It should be no surprise really that the most difficult challenges marketers face today are also the most familiar ones. The big questions, the existential dilemmas, the catch-22s—they persist year after year, and even as we get to know them better, we are no closer to solving them. To be clear, we will not be solving them with this blog post today, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth discussing how we might start to think about them differently.
Trust and authenticity continue to plague marketing teams across industries. How do we create authentic content, and how do we get our audience to trust us?
Maybe trust starts with being honest about what we do. Marketing has always had the problem of inherent dishonesty—it asks how we package an offering to make it more attractive so we can convince people to buy what we’re selling. That’s a dynamic that makes it difficult, if not technically impossible, to deliver truly authentic marketing content.
But what if we stopped trying to sell to people and just tried to help them?
Good product development seeks to solve for some aspect of customer demand, whether that’s sheer entertainment or a basic need. Once the product exists, the strategy—in its simplest form—is to continue improving it based on customer feedback. When the product is good, the changes are minimal—maybe it’s offered in new colors, or maybe the company simply produces more of it. When it’s bad, it dips in popularity, loses traction among buyers and eventually might need to be pulled and overhauled.
At the Content Marketing World event last year, American Express Director of Global Content Marketing Courtney Colwell discussed this concept as a way to make content strategy pivots—even the most dramatic and unforeseen ones—more feasible and sustainable. In March 2020, the company was one quarter into a year-long content plan when the ongoing ripple effects of COVID-19 related lockdowns demanded a shift. By taking a product development approach to content strategy—produce what the customer needs now, refine it later—they were able to remain agile as their audiences’ needs evolved.
When you decide to treat content as the product, the focus turns to how that content itself serves the customer.
A content strategy typically starts with business goals—what does the company want to sell, and how can you use content to move the audience through the buyer journey. When you decide instead to treat content as the product, the focus turns to how that content itself serves the customer. Colwell notes that content as a product should be “mission-based, community-oriented, modular, innovative and iterative.”
The question of authenticity is not so much answered as it is removed—the audience gets what they need, and there’s no catch.
In his opening keynote address at CMW, Robert Rose emphasized an important truth: a content strategy is only as strong as its ability to change.
The beauty of a content-as-a-product approach is that agility is built into the strategy, but its value goes beyond the ability to pivot. What began as a way to make the content strategy tenable for the people tasked with execution also holds water as a method for building better connections with an audience—one of those age-old challenges for marketers.
The struggle to produce authentic content is perhaps rooted in the fact that the motivations of marketing content, if clear, are not always pure. A real story that aims to sell might do the job of making a sale but is less effective in establishing trust. And if we know one thing for certain, it is that marketing has a trust problem. Presenters at Content Marketing World emphasized that just 4% of customers believe marketing and advertising is trustworthy.
Treating content as a product can help to solve the problems of authenticity and trust simultaneously. Speaking at Content Marketing World, Melanie Diezel discussed the trust problem, positing that content can help dispel consumer doubt in three ways: corroboration, demonstration and education. By focusing on content that checks one or more of those boxes, and that helps to solve a problem for the audience, businesses can provide something of real value to consumers. And critically, they don’t just ask their audience to trust them—they show that they trust the audience to understand the value of the content and come back for more.
On the mission to help the audience, it would be all too easy to fall into the trap of solving problems that don’t exist. One way to avoid this dynamic is to diversify content types—after all, there are only so many think-piece blogs one can write. By creating content across mediums, you can not only provide solutions and answers, but also proactively teach your audience what separates great content from the rest of it. It’s also worth noting here that content marketers are producing more content than customers can process—our data shows that though customers only digest between one and five pieces of content per month, 85% of surveyed marketers produce six to 20 pieces per month. If you’re already at capacity for new production, consider how existing content can be repurposed to provide new value or reach new audiences.
In her Content Marketing World presentation, Banzai VP of Marketing Ashley Levesque stressed the value of webinars in connecting with and engaging an audience—presuming, of course, that those webinars are high quality. Webinars offer a two-way, face to face experience for your audience. They give you the opportunity to build trust by being transparent about the goals and agenda, and because participants have the option to ask questions live, their value is practically inherent as long as you provide an informed, engaged presenter.
Good original research provides unique information presented in a helpful, digestible format, and can also improve trust by lending you credibility in your other forms of content.
A familiar content challenge, particularly in crowded industries, is how to provide something unique to your audience. At Content Marketing World, Mantis Research co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer Michelle Linn discussed how original research can separate businesses from their peers and competitors, and how you can make that research engaging and helpful. Good original research provides unique information presented in a helpful, digestible format, and can also improve trust by lending you credibility in your other forms of content. Brand stories matter to customers—consider how original research can help tell yours, or even how it can become a part of it.
And of course, when only the blog post will do, you can still ensure that it delivers quality information in an accessible way. Commvault Solutions Marketing expert Penny Gralewski advised combining the better aspects of both short- and long-form content to reap the benefits of each—for example, using shorter form content to cover challenging topics and mixing visual aids into longer content to reduce cognitive strain. You can keep trust and authenticity at the forefront of written content through language; where simple words will do, there’s no value in overcomplicating the prose, and in fact, it can have the opposite of the intended effect. As the psychologist and author Daniel Kahneman said, “Couching familiar ideas in pretentious language is taken as a sign of poor intelligence and low credibility.”
It goes without saying that the content-as-a-product approach, like so many solutions in marketing, creates as many questions as it answers. Is it right for every industry? How do you find out what your audience needs when they already feel inundated by digital content? If content is a product, should audiences pay for it?
They are good questions, and ones for another day. For now, the resolution is this: marketers don’t deserve audience trust until we deliver something truly authentic, and we can’t fake authenticity.