Content marketing has hit an interesting speed bump. It’s been dubbed “content shock”. That’s what happens when there’s more content available than people want, or are even able to consume. There are more insightful industry reports, engaging product videos and clever company-sponsored blog posts than anyone has time to read.
No surprise there. Maybe the content marketing community hasn’t had a name for it until recently, but anyone with an email account has been experiencing content shock for a long time.
And I was only referring to the company-created content. There’s also user created-content, and the traditional content of television, films, books, music, video games and all the other forms of entertainment. And there’s advertising, too, of course.
We are awash in content. We have been for a while.
What to do when content marketing no longer works
Content shock is a serious problem for content marketers. It signals an end to the very thing that makes content marketing work.
Content marketing worked (and still works) by getting above the noise of traditional advertising – to rise to the height of actual entertainment or education. But now that everyone’s jumped on the content marketing bandwagon, the noise level we used to associate with general advertising is now heard in content marketing.
It’s a chilling prospect for content marketers. All their hard work is being drowned out.
But there is a way out. The secret to success in an overcrowded marketplace is to appeal to the right audience.
Change strategy, or optimize?
When a marketing strategy stops working, there are two choices: optimize, or change strategy. The strategy of content marketing is sound, or at least sound enough to keep. I definitely can’t come up with anything better.
So if the strategy is sound, then it’s time to optimize. But optimize what? Create better content? Improve your distribution?
If your content marketing results are beginning to lose their luster, don’t obsess over better creative. Don’t spend more money on distribution. Go back to your customers and your clients. Go back to your audience. Those are the people who drive your business.
It’s all about the audience
This triad of creative, distribution and audience reminds me of another classic triad in marketing. Do you remember the old direct marketing question, asked way back in the days of direct mail?
“Which is most important? The creative, the offer, or the list?”
The answer is “the list”. It’s the list that controls the outcome of a marketing campaign more than anything else. Sure, the creative and the offer make a difference – sometimes a huge difference – but the list has the biggest influence. It’s why people say “the money’s in the list.”
The list was the audience. To improve your content marketing, and beat content shock, focus on your audience.
The money’s in the audience
In content marketing, understanding your audience means understanding personas. Personas aren’t anything new – they’re just a new way to describe customer groups. They’re a segmenting technique for content marketers.
While segmenting and using personas are a proven way to improve results, personas are the most common thing to be left out of a content marketing strategy. Most marketers don’t want to bother with them. Here’s why:
• The role of personas in marketing is not as clearly understood as the other elements of a campaign. This makes them easier to ignore, even if only a little. It’s human nature to gloss over things that aren’t easy to understand: Remember the fable about the man looking for his lost keys under the lamplight?
• Marketers can see what having personas suggests. It means more work: They will potentially have as many versions of content as they have personas. We all have enough work already; the idea of multiplying it three or four times over is downright scary. Do you want to rewrite your last free report three times – one for each of your audiences’ personas?
• Personas are hard to define. It’s not always clear that the lines we draw between one persona and the next are accurate. If we can’t even define them accurately, how can we trust everything else we build according to those definitions?
Personas for beginners
So if personas are the best opportunity (though a challenging one) for getting more results from content marketing, how can marketers get started with them?
Some companies will have an easy time breaking out the segments of their market. Real estate brokers have buyers versus renters. A service business might have residential clients versus commercial clients. An ecommerce company has buyers versus non-buyers.
That’s all a good start, but your competitors may have already gone that far. To stay ahead, you may need to go a step further.
Getting smarter about customers
It’s easy to get bogged down while you try to figure out who your customers are, what they want, and how to segment them. You’ve got website traffic reports, industry reports, customer service data, purchasing behavior, and probably some of your own research.
This brings up the issues around how to understand an audience. Do you design content (or products) based on what they say they want, or based on what they do?
Generally, it’s better to segment based on what they do, not what they say they want.
It’s also harder.
Some marketers ignore this, and survey their customers to find out what they say they want. And that helps. It’s far, far better than nothing. Just doing this can significantly improve your content marketing results.
Other marketers take the harder route, and segment based on what actually people do. If those marketers don’t get bogged down by trying to interpret too much (or the wrong kind) of data, they will get better insights than their friends who did the “ask them what they want” survey. They may get enough information to build a very effective automated marketing campaign.
But there’s an even better way. It’s to figure out what your customers want without asking them that directly. It’s to figure out the fears and desires that shape what they want. It’s to go one level deeper than “what do you want?”, down to “why do you want it?” To execute a survey like this, you would ask your customers in just the right way what they’re worried about, and what their problems are. And how they want to solve those things (Cheap? Fast? Online? Offline?) Then you build solutions according to those answers.
If you’ve done the third kind of survey correctly, you’ve got a shot at creating something completely new. Something that isn’t just an improvement over an old product, or a better approach to the same content you were creating before. Something that gives your audience what they can’t find anywhere else. That’s how your content marketing can still step out above the noise.