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Dear cmo part II:  place
the voice-of-the-customer
at the center of all you do

By Mike Antonczyk and Matt Hirschland Ph.D.

In Part I, “Dear CMO, Part 1: Why Your Content Misses the Mark”, we detailed findings and shortcomings in content marketing approaches when it comes to actually securing customers from these investments. The upshot from that discussion was that the CMO’s reticence to focus on that key performance indicator was the impetus for the failure to put customers more at the center of content marketing activities.

In this Part II follow-on, the focus is on correctives in the form of concrete approaches to making these marketing activities truly customer-centric and drawing upon examples from our work across multiple industries and company types.

We see that organizations who use these approaches are creating and delivering content in new ways, ensuring more relevant outcomes, generating more meaningful interaction, and expanding sales with their targeted customers.

Digital is making us lazy

Previously, we argued that the power of digital, while fueling marketing innovations and massive insight generation, can also make us lazy. Too often marketers are focused on the wrong metrics of success. The discussion is often around impressions, clicks, likes, and similar measures, rather than conversion and sales. This results in investment directed into eye- and click-candy over meaningful engagement with customers themselves.

The good news is that the answer to this is quite simple: Just make your content better by aligning its voice, focus and delivery with your customers’ specific interests – the very things that keep them awake at night. Doing so makes the platforms that host content and your results exponentially better. (And yes, Google notices.) The impact of these moves doesn’t stop there, with a notable knock-on effect being the elevation of the marketing function itself, positioning it as the home for customer insights, a springboard for new products and services, the center for powerful personalization, and the catalyst for tying it more deeply to revenue generation in noticeable ways.

Here’s how:

Beyond panels and surveys

The bread and butter of the marketer’s toolkit has long been customer survey, purchasing, and panel data. These are helpful and play an important role in identifying trends and buying behavior. The advent of digital marketing platforms further expands this data pool in powerful ways. And yet there exists an even greater opportunity to supplement and get better insights from the very buyers of your products and services. This comes in the form of three easy updates to how we create and share consumable content today:

  • Content advisory panels –moving from guessing/intuiting to learning what customers want to know.
  • Content co-creation – embedding the dual-win of building meaningful content together.
  • Owned, in-person customer communities – creating a programmatic, real-world feedback and relationship building channel.

Here’s a quick how-to for incorporating these in your own efforts:

Advisory panels

The idea of having a group of trusted, external advisors weighing in on what matters most to them (and by association you) is nothing new. Why then the limited use of this tool when it comes to topic selection and development for the content we create? Much of this missed opportunity comes from a “hubris of expertise” – the notion that internal experts know precisely what customers want. Sometimes they do, other times they flat-out miss the mark. But you don’t have to guess; just ask.

We are yet to find an organization that does not possess a group of dedicated customers, users, and clients with whom they have a deep and trusted relationship. This “friends and family” group is a fantastic place to begin an important conversation. What you learn by bringing them together once or even a handful of times each year over a working dinner or at a retreat is often worth its weight in gold. Not only can you test your latest ideas, hypotheses, pre-release drafts and findings with them, you will hear an unvarnished take on what they care most about and how they would like to see you explore it.

For one client that is a prolific creator of sought-after content, we convene an annual CEO panel of their top clients for a day and a half discussion. The content creators in our client’s organization get an earful. Sometimes what they hear confirms precisely the type of work they were planning to pursue.

In other instances, they receive a powerful re-direction (e.g., focus less on describing how to do M&A and more on addressing the cultural aftermath of these deals which ends up causing the greatest grief and expense). And, of course, they hear a raft of new ideas all together. For the CEO attendees, the experience is an intellectually stimulating time away, as they have the opportunity to hear what is top-of-mind among a group of their own respected peers, and get a chance to shape research that is meaningful for them.

The expenditure on this type of engagement need not be exorbitant and often pales in comparison to the vast sums of money spent on studies, panels, and other investments that net little in the way of measurable returns. Moreover, few CMOs would argue that a day relaxing with and sharing ideas among their key clients is a bad use of time. On the contrary, it doesn’t get much better than this in terms of deepening relationships and dialing-in the very content key buyers want from you.

Content co-creation

In addition to the idea of more robust use of client advisory groups, we see tremendous outcomes when the dialogue transcends ideas and moves into direct collaboration. Here specifically we mean researching, investigating, writing, and building things together. Again, nothing earth-shatteringly new here, just a path often not taken over a raft of concerns or just pure oversight. So instead of you producing a gripping, compelling co-authored piece about the value and impact of a particular product implementation written by your CIO with the CIO of your top customer organization, we too often see anonymized, watered-down versions of the same. Why?

The reasons we often hear is that collaboration like this is 1) difficult, 2) time consuming, and 3) risks demonstrating favorites among customers.

Interestingly, however, no one sheds a tear or seems to be concerned over content that was easy to create and got done quickly, but resonated with few – or no – customers. While perhaps it’s a bit more difficult and time-consuming to manage the demands of two collaborating organizations, the benefits are more often than not worth it in two primary ways.

  • The first payoff from collaboration of this type is that it creates bonds among and within organizations that are important and pay dividends in terms of greater comfort and trust with one another over time. This often lays the groundwork for subsequent and other collaboration efforts spanning from publishing through to meaningful commercial ventures.
  • The second payoff comes from letting your customers give voice to your product and service delivery and impact. This is not just more credible, it serves their own PR and promotional needs as well, and fits well in a world where the power of customer reviews are only increasing in both the B2B and B2C realms. (See RetailDive’s comment on the power of online reviews and Deloitte’s insight on the growing power of buyers).
Owned, in-person customer communities

Even in a digital world, there are still few replacements for good old, face-to-face interactions. This is not news and is a testament to the tenacious persistence of that very old-school channel that is the trade show or conference. (As noted in 2016 B2B Content Marketing Trends—North America from Content Marketing Institute/MarketingProfs, a full 75 percent of marketers rate in-person events as the most effective marketing tactic.)

Often, these giant events are great at aggregating hundreds (if not thousands) of existing and potential customers, users, buyers, etc. And while lead generation and connection are front and center, we often hear of two serious shortcomings:

  • The expense in terms of resources and staff time in attending – numbers that go up exponentially to actually host/sponsor such a gathering,
  • The sheer crush of people that generates much in the way of casual meetings, but many more near misses or fly-bys in crowded convention halls and hotels.

Add to this the fact that the best time and space in these environments are rented and leased to the deepest pockets. Moreover, this “community” of attendees typically belongs to someone else – the event organizers – and the pay-to-play model of sponsorships and receptions will always see these auctioned off to the highest bidders. And while it’s true that many things in life are best rented (think boats, RVs, and tuxedos), we’d argue that vibrant customer communities comprised of those you wish to engage over time should not be one of them.

The good news here is that there is a cost-effective, easier, powerful and more sustained way to garner meaningful face time with those you wish to engage that simultaneously connects them more deeply to you and makes your content generation light years better. It comes in the form of what we call multi-local communities – a salon-type concept we create and deliver dozens of times every year with and for our clients across the globe.

What does great look like?

  • Multi-local. This means rather than asking people to travel great distances, you instead assemble them in the very geographies in which they live and work. For example, if your business relies on corporate controllers in the greater New York city region? Then get that group together there at a place offering ease of access.
  • A true community of peers. The easiest way to get people to say “yes” to joining you is offering them an opportunity to meet with and interact with people who do the same jobs they do or are their key influencers. They likely already know many of these people who are often competitors, are keen to hear what they are up to and stand to miss out if they fail to join the conversation. Critical to all this is making the discussion about them by featuring attendees as the speakers sharing their own stories, challenges, and successes. You are guaranteed to learn a tremendous amount if you simply listen, and the halo-effect of convening this group goes to you.
  • Programmatic, not one-off events. By definition, a community is group of individuals connected by shared concerns and regular touch points. Instead of putting all your chips on a single calendar date where you hope to assemble clients, let them know you will be doing this quarterly. This is another easy way to get them to “yes” and demonstrates your commitment in hosting this important group over time.
  • Quality over quantity. Rather than shoot for the moon and go for quantity, aim for quality. Invite a small group of high-likelihood buyers and key stakeholders, keep the group size manageable, maintain the group’s seniority (don’t settle for replacements) and make the time together special. This does not have to be a Cirque du Soleil production with a lot of theatrics, just a sophisticated high-touch meeting over lunch or dinner (we find breakfast works great in Latin America) that places a premium on conversation over pitches. There will be plenty of time for pitches later.
  • Own it. Rather than pay others to gather and convene your buyers, build it yourself. An investment in an owned client community is one you cannot afford to rent or lease from others. It should be a valuable asset you grow, invest in, and cultivate for years to come.
How to know when you’re winning

One of the many testaments to a successful strategy that puts customers at the center of what you do (in addition to widely consumed content and heightened sales conversion) is when other functional leaders across your organization begin coming to marketers for insight and direction. Our experience with the simple tools described here is that through their expanded use, marketing takes a very different and powerful place at the table.

Why? Because becoming more customer-facing and customer-centric helps secure critical and important ground. Doing so begets greater relevance for marketing, ensuring not just better content creation, but fostering a new respect for the function which pays real dividends in terms of responsibilities and access to resources. It also gives marketing the substance to oversee lifecycle marketing at each stage, working closely with not only sales, but with customer success as well.

Operationally, the combined use of content advisory panelscontent co-creation and owned customer communities create a mutually reinforcing ecosystem that ends up growing and amplifying one another. Done well and with care, along side other marketing and sales strategies, they are a powerful trio that should have a place in every marketer’s toolkit helping to better bridge the on- and off-line worlds. Balancing these two domains will be the real measure of success in the years ahead.

Where some will be content to serve incomplete personas and archetypes of customers gleaned from online-only interactions, others will balance online insights with real world connections to buyers …and that will make all the difference.

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