Gartner predicts that by 2018, machines will replace writers, authoring 20% of the content you read. Daryl Plummer, a Gartner analyst said that “Robowriters” are already producing budget, sports and business reports, and this trend is happening without notice. One advantage for machines according to Plummer: “They don’t have biases or emotional responses.”
I’ll buy machine generated content for basic information, like the items mentioned above, and that may signal that it’s time for some writers, in particular those who create “formulaic” content (like press releases), to get their resumes together. But what I won’t buy is a world of content that exists purely on fact and data, void of any emotional connections. In fact, another trend is now happening that may signal a need for even more writers who can make personal connections with audiences.
“Design Thinking” to the Rescue
The good news is that companies, like IBM and GE are following Apple’s lead in embracing “Design Thinking.” This year alone, IBM is seeking to hire 1,100 designers to help reignite growth and change the corporate culture. What may be a “boom time” for designers may also have a waterfall effect on content creators, here’s why.
Companies are embracing design thinking as a response to the increased complexity of today’s products and/or business environment. As Apple has learned, people need their interactions with technologies and other systems (for example, Healthcare) to be simple, intuitive and perhaps, even enjoyable.
The first principle of design thinking for products is to empathize with users by focusing on their experiences, especially their emotional ones. To build empathy with users, a design-centric organization empowers employees to observe behavior and draw conclusions about people’s needs and wants.
As author Jon Kolko states in his Harvard Business Review article entitled Design Thinking Comes of Age, “organizations that “get” design use emotional language (words that concern desires, aspirations, engagement, and experience) to describe products and users.”
“Design thinking is an essential tool for simplifying and humanizing.”
As companies improve the product/user experience, organizations must improve how they communicate emotionally derived value propositions…and that is the opportunity for content marketers. “Robowriters” can’t understand the emotional triggers involved in the purchasing process — at least not yet. As CEO Tony Fadell said in an interview published in Inc., “At the end of the day you have to espouse a feeling—in your advertisements, in your products. And that feeling comes from your gut.”
With ever expanding distribution channels, the need for content has never been greater. As machines move in to fill the void, the world of content will divide into algorithm-assembled fact oriented content, and human generated “emotional” content.
The handwriting may on the wall for some writers but the upside of this trend may just usher in golden era of impactful relevant content marketing for many. For now, if you a create content take inventory of what you do on a daily basis, and make plans to move to the human side…or risk being replaced by a “Bot.”
My first job out of college was selling office equipment. The first thing I ever learned about selling (from my very Southern sales manger) was that “Telling ain’t selling.” In layman terms, stop telling customers why they need your product and start listening to their needs.
For years this simple phase remained in my memory. It guided me as a way to engage prospects in advisory-like sales dialogue, probing for a need to sell to. But, after attending CEB’s Sales & Marketing Summit last week, where new research highlighted the increased complexity in reaching a purchase decision, I’m now considering rethinking my whole approach.
Why? Because buyers have become overwhelmed by the potential choices, and the involvement of other decision makers in the process, according to Brent Adamson, co-author of The Challenger Customer. Too much information, too many options and too many people involved in the process are making it more difficult than ever to reach a consensus, let alone a purchase decision. Given the complexity, stalled deals are no longer a sales issue; they’re a buying problem.
The question is: Are marketers contributing to that problem? Is it possible our content marketing efforts, aimed at helping buyers make an informed choice, are becoming part of the “too much” problem? According to Psychologist Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, too much choice often results in no choice at all.
Dr. Schwartz’s research has shown that limiting choice is often necessary to reach a decision, and/or to speed up the buying process. As he said, “When you make choice easier, or more simple, you will sell more.”
For business-to-business sales and marketers, the key is to become “prescriptive,” according to Adamson. Customers need a “trusted advisor” to help guide them through the complexity of the decision making process, in particular in driving a consistent point of view on the problem, and the best solution. Schwartz suggests focusing on the following three areas:
- Be the “expert” or “simplifier.” Help reduce the complexity of the problem, process and/or solution. Smart content should help to explain and simplify solutions to complex problems.
- Create an “anchor.” Help customers understand how to assess the value you offer. Buyers may have a hard time assessing the true value of a new purchase or a new vendor. Help them by giving them context. Find a relatable anchor comparison. Think: ”Platinum service at a standard price.”
- Understand the impact of “no decision.” If no decision is the right decision, then find a way to make it the default answer. This approach is commonly seen in software or subscription-based services where membership/licensing automatically renews.
Do we now dictate to customers/prospects? Not according to Schwartz. Asking probing questions that lead customers to convince themselves that they need your product is the path to goal attainment. Help them understand how your product/service uniquely solves their problem by guiding their path to purchase.
The words of wisdom given to me years ago were right, but given today’s increased complexity it needs an updated “Telling ain’t selling…until it is.”
The Volkswagen scandal has already claimed the CEO. But could the damage also take down the company, or be the nail in the coffin for diesel automobiles in the US? Some are starting to think so: VW stock has fallen 30 percent since the scandal broke, and there are broader concerns about the impact on the reputation of Germany’s automobile industry. How could something that has the potential to be so damaging to an organization, and industry, happen?
At some point, someone in the VW organization decided to cheat, and others within the organization approved that decision. And with that, it set in motion a chain of events that would reach across the organization. Someone designed the “defeat device” that could sense when the car was undergoing emission testing; another group tested the software to ensure it was working properly. Others submitted data to governing organizations using the deceptive and/or outright false data and so on (you get the picture, and it’s not pretty). VW’s corporate culture condoned this behavior.
“Big deal,” you say. “Things like this are probably going on in big global corporations all the time, all over the world. CEOs are out to win at any cost.” Not so fast. Research from the FORTUNE Knowledge Group and gyro found that sixty percent of executives prefer to do business with companies that are intent on doing what’s right, even when it doesn’t necessarily maximize revenue.
And don’t think that CEOs aren’t paying attention to a company’s reputation. When choosing a company to do business with, 70 percent of executives in the study cite company reputation as the most influential factor, with the company’s culture being the top driver of reputation, according to 53 percent of executives surveyed by FORTUNE and gyro.
Not only will VW take it on the chin from consumers – especially customers who own their diesel cars – but they are also going to feel the repercussion on the business side as well. Key decision makers, from suppliers to dealers, are going to be distancing themselves from the organization. This could potentially hurt the company’s ability to repair its reputation, which, according to a 2013 study by Deloitte, is the “number one strategic risk for large companies.”
The lesson: If you cheat, you will eventually get caught. Even though you may be able to avoid punishment (like a certain football player), you will not escape having your brand and reputation damaged. For some brands, that could represent up to two-thirds of the company’s value.
When an organization deceives us, they betray our trust and it’s deeply personal. It doesn’t matter if it’s a friend or a car manufacturer, our brains trust brands the same way we trust our friends, according to research from the Institute for Experimental Business Psychology at Leuphana University in Luneburg, Germany (of all places).
Just when we’ve convinced the organization that the key to our marketing communication success is personalized content, new research from CEB highlights that we actually may be doing more harm than good.
The years spent improving our understanding of the buyers journey, the development of more insightful personas and content, may have resulted in marketers ability to be too good at personalizing solutions to buyers. How can that be?
The issue, according to CEB’s research underpinning their new book The Challenger Customer, is that our improved ability to increase a buyer’s awareness of those areas of a solution most relevant to them, has inadvertently increased visibility into the overall risks associated with the purchase decision and/or change. As a result, buyers begin to unbundle and simplify solutions, driving down price points. The shocker of this insight is that marketers improved ability to personalize content may be coming at a cost to sales.
According to co-author, Pat Spenner, the real challenge lies in convincing buyers to first agree on making a change. “Focus your content marketing efforts on creating a consensus case for change among the decision making group,” which according to CEB’s research, now involves at least five people in the typical B2B purchase.
According to Spenner, “personalization can hurt the buyer’s ability to get that critical early consensus, because it can cement those individual stakeholders into their individual contexts, without doing anything to bring that more diverse group together around a common vision for change.”
So should we stop personalizing our communication? No, but it does highlight the need to also create that common rallying point, and to equip key buying group stakeholders with the tools to create consensus around it. Something the authors say helps clients elevate the conversation from “me to we,” an umbrella approach that ties your content efforts together regardless of the audience being targeted.
To motivate buyers to change you first have to disrupt their status quo by planting and nourishing seeds of doubt about “business as usual.” Show them not just the benefits of action, but the consequences of inaction. CEB recommends using fact-based content built off a Commercial Insight to break down buyers existing mental models.
Concurrent with breaking down the audience’s long held beliefs, you need to give them something to aspire to — a new future state that rallies the group to take action. This is where a compelling creative campaign does the heavy lifting. A “big play” campaign, like IBM’s “Smarter Planet” creates a compelling future vision but also provides a broad platform to disrupt IBM’s many different buyers and to cover IBM’s expansive solution/product portfolio.
Personalization is still essential, and comes via messaging to specific audiences, but it is built on the commercial insight, and aligned to the common vision of the future state. It’s not that personalization doesn’t work, in fact, it can be very effective for breaking the status quo,” according to Spenner, “but you also need an unifying rallying point for buyers who may be too attuned to the risk associated with change.”
The key to leveraging the good work marketers have done to increase relevancy with buyers? Properly balance and/or convince the audiences that the rewards associated with making the change, both organizationally and personally, outweigh the risks you’re asking them to take on. If not, they will reduce the risk for you, and you may be hearing about it from sales.
This year’s Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen was an incredible experience.
There were fantastic insights dropped by speakers like Rahm and Ari Emanuel, John Doerr from Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Reid Hoffman, CEO of Greylock Partner and co-founder of LinkedIn. I came away from the two and half-day event with three “ah-ha’s” because of their potential impact as game changers for marketers.
The New Native Advertising
Consumers are interacting with brands nearly all of the time. In the past, no one was watching and no one really cared, but new digital platforms and big data companies are about to change that. Companies like Storehouse, are giving consumers a platform to tell and share their story, many of which involve brands. Organizations like Ban.jo are capturing those moments and are beginning to alert brands. This “new native advertising” will grow out of naturally occurring brand experience that quickly get amplified and shared with others — real people, experiencing real brands, in real time. As this trend evolves, look for the role of the agency to shift from that of being the creator of disruptive ads aimed at getting your attention to amplifier and distributor of consumer generated organic ads.
Jet.com recently launched to bring club discount shopping online. Its innovative business model is built off of the “smart cart.” As consumers fill up their cart, the price of the items begins to change based on availability of the item and the shipping location. Jet.com sources items from small business and tries to fill orders from local merchants. For example, you buy a baseball and a bat; you’ll get one price, add a baseball mitt and it will change the price for all three items depending on what type of mitt you are buying. To get the best price, wait a couple of days for shipping. Buy it immediately, and you’ll pay another price. Jet.com promises savings of 10-15 percent by using the advantage of filling orders locally and then passing the shipping cost savings along to the consumer.
The Internet of Things
Connected cars are coming. Actually, you could argue that it arrived years ago with GM’s OnStar. The next evolution later this year will include apps, beacons and commerce platforms like Visa Checkout and Apple Pay. Order a pizza from the Pizza Hut app on the screen in your car and payment processes automatically. Pull into the specially marked space in front of the restaurant and a beacon alerts them you have arrived for pickup. It also verifies your identity confirming payment. As beacons and autos unite, companies must begin to find ways for that 5-8” screen in your car to be the next big opportunity for advertising.
The most mind-blowing thing I saw or heard, though, is Ban.jo. Founded by Damien Patton, the company is what Inc. magazine describes as the “The Most Important Social Media Company You’ve Never Heard Of.” Ban.jo, by mining social media, can figure out what is happening anywhere in the world in real time by looking at a specific place at a specific time. Ban.jo was the first to detect the Boston Marathon bombing, the Ukrainian plane downing and even the Amtrak train wreck in Philadelphia. According to Patton, they beat traditional media organizations to the story by eight minutes on average.
Here’s the mind-blowing part: Ban.jo has built a virtual grid of more than 25 billion squares as an overlay of the entire globe. Their software monitors geo-located social posts for anomalies and then flags them for further investigation. It is, as Damien describes, “a crystal ball.” For marketers, it presents an opportunity to help facilitate the new native advertisement I mentioned above.
Overall, the event was one of the most insightful conferences I’ve ever attended. From the location (Aspen) to the speakers, the event had a certain energy unlike any other event. It could be because of the amount of start-ups and investor present, but I believe it came from the attendees themselves. I met interesting people from fascinating companies who had a shared goal of meeting people and gaining knowledge. If you have the opportunity, put this in your budget for next year and book this event. I highly recommend it
John Grant, author of The New Marketing Manifesto, states that, “Authenticity is the benchmark against which all brands are now judged.” If being authentic is that important, why has it been done so poorly by so many? If honesty and trust are foundation elements for building authentic brands, shouldn’t it be easy?
Business marketers often site issues relating to creating a consistent experience and message across the organization and/or across channels, staying true to the organization’s origins, and/or delivering on brand/product promises. All valid reasons, but perhaps there is another challenge at the core that goes unnoticed, something that inhibits the organizations ability tobe “real.” Aproblem simple in form, but difficult to detect and correct.
Yes, it is the senior executives, marketers, sales folks and service people themselves. The employees, who as humans, are uniquely influenced, and some may say flawed, by their own perceptions, bias, and motivations. Here are a few flaws that inhibit an organizations ability to be authentic:
- Biased views – research has found that executives, for better or worse, create “business personas” and view the world with that “business hat” on. In some ways, we play a “role” at work that fits a title, area of responsibility, or how others view you, that may not be realistic. Are we being fake? Maybe, maybe not, but if we say one thing, and believe something else that may be at odds with our “persona,” we just might be. It’s phenomenon researchers have observed with consumers their actions don’t necessarily match their words. In the business world, we act in a similar manner and may not realize that we are not being completely honest with ourselves, or with our customers…but they know.
- Refusing to recognize or accept change – customer preferences shift, markets fluctuate, competitors enter and exit, and companies evolve. One of the few certainties in business is that change is a constant. The problem is that many organizations are slow to recognize and react to a change. Even worse they flat out ignore it. As a result, companies continue to live in the past, or recognize the need for change and try to shift overnight. Authenticity involves an emotional connection with an audience and that connection is forged over years through consistency. Consistency builds trust and integrity. Ignoring the reality of your audiences’ world, trying to be something you’re not, or telling customers what you think they want to hear, quickly deteriorates trust and erodes integrity. “Keeping it real” involves keeping your head out of the sand and on the lookout for change, for better or worse. It also involves accepting reality as it is, no matter how painful it might be.
- The need for control – trust is a foundation element, and when we feel like it is lacking it sets off a basic human reaction to seek control over a situation. Inversely, when we trust, a handshake, for example, will often do look at the rise of shared economy companies like Uber, Airbnb. For established companies, take a look at the ever-expanding legal language in contracts and evaluate the impact it might be having on eroding trust with customers. In the business-to-business world, there are some situations where people have to trust each other to be successful and/or make progress. If we make it too complicated, we invite doubt and/or skepticism into the conversation making it difficult to create the foundation for a long-term relationship. Additionally, if we have an established relationship with a customer keep an eye on contracting, service agreements, product delivery language, etc.
I’ve only a listed a few of the “flaws” that challenge companies, many more exist, but multiply these by the number of humans (employees) at your company, and the number of channels an audience has to interact with your brand, and you begin to get a sense of the complexity of business marketing.
How do successful companies do it? How do they create and maintain an authentic message, perception, and/or brand, by building and preserving a strong corporate culture, but allowing for flexibility. As Bill Breen writes in Fast Company “To maintain its integrity, a brand must remain true to its values. And yet, to be relevant—or cool—a brand must be as dynamic as change itself.” Or as Shakespeare might say: “To thine own self be true.”