At the past three tech companies I’ve worked at, my job title has invariably included the word “content.”
I’ve been a content associate, a content manager, and a content strategist.
And I suppose you could add content farmer to that list as well.
Underlying all of those roles was this notion that content was something that needed to be created in specific quantities and delivered to audiences at specific times. It was a commodity.
Marketing managers wanted (and many still want) to see rigid, mathematical systems put in place for creating content, distributing content, and measuring the performance of content. That way, you can uncover potentially helpful stats and then use those stats to optimize for hitting traffic and/or lead goals.
For example, you might discover that those short, image-heavy, top-10-list-style posts you publish get more views than any other type of post format. So what do you do? You start cranking out a ton of those image-heavy list posts. Then you look at the data again and discover that X examples is the optimal number to include each list post. So you refine the system, and moving forward you make sure every list post you write has X examples.
The problem here isn’t that developing a data-driven “content formula” for driving traffic is an inherently flawed approach to content marketing … although maybe it is.
I think a case could be made that lots of companies are treating content like a lab experiment, with inputs and ingredients in constant flux until certain outputs (e.g. traffic goals) are met. For these companies, the goal of content isn’t to contribute to a conversation, or to help educate people, the goal is simply to hit some number.
Instead of treating content as a sincere form of communication, some companies simply consider it a lever they can pull.
And in many cases, content is a lever companies can pull. Just like companies can pull the email lever (boom: 10,000 emails sent), and they can pull the social lever (boom: Facebook ad purchased), and they can pull the PR lever (boom: press release … released), they can also pull the content lever (boom: new blog post, ebook, or infographic created).
This ties into a bigger issue that I see with how companies approach content: they keep it in a silo. Content is separate from what the rest of the company is doing. It’s separate from what the product team is doing. It’s separate from what the email, social, and PR teams are doing.
And because the content team has team-specific goals to hit, there’s usually no incentive for them to help other teams with content production. So a lot of those other teams end up creating their own content as they’re off pursuing a different set of goals.
As a result of this misalignment, customers and potential customers can end up having disjointed experiences.
Imagine being on a landing page that features an image of a giraffe beneath a hilarious, well-written headline. You really like that the company isn’t afraid to show some personality — plus their product is exactly what you’ve been looking for. But when you message them on live chat to learn more, the person on the other end is rude, and pushy. When you bring up how much you enjoyed the giraffe joke on the landing page, they reply, “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” and then ask for your credit card information.
Or imagine being on Facebook and seeing a beautifully designed graphic that a company just posted. Sure, it’s an ad, but the design is so captivating and original that you figure you’ll check out their product. Then you do check out their product and discover that their product design is total garbage. You feel like you’ve been duped.
In each of those examples, there’s a disconnect between what people expect and what people get.
Ideally, when you look through a company’s website, then read one of their blog posts, then watch one of their videos, then see one of their Facebook ads, then test out one of their products, then talk to someone on their sales team, there’s an emotional thread that ties all of those experiences together.
That emotional thread is your company’s brand.
We’re Bringing Branding Back (Yeah)
OK, so to be fair, branding never really disappeared. But from a marketing perspective, it has been a bit aloof.
During my time working as a content fill-in-the-blank, branding always seemed like this high-level thing that lived outside the realm of marketing. I never considered it a responsibility of mine.
In my mind, the big bosses took care of branding. My job, meanwhile, was simply to write and design stuff.
But then I started working at Drift …
It’s been three months since I started. But it was within the first few weeks that my CEO, David Cancel, gave me a mission:
“You need to 10x our brand. You don’t need to do it alone, but you need to help us hold ourselves to a higher bar. So start digging into old books from the early days of branding and learn everything you can.”
A few weeks and several trips to the library later, I created an internal wiki post documenting some of my initial findings, and how we might apply them to what we were doing at Drift. Since then, I’ve kept researching, learning, and updating the wiki with new nuggets of branding wisdom that I uncover.
Below are the 3 key things I’ve learned (so far):
1. Your brand isn’t your logo.
It isn’t your logo, or your tagline, or your mascot, or your advertisements, or your charismatic CEO.
Sure, those things are all part of your brand identity — the visual cues used to represent your brand — but your actual brand that underlies those things encompasses much, much more.
Your brand consists of the overall experience people have while interacting with your company and your product. It isn’t one distinct thing, it’s all of the things, working in unison.
The quote I keep coming back to is from Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield:
… even the best slogans, ads, landing pages, PR campaigns, etc., will fall down if they are not supported by the experience people have when they hit our site, when they sign up for an account, when they first begin using the product and when they start using it day in, day out.
Brand is that experience.
2. Content is a part of the brand experience. (So make it count.)
There’s no doubt that content can be helpful when it comes to shaping and building brands. But when the voice, tone, and underlying message of that content is notably different from (or at odds with) what other teams at your company are doing and saying, it’s a bad experience.
A common problem is that company blogs — in pursuit of traffic, and perhaps glory — end up going broad instead of going deep. They cover as many topics as possible, casting this huge net, and end up with tons of content that has no real connection back to their product or company mission.
I think people forget that every piece of content that gets put out by your company remains part of your brand forever. (There is no delete button for stuff on the internet.)
So instead of thinking of content as this short-term traffic game you’re trying to win every week, or month, or quarter, or whatever, take David Ogilvy’s advice and strive for a “sharply defined image” that you can develop gradually.
In the long run, the manufacturer who dedicates his advertising to building the most sharply defined image for his product gets the largest share of the market. The manufacturer who finds himself up the creek is the short-sighted opportunist who siphons off his advertising dollars for short-term promotions.
3. Your product is your most valuable branding asset.
And by “product” I also mean the support reps and product managers and designers who work with customers and help make the product experience as enjoyable and productive as possible.
Especially with the rise of freemium models, where products are essentially able to sell themselves, the experience customers have with a product has become more and more central to how they connect (or fail to connect) with a brand.
Here’s how Idris Mootee, CEO at Idea Couture, explains how product and branding are intertwined.
In a world where brands rule, products are no longer bundles of functional characteristics but rather a means to provide and enhance customer experiences … consumers are overloaded. They have more information than they can digest, use, need, or even want … Brands help us choose. They are invaluable tools that help us break through clutter to make choices based on our experience of and satisfaction with products or services.
As marketers, it can be tough to realize that we are no longer the stars of the show. Yes, I know we like being the centers of attention. But the Mad Men era is over. (Case in point: I’m not in a suit sipping brandy in a corner office while writing this article — I’m in shorts sipping coffee at an IKEA table in the kitchen of my apartment.)
My title at Drift is officially “Brand Marketer.”
Here how Mootee defines the role:
“As a brand marketer, your job is to construct, maintain, and communicate identity and social meanings to others.”
Functionally, I’m doing similar types of work (re: writing and designing) as I’ve done in my previous content roles. What’s changed is the “why” behind my work.
Instead of thinking about how many views this next piece of content is going to get, I’m focused on how this next piece of content is going to represent the company, and how it’s going to help customers and potential customers have a better experience.
For me, the best type of feedback on the content I create isn’t a number (e.g. 10,000 views), it’s a comment saying how much someone enjoyed it and learned from it. Or a simple, “Thanks for writing this.”
At the end of the day, a brand is an emotional thing. If you’re trying to build a brand based solely on quantitative data, you’re missing out on a world of qualitative insights.
Everyone is data-driven these days — it’s no longer a competitive advantage. And everyone has access to the same tools and can pull the same levers: email, social, PR, content, etc.
Branding is the differentiator. So if the marketing tactics you’re currently using aren’t helping you build a better, stronger brand, it might be time to rethink your approach.
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