Understanding Branding, Content Strategy, and Content Marketing - CONTENT IS A CONVERSATION - The Digital Crown: Winning at Content on the Web (2014)

The Digital Crown: Winning at Content on the Web (2014)



The Net is a real place where people can go to learn, to talk to each other, and to do business together. It is a bazaar where customers look for wares, vendors spread goods for display, and people gather around topics that interest them. It is a conversation.

(Levine, 2009)

Changing Patterns of Content Consumption

We live in a world of networked markets. To build great relationships with our customers, we must focus on content as conversations.

The marketplace shifts rapidly. People research everything they buy online; they can even talk to other people around the globe before they buy.

Our audiences typically have more than one device to access content. They surf multiple channels at once, having conversations on multiple devices and different sized screens, moving seamlessly from one conversation to the next. They interact and share daily with friends, colleagues, and peers within huge social networks previously impossible to imagine.

If you are the person responsible for managing content creation and execution, you may not be sure where to start. When you don’t know who someone is and you want to learn more about and share with them, where do you begin?

You begin with a conversation. A conversation is a dialogue, the exchange of information between two parties. Sometimes we listen, and sometimes we talk.

Understanding the Power of Digital Content

The axiom goes, “If you want to be treated differently, act differently.” In the case of content, we need to think about it differently so we can treat it differently. In Part 1, we’re going to learn how to think about content differently so that we can build long-lasting, true relationships with our audiences. By learning to think about content in a different way, we will break down some of the organizational barriers and silos that occur when we try to create and publish content.

So, we are going to learn how to have a conversation with our customers. To do that, we must understand:

Our brand: Who we are

Digital content: The most effective way to converse with our audiences

Content drives sales: Content is a critical asset within the business

In Part 1, we’re going to cover all of the above. Together, we will also learn the first of the seven rules for creating winning content for your brand:

Rule #1: Start with Your Audience

Rule #2: Involve Stakeholders Early and Often

Let’s begin by learning about the interplay of branding, content strategy and content marketing.


1. Levine R. The Cluetrain Manifesto. New York: Basic Books; 2009; p. 81.

Chapter 1. Understanding Branding, Content Strategy, and Content Marketing


The web provides an ever-changing, morphing platform for content, which is an ongoing conversation between your company and your customers. We need to keep up, not only with the technology but also the audience—who are they, what do they want, and how can we get their attention and keep it? The answers to all of those questions start with one thing—content strategy. We need to learn about our audience, figure out how to reach them, and enter into a conversation with them so that there is trust and comfort. To do that, we need a solid system that keeps us on track throughout this process. Content marketing is the tactic that will help you establish a brand audience who engages consistently with your content and recommends your brand to others via social networks.


branding; content marketing; content strategy; corporate publishing; inbound marketing; messaging strategies; online marketing

Are you a person who is frustrated by the content process within your organization? You may be the vice president of marketing, the owner of a small business, the director of web strategy, or a content communications professional.

For a moment, I want you to imagine that instead of being responsible for your organization’s content or website, you are actually responsible for a retail store—an actual storefront with a physical address and an entrance. It’s a beautiful store, with fabulous merchandise arranged in pleasing detail to entice your customers.

However, when your customers enter there is no one to greet them. Not one person in the store picks up his head to say, “Hello, can I help you?” In some cases, the salespeople in the store don’t speak the same language as your browsing customers. When your potential buyer asks about products in the store, those salespeople are missing critical information.

Does the content on your digital properties (websites, social media channels, blogs) function like this? Does the content support the user experience? Can people find the information they need? Is the product information complete? Are there enticing stories that compel visitors to dive in deeper? Do they sign up for continued communications with your organization or do they bounce like rubber balls right off of the page?

The Problem Grows

How many times does someone call you on the phone and ask why your company is not showing up on Google as the first result of a search for a certain term? How many requests pass across your desk to change something on the website? Do your superiors tell you that this is not your problem, only to have various people in the organization then point their fingers at you when something goes wrong on the website or on social media? Are you the person consistently reporting to the CEO, or other members of the C-suite (senior executive management, so named because many of their titles begin with C, for Chief), and falling short every time? Worse, are you not able to articulate the full mess you are managing every day?

Around the globe, organizations of all sizes are struggling to communicate online—to make sales, encourage brand ambassadorship, communicate information, and persuade public opinion. The word web suggests interdependence, something large multinational organizations understand. Yet, these very same organizations do not know how to align their web operations so they are consistent, efficient and have reporting mechanisms that speak directly to the bottom line.

Before you decide where you want to go, you need vision. You must begin with the end in mind. To get there, you need a roadmap. Together, we are going to learn to create a digital strategy roadmap for your organization. We will learn about the unique interplay between people, processes, and technology that are vital for effective and successful web content.

The Challenge of the Web

In many ways, the virtual world of the Internet is better and worse than the actual physical world. In the real world, you can smell a Cinnabon. Stroke a mohair jacket. Taste a salted caramel latte. Not true online. You can’t touch products, try them on, taste them, or really discern if that shirt is teal, turquoise, or cerulean.

In the actual physical world you can’t read what others think about the shirt, if they found the fit true to size, and what color they thought it looked like when they pulled it out of the box. The web gives us the power of information through exchanges and conversations.

The web gives us the power of information through exchanges and conversations.

Marketplaces rely on conversations: the web is a modern marketplace. Conversations between people matter in ways they have not mattered before, as communication technologies facilitate wider and deeper exchanges of information than ever in the history of humankind.

The Internet was built for creating conversations through the input of real people (called crowdsourcing), which is why content has become so important in modern marketing. We are in a world of constant conversations and exchanges of information. People want to know what they want to know—and they want to know instantaneously.

Starting the Conversation: The Beginning of the Internet

There is some controversy as to whether or not the military started the Internet as a way of maintaining communication in time of war. Some say this is an urban myth. As Gordon Crovitz writes, “For many technologists, the idea of the Internet traces to Vannevar Bush, the presidential science adviser during World War II who oversaw the development of radar and the Manhattan Project. … Bush defined an ambitious peacetime goal for technologists: Build what he called a ‘memex’ through which “wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified” (Crovitz, 2012). Yet another theory is that a famous computer scientist named Bob Taylor invented the Internet so that universities could share resources.

Let’s not worry about the who, but rather, let’s appreciate what the creation of the Internet has meant for all of us—the start of our ability to engage in incredibly wide reaching and meaningful conversations. And, for many of us, it’s created careers we never could have dreamt about in high school physics classes.

Crowdsourcing: Information from Trusted Sources

In the real, actual world, you share doctor referrals, recommendations for dance classes for your kids, and golf tips, across the proverbial white picket fence. Now, you jump on Facebook and ask your social network for their recommendations. Or, get on YouTube and watch videos about golf. Use Google or Bing to research dance classes. You are seeking information from trusted sources—and the web supplies that demand. It is the technology platform that facilitates global interactions.

It should come as a comfort that human behavior remains the same; we still seek recommendations from others. New communications technologies facilitate those normal interactions—but wider and deeper than ever before. And, more public, as we are allowing others to “eavesdrop” on those conversations.

You have always chatted with your friends about your favorite supermarket; now you can post a statement on Facebook about the store. Before you know it, everyone is shopping there—something that would not, and could not, have happened before our new communication technologies. The reverse is also true—one convincing negative review and a person may choose not to buy a product or service.

While you can find thousands of articles on how texting, the web, and current mobile technologies are changing human interaction, I would say that we are actually just facilitating MORE of the interactions we’ve always had. More than anything, the instantaneous and awesome power of the Internet is that it has flattened our white picket fence.

TripAdvisor: Powerful Exchanges Between Strangers

According to Google, we spend an average of about 2.5 hours on research before making a travel decision. It is very likely that a lot of that time is spent on TripAdvisor (Morison, 2012). What’s unique about this site is that people from all over the world post their personal experiences with specific locations, hotels, restaurants, and travel destinations. The rankings on the site are created according to audience input, not some vague industry standard. And today, hotels are fighting to be in TripAdvisor’s list of the top five hotels for a particular city. If you see a review critiquing the cleanliness of a hotel room, or the surliness of its staff, you will more than likely choose another hotel with better reviews, and the travel industry knows this.

Behold the power of the conversation—TripAdvisor reported in 2011 that page views of its content had some influence on roughly $2.6 billion worth of business.

Should Businesses Really Care?

Yes. The reach people now have is almost immeasurable. People make assumptions about your brand based on their encounters with it in the actual physical world and online. Then they will talk about it—with their spouses, peers, colleagues, and strangers—when they post an online review. As a business, you need to control that conversation. This book shows you how.

Understanding Content

If you want to control the conversation people have about your brand, you need to understand what content is, how it performs, and how people choose to share and consume it. Content is information that is organized and arranged in a format. Embedded in that format is information—the solution to someone’s problem or question.

For example, if a company issues a press release, they know that journalists will see it and think, “That piece of content is for me.” When you see an ad in a newspaper, you recognize it as an ad—embedded within it is a piece of information about a brand, store, or sale. When someone hands you a form to fill out, you know what you need to do.

These content formats are recognizable to you because you’ve seen them so many times. Someone designed them to provide you with the information you seek, or to capture information that someone else needs.

When information takes the form of something we recognize, that is content.

Once you make that transformation of information into content, you choose which channels (print, broadcast, web) you wish to use to distribute the content (Figure 1.1). In other words, we take information we want to share with our audience and turn it into a content format they will quickly recognize. Then we choose the channels where we think they spend their time and make sure our content is there for them to find.


FIGURE 1.1 Content: From Information to Distribution. Ahava Leibtag. All Rights Reserved.

Media planners spend thousands of hours each year choosing TV shows that promise to attract the audience they believe will buy their products. If you are a media buyer for a denture cleaner company, chances are you’re not going to spend your precious advertising dollars on a network like MTV, a channel that shows music videos and reality TV shows geared toward teenagers and young adults. People who use denture cleaners probably aren’t watching MTV.

Choosing the Right Ads—Or Not

The ad world is full of horror stories about bad ad placement. For example, Aflac, the insurance company, posted an ad featuring their duck mascot on the same page as an article about anatidaephobia—the fear that you are being watched by a duck (Figure 1.2).


FIGURE 1.2 An article about fear of being watched by a duck is mistakenly placed alongside information from an insurance company whose mascot is … a duck.

In real estate, they say location is everything. This is true in ad placement as well.

Digital marketing strategy has many similarities to traditional marketing. The focus is still about offering your information in a format that will attract your audience. Yet to do this right, and get the results you want, you need to think strategically about how people communicate online.

Strategy is about having a plan that gets you where you want to go. Tactics are methods you use to get to that place.

If you want to be in control of the conversation people have about your brand, you must understand the unique interplay between:

• Branding

• Content Strategy

• Content Marketing

Developing and managing successful content is dependent on understanding all three, which in turn will help you have great conversations with your audiences.

The Art of Conversation

Branding, content strategy, and content marketing are harmonious when it comes to creating great conversations around your brand. To understand this concept, let’s talk about what a great conversation looks like.

Great conversationalists know six rules about leaving a lasting effect:

1. Know who you are

2. Know who you are talking to

3. Listen

4. Ask good questions

5. Have thoughtful answers

6. Understand there are different types of conversations

Branding, content strategy, and content marketing are all designed to help you build great relationships with your target audiences, make the sale, persuade the donor, inform the prospect, and so on. Let’s understand how they help you build your digital and content team’s understanding of artful conversations.

Branding: A Brand Is a Promise

Tiffany & Co., the famous jeweler with the unmistakable robin’s egg blue packaging, ran a print ad many years ago. In the black and white photograph, a man holds a ring box in his hand behind his back. Looking at the ad, you felt the immediate suspense of an imminent marriage proposal.

The tagline on the ad captured the moment perfectly. It said, “It’s a promise.”

The copywriter and photographer conveyed two simpatico ideas using a very simple black and white image and tagline:

1. This man was about to give his bride-to-be a classic, quality engagement ring from one of the finest jewelers in the world, demonstrating his promise of eternal love. “I will take care of you forever,” he is saying.

2. The ring, a product of this world-famous jeweler, is, in itself, a promise. The diamond set in that ring, with a perfect platinum band stamped with Tiffany’s brand, is a lifelong promise about the ring and its classic, eternal value.

I use this example to demonstrate what a brand really is—a brand is a promise. For some, the promise is a good one. For others, who have had negative encounters with a particular brand, the promise is one of poor customer service or products being too expensive or too cheap. It depends on the encounter, or series of encounters, the person experiences with that brand over time.

Short History of Brands

Historians and archaeologists believe that brands may have begun as far back as the Middle Ages. The word “brand” is derived from the Old Norse brandr meaning “to burn.” It refers to the practice of producers burning their mark (or brand) onto their products (Ritson, 2006). The Italians were among the first to use brands, in the form of watermarks on paper in the 1200s (Colapinto, 2011).

Centuries later, industrialization moved the production of many household items, such as soap, from local communities to centralized factories. When shipping their items, the factories would literally brand their logo or insignia on the barrels used, extending the meaning of “brand” to that of trademark. In the 1700s and 1800s, American cowboys would brand their cattle with a specific logo that identified the cow as a member of a particular herd.

What Is a Brand?

A brand is the amalgamation of all the different experiences and encounters a consumer has had with products, salespeople, marketing, advertising, and retail experiences (if there are retail stores). That’s why a brand is a promise; people have an expectation of how their encounter with a brand will go based on previous encounters, what they have heard in the media, what their friends have told them, how the salesperson greets them when they walk into the store, and so on.

Brands are NOT logos, or typefaces, or colors, or spokespeople, in the same way that a person is not their name, weight, age, or profession. Rather, those are brand attributes.

Just like people, brands have different facets and aspects—like different people you know have different personalities. One way to think of a brand is how most people might express the brand in three words. (How would people describe you in three words?).

Defining Brands

How do we define brands? Here is a quick exercise:

What do you think of when you consider the following world famous brands?

• McDonald’s

• Coca-Cola

• Apple

• Nike

Fill in the following table:


The items you filled in above are brand attributes, in the same way that a person’s demographics and identifying features are characteristics. They do not define the brand, just as the color of your hair does not define you.

Before we get into deeper thinking about brand definition, let’s discuss who should define a brand.

Who Defines a Brand?

In a perfect situation, a company defines its brand. That’s why the above four brands are internationally known, well respected, and unique within their competitive marketplace. The branding teams behind those companies spend countless hours and dollars to develop what billions of people around the world think and feel about those brands.

A brand community is a community formed because of attachment to a product or service. In a less than perfect situation, the leadership in a company has allowed the brand community to define the brand. They have allowed the brand audience to take control of the conversation in a negative manner.

The famous homemade video “United Breaks Guitars” is an example of a brand audience taking control of a conversation. United Airlines’ baggage handlers damaged a musician’s guitar in the course of loading it and unloading it on the plane. After getting no response from the company after repeated attempts to resolve his claim, the musician made a video, posted it on YouTube and got more than 12 million views. This was publicity and a conversation that United didn’t need. The good news is that they eventually apologized, reimbursed him for his guitar, and use his video in their customer service training (Kelleher, 2013).

The United story had somewhat of a happy ending but it did damage. Instead of an active, determined, strategically planned brand, those outside of the organization defined United as the airline that damages luggage. Branding damage happens because there is no executive control over the brand and no plans in place to deal with emergencies. There is no control over the conversation.

People create brand communities by the way they interact with a brand, including:

• Products

• Salespeople

• Marketing

• Advertising

• News media

• Retail experiences

The brand’s image will suffer if the media reports that the brand’s latest product has bugs. If you have a negative encounter with a brand, you might post about it on your social networks. Depending on how many people see it, the brand might suffer. Good brand management happens when the company handles both negative and positive interactions well.

Let’s talk about good brand management.

Managing the Brand

Customers develop their own ideas about brands based on hundreds of virtual interactions and perhaps very few real-life, or physical interactions. This creates conflict for you if you’re responsible on any level for the brand. Why? Because you have no real control over how, when, and why consumers will interact with your brand. If you sell a variety of products under your umbrella brand, like the four brands we listed above, consumers may have a perception of one product that they tie to your overall umbrella brand. For example, Apple sells the iMac and the iPhone. Consumers may confuse these two products under the major brand umbrella. If they have a bad experience with one product, it confuses their image of the brand.

So, the big question is: How do you create a powerful brand that consumers will associate with your products and services and that will truly differentiate them from everything else out there?

You need three things:

1. Brand definition

2. Employee training about the brand

3. Brand consistency on all your communication channels

Brand Definition

Defining the brand is something that should be decided by the senior-most executive leadership. However, brands evolve and change over time. In fact, companies sometimes hire new executive leadership to change brand perception.

If you need to know more about your brand, ask around. Talk to people within the organization. If you have the budget, time, and emotional reserve, consider hiring a branding firm to help you. Most of the time, people within the organization know the brand. What they are afraid of is how to articulate what they think.

Too often companies are afraid to tell the truth about their brand. But that’s silly. Not everyone is going to shop at a high-end department store. Some people will want to shop at a more affordable department store. The affordable department store should make it clear to their target audiences that they deliver fashionable clothing at reasonable prices.

Employee Training About the Brand

Employees fail to deliver on their brand promise because brand alignment is lacking throughout the organization. Most organizations have difficulty maintaining the brand promise throughout all levels of service. Test this by asking employees to describe the company brand in three words. See if there’s a gap between what your marketing department says and what your employees say.

Apple is a phenomenal example of branding alignment across employees and staff. When you walk into an Apple store, it’s usually busy. When you approach the Apple salespeople, they are friendly, helpful, and knowledgeable about any product in the store. This is probably because Apple recruits enthusiastic job seekers and trains them to channel that enthusiasm into their work.

Apple educates employees about the brand promise on their first day of work. On their first day, new Apple employees start their training by entering a room filled with current employees; they then receive a standing ovation. While the clapping and whistling may be a bit overwhelming, it also inspires the newbies.

During their training, a huge amount of time is devoted to role-playing, emphasizing etiquette, empathy, and honesty. For example, before touching a customer’s product, an employee is trained to ask permission to do so. Trainees hear repeatedly that their job is to “enrich people’s lives,” which instills in them the sense that they are doing much more than fixing or selling products (Segal, 2012).

Specifically, Apple employees are trained in what is called the Apple Five Steps of Service (Gallo, 2012):

Approach customers with a personalized, warm welcome

Probe politely to understand all the customer’s needs

Present a solution for the customer to take home today

Listen for and resolve any issues or concerns

End with a fond farewell and an invitation to return

Brand Consistency

Everyone in the company has to be in alignment with the brand so that you communicate effectively with your consumers. If you run a Fortune 1000 company, you probably have an entire branding staff to help you on this complex journey. If you’re a part of a small company, then you probably don’t. Don’t despair: sometimes in small companies branding is easier because you can align a smaller group of people on the brand promise.

Brand consistency is an art you must practice. There are many tools we will learn about to help you develop and maintain brand consistency across your content in Rule #5.

Consistency Across Channels

Now think about your encounter with a brand online. It’s different in some ways from in-store experiences but the basic challenge remains the same. Well-known and trusted brands do this so well—they maintain the brand as a promise.

Part of the reason that I have focused on retail consumer brands is to highlight a perceived difference between digital marketing and real-world marketing. The toughest challenges in digital marketing are that many marketers perceive the web to be a completely different place than the real world. Is this true?

Well, as we said at the beginning of this chapter, in some ways the web is a different marketplace because the technology facilitates fast and wide interactions—and in many cases with no consequences. So while you might be willing to rank a book anonymously on Amazon.com, you may feel more inhibited doing so in front of the author.

The web is a marketplace like any other, which means that people want consistency. If they encounter your brand one way in real life they want it to be that way on the web. That is why brand definition and management is the starting point for any online content and marketing strategy.

Once you define that promise, the next step is to decide how to communicate that promise.

Build a Process: Content Strategy and Content Marketing Reinforce Branding

If the key to any great conversation is knowing who you are—and you discover that through branding—then how do you begin to communicate with your audience in a strategic way? That’s where content strategy and content marketing provide systems and structures for your digital strategy efforts.

What Is Content Strategy?

Content strategy describes the production cycle for your digital strategy. (Remember: don’t confuse content strategy with messaging strategy. As we explained earlier, messaging is one way brands encapsulate their goals and offerings for customers.) For now, when we say content strategy we mean a production cycle for creating and managing digital content.

Systems Create Freedom

Content strategy is a system that an organization uses to plan, create, publish, analyze, and govern content. Systems create freedom; they make it much easier to make decisions and implement them. Many people feel hindered by the rules. But rules keep everyone in check, as we talked about in the introduction.

Kristina Halvorson, who wrote the defining book on content strategy, Content Strategy for the Web, explains, “Content strategy plans for the creation, delivery, and governance of useful, usable content” (Halvorson, 2010). Richard Sheffield, who wrote The Web Content Strategist’s Bible, says [Content strategy is a] “repeatable system that defines the entire editorial content development process for a website development project” (Sheffield, 2009).

Both of these definitions are helpful because they give us two focus areas:

• Useful, usable content

• Repeatable system

What Is Useful, Usable Content?

Halvorson explains that content strategy has two purposes:

1. It aligns your content with your business objectives

2. It helps your users accomplish their goals

Halvorson uses the example of putting the little weather widget on the home page of a website. While having this widget on your site is certainly fun, if you are a bank, the weather probably doesn’t really matter to users when they are interacting with your site. They want to find out how much money they have, how to set up a savings account, or how to apply for a loan. In other words: Don’t give them a totally different conversation than the one they came to you to have—that defeats the purpose of content supporting the sales process.

If the “information” you want to put on your website does not align with your business objectives or help your users accomplish their tasks, then forget about developing it into content. It won’t help you make more money (or reach your achievement threshold—your organization’s measurement of success). It won’t help your customers and therefore it’s a waste of time.

What Is a Repeatable Lifecycle?

Those are some scary words, right? But, a repeatable lifecycle is something we are all familiar with—it is like a recipe. Think of the barista at your favorite corner coffee store. (Have a particular logo in mind right now? See, the power of branding at work!)

When you walk in and order a decaf skinny vanilla latte with extra foam, do you think the barista goes to find the recipe and refers to it while he is making the drink? Unless he just started working at this coffee shop, I’d vote no. He has made that drink so many times that the bottle of sugar-free vanilla syrup is replaced at least once a day. He certainly does not need to refer to the recipe; he just does it the same way each time.

In the same way, the repeatable lifecycle Sheffield mentions refers to the idea that each of the types of content you create in your organization gets created the same way each time. That means a defined workflow is in place for your team and they know exactly who will:

• Plan

• Create

• Publish

• Distribute

• Analyze

• Govern

In this way, an effective content strategy removes all the guesswork out of execution. Just think—if your creative team didn’t have to think about all the steps needed to create and publish a piece of content, they would be free to think creatively about content.

There are many different versions of the following figure that illustrate the different phases of a content strategy. However, this is the one I feel most comfortable with; as I think governance should be the center of all activities on the web (We will learn more about that in Rule #5) (Figure 1.3).


FIGURE 1.3 Governance as the Center to Content Strategy. Ahava Leibtag. All Rights Reserved.

You can see many other versions of the repeatable content strategy lifecycle by doing a Google Image search on content strategy lifecycle. We will return to this graphic as we discuss content strategy in depth in Chapter 8.

Talk About What the Consumer Wants to Hear

The other critical piece that makes implementing a content strategy so successful is that it puts the focus back on your audience. In many organizations, marketing professionals will say they are creating content they think people will like. In reality, they are just creating content for themselves or their bosses. This is why so much content on the web is a waste of everyone’s time.

By aligning your content with your business objectives and your users’ tasks, (helping them do what they need to do), you are directing a spotlight onto your audience and customers. If you want to help your users accomplish their tasks, then you need to inquire who they are and what they need. You will learn more about this in Rule # 1 and Chapter 6.

Focus on the Customer

There’s a great story Sandler Selling System® trainers tell about this type of thinking:

One day, a young man named Brian starts working at a big box store. The philosophy at this store is that you put salespeople on the floor and train them by the sink-or-swim method—either they get it or they don’t. The general manager of that particular location is rather busy, so he shows Brian to the few aisles he will be in charge of that day—the small appliances section. Brian looks around the aisles for a few minutes, trying to familiarize himself with the products.

After about half an hour, an older woman comes into Brian’s section. He approaches her eagerly, and she tells him she wants to buy a space heater. Brian remembers where the space heaters are and he leads her down to that aisle. He then begins an instructive dialogue with her:

Brian: “Ma’am, what kind of space heater are you interested in buying?”

Woman: “I don’t know much about space heaters. Can you tell me about them?”

Brian: “Well (and he remembers what he saw on the boxes before she came in) there are two types of heaters: gas or kerosene.”

Woman: “I don’t want a gas heater. I’ve heard those can catch fire.”

Brian: “Well, we have two types of kerosene heaters. The difference between them is the heating element. One is made of ceramic and the other tungsten. How big is the room you want to heat?”

They proceed to look through the different types of space heaters and the woman leaves the store with her purchase. Along comes another prospect, and Brian helps that person. Before you know it, by the end of the week, Brian has made enough sales to put him on the list of top salespeople in the entire store.

The general manager of the store is so excited about Brian’s potential that he sends Brian for product training. At this training, different manufacturers present their products and features and explain their products’ competitive advantages. After training, Brian returns to the big box store and the general manager puts him in charge of personal electronics.

What do you think happens? Do you think Brian continued to be one of the best salespeople in the store?

Of course not. Brian didn’t make a sale that entire week following training. Why? Because Brian stopped focusing on the customers’ needs. He stopped asking them questions that would help narrow their choices so they could make an educated purchase. Instead, Brian wanted to talk about everything he knew and had just learned about the products.

Content Strategy Will Save You from Being a Brian

Don’t worry—eventually Brian learns to combine both sales techniques and becomes the best salesperson at the store. The point of the story is that we don’t ever want to lose our focus on the people who consume our content because they ultimately lead us to reaching our achievement threshold (profits, donations, patients, enrollees, and so on).

We can learn from Brian’s experience—we must always think about the kind of information our audience needs to accomplish their tasks. Otherwise we run the risk of delivering the wrong type of information and losing their attention.

We now understand that content is information you place in a format that is easily recognizable to potential customers. Content strategy is a system that gives you a step-by-step process, with analysis built-in, to publish your content successfully. So, what role does content marketing play in our process of creating a system around our digital content?

What Is Content Marketing?

Joe Pulizzi, one of the first advocates of content marketing, poses the following problem: “Consumers have simply shut off the traditional world of marketing. They own a DVR to skip television advertising, often ignore magazine advertising, and now have become so adept at online ‘surfing’ that they can take in online information without a care for banners or buttons (making them irrelevant). Smart marketers understand that traditional marketing is becoming less and less effective by the minute, and that there has to be a better way” (Pulizzi, 2012).

That Better Way Is Content Marketing

Content marketing brings content and marketing together—creating and distributing online content so that users develop an awareness of your brand. Once that seed of awareness takes root, customers are more likely to return to you when they are ready to engage. Think of it as conversational bait—if we get to talking and exchanging information long enough—you will become the service or product they choose to buy. Great content marketers understand how to have artful, thoughtful conversations.

Once the consumer is aware of your brand and trusts your content, you have achieved two vital things:

1. You’ve become a trusted resource

2. People will buy from you (or donate money or rave to their friends about you)

Consumers will seek your content for information they trust and their social interactions online will work to create a coveted brand audience. This audience in turn becomes a community so that when asked for a recommendation—online or in person, they will always recommend your product or service.

Conversations Facilitate the Sale

Brian Clark, the founder of copyblogger, a popular online blog, asks, “How do people decide to buy? … The evidence is unmistakable—the Internet has completely upended the lead generation and sales process. Prospects are not waiting to be sold to—they’re proactively gathering information, soliciting peer recommendations, and making decisions about you and your competitors … before you realize anything is happening” (Clark, 2012).

In other words, content marketing is an incredibly powerful strategy:

• You publish your content and make it freely accessible in many different places.

• When a consumer is in a buying frame of mind, he or she will “stumble” upon your content—or come to you because you are a known, respected, and trusted entity—and understand that your product or service is probably the best one.

Moving Forward with New Understanding

With a solid understanding of your brand’s identity, you can now set up an effective digital content program. We can think of it like this:

• Branding → Foundational

• Content Strategy → Execution

• Content Marketing → Tactical

The Five Basic Questions Answered

Remember as a fourth grader your teacher taught you how to write a story? Didn’t s/he say, “You must answer the following five questions: Who, What, Where, When, and How?” Well, you’ve made it way past fourth grade but you’re still asking the same basic questions. The beauty of thinking about branding as foundational to content strategy and content marketing is that you answer these questions automatically (Figure 1.4).


FIGURE 1.4 Branding Supports Content Strategy and Content Marketing. Ahava Leibtag. All Rights Reserved.

If you want content marketing to provide results for you, you must define your brand. Then you need to develop and distribute content using content strategy. Content marketing happens when you have an execution strategy.

So where do we begin? Well the right place to begin is with Rule #1. To understand what types of content to create and what will resonate with our audience, we must understand:

• Who they are

• How they think

• Where they spend their time

• How they consume information


Content begins as information, is set into a recognizable format for your audiences, and is distributed through different channels—both traditional and online. Brands are promises that define who you are as an organization and what you can deliver to your audiences.

Branding is foundational to creating content online because if you don’t understand who you are (encapsulated by your brand), you can’t properly communicate to your users. Content strategy is an online publishing strategy that accounts for the planning, creation, publishing and delivery, analysis, and governance of content.

Content marketing is about creating content that educates your consumers and befriends them. Then, when they need your services, they engage with you by buying from you, sharing with their friends, and recommending to others.

Ready to talk about starting with your customers? Let’s go.


1. Clark, B. (2012). The business case for agile content marketing http://www.scribecontent.com.

2. Colapinto, J. (2011). Famous names: Does it matter what a product is called? The New Yorker http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/10/03/111003fa_fact_colapinto. Accessed 03.10.11.

3. Crovitz, G. (2102). Who really invented the internet? http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10000872396390444464304577539063008406518.html.

4. Gallo, C. (2012). Apple store's secret sauce: 5 steps of service [video]. Forbes Magazine http://www.forbes.com/sites/carminegallo/2012/05/16/apple-stores-secret-sauce-5-teps-of-service-video/. Accessed 16.05.12.

5. Halvorson K. Content strategy for the Web. Berkeley, CA: New Riders; 2010.

6. Kelleher, B. (2013). The good, bad and ugly. Social media’s impact on your brand. RIS Media http://rismedia.com/2013-03-07/the-good-bad-and-ugly-social-medias-impact-on-your-brand/.

7. Morison, A. (2012). People power: TripAdvisor and customer hotel reviews http://www.babusinesslife.com/Stuff/Travel/People-power-TripAdvisor-and-customer-hotel-reviews.html.

8. Pulizzi, J. (2012). What is content marketing? http://contentmarketinginstitute.com/what-is-content-marketing.

9. Ritson, M. (2006). Mark Ritson on branding: Norse fire smokes out bland brands http://www.marketingmagazine.co.uk/news/534969/Mark-Ritson-branding-Norse-fire-smokes-bland-brands/?DCMP=ILC-SEARCH.

10. Segal, D. (2012). Apple’s retail army, long on loyalty but short on pay. The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/24/business/apple-store-workers-loyal-but-short-on-pay.html. Accessed 23.06.12.

11. Sheffield R. The web content strategist's bible: The complete guide to a new and lucrative career path for writers of all kinds. Atlanta: ClueFox Pub; 2009.


Start with Your Audience


Rule #1 in developing great content experiences is to know your customer. To do this, you and your team need to ask yourselves important questions. You need to determine who interacts with your content, how often they interact, and how they reach your content. You can use various research methodologies to understand your customers, including customer research, interactive data, and ethnographic studies.


persona; customer; customer research; interactive data; ethnographic studies

First, a note on the seven rules. Putting a digital strategy roadmap together is fun and exciting, but you need a system in place. I designed the seven rules to give you a clear path and framework so you can easily map where you are, envision where you want to be, and create a plan for what you need to do to get there.

Who IS on the Other End of the Line?

When we begin creating a digital strategy roadmap, we always start with “Who are we talking to?”

As a digital strategist and web writer, I have sat in countless planning meetings for web projects. Called, with ever so much optimism, “kick-off” projects, they usually consist of some of the stakeholders, a marketing manager, some of the digital team, and me.

The conversation often goes something like this:

– “Ahava, we need you to write about X because our users really care about that.”

– “Sounds good. How do you know your customers care about that?”

– “What do you mean?” Blank stares all around. “We just know.”

The above interchange is ubiquitous. Too often, companies, with the best of intentions, but in error, assume they know what types of content their customers want and, more to the point, which information about their product or service those customers want. Why does most digital content feel empty and disappointing? Because someone in the organization decided this is what customers wanted to know about without doing any research to determine if that was true.

Who Are These People?

Your content audiences are real people. They are your customers or potential customers. They might also be patients, gardeners, astrology buffs, shoppers, obsessive celebrity addicts, moms, professional athletes, writers, researchers, economists, lawyers, doctors, children, adolescents, and senior citizens.

First of All, Stop Calling Them Users!

Nomenclature matters. If you ask yourself why we ignore our customers, the answer might be that we don’t see them as people like us; instead we refer to them as “users.” Gerry McGovern highlights the problems inherent in the term user in his article, “We Have Customers, Not Users.” He begins with a quote from Jack Dorsey, the creator of Twitter:

“‘It’s time for our industry and discipline to reconsider the word user,’ Jack Dorsey, creator of Twitter and founder and CEO of Square recently wrote. ‘We speak about user-centric design, user benefit, user experience, active users, and even usernames. While the intent is to consider people first, the result is a massive abstraction away from real problems people feel on a daily basis.’ I couldn’t agree more. The single biggest challenge I have faced since I started consulting on web issues in 1994 is getting my clients (and me) to truly understand that real, human, flesh and bone people come to their websites.”

(McGovern, 2012)

So, the first rule is: these are real people, customers, not “users” and we will call them customers for the rest of The Digital Crown.

Depending on your organization’s product or service, they can span many ages, interests, and educational levels.

The first rule in marketing is “Know Your Audience.” Often you read content on a company’s website and find their focus is completely on themselves: what they can do, how great they are at everything, how amazingly their products will change your world forever. Don’t they know the only person the reader cares about is the reader?

Readers think about what they need. What they don’t want is to hear a company toot its horn; it’s a massive turn-off. They want the company to demonstrate the value of the product or service they are seeking.

What Do Our Customers Want?

We know our customers are looking for information. We also need to know the state-of-mind they might be in while they are searching: What’s most important to them at this moment?

Let’s think of it like this: If I asked you to build me a house, would you just start building? Or would you find out what type of house you should build? You’d probably ask me the following before you started (Leibtag, 2010):

• How many people will live in your house?

• What is your budget?

• What size is the plot of land?

• How many bathrooms do you want?

• How many kitchens do you want?

If I asked you to buy me a car, you’d probably ask:

• How big a car do you want?

• How many people will you be transporting on a regular basis?

• What is your budget?

• Is the cost of gas important to you?

• Do you prefer leather or fabric seats?

• Do you like the feel of a racecar underneath your fingertips?

It’s no different with content: We can’t possibly create content unless we know what will make sense for our customers. We are having a conversation with them; it’s our job to make them feel the conversation was worth their time.

Creating content is like creating any other product. And, as with a car or house, you can’t possibly give the customer what he wants if you don’t know him. So let’s get to know him.

Getting to Know Your Customers—The Tools

Never make assumptions about your customers. Instead, spend time getting to know who they are. Once you make the commitment to get to know your audience instead of assuming you already know them, you need to have a framework for this discovery. Luckily, there are tools and criteria that provide you with a full, rich characterization of your intended audience.

These tools and criteria for defining your audience should include:

1. Customer Personas (also called user personas, but we’re trying to banish that word from our vocabularies)

2. Audience Research

3. Understanding Content Access

#1: Customer Personas

A customer persona is a full-blown description of your customer. To fully understand someone, you need to know as much as you can about him or her. An excellent metaphor for this type of research is falling in love. That type of obsessive curiosity is necessary so you can truly get to know your target audiences.

Do you remember the first time you fell in love? Or, maybe every time you did? There is something so delicious about that all-consuming feeling of wanting to know everything about the other person: What kind of childhood did he have? Is she thinking about me as much as I’m thinking about her? What’s his mother like? What does she like to do on the weekend?

You spend those thrilling first months exploring that other person so you know everything. That insatiable curiosity is critical to the survival of our species. If we didn’t fall in love, we wouldn’t consider the possibility of a future with that person. We ask all of those questions to know if that person is right for us for the long-term.

THAT is how you should approach your audience—with passion and deep curiosity. Just like lovebirds, marketers need to know everything about the audience whose attention they crave, so they can communicate with them effectively.

You have to become your customer to understand your customer. And yet, so many of the executives I meet and work with have very little or no exposure to their audiences (Leibtag, 2012).

You can become your customer by developing one or more of these “customer personas.” In marketing, we refer to it as audience—or customer—segmentation. Think of “customer personas” as real people—the actual individuals that you are trying to reach—Mary, Kate, Joe, and Mike. Your team should create several of them and breathe life into them, making them real.

In Chapter 6, we will discuss persona development in greater detail. We will also talk about a tool called interactive scenarios, which will help you understand

Knowing Your Customer—Avoid the Dreaded “Marketing-Up” Syndrome

If you are a marketing executive, chances are you have a degree, went to university or college, and have advanced professional qualifications. This means your life may look different from your target audience. So, as fascinating as you are, you don’t look like your audience, sound like your audience, or act like your audience. In short, you’re suffering from “marketing-up syndrome.” This means that you are marketing to an audience like yourself, but not to the audience you’re really trying to reach.

I have written a tremendous amount of content for healthcare organizations: Plain language and concepts are critical for customers. If a hospital’s website reads like a Ph.D. thesis, patients may be concerned that the doctors will talk to them using words they have to look up in a dictionary. I spend time educating medical professionals that we must use simple vocabulary if we want patients to feel a sense of comfort and security while reading their content.

People don’t want to have to sit with a dictionary and decipher content. They prefer plain language, conversational tones, and engaging content. Plain language is not dumbing down your content. It’s about picking words customers understand.

So how do you cure marketing-up syndrome? Go spend time where your audience spends time. If you’re marketing for hospitals, spend time with patients. If you’re selling cars, hang out at car dealerships. If you’re marketing higher education, spend time with seniors in high school who are choosing colleges or adults who are considering going back to school.

how and when your audience accesses your content. By sketching these various use case scenarios, you will be able to make better decisions about where, when, and in what formats you publish your content.

#2: Audience Research

Your goal is to create a picture of each of the members of your audience. You want to find out why they would want to buy your product or donate to your cause. To do this, you must have data. This means research.

Strong research gives you a wide platform on which to base your decisions, and concrete data with which to make good decisions now and later. Popular online marketing blogger Delray Phoenix says it well, “Market research cost and effectiveness, if done right, will become invaluable to a company that is starting a campaign … and getting their products evaluated. Without researching the target audience, their wants and needs, and effective cost control measures, companies would be taking big shots in the dark with their products and services, potentially losing tons of money in the process” (Delray, 2011).

Try to triangulate your data to ensure you are coming to the right conclusions. With three different research approaches, you will see where the data converges and your customer personas will bubble to the top. The three approaches for audience research are:

• Customer Research

• Interactive Data

• Ethnographic Studies

Customer Research

Customer research involves a scientific approach to gathering data about your audience. Don’t call it market research—like the term “users,” the term “market research” de-personalizes what you are doing. Your company will probably need to outsource this research. While the mere thought of spending that money may scare the C-suite, this may be the best money your company ever spends.

The Three Questions You Need to Answer

There are three critical questions you need to answer to know your customers:

1. Who are our customers?

2. What do they care about?

3. Where do they spend their time so we can engage with them?

You can use the following types of research to learn about your customers:

Focus groups: Facilitators ask a group of people their opinions about a product or service in an interactive setting where they are free to speak with other group members.

Surveys/Polling: Individuals fill out questionnaires or respond to in-person interviews as a way of gathering data. Ad tracking research, also known as post-testing or ad effectiveness tracking, is research that monitors a brand’s performance, including brand and advertising awareness, product trial and usage, and attitudes about the brand versus their competition.

Consumer trends by geographical markets: Use this to analyze consumer behavior by geographic location.

Interactive Data

Let’s consider a customer: Sarah is buying a couch and needs to do price research on different styles. Customer Sarah comes to your furniture store website every other day. She looks at the home page, uses the interactive comparison to check on the prices of a few products, and then she exits your site. Sometimes she goes ahead and puts the product in the shopping cart, but she never buys. Why does Sarah leave your site without paying for the items in her cart?

To really know that answer, you’d have to ask Sarah. She may not have enough money. She may want to think about it for a while. Sarah may not be able to decide between bisque and mushroom color paint, so she doesn’t want to commit to a couch until she makes that decision. By examining the following metrics, you can understand key behaviors:

• Search data

• Analytics data (we discuss this further in this Rule)

• Click-through rates from your digital ads

• Facebook likes

• Engagement on social media

Patterns often emerge from your data; you can draw conclusions about why potential consumers behave the way they do. By better understanding customer behavior, you can discover what you’d like to change. Then, you can experiment using different types of content and layouts to see if those changes affect customer behavior patterns. When you compare two different designs and/or content to each other, it’s called A/B testing. “A” stands for the first, and “B” for the second. Depending on which one “wins” the testing, you can move ahead with that format.

Ethnographic Studies

Ethnography is the practice of observing a group of people in order to determine how they live, interact, and work. Ethnographic studies in marketing include:

Mystery shopping: A mystery shopper performs specific tasks such as purchasing a product, asking questions, registering complaints, and then provides detailed reports or feedback about his experiences.

Observational studies: Researchers watch customer behavior in a real setting—sometimes covertly.

User experience assessments: Consumers interact with a product and comment on their experience.

Ethnography is helpful because you can learn about how people interact in a real-world environment.

#3: Access to Your Content

You need to know how and when your audience accesses content. What devices (smartphones, tablets, laptops, and so on) do they use? When are they most likely to read your content? What is their preferred method of accessing your content? The answers to these questions will give you powerful knowledge about when and how to publish your content.

You can learn the answers to these questions with an analytics program. An analytics program gives you important information about how many people visit your site, how long they stay, which pages they use to enter and exit, as well as where your visitors come from. Analytics programs run in the code behind your site and tally these vital statistics.

Google Analytics is a popular, free option, but there are many analytics packages available. By analyzing this data, you can know when and with which devices your audience accesses your content.

Now You Have Tools

After you collect and collate the data, you should have a good picture of what your customers look and act like. Assembling all this data will result in strong personas you can use to create content moving forward. As I mentioned above, we will discuss how to create and use customer personas in Chapter 6.

Once you know who they are and how they behave, it’s much easier to describe their motivation for engaging with your brand or product. And once you do that, you’re in much better shape to target them.

Case in Point—Nike

In a CNNMoney article, Scott Cendrowski explains how Nike completely changed its marketing between 2010 and 2011. In a reassessment of its marketing strategy, Nike came to an interesting conclusion—its “… core customer [is] a 17-year-old who spends 20 percent more on shoes than his adult counterparts, [and] has given up television to skip across myriad online communities.” (Cendrowski, 2012).

Not only does Nike think it can do without the mega-TV campaigns of old, the company makes the bold assertion that the digital world allows the brand to interact even more closely with its consumers—maybe as closely as it did in its early days, when founder Phil Knight sold track shoes out of his car in the 1960s. That’s a major change in marketing direction for a global company. As Nike CEO Mark Parker explained in the article, “Connecting used to be, Here’s some product, and here’s some advertising. We hope you like it [but] connecting today is a dialogue.” In other words, brand connection comes through conversations.

In addition, there was a realization that today’s consumers are not as into hero worship as the world once was. Instead, today’s consumer depends more on his or her peers for their opinions. In making this change, Nike didn’t abandon the ad agency it’s been using for decades, but instead, broadened its advertising interests among other companies, some of whom are experts at social and digital media.

Lesson learned? Customer research pays. Even the largest, most successful companies don’t stop assessing and re-assessing who their customers are and what they want. In fact, the most successful companies are constantly defining and understanding their customers: That’s why they’re successful. You can’t take your eye off the ball for a second, and the ball is your customers.


In order to create a robust and successful digital strategy, you must do research on your customers: who they are, what they read, how they read it, what types of content they consume, what they care about, what resonates with them, etc.

Understanding your different audiences is complex in an environment in which you may have dozens of persona types. But it’s important to know who you are talking to before you start thinking about content, delivery, and design. Once you understand your audience, it’s much easier to put the building blocks in place for elegant and robust content. In order to understand your customers, you must:

• Do market research on who they are

• Look at your analytics data for insight into your customers’ behaviors online

• Spend time with them to see what they care about

• Create personas for them (see Chapter 6)

• Know how they consume media and which devices they use to do so

Now that we’ve discussed Rule #1, about putting your audience first and keeping them there always, we’re going to talk about how to make the business case for content with your senior executive management. Understanding how content fuels the sales process will prove invaluable as you ask for broader organizational support for content.


1. Cendrowski, S. (2012, February 13). Nike’s new marketing mojo. Retrieved from http://management.fortune.cnn.com/2012/02/13/nike-digital-marketing/.

2. Delray, P. (2011, November 15). Market research cost and effectiveness. Retrieved from http://market-research.ezinemark.com/market-research-cost-and-effectiveness-31abce6a943.html.

3. Leibtag, A. (2010, September 21). What a content strategist needs a web designer to know [Blog post adaptation]. Retrieved from http://onlineitallmatters.blogspot.com/2010/09/what-content-strategist-wants-web.html.

4. Leibtag, A. (2012, June 26). Stop marketing up (Adapted). Retrieved from http://www.econtentmag.com/Articles/Column/Content-Ahas!/Stop-Marketing-Up-83389.htm.

5. McGovern, G. (2012, October 21). We have customers, not users [Blog]. Retrieved from http://www.gerrymcgovern.com/new-thinking/we-have-customers-not-users.