Successful content marketing requires participation from internal stakeholders and external audiences. Read SES CHI's keynote on content.

“Content means everything and nothing.” Daina Middleton, global CEO of Performics, started her SES Chicago keynote by addressing a common problem today’s marketers face. Content has become an all-encompassing phrase that marketers know they need, but most still struggle to leverage and measure it effectively. (This is a fact Brafton has carefully documented, reporting 2014 surveys show only half of marketers feel they create content that engages audiences. The same report reveals the majority of B2B and B2C brands lack documented strategies.)

For Middleton, the underlying problem is that online consumers have new expectations about brand engagement, but marketing models are slow to adapt. She shared five key tenets of successful marketing in the “participation age.”

Consumers are participants

Middleton shared that 51 percent of Americans use web search to refine shopping decisions, and this isn’t a brand new development. (The data came from a Google holiday shopping report, circa 2012.) At the same time, she argued that most businesses act is if they control all relevant brand information prospects find. She highlighted the healthcare industry as a clear example: Doctors used to be the primary portal to information about an individual’s physical conditions, and now patients Google ailments before they’re diagnosed.

In the new participation age, consumers have certain content expectations:

  • Content should be at my fingertips
  • Everything should be searchable
  • Fair trade: Ads for content

With this participation culture, the game is changing for marketers toward an “engagement” initiative. At the same time, there are certain old-world marketing principles that companies (perhaps rightfully) won’t compromise:

  • Goals are about more than reach
  • Success is more than impressions
  • ROI metrics are important
  • Content, content, content – everything, yet nothing.

Successful marketing adapts

Middleton didn’t suggest all marketers are laggards; instead she said most tools that companies rely on need an overhaul. She shared Performics data indicating 1,734 CMOs agee the most successful enterprises focus on relationships, not just transactions. At the same time, it’s nothing new that engagement can be linked to conversions (even if it’s trickier to track). Case in point: Back in 2011, Brafton reported clear metrics on social engagement boosting conversion rates.

With that in mind, she also suggested smart brands are using content for participation, not persuasion. This can be a challenge: It requires a core content marketing principle of agility, demanding sufficient resource, sharp content analytics and buy-in that empowers those in charge of content (whether in house or an agency partner) to act.

Participation can be scaled using a formula

No one should believe in “silver bullets,” but Middleton shared her repeatable formula for content (and overall marketing) that successfully fosters participation.

D+E+C =P2

SESCHI Participation formulaDiscover: Humans love to find new resources relevant to their wants and needs. In turn, marketers must to create an environment that helps people become more competent and knowledgeable about their offerings. (Perhaps this theory is supported in data that shows more product and service landing pages mean more money for companies.) This is natural for marketers, as it plays into a longstanding tradition of talking about one’s own offerings. But the formula gets more complex.

Empower: Good content marketing allows prospects and customers to make choices. How can a business solicit meaninful contributions? Middleton proposed brands make it easy for people to provide feedback (and Brafton also encourages customer or industry peer interviews as a content type that creates dialogue beyond a brand).

Connect: Build a community that lets people connect with one and other. In one sense, this is a clear link to social marketing and relinquishing power to give users control. Middleton also suggested businesses more carefully consider keywords: Do targeted phrased focus solely on products or services? How can keywords point them to a community they may be searching for?

Participation increases: The ultimate result, she proposes, is “P2” – increased engagement and participation, which ultimately drives action.

Good marketing is gardening, not war

The first step to successful content is dropping the fight and finding the connections.

Middleton highlighted that most marketing metaphors revolve around war. Target your audiences. Guerrilla marketing. Fighting for search real estate. Instead, we should transition to a nurturing mindset.

The first step to successful content is dropping the fight and finding the connections. “Embrace nurturers,” she said.

Nurturists: Nurture leads and customers with new organizational values

Middleton highlighted five organizational values that can facilitate customer participation.

1. Embrace, test and learn. Don’t get stuck on a single content format, a specific social network or otherwise attached to a single result.

2. Innovate, don’t perfect. Perfecting a campaign isn’t feasible in the face of a constantly shifting landscape. (This is also a driving force behind the trend in outsourcing innovative content formats – including graphics and videos.)

3. Act quickly and motivate others. First, managers should champion innovation and foster a similar culture on their teams – and “teams” are changing, too.

Marketing managers should champion innovation and foster a similar culture on their teams.

4. Mix and blend: Don’t recreate. On a related note, people should be collaborating instead of working in silos. Key stakeholders need to access similar metrics so they’ll be motivated to act fast, and people should leave their titles at the door.

5. Embrace failures in the pursuit of results, but do it efficiently. Not everything will be a major win, but successful brands aren’t afraid of risks. How do marketing teams maintain efficiency? Fail differently each time.

If marketing is about participation, “good storytelling” is another item to add to any team of nurturers need to add to their to-do lists. Read more insights in our related post: Quality content is the first step toward engagement (and stay tuned for more SES coverage.)

Katherine Griwert is Brafton's Marketing Director. She's practiced content marketing, SEO and social marketing for over five years, and her enthusiasm for new media has even deeper roots. Katherine holds a degree in American Studies from Boston College, and her writing is featured in a number of web publications.