Driving awareness, providing entertainment and generating profit
Content: It's what we consume - sometimes intentionally, other times subliminally. But we are inundated with it every minute in today's information economy.
But what is "content"? On today's fast-paced Web, content arrives in many forms and through many channels - audio, video, research papers, images, product descriptions and consumer reviews - it's all content. And, it's increasingly taking center stage. Google formally rolled out its new Caffeine index in early June, 2009, and the search engine is now showing 50-percent fresher results from its largest collection of information ever assembled. At the Caffeine launch, Google stated that, "... every second, Caffeine processes hundreds of thousands of pages in parallel. If this were a pile of paper it would grow three miles taller every second."
In other words, there is more content available on the Web than ever before, and it's being delivered to consumers at blinding speeds. To make your content stand out in a saturated market (and ensure that it ultimately influences sales and conversions), you will need to rethink content as an asset - then retool for the new content experience. Of course, this might require reconfiguring some aspects of your business and marketing plans but you will find that content is the best means to accomplish any number of critical tasks, from sales to support.
You will quickly discover that meaningful results come not from simply pumping out an endless stream of content but by producing content that entertains or educates (or both at the same time). In today's fast-paced, big-profit world, consumers want opinions, analysis and techniques. They want insights and answers, and they will look to you or your competitors for that information.
Consumers increasingly want to feel connected. And the single best way to accomplish that is to create not just content but content that offers a complete and immersive experience. If, like me, you groan at every mention of "produce quality content", you will want to keep reading. What follows are practical, actionable ways to create content that engages, entertains and educates, and brings consumer awareness to your business and its brand for the purpose of profiting.
Several years ago when search engines feverishly began indexing images and displaying them on search results, a new category of "universal" search engine optimization (SEO) emerged. In many respects it was a precursor to the real-time index so closely examined today. The possibilities were endless for Web professionals interested in grabbing additional reach on search engine results pages (SERPs), and consumers were intrigued by the more engaging, immersive experience that resulted. The same holds true today.
What many quickly discovered, however, was that the value to the bottom line brought by the use of images (one medium in the new age of universal, user-generated content) was minimal; unless it connected users to a deeper brand experience. Enter infographics - visual representations of information, data or knowledge.
Information, particularly in the knowledge economy, is complicated to express quickly or clearly as concepts can often be unwieldy, at best, and outright messy and confusing at their worst. No more.
Making an infographic such an inviting item of content are its various forms, including charts, diagrams, tables, maps and lists; and the fact that it is ideal for summarizing reams of statistical information in an appealing and easy-to-digest way. Infographics can be diagrams to show how a system works, illustrated graphics to show relationships between sets of data, or even something as simple as a flowchart to signify progress. When used properly, infographics can provide a new way for users to process information that you want to convey in a convincing manner - that connecting with your brand is the right thing to do.
Instead of turning over stacks of raw data to your designer and asking them to work their magic, know there are a few tools available that make creating your own infographics a fast, if not fun undertaking for content developers.
One of the best is Tableau Public (tableausoftware. com), a free software that can be downloaded to create some amazingly intense visualizations of data. A gallery is available on the site and it accurately demonstrates the variety of infographics that can be created. For example, Stephen McDaniel of Freakalytics used the software to display complex relationships between multiple metrics looking at stock market patterns relative to economic conditions from 1901-2008 (bit.ly/bMbA0M). But data isn't just for geeks. CBS Sports used Tableau to create an infographic to help fantasy football enthusiasts select the best running back for the 2009 season (bit.ly/a553V9), and it was interactive, to boot.
Infographics, for the most part, have gained mainstream adoption. It may be time to add the medium to your content strategy when you see the likes of The New York Times Visualization Lab (a Web-based tool that uses Many Eyes technology from IBM Research - bit.ly/bHli8S) enabling its users to create their own visualizations using data from multiple news sources.
Remember that images, illustrations and infographics are but a few powerful opportunities available to help develop a more immersive content experience. There are many others. (Review the sidebar to this section on creating compelling, useful infographics which appeared in the August 2010 issue of Website Magazine)
Those seeking information on solutions, trends and technologies are the ideal audience for a content marketing strategy. Our question throughout is not just what kind of content to create but what format will resonate best. The answer, particularly for those in business-to-business industries, is white papers.
Think of white papers as nothing more than a highly strategic means to persuade a consumer to make a purchase (albeit subtly), or a straightforward manner to propose a solution to a problem. This is, however, where most content publishers get stuck. Writers and content development teams must tailor content to a specific audience; addressing their concerns and satisfying their interests if greater brand engagement and helping that prospect move down the sales funnel is the aim - which, in marketing, should always be the end game.
White papers, when all is said and done, are no more complicated to create and distribute than any other medium. But subtlety is of paramount importance. Content developers must be able to demonstrate their knowledge and emphasize the uniqueness and advantages of one solution over another in a gentle yet convincing manner - the reader must receive an education first and be convinced of the right solution underneath.
To do this effectively, much like other content development processes, you need to understand the target audience and consider the time and method of reading such papers. More often than not, white papers tend to be overly exhaustive reviews of some trend or another that can be more confusing than useful. The way to counteract this malignant practice is to provide engaging, succinct overviews.
Summaries and abstracts work well and can be used in a variety of other content marketing campaigns. More importantly, however, they provide material that gives that busy executive a reason to jump to the end paragraphs and conclusion where you are able to describe how your product resolves the problem at hand - ideally with empirical evidence, case studies or expert testimonials.
Thanks to white papers' ease of dissemination it is optimal to keep the complexity to a minimum. Industry jargon and strange acronyms alienate prospects and can inflict long-term damage to a brand. However, providing succinct and useful information and solutions can provide a tremendous lift and secure long-term brand equity and provide lifetime value to consumers. But where should white papers be distributed and what should you expect from their consumption?
White papers are powerful tools to build your brand and express knowledge and expertise but don't expect them to be a source of high-quality leads - at least at the outset of their distribution. Often, consumers of white papers simply look for explanations and perhaps even ideas. Only when the time is right will all that sophisticated, subliminal branding come into play. The goal should be that when consumers think of a product or a solution they will recall your white paper and turn to you for more answers to their problems. Sales cycles can be exceedingly long in some cases, particularly for those selling higher-priced items. So, tempering your expectations and planning marketing campaigns accordingly is the best course of action.
White papers can and should be distributed anywhere your audience is visiting. That's easier said than done, however. Perhaps the optimal location is on your own website, often done through media and press centers. Doing so lets you control what information is collected and easily gauge buying intent versus browsing behavior.
There are also a variety of Web destinations where your content can be freely shared. Communities such as Scribd.com, Docstoc.com and SlideShare.com are some of the most popular resources. Each of these services enables you to upload your documents and embed them on your own site. Because the documents are actually hosted by their sites, bandwidth consumption is reduced and you get a leg up when building your website's online media center.
For some, turning to topically focused Web destinations with established audiences is perhaps the most viable opportunity to distribute content. Should your content be news-worthy or data-driven, then making an approach for editorial coverage from a news or media portal is optimal. Find websites where executives and decision-makers gather for your industry and offer your expertise directly.
Consumers' affinity for content outside of articles, text product reviews, white papers and even entertaining images is growing, as can be seen in the continued use of audio and video.
Comscore's April 2010 video metrics revealed that, while the number of video viewers slipped slightly month-over-month (perhaps due to the start of summer), 178 million U.S. Internet users watched online video during the month. Over 30 billion videos were watched in April and Google Sites represented 43.2 percent of all videos viewed online. Google sites such as YouTube will give you the best opportunity for exposure but there are many others in a variety of categories.
Community-driven food portal iFood.tv is a perfect example of a niche video portal with a loyal and engaged audience. The user-generated content (UGC) site is growing quickly as a destination (increasing visits and unique visitors by 50 percent in April 2010, according to Compete.com), making it an ideal target for home, health and hospitality vendors to access their primary audience. There are many other destinations that follow the same UGC model as iFood.tv. Look around and you might be surprised at the number available.
The distribution of audio and video need not be restricted to those destinations you do not control, however. Deploying a media center on your website to provide additional details, showcase testimonials or provide how-to guides are underutilized but available opportunities for creating a richer level of user engagement. Keep in mind that the end goal for our businesses is to drive users back to our websites - where we control the message and, ideally, the user's conversion path. So, you might consider providing YouTube with short, teaser segments and then direct users to your website for the conclusion of a video series for deeper brand engagement.
Another option to consider is using video in mobile applications. Consumers, above all else, want to be entertained. They want an experience not found anywhere else and you want to hold their attention. The way to achieve that in today's hypercompetitive mobile landscape is to add another dimension to mobile applications. Whether that comes in the form of offering both free and paid applications (the higher-level providing additional features) or simply adding video or audio into your applications, it can do a world of wonder for the popularity and usage of the applications you build for your business.
Instructional content provider HowCast merges these two worlds near perfectly. The portal's iPhone application has been downloaded over one million times and its new application for the Android promises even greater exposure.
Automated iPhone application platforms are well aware that more content (and multi-media content) not only aids in the acceptance of your app by Apple, but can also increase the depth of a user's interaction with that application and, ultimately, your brand. AppMakr makes it easy to integrate audio and video feeds into the applications that users of their system create and upload to iTunes. More content, particularly content that increases the amount of usage, improves the likelihood that you can even charge a premium for content, prompting users to spend more time with the application.
The challenges are many for content developers. While content remains king, today the king has many faces. No longer are you as a Web marketer or Internet professional forced to create content in one way, attracting one type of audience in the process, at one point in time in the users' buying cycle. Today, ideas can be expressed in unique, innovative and immersive ways; brands can be built through entertaining or educating an audience; and products can be sold - because the vendor has taken time to consider the audience's preferred method of content consumption.