There should be a word that describes that combination of indignation and deflation you get when you realise you’re being sold to with a piece of branded content. How about “indig-flation”? It’s that feeling you get when you’re watching a funny video on YouTube, then it ends with a product shot. Or when you’re reading an article on a website, and it concludes with telling you to buy something. Or when you go to a presentation which promises “strategies for managing remote workers”, and it turns out to be a 45-minute product spruik for some overpriced piece of software.
I’d pre-booked my spot in the seminar based on the title alone. I’ve had a few employees who wanted to ‘work from home’ over the years, and it generally seemed to mean “pay me to go shopping”. So I really, really wanted some good strategies to manage a remote workforce.
People who pre-booked the seminar got let in first, and we filed past the standby queue feeling smug. This was a big conference, with thousands of attendees, and yes, people had to wait in line to get into even the small sessions. But it was in the US, and Americans seem to love queuing, so there was no aggro. Just a vague feeling of superiority on my part for being so organised.
All of that disappeared ten minutes into the seminar.
Branded content is just PR
What’s this got to do with branded content? The link is that for a while now, there’s been confusion as to what branded content is, exactly. And I think a good workable definition is that it is content about your brand. So it’s what we used to call PR.
If that sounds dismissive, I don’t mean it to: the global CEO of The Branded Content Marketing Association said recently: “As the discipline that looks after reputation, with the aim of earning understanding and support and influencing opinion and behaviour, PR agencies have actually been doing this since time in memorial (sic).”
So it’s different to content that is designed to build audiences, or content that is pitched at the top of your sales funnel, or the middle. People at the top of the sales funnel aren’t ready to engage with your brand—they’re just trying to solve their own problems.
Branded content is very specifically pitched at the bottom of the funnel—at leads who are ready to buy, and just want to know why your company (or product) is better than the alternatives.
What this feels like to a customer
The guy giving the seminar started out the same way everyone does, by introducing himself and his firm. Fair enough, I thought. He’s establishing expertise. But after a solid five minutes of talking about his credentials, he moved on to the subject at hand. “How do you manage remote workers?” he asked. “By using this call-centre software.”
It was just a straight sales pitch. People started getting up and walking out. I closed my laptop and listened for a few more minutes, waiting for some insight that didn’t involve just buying something. It never came.
As I left, it occurred to me that if I wasn’t so annoyed I may give his product some consideration. But I couldn’t get past that feeling of having been tricked. And frankly, it irked me. I’d identify what his company was, but to be honest, in a fit of pique, I deleted the few notes I took.
Hitting customers with low-hanging fruit
The seminar was, to my mind, branded content. The message he was trying to impart was central to his brand. But because I was nowhere near the bottom of the sales funnel for this product, it actually had the opposite effect.
I understand why he did it, and why any marketer would focus just on these bottom-of-the-funnel customers. That’s the low-hanging fruit, right? They’re the ones you don’t have to put much effort into finding, or nurturing, and they’ll get you the quickest return.
The problem with this approach is you are stuck in the same ever-decreasing loop as you are with advertising. You have to reach a wider and wider audience, get greater and greater reach, in order to find the few people who have already educated themselves enough to be interested in your specific product.
Advertising isn’t only annoying because it interrupts you when you want to watch something else. It’s also annoying when it pushes you to buy something you’re not ready to buy. Especially if you, as a consumer, are feeling manipulated or mislead.
Focusing all your marketing efforts on the bottom of the funnel can alienate some people who, with a bit of nurturing, could well have turned into customers.
The funnel that isn’t a funnel
I know this sounds like I’m ragging on PR agencies who have just rebranded themselves. But I’m not. Many content marketing agencies are guilty of the opposite—of only focussing on the top of the sales funnel.
Content marketers often put forward the idea that all you need is subscribers. Once you have a loyal and interested audience, all sorts of goodness will flow from there. Not just more sales, but greater, more meaningful, interactions with that audience.
I regularly listen to podcasts coming out of the Content Marketing Institute in the US, and that is a recurring theme in those podcasts. I also recently read an article that suggested the same thing: that content marketing success should only be measured by your ability to earn subscribers.
I really like the article, and agree that great content can do all the things the writer suggests. But I also believe that ignoring or avoiding links between content and sales is a luxury that few businesses can afford.
If you only focus on top-of-the-funnel content, you are taking the metaphor of a sales funnel too literally. You’re assuming that if you pile enough pressure up the top, sales will just trickle down and drop out the bottom. Or that someone else will magically take care of the interactions at the bottom of the funnel.
US content marketing experts Ardath Albee and Andrew Davis have both done wonderful presentations about how the sales funnel isn’t really a funnel, but more a sort of (often out-of-control) continuum. Without some kind of meaningful, identifiable path to the next step in the process, customers could just float around the top of your sales funnel forever.
Stuck in the middle with you
Who’s taking care of the middle? At the moment, it’s marketing automation software. You can always tell when someone’s selling you marketing automation software, because they gloss over the the process of making top-of-the-funnel content with generalisations that make it sound easy. “Just start by producing some remarkable content”, they say. Or “First thing you have to do is produce 10x content”, as if that’s the easy bit. 10x content, by the way, is marketing jargon for content that’s 10 times better than anything else on the same topic.
Imagine if someone told you, “Publishing a newspaper is easy. You just start by getting a whole pile of Pulitzer prize-winning articles.”
There are few, if any, companies who could do that. Publishers and broadcasters have been trying to do that for years, and they can’t.
This is where the marketing automation pitch comes in. No matter which software you use—and there’s a lot out there—they all do basically the same thing. You set up a series of if-then pathways. Then the software sends an email out to a lead based on their previous behaviour. If they have (or haven’t) given you a certain amount of information, you keep spamming them with options for other content until you have enough data on someone, and enough proof of engagement, to justify calling them.
That process can, in theory, work for any product, although you can see why it may be more successful for B2B products, which have longer lead times for sales, and better margins. You can also see it as a live experiment that you can tweak on the go based on the results you’re getting. But again, that’s assuming that your sales funnel works like a funnel.
The way through to sales
So different suppliers focus on different levels of the sales funnel. Few focus on every level. If you’re relying on a supplier of branded content to increase your sales, you’re probably hitting your head against a metaphorical wall. If you’re relying on a content marketer to just create lots of fascinating, top-of-the-funnel stuff, you’re probably sweating bullets waiting for sales to appear that never do.
And if you’ve invested in marketing automation software without paying attention to the content at each stage of the process, you’re just making spam.
You have two possible solutions to your problem. The first is to change your goals, then set about the tricky task of selling the idea that you no longer need to make actual sales. The second solution is to change your strategy, and make sure you can create content not only for the top and bottom of the funnel—but also something sensible to connect the two.