Content marketing has become a growing trend to reach out to potential customers online, supplanting traditional advertising. According to MarketingProfs and the Content Marketing Institute, more than half (55%) of B2C marketers plan to increase their content marketing spending in 2013, on average constituting 28% of their budget. Advertising as a means to draw an audience is still a big spend but reading actual content rather than just clicking on an ad is starting to draw online readers attention.
By Rawn Shah,
The debate now is not whether content marketing is a viable strategy but whoshould be creating that content, and what can you trust. It’s plain and simple, with social media tools easily available everywhere online, it is possible for anyone to take up shop and start creating content, claim themselves as experts on a topic and write away. We suffer from the reality of Internet-scale. Per Author & Professor, Clay Shirky, rather than an economy of scarcity, we face an economy of abundance. Content is so easily available we need systems to help us find the relevant, useful, trusted ones.
So, how can a reader trust content? One end of the spectrum is still the traditional trade, journal and magazine publishing industry with a regular staff of journalists or a top-notch list of authors who are paid to write articles. The opposite end is to build and nurture a community that creates content as they interact with each other.
I have been involved in both approaches over the years. I’ve written and edited technology magazines like JavaWorld, LinuxWorld and many others, publishing multiple articles a month with the collective help of known experts who have the knowledge and experience with the topic and decent or excellent writing skills. I have also worked on the other end with a sizable then-7 Million-plus member online community for IBM developerWorks trying to nurture the members to interact and thereby build the content.
I was quite curious when Rob Tarkoff,President & CEO of Lithium Technologiessaid to “put trusted content at the center [of your marketing strategy].” Speaking at their annual event, LiNC 2013, Mr. Tarkoff described that companies that stand out need to start with a disruptive mindset and engender the social customer experience, and then focus on generating trusted content as the new corporate asset. To be sure, the ‘social’ here refers to the emotions we feel in the real world about an experience enough that we want to share it with others. Can companies that have a real world brand experience unlock that same level of passion in the digital world?
He gave the example of the toymaker Lego who has had the captured the imaginations and built an emotional connection with children around the world (including myself) for many decades. While hugely successful for so many years, Lego wanted to reach out to a demographic for whom their toys had less of an appeal: girls between 8-15. They changed their online presence from just browsing to focus on rating the toys and story-writing, and allow members to build a reputation. According to Lego—a Lithy award winner for Best Superfan Story at the LiNC 2013 event—they now have children creating stories about their toys, role playing and submitting their creations. In addition, they are also encouraging reading among the young through gamification badges for Apprentice and Master Readers. In doing so, they increased the membership of girls in this age group by three times on the Lego online site.
In another example, UK-based mobile network operator giffgaff stands out as a paragon of community-support. Their business model has no retail distribution, no large-scale advertising, or call-centers. Instead they rely entirely on their community to support each other through their user-generated knowledge base. giffgaff has “tons of these users creating the content”, according to Michael Puhala, VP of Sales Engineering at Lithium, enough to support the millions of customers with problem resolution times in very short order.
Online communities certainly can act to support both the functions of marketing to draw a new audience and customer support to resolve issues. When Mr. Tarkoff speaks of trusted content, he points to user-generated sources rather formally sourced paid content from contracted authors and writers.
I would have described it as curated content but the reality is that both forms can be curated. Formal publication may run through editing cycles and reviews before release. With user-generated content, typically the crowd curates the material through rating, ranking, reviews, debates and responses. Given enough interest, it can spark articles in response and get an online conversation going though the exchanges of content. The difference is in who does the curation and ranking.
Why would one choose a user-generated approach over a traditional publishing one? For scale. Having worked on significant editorial teams that published many dozens of in-depth (and not just news gathering) articles each month, the cost of operations seems to grow linearly. You can always add more editors and writers, but the reality is that most companies cannot support such large teams.
On the other hand trusted content that emerges out of your own customer community can scale non-linearly with increasing participation. As more people participate, more of them can provide answers, and while there are costs in running the systems to do so, and personnel such as community managers and facilitators, these are a much smaller impact.
Getting reviews and ratings is also an art that requires a creative and intelligent design that entices members to submit their views. This requires an online community system that can embed these features naturally into the layout, but also the gamification elements that accelerates recognition and awareness. This relies on having the key metrics and social intelligence at hand that allows you to see the trends as they grow across the large space of the content. After all with thousands or millions of members, seeing the patterns of expertise and hot topics becomes a challenge of discovery of its own. It is good to see companies like Lithium focus on social analytics across this big data problem to find the valued members and their content.
There is still another challenge in that it takes time to grow a community. In asking Mr. Tarkoff, he pointed out that a community first needs to become part of the core strategy for the organization, and then he estimated it would still take at least 12 months of earnest work to build the community before you can start assessing the content portfolio.
Reality in terms of content marketing strategies lie somewhere in the middle of these two models. You want a community that can create and self-support its content generation. However, early on, you may need writers that occasionally contribute material. Community managers with experience can tell you that time as well as superfans are key factors to a healthy, mature and self-supporting community and not to short-change the effort by taking a short-term view of the payoff. The real goal is the long-term increasing scale that helps you deliver your business functions for a smaller proportionate cost as you grow.