When it comes to content marketing brands either sell too much or too little.
Marketers now understand that content can help them drive an inbound audience, and many have replaced their self-focused blog from the last decade with content that they hope will entertain or provide utility.
But nevertheless, they often get stuck. Either they “oversell” and fail to build interest, trust and authority in their content, or they “undersell” and fail to convert their audience into sales. This seems to be true whether they are leveraging someone else’s authority (native advertising) or creating their own inbound branded content.
The problem may reside, at least partially, in the notion of a content marketing funnel.
The content marketing funnel, a metaphor popularized by Joe Pulizzi and Robert Rose and the Content Marketing Institute, resonates with marketers because it is familiar: it borrows from a nearly hundred year old framework of a marketing purchase funnel, wherein brands attract prospects, develop some interest in their solutions, spark their desire to buy, and ultimately call the customers to action. (AIDA)
But while the approach works for advertising and marketing, it misleads as a roadmap for a successful content marketing strategy in one important way. Funnels imply fluid dynamics, where items seamless transition from state to state.
But branded content is different, because a relative large gap exists between the state of being a reader and being a lead or prospect.
Being a reader or viewer feels great. We enjoy consuming content. When we approach content as readers we have a relatively high level of openness and credulity. When we read content from a traditional “publisher” we are relaxed and open to ideas, as if walking into a library.
But when we see a brand publishing something that looks and feels like content (an article, a photo-essay, a video), we are much more suspicious, and poised to detect any hint of bias.
If brands hope to be considered authoritative content sources, they must directly take pains to overcome their readers’ presumption of bias and establish trust. But at the same time, they must also eventually sell.
Some brands make no clear distinctions between their content and their marketing. These brands offer their products and services within their content without any clear delineation between editorial and commercial.
Their “funnel” often looks something like this:
1. Get the audience in the door to your branded blog with useful and interesting content, via paid distribution, search, influencers, or social channels.
2. Mix in “mid-funnel” pieces, press releases, white-papers, and “calls to action” throughout, or mix in references to products within the articles themselves.
Once a brand injects a discernible preference for its own products without laying a foundation of trust, that confirms the reader’s suspicions that this “content” is essentially an advertisement. The reader is no longer open to arguments and ideas, and will now be reading critically for bias.
Worse still, no reader wants to be a shill for a branded message. So branded content in the over-sell funnel will often go unshared in the critical distribution channel of social media.
Some brands choose the other course, aspiring to draw the reader into exploring the brand’s white-papers and “mid-funnel” content through a gradual osmosis. Some will never attempt to promote their products, aspiring to simply build trust and awareness for their brand..
This approach, often called “thought leadership” can certainly work.
The under-sell content funnel can look almost indistinguishable from a traditional publisher:
1. Attract the audience in the door with content, via paid distribution, search, influencers, or social channels.
2. Create trust and authority for your brand to build awareness. Some people may be drawn into your products.
3. Ask for an email address.
4. Permission granted? Use email to your sales/marketing team to sell.
Why this sometimes fails:
Thought Leadership requires a great deal patience and luck. With so much content today vying for attention (much of it from professional publishers), it can be very difficult to build a branded publishing brand. And developing a regular organic audience for your content is very challenging.
The under-sell approach, even when successful, can quickly lead to budget fatigue. Unlike the publishing business, branded content doesn’t monetize linearly with traffic. At some point, the sales and marketing team complains dismissively: “Blogging! Thought Leadership! Such a waste of time! Even if we have this huge audience, how does all of that traffic actually help us create leads and customers, if we can’t talk about our own products? Just a big whirlpool, sucking time, energy, and money.”
That can often lead to a course correction, right back into the Over-Sell Funnel. We have seen it happen.
As content providers we tend to prefer the under-sell approach which gives more freedom to create provocative and interesting content. But we have executed on both approaches, and both can be effective when executed well.
But in a perfect world one would find a middle course, where one could convert an inbound audience into customers while maintaining complete trust as a content provider.
In Australia, a leather goods company called Bellroy specializes in creating some well-made commodity items, primarily wallets and travel pouches.
Bellroy has remarkably mature content strateg for a fledgling company. Bellroy owns and operates (they call it “sponsoring”) Carryology, a gear-focused content site with thousands of articles that are written to address a narrow editorial focus: They are “dedicated to the art of carrying”.
To the average visitor, Carryology feels like a under-sell strategy, which is to say exactly like a Publisher. Carryology recruits outside influencers for their authority and create provocative and interesting content. The content feels relentlessly neutral and unbiased.
One might never even notice that the site is run and managed by just a single sponsor, Bellroy.
Bellroy also takes every opportunity to reinforce that Carryology maintains a strict separation between “church and state”. In the single instance in over two years, that Carryology spoke editorially about Bellroy products directly, they took elaborate pains to label and disclose that post as “sponsored”:
“This is our first sponsored post (ever!), and it’s natural to wonder if the hype is simply because there’s payment involved, but for the record, you can trust that these posts will only feature great products because it’s not just about brands putting themselves out there; our reputation is on the line too.”
So to the naked eye, Carryology appears to be a classic under-selling funnel. It is difficult to detect any linkages between the content strategy “the art of carrying things”) and the products they hope to sell.
But Carryology does convert readers into customers … using three distinct pieces of “gateway content”.
Gateway content is branded content that begins in a state of impartial advice, transitions a reader to a potential customer, and concludes in a state of brand advocacy.
Gateway Content is different from the more traditional inhabitants of the “mid-funnel”, such as white papers, case studies, or landing pages where a brand’s advocacy is made explicit throughout. Gateway content also feels different from advertorial or native advertising, where the brand’s ultimate intention and/or bias is often concealed from the reader. In gateway content, a brand is explicit about its bias, acknowledging that the point of view is going to change and transition within the piece itself. Essentially, the brand says:
“This is a problem we happen to be experts in. So first we are going to speak impartially about the problems, and why we think you are having them. Then we will present some free expert advice that should help. Once we have earned your trust, we are going to tell you about our solutions.”
Bellroy uses this simple, elegant structure across all three gateway pieces:
1) Identify the pains (For example: you have a fat wallet)
2) Break down the problem (Here is why you have a fat wallet)
3) Present a solution, but not their solution (Here are some tips to slim your existing wallet)
4) Present their solution (Here is our product line, and how we solve the problem)
5) Present an opportunity to buy (Here is an assortment of products).
Same template every time leading from a pain, to a solution, to a polite product pitch, to hopefully a sale.
And Carryology positions its gateway pieces, even though technically they are content, as sponsored ad units on their own site.
Readers tacitly and subconsciously understand when they have clicked on something that looks like an ad, they are giving permission to eventually be treated as a potential customer.
Fewer Gateways may be better
Many brands presume they need a balanced ratio of telling and selling, of top-level and mid-funnel content. But of the hundreds of articles and content pieces that Carryology offers, Bellroy offers only three gateway pieces in the “mid-funnel”: “Slim your Wallet”, “Travel”, and “WeatherProof”, which are tied directly to the three distinct pains they have observed in their customers. These gateways correspond to the high level audience personas targeted by Carryology’s top-of-funnel content: Gear conscious men (Wallets), Road Warriors (Travel), and Outdoor enthusiasts (Weather Proof).
Carryology’s publishing goal is to lead readers into one of these gateways. Every visitor who visits Carryology is targeted for one of these paths, and each piece of content at the top of the funnel is created with one of these audiences (and gateways) in mind.
Most visitors won’t click on the gateways — so you need to create a tether.
Carryology doesn’t really expect that you are going to click on a Bellroy gateway, or that you will provide your email to Carryology. That would an excellent, and unusual result, which we might expect from under two percent of visitors.
So in order to get the most value out of the other 98 percent of visitor, Carryology makes sure they create a “tether” with the reader using a retargeting cookie. The purpose is to ultimately retarget the visitor to one of these gateways based on the content they visited on the site. Note that this is not really “ad retargeting”, but instead “content retargeting”.
This tether takes all of the pressure off of Carryology.
Bellroy can now allow Carryology to become great and succeed where most branded content fails, because Carryology has all of the advantages of a publisher.
Carryology doesn’t have to speak for Bellroy, so the content site can, for example:
As Andrew Fallshaw, one of Bellroy’s backers puts it, “The main unifier is they ‘genuinely respect the customer’, which very few brands actually do.” All of this creates trust, interest, and authority in Carryology as a content destination and publisher.
Brands and marketers are led to believe that a content strategy/content funnel is a kind of amorphous, fluid process, whereby thought leadership happens and a trust relationship is created with customers. But there is a gap between a reader and a customer.
To cross that gap, consider a Gateway strategy which have three basic components.
1) Gateways start neutral, then explicity ask permission to talk about the brands solutions.
2) Gateways are relatively rare, highly attractive and well produced — this is the content that hopefully every potential customer will “visit” as they transition from readers to customers.
3) All visitors to branded content should be retargeted to content gateways, not ads.
We hope that was helpful. This is, we imagine, our own version of a Content Gateway for Movable Media. So here is the selling part….
Want to discuss how we can help you create top level content from influencers to build your audience, and content gateways to convert them?
Please contact us.