Customer-centric content marketing: Lee Odden weighs in

Lee Odden at #fusionmex in 2012 - picture by Remy Bergsma
Lee Odden at #fusionmex in 2012 – picture by Remy Bergsma

Lee Odden was one of the keynote speakers at i-SCOOP’s Content Marketing Experience Conference Europe 2014 in Antwerp . Attendees of previous events might remember that Lee joined us at another event where we looked at integrated marketing and where he did the European launch of his book Optimize. 

In this interview we, among others, cover a model for winning with a customer-centric content marketing strategy that steers away from your eternal best practices.

The time to bring the customer experience and lifecycle into the (content) marketing strategy is right now. And that’s what Lee, who runs TopRank Online Marketing, feels too as you’ll discover.

When you joined us the first time in 2012 for one of our events you presented, among others, a keynote session and workshop on digital marketing integration and customer-centric content marketing, the core topic of your book Optimize. You focused on an integrated approach of SEO, social media and content marketing. Have brands evolved in this integration exercise and have your views evolved as well since then?

Lee Odden: More companies are certainly aware of the importance of Integrated Marketing: 90% call it “necessary and inevitable” for mid to large sized companies according to a report from Econsultancy.

However, changes with search engines like Google and social networks like Facebook have made paid amplification more of a requirement than 2 years ago. No brand can succeed on organic marketing alone on those channels.

Also, the volume of content being published by brands and consumers alike has made content competition or “content shock” as Mark Schaefer calls it, an important reality to consider. Content targeting and content quality are increasingly essential to reach and engage new customers.

Hail the connected journey: customer-centricity and the customer lifecycle

SpeakerquoteLeeOddenfusionmexLee Odden: Today I’m more focused on leveraging customer insights along with brand objectives to create content across the customer journey from awareness to purchase to advocacy. Search is still important, but the driver for content planning is to achieve mutual customer and brand objectives. In other words, optimizing for customer experiences and business outcomes, not just keywords and traffic.

My perspective is that companies need to master the ability to create meaningful content that’s easy to find and share with a continuous effort towards optimizing the performance of that content. Doing this at scale is no easy task, but through creative repurposing, connecting with influencers and participation marketing, companies are creating impressive competitive advantages.

Optimizing for consumers, experiences and outcomes transcends Google, social or content, you said. Or in other words: customer-centricity and (measurable) goals first. Along with Bryan Eisenberg you were one of the keynote speakers at the Authority Intensive event and I noticed you retweeted something Bryan said: 80% of companies claim they are customer-centric but only 8% of customers say that’s true. That’s a huge discrepancy. Why is that? How can content help close this gap and what needs to be done in general to allow it to?

Lee Odden: It might be corporate hubris or it might be following industry “best practices” without really knowing the impact amongst customers. Whatever the reason, companies in Europe are definitely focused on improving their customer-centricity.

In the Digital Marketing and Ecommerce Trends for 2014 report, research from Adobe and Econsultancy shows the single most exciting opportunity in 2014 is improving customer experience.

Econsultancy CEO Ashley Friedlein in Digital Marketing and Ecommerce Trends and Predictions for 2014
Econsultancy CEO Ashley Friedlein in Digital Marketing and Ecommerce Trends and Predictions for 2014: “CEM covers not only customer acquisition but the entire customer lifecycle and across all channels”

I think with the increased availability of direct communications with brands provided by social networks, consumer expectations have risen. At the same time, there’s a lot of pressure to drive revenue on all fronts and many companies still don’t quite understand the distinct needs of their customers outside of what’s necessary to inspire transactions. The result? Digital Marketing programs that aspire to scale through content that is more “mechanical” than “meaningful”.

Also, many brand content marketing programs focus on the sales cycle and not the full customer lifecycle. In essence, companies are creating content to support awareness, interest, consideration and purchase where it essentially stops after transactions. Yet, customers continue to have information needs after the purchase.

To close the gap, companies must understand the customer experience and the continuously optimize for it across the customer lifecycle from awareness to purchase to retention and advocacy. The amazing thing about content that extends across the customer lifecycle is that gaining a momentum of advocacy is far more effective for scaling content marketing performance while being customer centric at the same time.

The driver for content planning is to achieve mutual customer and brand objectives. (Lee Odden)

Another component of being customer-centric is to involve customers in content creation. Participation marketing is a result of the active engagement amongst a community of customers that reveals important insights as well as opportunities to co-create content. A continuous effort at showing interest in what’s important to customers and then acting on those insights through content, collaboration and recognition are essential for customers to feel a brand appreciates them.

Native advertising: ensure high quality editorial standards

In some European countries there seems to be more attention for topics such as custom(er) publishing, native advertising, etc. It’s something we want to cover in a panel at the event. What are your views on those?

Lee Odden: As a form of owned media, custom publishing is certainly a wise investment for some companies. Bypassing established media channels to create your own audience with a publication owned by the brand can provide numerous benefits. American Express Publishing has over 2 million consumers of its branded magazines for example.

However, it takes an investment in time and resources for custom publishing to reap marketing and business growth rewards and not all companies are willing to wait.

Lee Odden on the role of native advertising for the publishing industry

Native advertising is exciting for companies with substantial marketing budgets that want to scale content distribution and reach through the appearance of editorial placement. The flip side to native advertising is that the news publishing industry is at a crossroads to recapture revenue with many publications continuing to downsize. Native advertising has been a much needed shot in the arm.

There is some debate as to whether native ads are understood to be ads by consumers and whether they degrade reader’s trust in the publication. It’s in the best interest of brand advertisers, publications and their readers to ensure high quality editorial standards are maintained with native ads as well as clear indication that they are sponsored content.

Storytelling: the strategic approach

A while back you wrote a blog post, stressing the importance of storytelling. What have you learned regarding storytelling while working with some of the leading brands on this planet?

Storytelling and infotainment - read the post and the LinkedIn eBook with nothing but very familiar faces for #fusionmex
Storytelling and infotainment – read the post and the LinkedIn eBook with nothing but very familiar faces for the #fusionmex family

Lee Odden: One thing I’ve learned is that strategic storytelling and developing a brand narrative is not easy for most companies. Many marketers that profess to be active storytellers are simply applying creative packaging to their marketing content.

They’re adding a level of “interestingness” to their content as a tactic to improve reach, engagement and hopefully, contribution to sales. Success of these tactics are measured independently and not in connection to overall brand content as a whole.

But not all companies approach content this way and many brands have evolved their approach to content and storytelling.

Those that think more strategically about storytelling do a few things pretty consistently:

  1. They establish their core values and unique selling proposition. They understand and communicate what the brand, product or services “stand for”.
  2. They are in tune with what their customers care about. They know what information is needed and they know the emotional triggers as well.
  3. Content objects each have a story, but are also accountable to an overall brand narrative. Each content object is related to what came before it and what will come after.
  4. Stories are continuously evolving and spontaneous iterations are frequent based on community memes, popular culture and events.
  5. There is a persistent effort to optimize the performance of brand content storytelling in it’s ability to attract, engage and ultimately convert readers to customers and fans.

The future (and present for forward thinking brands): it’s all about the experiences

You asked 21 digital marketing thought leaders about their trends and predictions for 2015. You’re early :) What are the key takeaways for you? To me it seems that finally an integrated focus on the customer experience often comes back in the answers?

Lee Odden: It’s interesting that as early as a 2015 digital marketing predictions post might be, over 7,000 social shares and tens of thousands of page views for that one post show it’s a topic of high interest. The big takeaway for me from that post is that people love selfies.

Actually, I think the big takeaway is the idea of upgrading the sophistication of brand publishing will continue by emphasizing customer experience and ongoing optimization of performance across channels.

Creating “great content” is no longer a differentiator for brands. The price of admission in 2015 and beyond is that brands must be capable of creating authentic content that is highly relevant for specific audiences, incredibly useful and meaningful on a more human level. I like to call that “infotainment” where great marketing both informs and entertains. Forward thinking brands will treat digital marketing less as channels and more as an ecosystem.

You’ve talked about the future of content marketing at Content Marketing World in 2013. Looking back, which of the predictions would you stress most now.

Lee Odden: To stand out, brand content needs to be visual, entertaining, informative and customized for the channel and audience while maintaining overall themes that support what the brand stands for.

Content that connects both intellectually and emotionally with buyers must also answer customer questions in an interesting way. These content investments must be easy to find on search engines, on industry publications and amongst social networks.

To wrap up – you know the drill, Lee – could you please complete following sentences:

  • A strong brand… creates strong emotional connections with customers.
  • At Authority Intensive, Seth Godin… delivered yet again, simple, provocative and inspirational advice about business and life.
  • In content marketing, print…still holds value for certain industries – print is not dead yet.
  • Among the true masters of storytelling are… Red Bull, Innocent, GoPro, Chipotle, GE to name a few.
  • Native advertising…implemented well, adds to the customer experience and implemented poorly, compromises the publisher and the brand.
  • Video… is a must for B2C and B2B content marketers.
  • As a kid, the school newspaper… was my replacement for playing a Winter sport and was a great way to meet smart girls.
  • Visual storytelling… done well makes an intellectual and emotional connection with customers.
  • As a father of 3… I have little time for really long interviews :)
  • When no one is looking… I take a nap.
  • Don’t tell anyone but… I’m addicted to chocolate.
  • If he could, Lee Odden would love to interview… Arianna Huffington, Jim Farley (CMO at Ford) or John Hayes (CMO American Express).