Think about two little toddlers playing, and imagine giving them some toys. For example let’s say we give them a Thomas the Tank Engine. Even if you instruct them how to play with the trains, kids will design their own routines and come up with their own stories.

Marketing departments should approach content in a similar manner.

Instead of trying to produce and control the message, they should focus on providing the building blocks so that their customers (and others in the ecosystem) can easily share their own experiences. This content will probably be more useful because it will be written by people who have gone through similar experiences to their customers. A computer programmer will use the same language and same idioms as another programmer.

Contrary to popular belief, you can never create a predictable and unified customer experience, as the customer experience gets formed in the mind of the customer and not in the actual transaction. You can never write up content that will appeal to a broad spectrum of users and satisfy every user case.

The user experience is based on a customer's context and is mostly totally outside of the company's control. The user experience is based on how people use your product. However, if you are really good at observing behavior and have good analytics, you will notice some predictable and not so predictable behavior.

The Content Funnel is Dead

Most businesses focus on and use the traditional top down funnel, sprinkling with their home grown content (white papers, articles, information guides, e-books, podcasts and webinars) along the way as a way to reel prospects in.

However, the funnel is dead. According to McKinsey, “A more sophisticated approach is required to help marketers navigate this environment, which is less linear and more complicated than the funnel suggests.” They call this consumer decision journey, and emphasize that it is applicable to any product, any market and every type of customer.

If marketing has one goal, it’s to reach consumers at the moments that most influence their decisions. Content marketing is more than words on a web page. It encompasses the complete user experience, both on their site and on other interactive platforms. Therefore, marketers need to think of content in terms of site functionality, site information architecture/navigation, how they participate on other networks (Facebook, Third party communities, etc.) and platforms (smartphones, etc.), and how they create user contribution systems. Mainly, it is about how they enable customers to contribute.

Content Marketing’s Influence is No Longer Controlled by the Brand

McKinsey’s research shows,

two-thirds of the touch points during the active-evaluation phase involve consumer-driven marketing activities, such as Internet reviews and word-of-mouth recommendations from friends and family, as well as in-store interactions and recollections of past experiences.”

Marketers need to concentrate less on traditional push style communications and more on customer driven touch points. These include "likes," "follows," "share" and other word of mouth methods.

Companies Still Try to Control the Message

A recent survey from Curata highlighted that most marketers consider some of their top priorities to be creating and curating their own content, gaining thought leadership, elevating buzz and providing Google SEO juice. The challenges for doing these tasks are that they take time and require a lot of bodies. Most importantly, however, it is not want consumers want!

Let's look at the most popular commerce website, Amazon: many customers often read the reviews before the company product descriptions. So it amazes me that companies still make it a challenge for users to contribute their own content or that marketing tries to control content on their own site. Instead, they should make it easy for people to share their own thoughts.

Even automobiles are in the content business. Today, they provide a suite of services such as GPS navigation, OnStar in-vehicle security, communications, diagnostics systems and access to the Internet. Each of these requires content -- some of which can be user created and some of which is written by the manufacturer to be packaged around some functionality.

Have you ever seen an OnStar Owner's manual? Even though it is better than most user manuals (Only 50 pages and with some icons), if I had my druthers, I would crowdsource some or all of it, especially the “potential issues you might encounter" section. (Note: I could not find a mobile version of their owner’s manual. How many people are going to open up their lap tops once they are in their vehicle).

As Scott Cook, founder of Intuit, indicated in his groundbreaking Harvard Business School Review article, “User contribution systems aggregate and leverage various types of user input in ways that are valuable to others.” The advantages are significant: lowers cost, accelerates content output, creates value and makes everyone in the ecosystem a contributor.

Some Final Recommendations

As Scott Cook explains, “User contribution systems challenge some of the basic tenants and beliefs about the role of managers, role of experts, and role of quality control.” Marketers need to engage with the members of their ecosystem (customers, suppliers, partners, etc.) by giving them the ability to share their personal experiences. To do this, it should make marketing everyone in the organization's job to help shepherd the process along. Here are some simple steps to get started:

  • Set up a small cross-functional team to prevent marketing from telling an engineer just what to build. Map out potential customer touch points both on your own platforms as well as on other company sites (include mobile which will be a different experience than purely web-based).
  • Have employees volunteer for different touch points they want to nurture and develop (everyone takes ownership).
  • Encourage them to experiment and to start by identifying potential users who might want to contribute and where they might want to contribute to.
  • Develop your own content around each of these touch points, but also invite users to contribute (start with small experiments and build from there).
  • Set up tracking capability at each touch point and have the same metrics (more or less) for each stage.
  • Adjust and update your touch point strategy based on user behavior.
  • Remember to focus on the more educational oriented content, teaching individuals about a relevant business process (posting on Twitter, designing a webinar) and then providing promotional content.
  • Seek organizational buy-in only after getting some solid success.

Editor's Note: To read more by Scott K. Wilder:

-- Social Business = Humanized Business