Content Matters

22 Oct

A version of this appeared on ClickZ.

There’s no shortage of people who can tell you how to create a one-to-one relationship with customers out there. But once you’ve got the customer’s attention, what are you going to say?

(Insert the sound of crickets chirping, loudly.)

Here’s the Net’s dirty little secret: Web sites have a screaming lack of content. Everyone wants to talk direct to the customer, but darn few have anything worthwhile to say. Think about the sites you work on. Other than marketing info and clever merchandise copy, what do they offer users? A few press releases? Maybe a letter to investors?

Lots of sites have figured out how to lure customers already primed to buy something in your niche. That’s picking the low-hanging fruit. But highly successful sites create a lasting impression in the minds of their customers. And to do it they have to look beyond the act of buying.

In the early days of television the companies wanting to advertise had a hard time finding shows that would pull the right customers. So they created them. Household goods companies created soap operas, Texaco created a variety show. Lots of people felt they could “trust their car to the man who wore the star…” When it came time to buy gas, the message popped back into their heads.

But so few companies have learned that lesson online. The web today is a barren wasteland of marketing with too few oases of materials to quench users’ thirst. They may well visit your site once or twice. But one or two visits aren’t going to create a lasting impression of your brand.

We makers of web sites have to learn the lessons of other media: content counts. It creates a lasting impression, it forges brand loyalty, adds value to your offerings and creates top of mind awareness. Who would watch television if it were just an endless procession of advertising? I dare you to find a newspaper, with decent circulation, that has more than 60 percent ads.

Adding content to your site need not be a painful process. It’s sitting on your desk right now. I’ll bet that you either received or sent someone an article you thought had relevance for your client or company. If you found it of interest, odds are someone on your site would find it interesting.

If we view our customers’ actions on our site in context with their lifestyles, we’ll quickly find fertile ground for related copy. Selling flowers? Offer planning guides for major events where people typically use your goods. Or consider a document on extending the life of the cut flowers you sell. Maybe create a feature area on exotic flowers.

It works for everything sold or marketed on the web. It works because nothing is purchased in a vacuum. Already companies are springing up to help. ScreamingMediaNewspak, and even old wire services such asReuters and UPI all offer news and information for use on commercial web sites. The new companies aggregate tons of stories and features while the old companies have armies of reporters already creating stories and features for newspapers, magazines and broadcasters.

The challenge in working with a content supplier is identifying the content that will engage customers, then finding it in the vast pools of information offered.

I want to go a step further. Let’s start creating more original content — web site offerings they won’t find anywhere else. Give visitors a reason to come to the site even if they aren’t in a buying mood. It might be calendars of events, columns by key company officials, online games, or even articles and community features such as boards and chat.

If we think of content in a pyramid form, the first step is easy, just offer links to other sites of interest. If you keep the list updated, users will come back because they share your interest, even if they aren’t buying at the moment.

The next level brings information of interest to your readers, so they don’t have to click through to another site. Now they have all the same information in one place. That definitely makes a compelling reason to visit your site.

Near the top is original content. That’s where you show just how much you understand what they’re looking for. If done well, users will beat a path to your site with regularity to see what you have to say.

The pinnacle is combining all that content into a regular outbound newsletter (opt-in of course). Now the customer thinks of your brand, even when they aren’t surfing the web. You’re providing a valuable service and building your brand.

Of course, as you go up the pyramid, the risks increase of making a fool of your company. Which is why I challenge the marketing professionals among us to start thinking about content, not just the mechanics of a web site.

Now, when we get the customers just where we want them, we’ll have something to say when we open our mouths.