A colleague once asked me to come up with a simple formula for success in online content marketing. After pondering the question for far too long, I came up with this response:
"Write as yourself. Write for your audience."
Achieving success in content marketing is all about finding the balance between authenticity and relevance. The key is to use an authentic brand voice to create content that's relevant to those consumers of your products/services. It's a delicate balance; a dance, if you will. Finding the equilibrium between writing authentically and producing content that's relevant to your target audience is often easier said than done. However, when you're able to find the sweet spot between brand authenticity and consumer relevance, you're in the online content marketing zone, creating what I like to call 'purpose-driven content'.
Process vs Purpose
As marketers, we tend to focus too much on the process of online content marketing - the who, the what, and the how - instead of first concentrating on the more fundamental question of why - why are we creating this content in the first place?
What do we believe in? What is our perspective on this? What does this particular content piece or initiative communicate about who we (or our clients) are and what we're trying to accomplish as a brand, and about our products and services? Yes, buyer personas, brand messaging, and editorial calendars are critical process elements of online content marketing, but they're not the whole picture.
In our obsession with crafting lifelike buyer personas and creating the perfect content marketing message for our audience, we're only getting it half right, focusing on the who the what and the how, often at the expense of the why. To truly find success with online content marketing, both sides of the equation must balance.
We see this playing out in our current election cycle, with the candidates relying heavily on polling data and focus groups to understand exactly what is (and isn't) resonating with their target audience. This is a slippery slope - once you take this approach you get into process mode; once you start slicing and dicing consumer data in order to understand consumer preferences and divine consumer intent, you cease to focus on the why in favor of the who, what, and how.
In process mode, it's easy to get lost in the minutiae and forget why you are creating content in the first place - to build brand value in the eyes of your target audience by authentically communicating who you are and why your product/services are more relevant, and, as such, why they should do business with you over your competitors. For most of us, the ultimate goal here is to drive leads and sales.
In truth, you need both purpose and process to make content marketing work. As marketers, we generally obsess over the latter and either pay lip service or wholly ignore the former. What is your brand trying to say with this piece of content? What's your honest take? That's what consumers really want to hear, not what you think they want to hear.
Integrity vs Opportunism
If, as marketers, we take as a given that we're able to write in multiple voices and cadences and create visual content of varying complexities and moods for varying audiences, then the main thing we should be focusing on is creating content that reflects our brand's core values and intended business goals and speaks to the wants, needs, and aspirations of likely prospects and customers. Sure, buyer personas can help, but values/goals clarification is just as important. There's really no point in creating content that appropriately channels or divines the wants and needs of your audience if that content is saying things that you generally regard as a load of rubbish. Such a Machiavellian approach may work for you initially, but it'll come back to bite you in the end.
Let me draw the analogy of an interpersonal interaction at a cocktail party or networking event. Have you ever run into someone who seems so agreeable that after a while you begin to wonder whether they are just mirroring everything you want to hear? In such an instance, our initial reaction is to mistrust the other person and, whether subconsciously or consciously, discount them to some degree. Some call this ability our human bulls**t radar.
Consumers do the same things with brands. Don't believe me? Let me remind you that, above all, we're consumers, so indulge me and put on your consumer hat for a moment.
Have you ever had an exchange with a customer associate at a department store or a server at a restaurant who (often in an especially cloying manner) seems to be doing nothing more than telling you exactly what you want to hear?
If you're like me, this less-than-helpful approach will often lead you to discount or altogether distrust their perspective. Instead, wouldn't it be nice if, as an enthusiastic proponent of their brand, they honestly relayed the chief features and benefits - and, also, the chief failings or negative aspects - of their product/service? If, after making an honest effort to diagnose your wants and needs and understanding your preferences, they did their level best to resolve them by putting forward the most relevant options available to you in the most helpful way possible?
On the other end of the spectrum is the enthusiastic know-it-all brand representative who, after sizing you up in an instant and asking few (if any) questions, announces that they have the perfect solution for your needs. Don't get me wrong, there's plenty of room for individual personality and personal enthusiasm in a customer interaction - both are honest reactions that project authenticity - so long as the principal focus stays on the customer. Being yourself, being authentic, is a good thing, but it's also wise to mute certain opinions or over-enthusiasms if they're not ultimately relevant to the primary objective of servicing your customer's needs.
It doesn't take much to flip around these basic lessons learned as a consumer and apply them to your online content marketing strategy as a brand. In essence, all you have to do is channel whatever you would say in a real-world interaction with a customer into your online content. For some reason, businesses and marketers have all kinds of difficulty internalizing and implementing this simple concept.
How do you measure success? When you begin to realize that what you are saying online is essentially the same as what you would be saying to a client standing in front of you in the physical world. Believe me, on this count I practice what I preach; when you read this or any other blog written by me, I'm actively applying the 'What You See is What You Get' principle: for good or ill, what you're reading is exactly the same thing I that I would say to my colleagues and clients who are standing in front of me. To that end, it's authentic. If I'm doing my job right, it's also relevant to my audience.
When you know who you are and what you want to say - and you say it online the same way as you do offline - you've achieved real brand integrity, and in time will display an almost Zen-like ability to produce authentic, relevant, purpose-driven content on a consistent basis.
This, in turn, will allow you to employ online content marketing to improve the customer experience on a more meaningful level, one in which your audience truly relates to what you are saying and has real confidence that you mean what you say. When you've accomplished this you will have become a holistic, and - for good or for ill - authentic, brand.
Christian author Rick Warren calls his readers to aspire to create a purpose-driven life. I'm calling for marketers (and businesses) to aspire to create purpose-driven content.