In the beginning there was the customer…

by JV Douglas

It may be all the buzz at the moment, but there’s really nothing new about content marketing.

It’s been around for as long as marketers have been smart enough to engage with would-be and existing customers on their own terms. It’s the Crock-Pot cookbooks and the Michelin Restaurant Guides. It’s a “Save Ferris” t-shirt, and Coca-Cola Yo-Yo championships.

And right now it’s making a comeback because a lot of the different forms of advertising and marketing, which were dependent on print and broadcast media, are losing relevance in the hyper-engaged digital era.

But it’s important to realise that the one-to-many broadcast approach, just wont work in a world where people expect to be listened to and understood.

content marketing customer engagement

First published in 1900, Michelin Guides are now available twenty-four countries, across four continents.

More than just skin deep

Broadcast marketing differs from content marketing in a lot of important ways.

Broadcast messages are often built around messages of mass appeal – they’re as simple as possible and aim to inspire fairly base emotions – humour, love, hate, fear, disgust and so on. The messages have to be engaging, but the call to action is mostly based on creating need by making people feel they are in some way lacking.

Content marketing does the opposite – it targets specific audiences – and provides them with entirely relevant ideas, tips and useful advice. The call to action is built around empowerment – you inspire your audience to be creative with their skincare, you ignite their interest in solar power, you prompt them to exercise more or clean their oven.

The idea is to empower them to buy your product or service, rather than debilitate them into thinking they need it.

content marketing customer engagement

An excellent example of content marketing and storytelling – In 2012 Peugeot created this spectacular online graphic novel.

Turn the world upside down                         

The way you engage in content marketing is also entirely different from a traditional broadcast campaign.

Broadcast starts with you and your widget – content starts with really getting to know your audience as people, not as consumers.

Broadcast begins by knowing a little bit about a large number of people. The idea is to target professional males who like to stay clean shaven, new mothers who like to keep fit, decision makers in the construction industry, or regular car park users.

Some of the best content is created by picking a very small number of people from your intended audience and getting to know them very deeply – building up complex personas who have ages, and interests, and likes and dislikes, and things that make them proud and strong, as well as ashamed and vulnerable. Descriptions of these personas can be thousands of words long – highly nuanced and changeable.

This complex insight into your audience is a thought process which comes naturally to storytellers, and is being codified so it can be shared with others who are coming into the content marketing arena.

Before they tap out a single line, good storytellers think long and hard about who they are talking to – and how to make sure the message makes sense to the intended audience.

Some put pictures representing these personas up on the wall around their workspace to remind them to keep their messages relevant. Some have the life story of a few specific individuals in mind. All storytellers will hone in on specific points about their audience before they begin to create a story. What does my audience think about, what do they know and what don’t they know, what are they afraid of or what do they enjoy, what do they earn and who do they look after, and most importantly – what do they need from me today?

content marketing customer engagement

Another fabulous piece of content marketing – 120 years ago John Deere created The Furrow.

You need to ask not just “who?” but “what else?”

This is how Michelin got from tires to restaurants: people who drive, travel. It’s how John Deere got from excavating equipment to a farming magazine in the late 1800s, because people who need diggers also want to know about farming.

More recently it’s how McDonalds in Australia got from fast food to online maths tutorials, because their school-age staff needed a bit of extra help with school.

The idea is to focus less on your message and more on the thoughts and feeling, aspirations and fears of your audience. To know them as people not as numbers.

Once you know who they are, you can start to think about how to say what you need to say in a way that will make sense to them.

That’s content marketing, it’s all about engaging with people in their own time, and on their own terms – and it begins with the customer.

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