Q&A with Ardath Albee: Driving Smart Marketing with Digital Relevance

Delivering on the promise of relevance is a core goal for all marketers, but it appears that there are significant disconnects in organizations’’ abilities to strategically execute on this across all integrated activities.

Marketers are too focused on the notion of creating content, and must better allocate their energy to developing a more focused strategy that aligns with content.

If you think about strategy as defining the job of the content, then content published without a strategy has no job to do,” warns Ardath Albee, marketing expert and author of the book Digital Relevance. “This reality is reflected in the high percentages of marketers who say their content marketing is ineffective. Getting people to view your content is nice, but getting them to take an action you want them to — a next step — is the critical piece. Just publishing content on its own doesn’t accomplish this."

In her role as CEO of consulting firm Marketing Interactions, Albee works directly with companies facing this and other challenges. She offers tips from her real-world experience in the book, which outlines clear-cut strategies for developing customer-oriented communications, identifying the distinct value that differentiates your company, and making the shift from singular communications to a continuum approach that aligns outcomes to business objectives.

Albee took the time to share her additional insight based on the themes in Digital Relevance. The interview is below:

Amanda Batista: One of the book’s introductory themes is centered on how marketers are creating content without attaching it to a strategy. This seems like an all too common problem. What is your immediate advice on how marketers to realign their thinking here?

Albee: For an immediate action, assess your content by answering the following questions:

  • What should this piece of content accomplish for the intended audience?
  • How does that fit into the buyer’s process?
  • What information might have preceded it to drive interest? Do you have it?
  • What information would come after this content that would be useful based on what the audience just learned? Do you have it?
  • Are these pieces all linked together?
  • What other options exist to motivate a “next step”?

How well you’ll be able to do this will relate to how well you know your target audiences. You don’t need to approach this as a total content overhaul. Work on making the connections a bit at a time. Revise the content to contribute to the momentum you’re trying to establish, if necessary.

Keep track of the connections you’re making and you’ll begin to see the bigger story build. If the bigger story doesn’t make sense or position the audience it was developed for as the hero of that story, then you know you’ve got work to do.

AB: In the book you call attention to the way companies approach “see also” content presentation on their web sites. How should marketers be thinking about the idea of dynamic content, and who are the key stakeholders in that strategic discussion (i.e. web and content teams)?

Albee: The typical web site is not organized in a buyer-friendly way. Typical navigation is a bunch of silos (i.e. products, solutions, services, resources, about, contact) that make viewers run all over the place trying to piece together the story. The effort is too high. The experience is fragmented.

Two ways to think about “see also” or a more dynamic and helpful experience is in the connecting the dots way I spoke about above and content hubs. Content hubs are a B2B marketer’s version of choose your own adventure for buyers. A content hub displays the story a specific buyer needs to know to facilitate their buying process. The beauty of this approach is that with marketing automation and analytics you can identify specific paths chosen.

With either approach, if your content is developed to both inform your buyer about the problem-to-solution story and marketers about where buyers are in the process and what topics are of interest to them, then this information becomes a template and validation for the story being shared.

As for who is involved, the content strategist should be orchestrating the story. The content writers are developing the narrative of the story, the demand gen folks are overseeing execution and interaction development, and the web team is implementing or publishing the pieces of the story—along with the mechanics of the connections and calls to action.

AB: You emphasize the importance of personas as the “foundation for relevance in marketing”. While many organizations do have personas, they sometimes have difficulty properly executing on them. Why is this and how do you advise companies to remedy this?

Albee: This is indeed a problem that I see presenting in several ways. First, companies that are siloed by division or product often have marketing teams creating personas independently from the other groups. This equates to multiple personas that are supposed to represent the same audience, but are not in alignment. The result is a disjointed story for the brand and a fragmented experience for the buyer/customer.

Second, I see companies where one division is more mature that the rest of the company and they set out to create personas on their own. So only they are using them. The results from this are similar to the above with the exception that one part of your company appears to know the buyer but the rest of the company appears not to care. That’s not good.

The third thing I see is that marketers are creating personas as a checklist item and then filing them away. When I come across this and ask why, it’s either that the personas were not executed well and marketers have decided to move on without them or that marketers truly do not understand how personas can be used to drive marketing strategy.

The remedy to the first and second issues is difficult as it’s a company-wide issue. However, I have hope because a number of enterprises are creating content centers of excellence which will pull everything under one umbrella. It’s a change process that requires buy-in and executive support. What hinders this is that executives often have less understanding of personas than marketers do. This needs to be remedied.

The remedy to the third is to make sure you have in-depth personas that provide insights about buyers from status quo through choice to buy. One of the strongest elements of buyer personas can be the questions a buyer would ask at each step of the process. If you have content that answers them in a way that’s relevant to the specific persona, fantastic. If you don’t, then that’s where you start. The other thing that helps to use personas to drive strategy is to develop engagement scenarios. Base scenario development on answering questions like these:

  • If our goal is lead generation, how will we attract this persona? (We will attract them by using a social media post with a hashtag they follow)
  • Then what? (the messaging on our landing page will convince them to complete the form to download the white paper)
  • Then what? (we put them into our nurture program for that persona)
  • Then what?

Continue to ask “Then what?” until you make it through the buying process to choice. Don’t overlook the times when other personas interact with the persona. In what ways can this help or impede their progress. Once you’ve got this scenario, put it in motion and monitor response to tweak and refine. There are infinite possibilities. Find the ones that work and continue to refine them. Remember to base your scenario development on what you learned about your persona — not wishful thinking.

AB: You make the case for the need to subscribe to a “digital marketing continuum” to help marketers migrate away from the campaign mentality. Can you speak to why “random acts of publishing” need to be replaced with a digital strategy?

Albee: Most buying processes take longer than campaigns. Campaigns start and stop. Is this what you want to happen to the momentum you’re able to create with your prospects? No. It’s not. So why would marketers want to intentionally halt buyers in their tracks and ask them to reconsider if their content is still a valued resource when one campaign ends and another begins? This is a construct for us. It allows us, as marketers, to put a neat little box around demand gen. But demand generation isn’t neat and tidy.

There’s a certain amount of information buyers need (each of them on the buying committee) in order to understand why the problem is significant, why they don’t have the internal resources to solve it on their own, how to get everyone to see one solution to the problem as a win, etc.

A continuum approach allows marketers to focus on building this bigger story, resulting in more downstream contribution to revenues. It’s really about becoming so relevant and valuable to your prospects that the ideas you share become the anchor for how they think about solving the problem. When this happens, your salespeople get in more conversations and your competitors have to work overtime to try and unseat your company from the decision process.

AB: The later parts of the book explore a refreshing take on the art of storytelling as it relates to marketing, including great examples of how brands should be positioning value to readers. Can you share some of your thoughts on telling targeted stories?

Albee: Stories are the key. What stops marketers is that they’re usually not schooled in story development. With the continuum approach, think about it as serial storytelling – lots of chapters or pieces of the story coming out over time.

Your prospect must be the hero of the story. This is not optional. Your prospect has a goal and sets out on the path to reach it. Along the way, she discovers that she doesn’t have all the knowledge she needs to reach her goal. She seeks to learn the missing pieces, develop the missing skills. Along comes your company/content to mentor her and help her achieve her goals.

But, she meets obstacles along the way, such as naysayers that keep her from reaching consensus or implementation concerns or questions about whether users will really adopt the solution. Your content, and eventually salespeople, help her to overcome these obstacles and get the committee to consensus. She chooses your solution to achieve a successful outcome. (Happy Ending)

You can overlay nearly any story onto that framework and see how it comes together. It’s loosely based on Joseph Campbell’s methodology as developed by Chris Vogler for The Hero’s Journey.

For each part of that framework, what content would you develop to get your prospect (protagonist) to the next chapter of the story?

Check out the book for more of Albee’s tangible tips and inspired thinking! You can pick up your copy of Digital Relevance on Amazon

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