Why Shopper Marketing NEEDS Content Strategy

I have been thinking a lot recently about the intersection of shopper marketing and content strategy. For the uninitiated, shopper marketing focuses on the actual conversion as opposed to top- or mid-funnel activity like awareness or arguably engagement. 

While not necessarily confined to in-store, retail activity, most agencies that specialize in shopper marketing focus on POS (point of sale). On many shopper marketing agency sites, you will see a lot about packaging, signage, displays, etc. Some work with or have bolted on a PR component to make further hay out of any special event. But I find few agencies that embrace a rigorous strategic component BEFORE diving into the in-store marketing. Of the top 10 search results that include "shopper marketing," only one ("shopper marketing research") contains an element of messaging or strategy. (Not definitive evidence, I realize, but illustrative at least.)

Content strategy can add a lot to shopper marketing; likewise, content strategists can also learn a lot from shopper marketers. I will get more into why shopper marketing agencies need to embrace content strategy later, but let's take a look at how user behavior has changed in the last decade as it will likely point toward how agencies must evolve to meet demand.

We Sure Don't Shop Like We Used To

I cringe at these citations, but bare with me. The wikipedia entry for shopper marketing cites several stats, including:

  • 70% of brand selections are made at stores (GMA Online, 2007)
  • 68% of buying decisions are unplanned (MediaBuyerPlanner, 2006)

These stats describe a free-wheeling retail experience which is unfamiliar to me, at least. Now, let's look at some more recent figures from The Zero Moment of Truth.

  • Consumers are viewing much more content online before making a purchase decision. In 2010, consumers consulted 5.7 pieces of content online before making a purchase. That number almost double in a year. In 2011, the average was 10.4 pieces of content. You can bet that the number of pieces is only increasing.
  • Consumers are spending more time with that online content. In 2010, 9% of a consumer's research time was spent online, pre-POS. In just a year, that almost doubled to 17% of research time in 2011. Again, bet on that figure only increasing.

So, if consumers are investigating pre-purchase more and more, why would many shopper agencies cede that territory to focus on POS? Short answer: they shouldn't. Enter content strategy.

Content Strategy <3 Education

Awareness and engagement are easy answers to the pre-purchase conundrum, but they are also vague. In my opinion, educational content is where shopper agencies should develop their offerings and content strategy is perfectly positioned to define educational content: what already exists, what consumers want to know, the type of content they prefer, channel of choice, content cadence, etc. (Educational content definitely hits awareness and can also hit upon engagement too, of course.)

Paco Underhill, author of Why We Buy, had this to say on the topic (emphasis mine):

"If you have no real basis for comparing one product to another, the normal instinct is to buy what's cheaper. But if a store sets itself up to educate shoppers, even just a little, a certain number of them will spend more than what is absolutely necessary." (Updated version, page 190)

I was recently working with a big-name brand who offers home appliance repairs, digging into their content and investigating what leads up to this brand getting a call to fix a dishwasher, air conditioner, etc. After performing a content audit and mapping out the user journey, we were able to discern exactly where this brand was supporting the consumer through the funnel with educational content and where they were lacking. (This exercise alone will have a huge impact - they will spend their money more wisely producing exactly the content their consumers need with fewer editorial revisions and served up in multiple channels. This efficiency will save them thousands, if not millions.)

But, when combined with secondary research, we learned that a big problem was that a lot of these customers did not know how to be repair customers. They didn't fix things themselves, but a lot didn't regularly call for repairs either. We needed to illustrate what a repair service call looked like in order to put them at ease. Our job, through content, was to make them better repairs consumers. Truly fascinating!

Content Strategy In Action With Shopper Marketing

There are many ways content strategy adds value to shopper marketing efforts. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Use digital (educational) content to drive to in-store sales. Online orders only count for 11.6% of total retail dollars, but digital can still drive sales into stores. Content strategy can help define customer pain points and determine topics that will help snag the conversion - online or in-store.
  2. Use content to help make decisions (or up-sell) while in-store. With 80% of shoppers using their smartphone while in the store, digital couponing while in-store is occurring more and more. Content wrapped around those coupons help the in-store consumer make purchase decisions and provide the opportunity for retailers to up-sell. Content pre- and post-purchase - based on various data sources - would also be a powerful addition.
  3. Use content to convince and persuade through signage. This poster from the CDC and displayed in Walgreens is a great example of a seemingly innocuous decision that can be changed through educational content.
  4. Use content to way-find or ease the shopping experience. Ideas like a mobile concierge (page 5) would be popular to guide consumers to items they want (whether they are familiar with those items or not) or give location help while in-store. Content strategists could help advise what in-store problems people are expressing online as well as recommend other relevant products to promote.
  5. Use content to create a unique experience in-store. Kate Spade, in partnership with eBay, and others are playing around with digital selection experiences. A content strategist could determine not only user needs at the POS, but also assess criterion consumers use to make decisions to create a decision-making experience that is fun and playful. (TV shopping alone would never be the same.)

The Other Side Of The Coin

Naturally, integration between content strategy and shopper marketing could yield these and many more positive results for clients. I'm able to focus more on the content strategy side of things because that's the world I know. That said, content strategy could certainly learn from shopper marketing practices as well.

One element I would urge content strategists to learn from shopper marketers is that the buyer isn't necessarily the consumer. (Think about beer purchases and consumptions.) Content strategists spend a lot of time thinking about consumers and their needs, but they often don't pay as much attention to behavioral patterns and differences that may emerge. Or content strategists focus only on digital and sometimes ignore anything that falls outside of the digital realm. We can certainly learn those lessons from our friend specializing in shopper marketing.

Comments?

So, what do you think? Please feel free to poke holes in this argument. I look forward to all constructive criticism in hopes of presenting a more clear understanding of how these disciplines can learn from each other.

Grow Up: Content IS a Commodity

The always-impressive Rachel Lovinger wrote about a recent backlash she is seeing to the word "content."

While I haven't experienced exactly what she is describing, I have seen symptoms of this bigger illness - mostly that "content" is so vague a term as to allow the uneducated or uninitiated to play in the space with subpar results. (Basically the same dynamic we saw a few years ago in terms of unique, quality content versus the content farms online detritus.)

Lovinger deftly sums up the issue:

The core problem seems to be a feeling that the word “content” reduces thoughtful, artistic expressions to a commodity. The websites and apps we develop to elegantly deliver words, images and media experiences are perceived as empty containers, hungry for content to be poured into them. Content marketing campaigns depend on calendars that demand to be filled on a regularly scheduled basis. This may give the impression that an effective approach to content is to churn out generic stuff that fits the size and shape of the container, and meets the deadlines.

Content Isn't Art

While I certainly share a distain for garbage content or even the practices that produce it, it also got me thinking about the other end of the spectrum. There will always be those who try to churn out a crappy product (content, in this case) faster and cheaper. But there are also those on the other end who do as much damage by elevating content to an artistic expression

I fall into the pragmatic center. I tend to agree with Lee Clow that an advertisement is a piece of communication. Content may require someone with artistic sensibilities, but it is not art. Content IS a commodity. 

Why am I so emphatically "reducing" content to a commodity? Because I've tried to sell just an idea to a client. It never works. They might agree, but agreeing to something as imperceivable as an idea is never something that can be approved by a corporation. 

The success I've had with content marketing is, in fact, largely because I can package up content programs into commodities. Looking over current content to see what you can repurpose is a good idea. But a content audit is something a client can buy. BIG difference. 

I see sweet, well-meaning agency folks fail consistently because they simply don't give a client something she could actually purchase.

We work in a business with a lot of vagueness. Even our most concrete metrics don't tell a clear story all the time. (For instance, does time on site mean that a viewer is really interested or does it mean they're confused and can't find what they want right away?) We're at our best when we eliminate vagueness for our client. That's the way to truly become a strategic partner.

Commoditize Your Content Strategy

I'm not a business guy. I'm an English major. I don't get friendly with the numbers side of our business all that often. But I am also a problem solver. And the only way to solve the client's problem is to convince them to do what you know needs done.

So, give your idea a name. Consider additional components that might go into that commodity. Think about how long it will take, what is in scope and out of scope. Outline the goals and what documents you will deliver at the end of the project. 

A client needs to buy a commodity, not an idea. Ideas are great for art. But we're in the business of provoking action. That requires a commodity. And in our case, that commodity is content. Long live content commodities.

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Please share via your social network (links below). Also, stay tuned for part two where I discuss what isn't a commodity: strategic leadership. Fun times!  

Why I Give Content Strategy Knowledge for Free

I give away a lot of content strategy and content marketing knowledge. I share blog posts, speak at conferences - heck, I even list my cell phone number on my contact page. Why would anyone give this much knowledge away for free?

It's not because this knowledge is valueless. Far from it. But I really believe that sharing the results of a skill does not transfer that skill. Watching a juggler and hearing her juggling stories does not make me a juggler. In that same way, I don't worry about other content strategists stealing my work; rather, I think the world is a better place the more people talk about content strategy.

Here's why "stealing ideas" is difficult in content strategy:

  •  Publishing mindset: Even if a competitor had all of my secrets - every deck I've done, every talk I've given - they still couldn't make it work. Only those with a publishing mindset truly understand why consistent, compelling content works and how to sell that in. 
  • Editorial mindset: Even if they could make it work, they likely couldn't keep it going. An editorial mindset is required in order to keep content fresh and engaging over time. 
  • Content strategist mindset: Even if they could convince clients and make content work over time, they likely wouldn't have the patience to audit in order to repurpose content. Most folks spend way more time and energy creating new content because it's fun and sexy. But it's often more cost effective to repurpose, but that takes a heap of diligence.
  • Agency mindset: Even if they could sell through content marketing, make it work over time and audit effectively, they likely couldn't translate that to other disciplines. Even a wise content strategist needs to understand user experience, information architecture, (some) design and copywriting. Knowing how these pieces work together is essential for actually building something of use.

I'm not special by any means. There are actually a lot of folks who have these same skills and experience. But those people are just as busy as I am. There has been no recession for digital content strategists, believe me.

The reason content strategists tend to share unreservedly is because the effort it would take to steal our work or ideas is actually more than the effort to apply those lessons to your own work.

I learn from other content marketers all the time. I take scraps of ideas that I then use in my work, but this happens in every endeavor. Delve into art history, as just one example, and you see "experts" building off of those who came before them, but crafting something altogether new in the process.

In the end, content marketing is a service, not a product. We are the catalysts of internal change management. We develop frameworks and processes and calendars. We may commodotize these into products, but our value comes from our service.  

That's the reason that the more I give away, the more I tend to receive - be it receiving business, insights, connections, etc.  You can't steal service. So, why not prove your worth and give knowledge away for free?  

Content Strategists and Planners: What's The Difference?

What’s the difference between planners and content strategists? How is content strategy a different discipline and what type of people should lead it? Why are we making a distinction between the roles now?

These are all valid questions. Neither practice is going away, so this is the time to determine the appropriate roles and responsibilities.

But I've sensed some agency angst since these roles share basic principles (likely more so than even CSers and copywriters). However, I only feel qualified to speak for the content strategists, so...

Planners: What do you think about my description of content strategists below? Are we encroaching on your turf? Is there room for everyone? And content strategists: how do we make the most of our relationship with planners?

Whither content strategists?

First, we must understand that the ecosystem has changed. Content proliferation has been exponential, especially in recent years. Everyone is a publisher (evidence: blogs, UGC, smart phones, etc.). And all of this content needs assessed, ranked, and compared; hence, the rise of aggregator sites, search engines, dynamically displayed content, and product reviews.

Maybe a planner used to be enough to handle the volume of content. And for a small site or organization, they still might be. But with over 15 years of content and double or triple that amount ready to be thrown onto the pile, it is time to admit that:

  1. Content is a different animal
  2. Planners have enough on their plates, and
  3. We should each be specialists in our areas.

How are content strategists different from planners?

While similar, planners and content strategists possess different skill sets. For instance, a content strategists needs to possess:

  • A history with words and writing in order to educate and thus inspire the creative process. While planners assess a brand, its competitors, or the industry, content strategists must prepare for text on the page – a different exercise completely.
  • A background in messaging. Content strategists plan for the creation of content that conveys trust, for instance, while still selling. This is only possible thanks to a planner’s insights, but is a separate skill set.
  • Subject matter expertise, be it legal, regulatory, etc. It’s more than research or the insights garnered therein – it’s tangible to creation, guiding creativity through particular hurdles, much like IAs guide designers.
  • Turning philosophy into action. While never diving into the depths of data planners reach, content strategists must be able to seize planners’ insights, but convey exactly how that translates to each page, no matter how (seemingly) insignificant.

The good news is that there is more than enough room for planners and content strategists. The challenge will be to allow each specialist to embrace their role in the planning process.

But what do you think? Is this accurate?

I'd love to hear from content strategists and planners (especially you planners). How are our roles similar and how are they different? What are the ideal skill sets and background of a digital planner?

I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section. Thanks!

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25 Content Strategy Blog Posts I'd Like To Read

You read Content Strategy for the Web or maybe just some blog posts on the subject. Maybe you attended the Web Content conference last week or just think content strategy could be for you. No matter your expertise, there's no mistaking: we need more intelligence devoted to content strategy. Here are 25 ideas for content strategy blog posts you should think about writing. How about tackling one this week?

If you do, feel free to link back to this post so your readers can get inspired too. In that respect, props to Chris Brogan and his post, 50 Blog Posts Marketers Could Write for their Companies, for inspiring this post.

Which post are you going to write?

For the content strategy newbie:

  • How did you first hear about content strategy? What piqued your interest that first time?
  • What are the top 3 benefits of a content strategy program, in your opinion. Or what 3 ways will it change the way you work day to day?
  • How are you educating yourself about content strategy? What blogs or books are you using?
  • How does your previous (or current) job prepare you for future content strategy work?
  • Some say that content strategy practitioners are to copywriting as information architects are to design. Have you found this to be the case in your position?
  • How do you explain content strategy to your closest co-workers? What metaphor aptly describes content strategy in your office?
  • From where do you draw your daily inspiration? This could be a person, place, experience, book, or feeling.
  • What do you most enjoy about content strategy? What makes you the happiest in your job?

For the content strategy journeyman:

  • What has been your most successful content strategy effort? What one thing helped it work?
  • How do you explain what you do to your grandparents?
  • What personality traits have you found serve you well? Which ones trip you up?
  • What's the biggest hole in your industry that content strategy can help fill? How is your industry in particular reacting to content strategy?
  • In the latest action movie you've seen, which character would have been most like a content strategist? Why? Is the content strategist the hero?
  • Having had some experience in the practice, what are you most looking forward to in the next year in content strategy? Where are the biggest opportunities?
  • How have you gotten involved in the content strategy community? Have you joined a Google group? Your local CS meet-up?
  • What's been the biggest internal dispute you've had this year regarding content strategy? How about with your client?

For expert content strategists:

  • What are you doing to promote content strategy in your organization? How are you a content strategy ambassador?
  • How has your agency or business implemented content strategy in the last year? What was the impetus?
  • How did your college degree prepare you for your content strategy job, especially since it's highly likely you did not major in content strategy? What path would you recommend to future strategists?
  • What are some new opportunities you see in the field this year? What stands out to make an impact in the next quarter?
  • Failure can often provide priceless insight. What have you learned from recent failures?
  • What's the first thing you do in the morning to prepare for your work each day? How does it help your content strategy work?
  • What processes have you set up in your agency or business to improve your content strategy? What's been your biggest hold-up?
  • How have you customized your offerings to match your client's needs? Did it make the end strategy result better or worse?
  • What leadership are you showing outside of your own organization? How are you expanding your influence for the betterment of content strategy?

Which topic will you take on? Please leave a comment on this post if you answer these, so the rest of the community can read your answer.

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What is content strategy and why should I care?

You've heard about content strategy, but aren't exactly sure what it is. And you don't know exactly how it fits into the agency process. It's OK. We've got you covered.

The video below tells you everything you want to know about content strategy, but didn't know you needed to ask. It's only 3 minutes long. And it uses Post-It notes. Quick and easy.

Check it out below or on the OnlineMarketerBlog YouTube channel. I hope it's helpful - I'd love to hear your comments!

Don't forget to stay subscribed to videos via iTunes. Thanks!

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The One Question Content Strategists Can Never Ask Too Much

Yesterday, I was in a tough meeting. We knew there was a problem. But we couldn't figure out the answer. (Sound familiar?)

We talked about capabilities, functionality, and process. Nothing was clicking.

Taking a recommendation from Switch, I asked a simple question that (for me) turned around the meeting:

If this problem was solved right now, can you describe what it would look like?

Immediately, the conversation changed. Once the goal was identified, all we needed to do was come up with a plan to get there. As strategists, this is our golden zone!

It wasn't until this morning that I realized why this was so important, especially in a creative agency.

Scott McCloud explains the six steps in the creative process in his (awesome) book Understanding Comics. The six steps are:

  1. Idea/Purpose
  2. Form
  3. Idiom
  4. Structure
  5. Craft
  6. Surface

For more details, just buy the book (you should - there's a ton of great theory in there). But creation process aside, just look at those words.

Remind you of an agency at all?

Account folks give form to our projects. Developers build the structures that hold our creations. Designers use their craft to create beautiful surfaces. (I'm taking some liberties with McCloud's list, but you get my drift.)

So where do content strategists appear?

We touch all points in the creation process, but our main impact is felt at the beginning of this process - shaping ideas from insights and determining how to satisfy users as well as the business objectives.

We all get stuck seeing only the trees instead of the forest from time to time. But strategists are required to see above the treeline and point the way toward the goal.

Asking someone to describe what a solution looks like in effect takes them from ground level where they worry about their position, their budget, their resources, their deadlines...and transports them to the end goal. Whew!

Once we imagine ourselves at the goal, it's much easier to turn around and figure out how we got there. There's less clutter. Less in-fighting. More solutions.

As the idea people - designers of the core content experience - it's incumbent upon us to guide the idea-creation process. And sometimes to take that first step, we need to just imagine being at the last step and then figure out how we got there.

What do you think?

Have you found that asking your teammates to describe success has helped guide your strategy? What hiccups have you faced along the way?

I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Is There No Way To Prove The Value Of Content Strategy?

I'm trying to convince non-creative folks about the value of content strategy. I need facts and figures. Bonus points for graphs.

All I need to prove is that the stuff on your website is valuable to visitors. That content matters.

But there is a serious lack of empirical research to prove this. Why aren't there studies done on the value of content strategy? Is the topic too broad? Is it just common sense?

Proving Our Value

As content strategists, we should be able to appeal to emotion, common sense, and hard logic to convince skeptics of our value.

Emotion I can do. We're solving user's problems and creating a great experience. Common sense is a little fuzzier, but it still works - after all, why wouldn't the content on your site be valuable?

But hard logic - numbers and graphs - I'm having a tough time here.

Melissa Rach from Brain Traffic gets the award for closest to the mark, but even this is too convoluted for an internal or client presentation.

Content Strategy, Not Social Media

I can show you a dozen studies - Forrester, eMarketer, MarketingSherpa - that prove social media's worth. The ROI of social media topic is so 2008.

But broader content - not just on a Twitter feed or blog, but incorporating all website text, metadata, videos, etc. - finding hard evidence for that is proving impossible.

Please Prove Me Wrong

I've searched on paid and unpaid professional research sites. I have worked the limits of my Google powers. But maybe you can help.

As a content strategist, how do you prove your value, in real, empirical numbers? What studies do you use? What have I missed?

I cannot honestly believe there has not been a study of this information (and if so, what a huge oversight!). Content strategists are in a battle to prove their relevance. We'll need research, studies, ROI figures, etc to do this.

I would love to hear what studies you've seen or learn how you are coping with this challenge.

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