Thanks to the web today’s consumers access content about brands, products and services from a myriad of digital and traditional sources and make their buying decisions based on a process that doesn’t even slightly resemble the old ‘purchase funnel’ graphic. Consumers control how they research, how they interact with brands (and other consumers), how they buy.
In this new consumer-empowered world the role of traditional advertising, at least for high-consideration brands – automotive, financial services, technology, etc – is really to garner basic brand awareness. Once the consumer has seen an ad, the best a company can hope for is that the consumer is ‘in market’ in some way. If that’s the case their next likely port of call will be Google where they’ll begin their rigorous buying process by doing their homework on the category.
Which brand/product/service will win? Most likely the best quality/competitively priced one as determined by a combination of user reviews and price comparisons. But these days there’s often very little to choose between brands – especially in the uber-competitive sectors mentioned above.
So how can a company improve its chances of success?
By clearly articulating and demonstrating that it’s a mission-driven company – and that its mission is to understand and serve the needs and values of its customers.
Inherently, the articulation part of this statement requires a communication plan. A brand must be present where its customers and prospects are – everywhere they are – in the online and offline world, supporting the consumers’ consideration and buying process with relevant and valuable messaging. In addition, it must tangibly help them in terms of increasing their category and product knowledge and confidence and in completing the tasks they’ve set themselves.
How does a brand achieve this objective? Lots of answers to that which we’ll get to but the most important is to develop an overarching content marketing plan designed to engage consumers with highly relevant, compelling, valuable content that supports their research and buying process.
The core of the plan is a content strategy that accurately reflects the company’s business culture (what it stands for, its sense of mission, the passionate and knowledgeable people it employs), as well as the needs and habits of consumers (how they research the category, what they say and think about the brand, the words they use to describe what they’re looking for, the social and experiential context of their lives, and ultimately, how and where they seek that information).
The disciplines needed to deliver the insight that will define this content strategy include a combination of social media and organic search strategy, ethnographic research, persona development and the relentless analysis of previous activity. This sounds hard – and it is. But how on earth can a company figure out the right products to launch and promote unless it truly understands consumer needs?
Content powers the web
The next step of the process is to develop a robust content strategy and distribution plan. The success of branded customer magazines over the course of many years has been largely driven by their ability to engage audiences with compelling long-form content. Ironically, the web has created a demand and opportunity for exactly this kind of content, created by writers and editors steeped in journalistic skills.
It’s content – whether branded, 3rd party or consumer generated – that powers the consumers’ web experience. Websites provide context and architecture, social media tools provide the means of distribution and interaction, but at its core the web is a democratized publishing platform.
The enormous benefit of engaging in a content-driven approach to consumer engagement is that highly relevant and valuable content is exactly what the search engines love. If the consumer begins their buying process at Google, you’d better rank high.
The components of a content strategy can be as broad and varied as the possibilities of the web allow – and in fact rolling experimentation is critical to lasting success. What’s important is that each component clearly ladders up to a clearly defined overarching content strategy and metrics framework that ties the approach to critical performance goals.
Ultimately it’s this combination of flexibility, accountability and relevance that makes content marketing so uniquely powerful as a consumer engagement weapon. We live in a new consumer age. Companies need to start giving them what they want.