Bridging the Creative Gap

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From a Shu Uemura UGC-based campaign (see page 2): Courtesy
From a Shu Uemura UGC-based campaign (see page 2): Courtesy

Marketing guru Mark Schaefer sounded the alarm in 2014.  The content model will fall apart, he argued. Content supply is exploding, while demand is now relatively flat. An audience once eager for online content now finds it has only so many hours in the day.

There are economic conundrums with content marketing too. “It's tempting to think of content as a ‘free' marketing strategy, but it isn't,” wrote Dan Shewan of Wordstream. As the volume of available content continues to explode, the cost of producing an effective signal heard above the noise steadily grows too. To find an audience, content quality needs to be ever higher. Whether you're creating content in-house or outsourcing the task, the cost—in both dollars and time—is likely to climb. This graphic puts the choices starkly.

Not only does a viable content model demand quality: It increasingly demands quantity too. Marketing automation is threatening to go beyond identifying a plurality of audience segments towards the dream of individually personalized messaging—going one-on-one with the customer to provide a personalized experience.

The potential for doing that at scale is thrilling. But where's the benefit if you lack the time, budget, and overall visibility into your content marketing operations, to develop and optimize creative strategies for all those targets?

Here are some insights shared with me by Mike Trigg, COO of Hightail, the creative collaboration and project management platform, which reflects the scope of the challenge:

  • More than 70 percent of B2B and B2C companies plan on creating more content in the coming year
  • A top challenge is coordination and communication/collaboration across teams—especially given that more than 50 percent rely on agencies and external freelancers for key skills
  • Companies struggling with their content marketing programs attribute the problems to lack of time and content creation challenges

Mind the Gap

Put these factors together, and you have what we've been calling “the creative gap”—the gap between being able to identify and reach individual prospects at scale, and having relevant, high quality content to deliver. Make no mistake, marketing technology has—or should have—a very big stake in this challenge being successfully met. Although adoption of marketing automation has grown rapidly, it's market penetration is still low; even microscopic (three percent) among non-technology brands. One reason, surely, is that a lot of people can't figure out what they'd do with the shiny new toy.

Don't look to this article for a definitive solution to the problem. What we do offer are a series of interlinked approaches which any brand with multiple audiences and multiple products needs to consider. Here's the bottom line:

  • Planning is paramount. Audit your processes and root out wasted effort
  • For many businesses, some kind of creative management technology may be a smart investment; especially if you've invested in marketing automation already
  • Think outside the box when it comes to sourcing content, but take a holistic view of creative across campaigns and channels
  • Measure results and optimize.

Now the nitty gritty.

Look Upstream

“We've gotten very good at a lot of the last-mile processes,” James Gross agreed. “The black box,” he said, “is upstream—and no part of the marketing process should be black box.” Gross is co-founder and President of Percolate, the productivity-focused marketing software vendor, and he was reflecting on marketing's need for more serious operational disciplines. “It's a systems problem,” said. Henry Ford's not just famous for automobiles, but for creating a supply chain system to manufacture them at scale. In the past, Gross said, marketers haven't needed that kind of system, but with “content growing at an incredible rate,” times have changed.

Start with an audit, he suggests, and root out “unplanned work” (a term of art in manufacturing and IT). There's a lot of unplanned work going on in marketing—especially around social marketing—and it needs to be systematized. If your content marketing processes still run through email or Excel-type spreadsheets, he said, you have a problem: But replacing them with a dashboard, while a good idea, isn't the whole answer. “I hear ‘dashboard' everywhere I go,” he said, “And yes, that's what we want to build. But first you have to describe and explain every stage of the process.”

Alex Cheeseman also wanted to start upstream. Cheeseman is Global Head of Strategy for the content marketing platform Newscred. A full understanding of "the content to commerce journey” is something which, he said, “has eluded a lot of marketers for a long time. They need to move away from fluffy vanity metrics and start being rigorous about what they do.” It's very difficult, he said, when parts of the content puzzle sit with different teams within the organization. Like Gross, he called for “operational efficiency.”

Where's the Value?

Cheeseman identified three main challenges:

  1. The struggle to put a dollar value against every piece of content—every ad, every page view.
  2. A lack of trust that content is actually building brand equity­—especially in an environment where consumers are blocking ads, and a high proportion of traffic is fraudulent.
  3. That “everybody is doing content in some shape or form,” leading to a disconnected customer journey.

There's been a big shift in the way brands think about content in just the last eighteen months, Cheeseman said. “Brands are at the point of asking, what value is it driving for the business?” Demonstrating ROI on content can start to move budgets, Cheeseman said.

I asked if it can also reduce costs by identifying ineffective content strategies. “One hundred percent,” Cheeseman agreed. “The problem we as consumers face is not quantity but quality.” We don't wish for more content, he pointed out, but for better content. Too many brands are “hitting 'publish' with mediocre or me-too vanilla content,” he said. “There's no point creating content that is less than excellent or not in a nice environment” where people are going to want to consume it.

“Have a framework,” he said. “Take bite-sized pieces and get the machine working.” And aim for “a few great pieces of content.”

First the Strategy, Then the Stack

Victor Wong, CEO of creative management platform Thunder, agreed too: “There's all this targeting capability, but a lack of creative.”  Coming up with a creative strategy, he said, is the place to start, and he had three key pieces of advice:

  1. “It's not about having 100 percent unique content for every audience. A brand can have one to three big ideas; it's harder coming up with fifty.” But you can adapt those ideas for different audiences.
  2. Think about timing. “It's not about delivering one big piece of content and expecting the customer to sort through it.” Break content up to deliver it in bite-sized pieces over the course of the customer journey.
  3. Don't worry that you're going to run out of things to talk about. If a brand is customer-centric, there's no end to what can be discussed. Let customers tell their own stories.

Once you have the strategy, you do need the technology to execute it—and on the content side, Wong said, “that's a little less developed.” Photoshop, he said, is going to be necessary, but it's not built to deal with things like creative versioning at scale.  

Any brand which has invested in marketing automation solutions like Marketo or Pardot should consider some kind of creative management technology, Wong said, “definitely for the mid-market and up, but also for emerging companies getting to the stage where they need to start thinking about multiple products, multiple audiences, multiple regions.” Creative Management Platforms as such, like Thunder's programmatic version, are heavily geared to advertising, but there are also many solutions available for collaboratively planning and executing multi-channel marketing campaigns.

Depending on an individual brand's circumstances and needs, Wong told me, using the right platform might produce a twenty-fold increase in creative productivity with the right platform and strategy. “Investment in content is only increasing at this point, and there's no turning back,” he said.

Creative Doesn't Grow on Trees (or Does It?)

"You don't have to come up with everything yourself," continued Wong. A travel brand, for example, can easily aggregate topical content from third party sources around its offerings (with permissions, of course). Discovering and re-purposing social content, or UGC ("user generated content") is one way of stretching a creative budget. Here's how Cheeseman laid out the creative sourcing options:

  1. Owned creative: In-house, created by salaried staff (there's a time cost)
  2. Paid creative: Out-sourced, created by a publisher or agency (expensive)
  3. Licensed content: Permitted re-purposing of content already created by a publisher (again, there can be a cost barrier)
  4. UGC

But UGC isn't just plentiful and inexpensive. Wayin is a social content management platform. CEO Richard Jones told me: "The number of [social] channels is proliferating and each has its own nuances. There's a great appreciation of the need to create great content which is also niche for particular channels." What's more, UGC needn't be on a separate track from brand-generated content. Marketers should "think holistically about squeezing every dollar of value" and consider UGC as a way of extending the long-tail of a brand campaign. Centrally created campaigns can also serve as catalysts to drive additional UGC, Jones said.

For Jeff Soriano, Senior Director of Demand Generation at digital marketing platform Wyng (formerly Offerpop), brands "have a very hard time reaching consumers, especially on social channels. Ads are ignored." UGC solves for lack of interest, especially when it comes from someone in a consumer's own network. It also helps solve the content shortage problem. "The shelf life [of content] is shrinking," said Soriano. Among CPGs there might be one to four major campaign activations per year. UGC can be leveraged to support a lot of smaller activations for smaller groups of consumers—"more targeted and relevant"—and the results, in turn, can inform the larger activations.

One success story Soriano described featured a high-end L'Oreal hair product brand, Shu Uemura. With limited resources for a campaign, Shu Uemura engaged the stylist community in a photo contest involving new looks. The campaign, driven through Wyng's platform, emphasized "how people use the products rather than the products themselves," Soriano explained. The stylists had relatively small individual social networks, but sharing created the desired ripple effect, and Shu Uemera hit some worthwhile brand affinity KPIs—a 22 percent increase in Instagram follows, for example.

"It's a big shift for brand managers," Soriano admits, but better than "throwing a hashtag out there and hoping for the best."

Contest finalists in New York City:

Manage Your Assets

Finally, whatever the source of your content, managing creative assets—and their many versions—is crucial (some creative management solutions will include Digital Asset Management, or DAM). "A great asset management system plus great analytics" was Cheeseman's prescription, and he warned that relying on Google Analytics to evaluate content performance was not enough. "Test and learn. Find out what's working, what's hitting the goals you set out for. Take the insights and filter them back into the content."

The one thing which won't work with content marketing, as with anything else, is doing the same thing over and over again—and expecting different and better results. "Most important thing for me," said Cheeseman, "are the most dangerous words a business has: 'We've always done it that way.'"

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