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Quality Content Helps Drive Sales

There’s a saying: “An educated customer is the best customer.” Informative content begins the process that leads customers to make new purchases. Every day, consumers go online to find information to help them with pressing decisions.

But most commerce sites lack the relevant content that their customers crave. From the customer’s perspective, the average commerce site is little more than an elaborate vending machine.

In effect, there is a content gap that restricts commerce sites from living up to their potential with their target audience. So it comes as no surprise that commerce sites that can add compelling content will win the battle for customers.

The effect of the content gap is easily witnessed by looking at the difficulties faced by online marketers. From a corporate perspective, the online world has divided itself into neat, traditional roles: content providers and commerce sites. While this puts everyone in familiar territory, it misses the true opportunities created by the medium, and the resulting outcomes are underwhelming for the average customer.

Consumers are not surfing; they are looking for answers and assistance with problems. As a result, customers spend their time on the information-rich sites of content providers while commerce companies go fishing on these sites with the lure of banners and other gimmicks. As the Internet audience matures, it views these attempts as mere distractions and learns to tune them out. Marketers are left increasingly frustrated and desperate in their efforts to make legitimate connections with their customers.

In growing numbers, marketing departments are seeing that relevant content is the missing element that can establish the Internet’s role in their company’s overall communications strategy.

Consumers form opinions online. The Internet is best seen as a natural starting point in the decision-making process that results in purchases. And while customers begin their information hunts online, the transactions that result may take place through any channel.

To the benefit of all sales channels, corporations are extending their online efforts beyond merchandising and transaction processing by using content to address their customers in terms of their broader, underlying needs. But with this move to more relevant content comes new challenges and unfamiliar decisions.

Content on the Internet can be classified as high in quantity and uncertain in quality. To be effective, corporate sites must provide their customers with content that is of appropriate quantity and certain quality.

Here are step-by-step guidelines to the content development and management process:

Identification. Figure out what content addresses the daily needs of your audience. You need to discover the relevant topics and develop a way to classify and present content intuitively.

Acquisition. Find experts who can write about these needs. There are lots of sources that may be suitable contributors, such as professionals, academics and institutions. But each category has strengths and weaknesses, and every individual source comes with its own copyright issues, usage terms and compensation expectations. Effective rights management and contributor relations are critical to providing good content that does not break the bank.

Production. This entails taking content from various sources and formats and distilling it in a unified, consistent presentation, one with predictable layout and a consistent voice to maximize the usability of the content.

Validation. After production, content should be reviewed and validated to ensure that it still communicates the original message and to make sure there are no issues that may be legally contentious or suggest courses of action that could put the corporation in an undesirable situation.

Publishing. Make content presentation-ready for the Web and load it into systems that will display and manage the content. Adapt the content to different formats that match your audience’s various levels of interest, knowledge and available time. The same material can be covered in a variety of formats. For example, the same underlying materials can be repurposed as a brief article, an in-depth tutorial or a quick checklist.

Maintenance. Keeping the content fresh means adding new material and updating or removing the old. This requires a deliberate process with specific guidelines.

On top of all this, you need the expertise to oversee and manage the process. The concepts that are coming into play are not traditional marketing skills. Fortunately, there’s a world of existing concepts and techniques to draw upon, in particular the disciplines of adult learning theory, curriculum development and instructional design.

Responsibility for internal content development and content management is not to be taken lightly. It doesn’t take long before the magnitude of these tasks grows to require dedicated resources. And take note – the last thing a content strategy can afford is for the content to sound as if marketers wrote it. Adding content for content’s sake could be worse than having no content at all.

Still, that seems the easiest solution for many, and if you look outside your organization, many willing content sources and partnerships are available. But quick-hit efforts to tack up content from a third party, credible or otherwise, can easily dilute the brand equity of a site.

Make sure you retain the primacy of your brand. Far too often, companies that partner receive a piecemeal, “slap your logo on it” approach to content design that leaves them with a disjointed and confusing mix of elements on their site.

Don’t go into this blindly or you’ll get a lot more headaches than you bargained for. But with the right expertise and attention to detail, you can open your site to a whole new level of customer experience and improved marketing results.

With the right content, corporations can offer their customers a far more relevant and compelling Web site. Ultimately, content fuels commerce. Content that engages customers opens a wide array of content-driven online opportunities for marketing.

Marketers who employ the right content management techniques will begin to fulfill the potential of the Internet for their business and customers.

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