Value chainEach successful content marketing strategy is a social and connected content marketing strategy by definition. I’m not just talking about the areas where social media marketing and even social business overlap with content marketing. I’m even not just talking about the need to work with audiences of audiences in an era where everything is (getting) connected and integrated.

A little story. I started my career in the ICT channel, an industry with different types of intermediaries between the manufacturer and the end customer on the other. Depending on the type of end customer, different types of intermediaries were involved: broadline distributors, value added distributors, retailers, value added resellers, integrators, system houses, you name it. Usually there were at least 2-3 intermediaries and we never sold to the end customer (I worked both for distributors and manufacturers/vendors).

Despite never selling to end customers, we talked with them, asked questions, listened. We helped in the stores of retailers now and then to understand the final buyers and their buying decisions and journey. Based upon those lessons and experiences, we created content the different types of intermediaries could use to drive demand among their partners and the end customers so they would order more as they received more orders themselves. In other words: even without directly marketing to the end customer, we did it indirectly to help our partners and thus ourselves. Content and truly understanding were our “weapons”, for instance by creating how-to guides based on clear signals coming from “the channel’ and the end customers regarding what they needed to sell and buy. Or better: to succeed.

The transformational power of value

Since those days, the middlemen and intermediaries disappeared in many similar industries. Channel conflicts happened as Internet came along and more direct models disrupted the industry, even if today the ICT distribution channel model and that of some other similar industries is still very alive. In other industries it simply vanished.

Ram Charan – source
Ram Charan – source

The way we approached the market, using content to help partners create demand and do their marketing in the second and even third degree contains lessons for content marketers in these digital times. No one explained them better nor saw their transformational power better in a structured way and without ever talking about phenomena like content marketing, than business guru Ram Charan.

In 2007, Charan published “What the customer wants you to know” (you might also want to read his “What the CEO wants you to know”).  It offered a new way to look at selling, very much in tune with what we did. Sales is all about value chains and relationship selling alone doesn’t cut it anymore. It was key in Charan’s message: “what the customer wants you to know” means understanding what your customers but also the customers (of the customers etc.) of their customers want all the others to know, regardless of the number of components in the full chain. In other words: to sell you need to understand what everyone involved wants and needs. In practice this also means that even as a B2B marketer in a very complex market, you also need to understand the consumer, as a whole. So, even if you’re an ICT distributor you need to understand what the consumer wants, to give you an example. It also reminds me of another very good reason to understand the consumers as Content Marketing Conference Europe 2014 speaker Jay Baer mentioned in an interview (I quote): “consumers of all types are manifestly impacted by best [customer experience] practices, regardless of where and how they are unfurled”. Or: you need to look at the overall and connected customer experience expectations of all sorts of buyers, regardless of the context (B2B, channel, end customer, whatever).

The audiences of audiences

Back to Ram Charan and the value chains. What do they have in common with content marketing, social, in fact, customer-centric and integrated marketing as a whole? Well, replace customers of customers etc. in Charan’s “Value Creation Selling” approach and you see that it’s pretty close to the ‘audiences of audiences’ model in a connected social media and content marketing view. Value chains connecting buyers, sellers, intermediaries, their social connections, business relationships, etc., with content as a means to create demand and business value through customer value across different layers.

Charan understood that the selling process was (and is) broken and that we were at the dawn of a very connected sales approach, even in markets that don’t show the traits or know the complex go-to-market models as in the ICT channel. And, after all, isn’t buying always a connected and social decision process too, even in an offline context? Isn’t each selling and marketing approach that works one in which all stakeholders are involved? And, so shouldn’t each content marketing strategy by definition be social and connected too, including the so often forgotten focus on sales and partner enablement? Isn’t content marketing success finally always connected?

Someday, every company will listen more closely to the customer, and every manager will realize that sales is everyone’s business, not just the sales department’s. (Ram Charan in “What the Customer Wants You to Know: How Everybody Needs to Think Differently About Sales”).

Understanding this is also understanding the importance of networks of customers and their influence spheres, and the audiences of audiences, as we know them in social media and content marketing. It’s about 1) knowing what they want you to know and 2) talking with them and, as Brian Solis reminded at one of our events, through them.

Content relevance across and beyond value chains

The best marketers apply this connected approach of customer-centricity, social layers, questions/needs across the ‘value creation selling’ chain and speaking to and through people as the driving force behind social media and social business.

The eternal question a content marketer should ask, “what do THEY want – and say”, is what social listening/monitoring is all about as well. Sure, it’s also about reputation monitoring, potential PR issues and all that but we focus far too much on this very limited dimension. What your audiences – and their audiences – say is the core element in the content you create from a social perspective. Listening is the basis, acting to drive action is the goal. And content is the glue. As I wrote before, the customer has a voice and you are an audience as well.

Content marketing only succeeds if you live by that question “what do they want me to know and provide them”, regardless of goals, channels, tactics, etc. That’s the essence, the basics. And, today, more than ever we have this great opportunity to listen but also speak through the mouths of our audiences and their audiences, etc.

When we get these basics right we can take our content marketing strategy much further, beyond the multiple layers of value and relevance across value chains into the huge opportunity of being remarkable and making the difference with our brands and what they stand for and evangelize through their content.

But, even if the latter never happens, working across value chains and audiences the best possible way, will already make you stand out in today’s content marketing practice.