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Do your customers trust content marketing?

If you had Googled “content marketing” this morning, you would have discovered that there were almost 20 million individual pieces of digital content on that particular topic. Going a step further, if you had searched for “native advertising,” you’d have gotten around 128 million results.

All in, that’s bumping 150 million.

“Meh,” says you. “I’m not surprised.” Maybe you actually would have guessed a higher number. OK. But before we move on, consider several compares:

  • “Breast cancer” returned a bit more than 9 million results.
  • ISIS / ISIL, the terrorist army that has dominated news coverage around the world, turned in 17 million.
  • President Obama, the focus of much straight news coverage and the favorite target of so many critics around the world, got almost 36 million.
  • “Heart disease” delivered 101 million.

Want more? Here’s an amazing stat. As of this morning, the Indexed Worldwide Web contained about 4.31 billion pages, approximately 150 million of which included some discussion of content marketing. That’s roughly 3.5 percent of the total indexed digital content in the world at the time the search was keyed.

But you really didn’t need me to tell you that content marketing and native advertising are B-I-G. This is about how to determine just how big they should be in your overall program. As you know, there’s no part of the marketing mix that is a “one size fits all” utility player. So before you invest a lot in content marketing, or in native advertising, or any other element of the marketing mix, there’s a crucial question that you absolutely must answer.

In fact, it’s the only question that really matters. It’s simple, customer-focused and utterly pragmatic.

Do your customers use and trust information delivered through content marketing and native advertising when they decide what to buy?

The answer is highly correlated to two critical and interlocking factors: the price of the thing being marketed, and the sense of decision-risk that the customer feels.

Together, these two concerns significantly influence the length of Consideration, what levels of trust and confidence it will take to achieve Preference, and the ultimate likelihood of Purchase by the customer. Remember, customers with a lot on the line are far more interested in not making a mistake than they are in buying your product.

Viewed broadly, the decision to deploy lots of content marketing must be made based on an “outside-in” understanding of what motivates the customer, not an “inside-out” push to deploy more marketing programs, artifacts and activities. Getting this right means being able to drive real business value; getting it wrong very often drives very little except an inflated expense line.

Let’s say that you’re asking people to buy a simple, relatively low-cost item that poses little potential risk of “being wrong” later. In this scenario, high-quality content marketing – like its cousin native advertising – is likely to deliver a very positive outcome because Trust is not a major factor in the purchase decision. Awareness and cultivation of desire are key elements, and the barrier to purchase – real or perceived – is fairly low. If your marketing team wants to drive business value creation in this sort of low-cost, low-risk, probably B2C sort of dynamic, then content marketing is likely to be a very valuable tool.

But things change a great deal as we move up the cost/risk continuum. While generating awareness is always important, the data repeatedly shows that this is the least difficult of the hurdles that a B2B company has to cross to close a deal with their customers.

This is an issue that Bob Garfield and Doug Levy discuss in detail in their seminal work, Can’t Buy Me Like. I highly recommend the book.

The CMO Council also published a study one year ago that was covered widely, showing that B2B customers have a profound distrust of content marketing. They very often see it as the equivalent of any other paid advertising. Because they don’t trust it, they also won’t factor it into their buying decision to any meaningful extent.

Going even further, some B2B marketing teams are beginning to suspect that the extensive content marketing efforts they’ve been mounting either are having no impact at all or they are actually increasing customer distrust and slowing the post-awareness / post-lead generation part of the buying process.

A notable exception to this in technical industries would be really excellent, objective thought leadership blogs, presentations and papers written by industry experts who happen to be employees of the vendor. But in these instances, it is their individual expert credibility and desire to contribute that stands tall with the customer, helping to create the confidence in the vendor that can help grease the decision path.

In the end, there are a lot of reasons why people are coming out in favor of content marketing. Some are valid and some are not. So as with any part of the marketing mix, the decision to invest and deploy should be dictated by whether the customer uses it, trusts it, and is actively influenced by it when they decide to buy.