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Content Marketing: The New ROI is All About Engagement

Content marketing changes the game, forcing you to tighten your messaging to a highly targeted audience. James Mathewson discusses the most effective ways to engage your audience through all phases of the buying process.
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Here is an actual conversation I had recently with an agency:

Me: “I was looking at our bounce rates for these banner ads—89 percent seems pretty high.”
Agency: “Don’t worry about that. The ads were cheap, so we still have a low cost of customer acquisition. Besides, it’s within 10 percent of the benchmark.”
Me: “The benchmark is 80 percent bounce rates!?”
Agency: “Yeah, you really can’t expect better, when you buy into ad networks that place your messages all over the Web.”

I was floored. The mantra on our blog (writingfordigital.com) is that bounce rates are not neutral events. When you entice users to your site, forcing them to bounce is akin to forcing them to opt out of e-mail offers. It leaves a bad taste in their mouths. If 80 percent of users who come to your site from banners have a lower opinion of your brand after their experience than before, you are not doing enough good to justify the cost of the ad.

Perhaps my attitude is uncommon among marketers. Traditional marketers follow this formula:

  1. Develop a message that differentiates your product from the competition
  2. Deliver this message to the largest audience you can afford
  3. Expect a small percentage of the audience to respond
  4. Content yourself with ROI despite not reaching most of your target audience

This worked OK with traditional media like print, TV and radio because it did not take much effort to tune out ads, so marketers rarely counted the negative impact of advertising. But opting out of content experiences by bouncing off of pages does take some effort, and results in negative branding. We need a new vision.

Content Marketing

Content marketing seeks to reverse the traditional process. The idea is not to get a high volume of people who might be interested in your message. It’s to get a moderate volume of people who will be interested in your message. This means understanding your audience’s information needs at every stage in the buying process and mapping out your content to those stages. To cite a recent report by Focus Research:

Mapping content to the buying process is the key to delivering the right information to the right person at the right time (see the report).

Note that the buying process can be as wide or narrow as your business dictates. Typically, it includes awareness, consideration, and purchase. But it might also include stages prior to and especially after these three. It is common to include the end-to-end needs of customers in a content marketing plan, including post purchase activities such as getting support and service, and customer nurturing or loyalty.

If you map out your audience’s information needs in a sequential way, you can figure out gaps and nonlinear paths through the processes. This can lead to a site map of content that serves your audience’s needs no matter where they are in the buying process, without needless duplication.

In a recent blog post on his Top Rank blog, Lee Odden did a great job outlining the customer content lifecycle:

[I]n the context of online marketing, there are many different touch points during the customer relationship. Using the Buying Cycle model of: Awareness, Consideration, Purchase, Service and Loyalty, marketers can best plan what kind of content may be most appropriate to engage customers according to their needs. (http://www.toprankblog.com/2010/11/marketing-content-customer-lifecycle/).

Odden focuses on using the most effective types of content assets for each phase in the buying cycle. For example, under Awareness, Odden lists Public Relations, word of mouth, advertising and social media as the most effective types of content for customers.

Though I think Odden’s blog is helpful, it does not go far enough in helping marketers gear their messages for the audience at distinct stages of the buying cycle. In the book I co-authored, Audience, Relevance and Search: Targeting Web Audiences with Relevant Content, we show that search is an effective way to learn what your audience is looking for at each stage and to gear your content to them. Not just the type of content, but the topics and tasks it is built for.

One thing I found puzzling about Odden’s analysis is he only listed search marketing under the Consideration phase. We feel users search for information at every phase in the buying cycle. Gearing your content to the grammar of the search queries they use at individual phases in the buying cycle is the key to effective content marketing.

The Role of Search in Content Marketing

Users don’t navigate much anymore. A recent TechTarget study showed that 96 percent of CIOs and other IT buyers frequently or always search for the information they need. The reason is very simple: Information has continued to overload them while search engines have continued to improve. Search is now the fastest, most efficient way for them to find information. They can’t be bothered with navigation. As more users access the Web from mobile devices and search engines continue to improve with Semantic Web smarts, this trend will only accelerate.

The same study showed how this audience entered different phrases depending on where they were in the buying cycle, in addition to the topical keywords. In the awareness phase, for example, they used more verbs in combination with terms like issue and problem. In the consideration phase, they used verbs like compare, contrast, and benchmark. In the purchase phase, they used a lot of branded keywords. This makes sense because they are looking for particular products when they are ready to buy.

Not all audiences are like the one highlighted by the TechTarget study. So demographic and psychographic research into your audience is a necessary first phase in content marketing. But the next phase—keyword research—is as valuable as any other form of audience analysis.

I’m not just talking about the Google AdWords kind of keyword research, which tends to return more generic keywords with high demand. These words have a lot of value, but there are two downsides to using them in your content. First, there is a lot of competition for that real estate on Google. So it will take time and a lot of link building to get visibility for those keywords. Second, generic category keywords tend to lead to high bounce rates because they are not geared towards the buying cycle. For example, Database software might have a lot of demand, but when search users land on your product marketing page from this query looking for support or service, they will bounce.

Ideally, you would be able to find out the phraseology of your target audience’s search query usage at the appropriate phase in the buying cycle. Like the TechTarget study for CIOs and IT buyers, this can help you guide the target audience to the right pages in the buying cycle directly from search engine results pages. This is the best case scenario for you and your users. Again, they don’t like to navigate. So if you get them to land directly on the content they’re looking for from the SERP, you make life easy for them, and you gain brand loyalty and engagement efficiency in the process.

There are a variety of tools that can help you go deeper into your target audience’s keyword grammar. In our book, we recommend Quintura, which can help you develop clouds of related keywords with which to build your content. Another tool we recommend for deep keyword research is Lexical Freenet. This is part thesaurus, part synonym generator and part verb analyzer that can help you form likely queries to test out in Google AdWords or other keyword research tools.

When it comes to deep keyword research, there’s no substitute for social media listening. If you have an idea about the topics your target audience is interested in, you can mine their actual writing to see how they phrase their concerns or interests. Chances are, their queries will use the same grammar.

The Role of Social Media in Content Marketing

Content marketing is traditionally associated with social media. When you create content, it makes sense to tweet about it, blog about it, and post it to Facebook fan pages. This generates highly targeted audience visits with a relatively low volume. In a sense, this is the paradigm of content marketing because you know your friends and followers very well, and they only click these links if they’re interested in what you have to offer.

But social media mentions have a short shelf life. In Twitter, for example, a link might generate clicks for one day, after which it will be lost to the stream. It’s a little like marketing with billboards on the Autobahn. The Facebook home is a bit slower for most users (like billboards on the Interstate), but it is far from permanent. Many users consume blogs from RSS feeds, which only cue them to click through when new content is posted. They don’t typically use blogs like traditional content sites, with the permanence of publishing.

The more permanent value from social media mentions comes from search. As you develop your network of friends and followers, you are building ready link partners for your content. As you know, the most effective way to gain visibility in search engines for your content is through external links. If you tweet and post about your content, you increase the chances that some of your friends and followers will build these links into relevant places in their content. This can help you gain and sustain high ranking in Google for the keywords that resonate with your target audience at their particular places in the buying cycle.

As I mentioned, another permanent value from social media is its use as a keyword research tool. Tools such as Clusty mine social tags—such as Twitter hashtags—for regularly used words, which form the basis of search queries. Forums are another trove of keyword information, as you can learn the genre of your target audiences’ writing habits, you can see how they might form search queries and build pages that take advantage of these habits. Chances are, if you use your audience’s very nomenclature, they will find your content in their searches, and engage with it when they find it.

Odden mentioned another value from social media. Especially at the awareness phase, socially aware content is just more effective with audiences. Audiences want to connect with the protagonists in the stories they follow as they explore potential solutions to their problems. They don’t want to be pushed into decisions. They’re in control of the information process. But they’ll feel more comfortable working with your brand if you give them opportunities to connect with your experts. Your content will be all the more effective if they can honestly and publically appraise your company’s place in the ecosystem of potential solutions. Though they access your social content from search, what they consume when they do needs to be geared for their needs in their stage of the buying cycle. This is where Odden’s content type taxonomy is especially helpful.

Content marketing is the wave of the present and future, as more customers look to digital channels to make buying decisions. Search and social media play central roles in effective content marketing, giving users more control over the information they consume, and giving marketers and publishers more ways to effectively engage with them.

James Mathewson is the Global Search Strategy and Expertise for IBM. He is also co-author of Audience, Relevance and Search: Targeting Web Audiences with Relevant Content.

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