The Social Life of Content: Summary

MediaPlant, a Seattle-based digital communications firm specializing in presenting the business value of technology, is halfway through a series of whitepapers on the convergence of marketing and innovations in technology. The Social Life of Content, their third paper in the series, features content26‘s Mark White discussing how content practices influence customers during the consideration process online.

But there’s much more to this whitepaper than our sidebar. Rob Salkowitz, author of The Social Life of Content, offers a compelling and comprehensive look at the array of content associated with brands today and the continually expanding methods consumers have of interacting with that content. So here’s a quote-heavy summary.

Content As Marketing

Brands and consumers alike are, and have been, producing content that reflects on the company, shapes consumer opinion of a brand and its products, and mixes with other types of content on news and social media platforms. Nothing new there. But, as Salkowitz emphasizes:

When brand is integrated organically with content, consumers pay qualitative attention and form durable associations between the brand, the content, and the context. This is a much richer form of engagement and a better return on investment for marketers who can do it successfully.

He gives a thorough overview of native content, reminding us that the content and commerce model is a natural extension of old advertorial content and product placement, new and exciting as it may seem.

Brands also need to go above and beyond quality content by accounting for relevance in their delivery choices. The whitepaper mentions Idio, a UK startup working on this issue:

By dynamically analyzing each customer’s pattern of content consumption–what they read, whom they communicate with, what they search for–the software can help identify when consideration is moving toward intent to purchase, and can help marketers land the right message for the customer at the right moment in the customer journey.

Content and the Customer Journey

Drawing on McKinsey and Company‘s consumer journey cycle (a redefinition of the purchase funnel), Salkowitz explains how the path to purchase has become “personalized and serendipitous.”

According to McKinsey, brand awareness is limited during the initial consideration phase, widens as customers begin the process of active evaluation (comparing products, assessing features and benefits), and can remain in flux up until the moment of purchase–particularly when customers are buying at a physical retail store and are confronted with actual items.

Multiple devices, each with their own preferred usage times and patterns, are delivering content to customers. Word of mouth matters more and more as consumers rely on social media platforms for ideas, recommendations, and support.

Infographic on types of content and when they are most consumed. Color coded to indicate creator: brand, consumer, or both.

Click image for larger size. From MediaPlant; used with permission.

In this complex process, content is important not only during the evaluation phase, but also during the post-purchase experience and loyalty loop of the consumer journey. In other words, good content is always important.

The infographic to the right, from the whitepaper, guides us through various types of content by who creates it (color coded) and how it functions at different phases of the consumer journey.

Pre-Sale: Active Evaluation

Content consumers may encounter pre-sale includes direct email, contests and other forms of customer engagement, product reviews, and native content in the form of sponsored editorial pieces or whitepapers. Salkowitz says, and I agree, that:

Many of the techniques of pre-sale customer engagement through content are already part of the marketing arsenal. Experts we interviewed for this report see increasing opportunities for integration of social media as the key to increasing their effectiveness moving forward.

Socially shared content and product reviews are vital pieces of content in this phase. While brands can’t create that content, they can encourage customers to write reviews and make such content widely available to consumers on many different channels.

Moment of Purchase

Rich product information (our area of expertise) plays a key role in the consideration process. As Mark White explains: “We help brands tell one story across all those online destinations, so we can maximize the chance of conversion no matter where the customer starts.”

Technological disruption of traditional brick-and-mortar shopping is perhaps particularly influential in this stage of the consumer journey. Salkowitz suggests:

One plausible scenario for the future of retail is that physical stores become showrooms for products that customers order online–especially for big-ticket purchases that are costly to carry as inventory. Audi, for example, is pioneering this approach with its Audi City virtual dealerships.

Post-Purchase Experience and the Loyalty Loop

In these phases of the consumer journey, content provides customer service and reinforces a brand experience as well as supplying feedback to brands and other consumers via reviews and other user-created content. Brands will do well to remember that customer content, in many forms, is invaluable. For instance:

Often, however, the best service advice for a company’s products comes from the customer community itself. Promoting and enhancing that channel can do more to shore up the customer service experience than direct investments in service delivery.

Technology’s Role in Content Sharing

Distributing different types of content to different devices and platforms and accounting for different contexts in which it will be consumed does, of course, present technological challenges. The biggest challenge for our clients is the reality of differing design and technical requirements for each channel and device they want product info to appear on.

Anamorphic content is one possible solution. Such content would be “developed in a single standard template that can automatically configure and format itself according to the target environment.” A goal rather than a reality, this type of content would allow brands to “maintain a single, centrally managed content repository where changes made to the master content listing would automatically propagate to every instance and format in the digital domain to ensure consistency.”

Other technological advances are addressing needs around structured, discoverable metadata and data sharing.

Key Takeaways

I highly recommend reading the entire whitepaper (available free by email). But if you don’t, here’s our favorite takeaway:

The right content strategy can build sales and loyalty, not just brand awareness: Today’s focus on content marketing as a supplement or substitute for advertising only addresses one of the benefits. Content is a key part of shaping the entire customer experience, particularly when combined with social media and produced in collaboration with consumer brand loyalists.