Content marketing and online courseware

Content marketing aims to educate and inform. And what’s more educational, at scale, than Massively Open Online Courseware (MOOC)?

I was struck by the content marketing possibilities of online courseware after completing an online class on Sustainability and Business Innovation presented by Peter Graf, former Chief Sustainability Officer for SAP, on the OpenSAP platform.

Fake diploma by gadgetdude, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License   by  gadgetdude 

The class had all the hallmarks of traditional courses, including lectures, quizzes, discussions, assignments and a final exam. It spanned six weeks. More than 17,000 people enrolled in the course. That’s a pretty incredible response rate considering the time commitment.

The marketing payback for online education

If done right, an online course can have a have a significant impact on marketing objectives, including:

  • Brand value: Depending on the course topic, you can strengthen brand perceptions. For SAP, the course linked the brand with the values of sustainability and business innovation – both powerful attributes in SAP’s market.
  • Lead nurturing: Foster a deeper connection with attendees, particularly if you deliver information of real value that helps attendees in their jobs or daily lives.
  • Customer retention: Customers who invest time and effort in training are more likely to remain customers.

Making online education/training work for content marketing

Preparing and delivering an online course is a larger undertaking than a webinar or even a webinar series. But if you already use online courseware technologies and have experience in creating courses, consider using training as an advanced content marketing strategy for lead nurturing and customer retention.

Make sure that the attendee comes away with useful and actionable information, not just a sales pitch. From a marketing perspective, online training is another way to practice empowerment marketing that helps people advance their own objectives.  (See my blog post on Empowerment Marketing.)

Is your business website a lekker?

No, that’s not a typo – “lekking” is at term in animal behavior that means self-aggrandizing behavior (usually for the purpose of attracting mates). I didn’t know that term before encountering it in Adam Grant’s brilliant book Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success. (I highly recommend the book, by the way.)

Grant argues that it’s helpful to be able to identify the ‘takers’ in any business – the people who act on their own interests to the exclusion of the interests of others. He suggests that investors looking at a company’s annual reports can often identify CEOs with ‘taker’ profiles by the number of times they claim credit. A CEO that uses first-person singular pronouns like “I” and “me” significantly more than the plural ones like “we” and “us” is most likely claiming credit personally.

B2B marketing and lekking
It occurred to me that one could do a similar exercise to identify businesses that are focused on their own objectives over customer needs and interests by looking at the language used on the corporate website.

So I decided to examine B2B websites for evidence of this behavior.

Comparing the ratio of first-person pronouns (whether singular or plural) to second-person pronouns (you), one could determine out how much time the company spent talking about themselves versus talking about the customer’s needs.  And this is evidence of a company that’s not adopting a customer-focused approach (at least on its website).

My nonscientific test
I wanted to compare what I’ll call an “old school” technology company to a newer counterpart – ideally a company that had a good grasp on marketing realities in today’s world.

For one end of the spectrum, I chose a company that had its origins in the days of the mainframe. (It will remain nameless.) For the newer model, I chose Marketo, as they know a thing or two about marketing.

Choosing the right pages to compare posed a challenge. The “About Us” part of any website should legitimately talk about the company, so that was off the table. And when it came to comparing the products or solutions pages, it was truly like comparing apples and oranges.

So I chose another page that is common on many B2B sites – the Resources page. Although not every site has a Resources page, when it exists it always serves the same general function. People visit the page because they want to find something specific – like a report or a video – to learn more.

The results

The old-school company Resources page presents a high-level landing page with text that has embedded links to blogs, podcasts, white papers, research, and case studies. The navigation menu includes other links like multimedia and thought leadership. (Figuring out what to click on would be kind of a challenge.)

Here’s what that text looks like, with everything except the personal pronouns obscured:

Screen Shot 2014-04-30 at 9.33.31 PM

That’s 21 first-person pronouns (yellow), and 9 second-person pronouns (green). Of the 221 words total, almost 10% are first-person pronouns. The links to click are embedded in this text.

In contrast, here’s the top of the Marketo Resources page (image as of April 30, 2014).

Screen Shot 2014-04-30 at 9.39.12 PM

Hmm.  There’s hardly any text outside the links, headings, and names of the resources. I see a single “we” in “We respect your privacy.”  It’s balanced out by the “you” in “Enter your email.”  And there’s a “me” in the Send Me Updates button – but it refers to the site visitor, not Marketo.  So, maybe a 1:1 ratio, but there’s almost no text to speak of.

And there you have it.  It’s not only a matter of how you say things – it also what you choose to say in the first place. Marketo is trying to solve their visitor’s problems or engage them. Some people will want to see basic material (getting started). Others want more advanced topics. And they’ve called out the hot topics in the Definitive Guide series.

The old-school company is still trying to explain itself, and that’s actually getting in the way of the links that the visitor needs.

So, when you’re tempted to start talking about your company on your website, stop and ask yourself:

  1. Am I thinking about this from the visitor’s perspective? Is this the right place to talk about the company? Does the visitor really care, or are they trying to get something else done when they reach this page?
  2. Do I really need to say anything at all?

Measuring content marketing effectiveness

How do you measure the performance of your content marketing?  LinkedIn recently introduced a Content Marketing Score to track and benchmark the performance of content on the LinkedIn network. This effort highlights a larger issue – it’s tough to track the effectiveness of content marketing efforts.

We’re not great at tracking marketing in general

The most recent release of the Duke CMO Survey confirms the scope of the problem. Conducted twice a year through the Duke Fuqua School of Business, the survey is a rich source of information about trends in marketing. You can see the overall results here or drill down to the results split out by industry characteristics and look for what’s happening in B2B marketing.

One interesting difference between the B2B and B2C responders was that B2B marketers were significantly worse than their B2C counterparts at quantitatively proving the impact of their marketing efforts.

Screen Shot 2014-04-08 at 4.12.45 PM

Source: The CMO Survey (February 2014), Figure 3.7, Highlights and Insights Report

When it comes to short-term impact, B2C product marketers can prove their effectiveness at more than twice the rate of their B2B colleagues.

Near half of B2B marketers claimed ‘qualitative’ proof of their marketing effectiveness without the hard data to back it up. And almost 20% had no idea at all. Because content marketing is a growing part of the B2B marketing investment, it most certainly contributes to the problem.

Measuring content marketing is difficult

Measuring effectiveness of content is difficult, particularly in B2B. Content marketing often helps the buyer through a journey, and sales can rarely be attributed to a single piece of content or interaction. Different metrics are appropriate at different stages of the content cycle.

For a lead generation piece, a high number of downloads or registrations may be the best measure of success. A piece designed for a specific buyer persona late in the sales cycle may reach a small number of people but play a critical role in revenue.  I once wrote a white paper intended for one specific prospective customer of an early-stage B2B company. Given the size of the deal and the importance of the customer, creating the paper was well worth the time and effort.

That being said, you should certainly try to track the effectiveness of the content marketing investment as best you can. Just realize that it’s an imperfect art. And remember that your social media and content marketing efforts may trigger the ‘offline’ discussions that ultimately deliver big results. Thanks to Heidi Cohen and her blog on P2P Content: The Content Nobody Measures for advocating the importance of the offline world!

5 strategies for faster customer story approvals

Customer stories often have bad rap in marketing organizations.  Everyone loves them when they’re done. But the process of publishing customer stories can be difficult – you’ve got to line up interviews with the customers, write and edit the story, and then get the customer’s approval. The last step (approval) can drag on for weeks or months – or worse.

Screen Shot 2014-02-21 at 10.26.56 AM

There’s nothing more frustrating than creating a customer story that never sees the light of day.

A stalled approval process is often a symptom of flaws in the story development process. Here are five strategies for keeping your customer stories on track from the start.

1. Scope approval processes before you start

Some companies have policies restricting endorsements. Others may consider your solution part of their competitive advantage. Find out before you start what you’ll have to do to get the story approved. Then decide if it’s worth going forward.

2. Do your homework before the interview

Dig deeper than the customer’s “About Us” page.  Make sure you understand the customer’s messaging and positioning so the story reflects how they would like to be seen. If you don’t describe their business well, they won’t be motivated to approve it. You cannot always count on the person you’re interviewing to have the broader company perspective.

3. Never make the customer look bad

In taking the usual “problem/solution” approach to a customer story, it’s tempting to emphasize how bad things were without your solution. But in doing so, you might be making the customer look incompetent or negligent – and that will make it tougher to sell the story. Instead of describing how bad things were, try to find the common themes and challenges that will resonate with other people in their position.

4. The customer should be the hero – not your technology

The real hero of the story isn’t your technology – it’s the people who select, promote, install and use it. This is the core idea behind empowerment marketing.  When the customer is the hero of the story, they are more likely to approve it quickly, and maybe even amplify and promote it with you.

5. Tell the story on a human scale

Even in B2B marketing, a story should be about more than organizations and departments. Write about the people and how their lives, experiences or concerns changed. People are more interesting than organizations.

Empowerment marketing: The next big thing (I hope!)

ImageLooking for the next big thing in marketing? I’d suggest reading Jonah Sach’s Winning the Story Wars.

Marketers have been hearing for some time the importance of telling a story. This book considers the broader perspective of how you choose to use those stories. Sachs labels most traditional marketing techniques as inadequacy marketing: you highlight a need or want, then offer a product or service as a ‘magic solution’ for that need. Buying something is the answer to any problem.

Contrast this with what he calls empowerment marketing – marketing your brand as something that empowers the customer (the story’s hero) to achieve their objectives. It isn’t new, but it’s starting to gain traction with some far-seeing brands.

As a liberal arts major, I love any marketing book that references Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey at the same time as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  Even if you think that storytelling doesn’t apply to what you’re doing (and I would disagree), the book discusses salient trends that every marketer should consider:

  • The growing influence of what Sachs calls the digitoral (or digital-oral) tradition – the online community that will share, mash-up, amplify or vilify your brand messages
  • The diminishing effectiveness of interrupt-driven inadequacy marketing in a world replete with marketing messages
  • The need for authenticity – online communities will see through cynical marketing ploys or brands simply pretending to espouse greater values, and they’ll call you out on it.

Empowerment marketing and B2B

If there’s one lesson that I wish every B2B company would take from this book, it’s this –  make your customer the hero of your stories, not your visionary executives or the super-powers of your technology.  Your technology’s value lies in what it can help your customers achieve.

What’s your bicycle pump?

The bicycle shop in my town puts out a bike pump in front of their store on weekends, so passing cyclists can inflate their tires.

bike pump

The bike pump is a great way for the store to contribute something to the local biking community and solve a common problem. The store is just down the street from two coffee shops where local bicyclists often meet on weekend mornings. A new bike share station is just outside the store.

The pump also serves to remind the local bicyclists that the store is there as a resource.  It costs the store little effort and earns them some gratitude. Note that the bike shop isn’t giving away the pump itself – that’s carefully chained to the store.

What’s your bicycle pump? What can you do easily to solve your potential customers’ problems and contribute to their community?

One way to do this, in the B2B context, is to provide content – no strings attached. Answer people’s questions on your blog. Provide helpful videos or infographics.  Get your customers or prospects a little further down the road than they were before.

A little useful content, provided at the right time and in the right place, can start to build a relationship.

Content recycling do’s and don’ts

The biggest challenge that many content marketers face is creating enough content to reach prospects and customers at the right places and times.  Re-purposing or recycling content is a critical strategy.

When you recycle content, you can amplify your message, reaching different parts of your target audience at different stages of the decision cycle. For example, the content developed for a single webinar could be recycled into white papers, blog postings, infographics and videos.

But there’s an important distinction between ‘recycling’ or repurposing content and simply re-using it.

Think of the analogy of a glass bottle. When you re-use it, you simply wash it out and use it again in exactly its same form.  From an environmental point of view, this is great because it takes the least energy.

The same is true for  re-using content across channels – putting a press release on your social media sites or in your blog takes less energy than actually doing something with it.

Here’s the catch – from the reader/viewer’s perspective, it’s clear that you’ve basically punted and chosen the low-energy strategy. And that doesn’t work in your favor.

Worse, content designed for one use (such as a press release) doesn’t usually work well in other channels.  The social media world is filled with examples of content re-use gone wrong.

Content “don’ts”: Looking lazy or clueless

  • Don’t automatically push all your Facebook posts to Twitter. It’s frustrating to read a truncated post on Twitter, in which the call to action has been cut off or the message cut in a way that makes no sense.
  • Beware of pushing press releases, verbatim, to social media sites like LinkedIn.  At the very least, write something pointed and relevant about the ‘news’ in the comment, then attach the release.
  • Don’t cut and paste big chunks of content, verbatim, across white papers and ebooks (with the exception of boilerplate text or definitions). When someone encounters the same paragraphs in different places, they’ll either put it aside thinking they’ve already read it, or conclude that you’re a small-time operation without adequate resources.

4 steps to successful content recycling

It doesn’t take a lot of effort to repurpose content appropriately.

  1. Identify any limitations or characteristics of the target(s) for your recycled content (Twitter, Facebook, images, blog posts, etc.)
  2. Think about the audience for that medium. Are the people who visit your blog the same people that might go to your page on Facebook?  LinkedIn? If not, you’ll need to adjust the style and/or messages.
  3. Rework the content with the audience in mind. Take snippets or pull out certain key sections to amplify in different ways. Rephrase or rework the ideas – so even if the same person sees it in both places, they’ll still follow through.
  4. Think across media  – create an infographic for a paper, for example, or a video from an ebook.

Yes, it takes more work to recycle the content appropriately than re-using it without change, but you’ll ultimately get more value from that content.