers have adopted a "more is better" approach, publishing more content across more channels in the hope of generating more impact. The more is better strategy is not working. The volume of content produced by companies has increased dramatically, but most content is failing to make an impact.

That is one of the central themes of a new research report (The Content Marketing Paradox:  Is More Content Really Better?) published by TrackMaven. While I don't agree with all of the conclusions in the report, this research raises several significant issues, and it should be a wake-up call for content marketers.

TrackMaven is a provider of content analytics software. Throughout 2013 and 2014, TrackMaven used its software to analyze the content published by 8,800 brands. The analysis encompassed 13.8 million pieces of content that were published across seven marketing channels and produced 7.2 billion interactions. More specifically, the research focused on blog content and on content published on six social media networks - Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Google+, and LinkedIn.

The core findings of the TrackMaven research paint a sobering picture of the effectiveness of content marketing.

  • During 2013 and 2014, the volume of content per brand increased by 78%.
  • Over the same time frame, the engagement produced by that content (measured by the number of interactions per post per 1,000 followers) decreased by 60%.
The authors of the report conclude that most marketers are failing to effectively engage customers with their content. The write:  "Stated differently, marketers are getting better at distributing content, but are not getting better at creating content worth distributing."
This research raises important issues for content marketers, but it doesn't prove that content marketing overall is losing its effectiveness. Here are two reasons why.
First, the TrackMaven research focuses only on a subset of content marketing - blog content and content published on six social networks. Therefore, the research doesn't address the effectiveness of several other content marketing tactics and formats, such as the use of videos, white papers, and e-books. These types of content play a leading role in the content marketing efforts of most B2B companies, and the TrackMaven research doesn't measure their effectiveness.
More importantly, the researchers decided to measure content engagement (and, by implication, content effectiveness) by measuring the "interactions" the content produced. For social media content, TrackMaven defined interactions as the aggregate of likes, shares, and comments on social networks. For blog content, the researchers defined interactions as the aggregate of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google+ interactions for a blog post. In essence, TrackMaven equated content engagement with comments and with content sharing on social networks.
In my view, this measure of content engagement is too narrow. As a content marketer, your first objective is to entice your target audience to consume your content. If your content is widely shared across social networks, that's likely to boost the consumption of your content. However, the absence of likes, shares, and comments doesn't necessarily mean that your content isn't being consumed or that it isn't having an impact on your target audience. The TrackMaven data doesn't show content consumption that's not accompanied by some kind of "active" content interaction.

The distinction between content consumption and content interactions via social media is particularly important in B2B marketing where the target audience frequently includes business executives and managers whose use of social media is mostly passive.
Despite these reservations, I would argue that the TrackMaven research provides a critical lesson for content marketers:  Average content is no longer sufficient to drive effective marketing.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Why You Need Marketing Content for Two Ways of Thinking

This is the second of several posts about the role of behavioral economics in marketing, particularly in content marketing. In my first post, I introduced the topic of behavioral economics and argued that it's critical for marketers to understand the psychological aspects of human decision making and to incorporate those factors into marketing strategy and marketing communications.

Behavioral economics challenges a fundamental assumption of mainstream economics. For decades, economists have assumed that people make economic decisions rationally. The traditional view says that people weigh the economic costs and benefits of proposed actions, have relatively stable preferences, and usually act to maximize their economic self interest. Behavioral economics holds that people don't always make rational economic choices because they unconsciously use heuristics (mental shortcuts) that produce several cognitive biases.

In his landmark book Thinking, Fast and Slow, psychologist Daniel Kahneman - whose research with fellow psychologist Amos Tversky laid the foundation for behavioral economics - argues that heuristics and biases originate in the ways we think and learn. Kahneman says that the cognitive processes used by humans can be thought of as two "systems."

  • System 1 (fast thinking) operates automatically, quickly, with little or no effort, and with no sense of voluntary control.
  • System 2 (slow thinking) consists of thinking processes that are reflective, controlled, deliberative, and analytical. 
According to Kahneman, when we think of ourselves, we identify with System 2, our rational self, but System 1 actually originates many of the impressions and feelings that are the sources of the explicit beliefs and deliberative choices of System 2. 
Kahneman puts it this way:  "System 1 continuously generates suggestions for System 2:  impressions, intuitions, and feelings. If endorsed by System 2, impressions and intuitions turn into beliefs, and impulses turn into voluntary actions. When all goes smoothly, which is most of the time, System 2 adopts the suggestions of System 1 with little or no modification."
Therefore, System 1 exerts a powerful influence on the economic decisions we make, including decisions about the purchase of products or services.
System 1 thinking is valuable and, in fact, essential to our well-being. We live in a world that is both complex and rapidly changing, and we don't have the time, energy, or information processing capacity to consciously and deliberately analyze every event or circumstance that we encounter. If we didn't have a mechanism for thinking fast, automatically, and effortlessly, we simply couldn't function effectively. The good news is, System 1 is generally good at what it does - the "suggestions" that it makes to System 2 are usually accurate and appropriate.
However, System 1 also has biases. It tends to make systematic and predictable logical errors in certain circumstances. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman identified 22 characteristics of System 1 thinking that can contribute to biased decision making. All of these characteristics are important for marketers, but some of them are particularly relevant for creating engaging and persuasive content. For example, System 1:
  • Links a sense of cognitive ease to illusions of truth - if something is familiar and easy to understand, we are more likely to believe it is true
  • Responds more strongly to losses than to gains, which makes framing content messages the right way particularly important
  • Infers and exaggerates consistency (the halo effect)
  • Sometimes substitutes an easier question for a difficult one
In upcoming posts, I'll discuss how marketers can use these characteristics of human thinking to make marketing content more compelling.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Where B2B and B2C Marketers Agree and Disagree recently published the results of its 2015 State of Marketing survey. The 2015 survey was conducted online in October and November of 2014 and generated over 5,000 responses. The survey was directed to marketers in "Salesforce Marketing Cloud locations," so the respondents may not be a representative sample of all marketers. Still, the number of responses makes this a significant piece of research.

The survey included a nice balance of B2B and B2C participants. Fifty-six percent of the respondents were from B2C companies, and 44% were affiliated with B2B enterprises. The survey found significant similarities in the viewpoints of B2B and B2C marketers, but the results also revealed a few interesting differences.

Both B2B and B2C participants in the survey were optimistic about marketing budgets for 2015. Eighty-four percent of both B2B and B2C respondents said they plan to increase or maintain their level of marketing spending in 2015.

B2B and B2C marketers differed somewhat in how they viewed their most significant marketing challenges. The table below shows the top three challenges identified by B2B and B2C survey respondents.

B2B and B2C marketers differed more significantly on the issue of where they plan to increase marketing spending. The top five areas for increased spending identified by B2B marketers were:

  1. Content marketing (66% of B2B respondents)
  2. Marketing automation (66%)
  3. Mobile applications (65%)
  4. Location-based mobile tracking (65%)
  5. Social media advertising (64%)
The top five areas for increased spending identified by B2C marketers were:
  1. Social media marketing (74% of B2C respondents)
  2. Social media advertising (74%)
  3. Social media engagement (73%)
  4. Social media listening (68%)
  5. Location-based mobile tracking (68%)
These differences in spending priorities are understandable and not at all surprising. Many B2B companies sell complex products or services, and it can be difficult to communicate the value of these solutions in a social media environment. So, it doesn't surprise me that B2B marketers are more focused on creating content, which almost certainly includes longer-form resources such as videos, white papers, and e-books.

In addition, most of the recent research I've seen indicates that, while the use of social media in the B2B buying process is growing, it is still not a major source of information for most B2B buyers. In the B2C world, however, research indicates that social media plays a more significant role on the customer's path to purchase. So, it's not surprising the B2C marketers are investing more in social media.