Top thoughts from BRITE 2014

brite_logo_2013[1]Last week I was at the two-day BRITE conference, organized by the Columbia Business School “brand leadership” think tank. BRITE is for the most part a series of reflections on the impact of technology, delivered by high-level marketers from large companies.

If there was a common thread, it was the impact of technology on a company’s ability to “tell a story.” That is, craft the brand image. We heard plenty of big-budget successes, and savvy marketers can indeed adapt to truly leverage the technology.

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All About Online Content, for the Business Owner

Most of the material on this blog is about improving the online reach of your company’s selling message. Or getting the message out in less time, or for less money, or higher conversion effectiveness.

Of equal importance to the distribution of the message, though is the message itself.

The content.

Herewith, some basics about online content…

Is Online Content Important For My Business?

If your customers are online when they do any part of their research or buying, YES.

If you have a national footprint, YES.

If you care about your position in the search engines, YES.

 

A Definition

Content is anything you produce other than your product that your customers choose to spend time with, and tells them at least indirectly how your company can fix their problem.

Let’s break that definition down into three parts.

“anything you produce other than your product”

The most obvious example is a description of your product or service – which can be written and/or photographic and/or video. More examples include customer case studies; testimonials; FAQ; user forums; press releases (sometimes); the About Us page on your website; a newsletter; your company blog, your LinkedIn/Facebook page; etc.

“that your customers choose to spend time with”

This bit is here to indicate the context: a person is actively evaluating your product or service. They have a need, they are looking for a solution, and their mind is open. This is your sales and marketing opportunity.

“tells them at least indirectly how your company can fix their problem”

Here is where you convey your own differentiating selling message, conveying the truth about your products in an engaging and relevant way.

Another way to look at content is thus:

Content Not Content
Copywriting
Videos
Pictures
Blogs
Newsletters
Advertising
Adwords
Graphic design
Direct Mail
Forms and other response mechanisms
Pricing
Event planning

 

What’s The Role Of Content In The Buying Process?

  1. Advertising attracts.
  2. Content answers questions, engages and educates.
  3. Systems qualify, move prospects (i.e. develop leads) , and measure.
  4. People close.

 

Two Types of Content

The content your marketers churn out is one of two kinds.

  • The static, evergreen sort like brochures, FAQ, executive bios, and so on.
  • Another sort, which I’ll call the “Steady Stream” of content. This is the rest: the engaging, the promotional, the conversation, and the personality. Steady Stream comprises blogs, bylined articles, PR, newsletter articles, photos, videos, tweets, Facebook page updates, and so on.

The time and money commitment for Steady Stream content is an order of magnitude greater than that for static content, but the upside is equally great.

So Why is Online Content Important?

First off, content is the best way you can develop your leads, without talking to a prospect. And it’s scalable. Content usually doesn’t generate leads on its own. But better content helps revenue by improving your conversion to sale.

Second, content is the most important factor in search engine optimization. If you want a long-term high position in Google for high- and medium-traffic search terms, you need good content.

Third, the effectiveness of online content can be measured, and thus optimized through A/B testing.

Last, Not all companies produce online “steady stream” content effectively. (As compared to producing basic websites, business cards, voicemail etc.) Since your company’s peer group will have “haves” and “have-nots”, there is a competitive opportunity for the firm that creates online content consistently well.

 

What gives a marketer her authority?

In a post from last week, I mentioned (almost as an aside) that marketers have to own the “What The Customer Wants” piece if they want any authority. This was a rather loose end that needed tying. I can think of three other subjects that a marketer ought to know cold, if they expect to have a say in corporate strategy.

Qualitative Market Knowledge. In other words, you’ve got to know who does the buying and what do we need to give them at each point in the process. Customer interviews form the backbone of this knowledge. Large-sample-size surveys provide hard data to back up the conclusions you gain from interviews.

Quantitative Market Research. How big is your current market? How big will it be in five years?

Prospect and User Metrics. What do people click on? Which ads motivate them? Who calls customer service the most, and the least? This data fills out your knowledge of the customer, both in how they buy and use your product.

Competitive Environment. The product manager, if he’s not in the marketing group, may own this piece. (He may own some of the metrics too.) Marketers can go beyond the typical who-has-what-product-feature by tracking competitor corporate strategy.

Note that these aren’t fungible skills like the ability to write ad copy, perform regression analysis, quote from business cases like an MBA, or do a slick Powerpoint. This is situation-specific data, which require regular monitoring. Knowing these four subjects keeps marketers from being treated like an ad agency.

Why Interview Customers?

Interviewing customers for marketing purposes can be done two ways.

  • Regular calls from your marketing team to customers. This keeps your marketers focussed on customers.
  • A series of 10-15 interviews, outsourced to a third party who can understand and speak knowledgably about your products and services. The interviewer works from a set of basic questions, but in a conversational manner – to get the customer to open up about their needs and experiences.

Let’s focus briefly on the outcomes from a series of interviews:

You’ll get a list of the words and phrases that customers use to describe their perfect solution. Knowing this improves the benefit statements in all your written material: web, email, print, advertising, PR. It also helps your SEO and PPC program.

Your positioning and messaging can be sharpened. Interviews with “model customers” in your target market reveal what closed the deal for them. Adapt your messaging accordingly and you’ll win more deals from that kind of customer.

If there is magic in customer interviews, it lies here: clear, generalizable themes emerge from about ten of these talks. Why? Given a large enough sample within a customer segment, the job descriptions of your buyers don’t differ greatly from each other. They are rewarded the same ways. They’ve looked at your competitors’ website, your own, and read the same magazines as each other. And more often not, they wind up using the same phrases to describe the experience of buying and using products in your space. It’s uncanny. Customer interviews are massively helpful for a small- or medium-sized company with a moderately complex sales cycle. We use an interview program as the foundation for every substantial client engagement. Lastly, customer analysis is one of our four standard ingredients in developing a overall marketing strategy. Thes others are Corporate Strategy, Competitive Positioning, and Product Benefits.

I have to add a disclaimer. Much of what I think about customer interviews is based on Kristin Zhivago’s “Reality Check” program. Her excellent guide to interviewing is in the appendix of her book. Like me, she’s a marketing consultant, but our services differ somewhat. Call either of us and we’ll tell you how.

Nine Reasons to Interview Your Customers

Any marketer responsible for strategy should be talking to customers regularly. See our article on interviewing customers for the primary reasons why you should. We can think of nine “secondary reasons” why customer interviews are useful. These are in no particular order, since their net benefit depends on your own situation.

Let’s call one of your customers Joe.

  1. Makes the Customer Feel Good. This has three parts. Joe speaks his mind (which is therapeutic on its own); Joe thinks complaints will get addressed and praise passed along (which appeals to his sense of fairness); Joe thinks your product is more likely to meet his future needs. Of course, you have to follow up on the last two things, but if you’re not committed to that anyhow you should have a long think about your business.
  2. It’s Cheaper Than You Think. If you delegate it to someone in-house, the incremental financial cost per interview is about $35, for a transcriber’s time. There are some fixed time costs associated with an interview program: generating the list itself, reviewing it for outliers, giving your callers some basic background about each account, and the phone tag typically involved with arranging a 30-minute conversation. If you outsource it to a freelancer or consultant, expect to pay $150 per interview, including transcription. This might be part of a larger package of interviews.
  3. Discover Hidden Opinions. (I’m cheating a little here, since this is usually possible only if you outsource the interviews.) With interviewee anonymity, you’ll learn things your customers won’t ordinarily tell you or your sales rep. Why? Under a promise of anonymity, people will open up to third parties (providing the interviewers know enough about your company and your products to sound credible). Joe is more likely to comment on personal interactions, e.g. the support staff didn’t want me on the phone any longer, the sales rep didn’t tell me when the maintenance fee kicks in. The point of gathering this kind of information isn’t to find tattletales and bust your employee for a single event, but to uncover consistent breakdowns. Joe is also more likely to comment truthfully on price to a third party interviewee, since he’s mentally out of the cat-and-mouse pricing game with your sales rep.
  4. Seeds for Case Studies. An interview with a happy Joe can be converted into a case study rather easily.
  5. Testimonials. Once you have a nice quote actually leave Joe’s lips (instead of your writing it for them, which is the way it usually goes), it’s easier to get customer approval. Even if the customer’s CorpComm department refuses permission to publish the testimonial, you can anonymize it. Anonymized testimonials are worthwhile only if the quote is specific to a product feature.
  6. Helps Your SEO Program. If you can take Joe’s interview (anonymous or not) and put it online, you’ll get a marginal boost with the search engines. While it’s unlikely that you’ll get a good inbound link into an interview, the addition of fresh content containing good keywords will help.
  7. Internal Use. Share all or part of the interview with colleagues. This is especially useful in big companies with an intranet.
  8. Counterbalance Salesperson Anecdotes. This may not seem as “nice” as the above reasons, but marketers can’t ignore this. In the B2B world, the salesperson is often the only one talking with customers. They pass customer comments up the ladder, especially when those comments relate to lost sales or a greater chance at account growth and retention. All good so far! However, the aggregate of all those sales “touches” gives Sales disproportionate authority on What The Customer Wants. A marketing team that aims to go beyond simple product marketing and marcomms — into marketing strategy — has to be an equal or better authority on What The Customer Wants, in the CEO’s eyes. Customer interviews give you some of that authority.
  9. Get New Ideas. Interviews “get your head out of the building” and make you think of new promotional/selling/content ideas. Although there are always more ideas than time or money, you’re always better off with a greater pool of ideas. So put your free thinkers on the interview team. Make them stick to the basic script, but encourage them to follow the flow of the talk and ask their own followup questions. Make them do calls offsite.