content marketing conversation

Behind the Screens: Content Marketing as Conversation

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes, 42 seconds.

Since the 1990s when the World Wide Web became a household term and millions of people began connecting in cyberspace, marketers and businesses have been constantly innovating and devising new ways to engage audiences online. Today, in a modern marketplace saturated with Facebook ads, pop-up ads, banners, and social messaging, it can feel quite crowded wherever you wander digitally, and consumers have a greater awareness and a lower tolerance for empty content and “sales schmuck” (in addition to general overwhelm).

As discussed all throughout the 2016 Digital Summit LA conference held this spring, a new direction in digital marketing is unfolding: personalization. More than just a new buzzword, the idea of personalization is key to understanding a new era of Internet marketing—one that’s more focused on human connection.

Staying Ahead of the Competition through Personalization

While unfathomably successful in democratizing information, the Internet has produced fierce competition among those who want their content to be seen (which, of course, is everyone). Today, user attention span is shorter than it was before, and consumers are savvier when it comes to navigating cyberspace. According to Cliff Seal, UX Designer at Pardot, who spoke at Digital Summit LA, users read on average only 20% of the text on any given page. He estimates that any content producer has only about 10 seconds to communicate the value proposition of the content before the user decides whether to move on.

So, as Seal argues, rather than simply blasting content out into the deep recesses of cyberspace, hoping that it will accomplish a mission, make a sale, or boost rankings, instead we are entering an era in which effective content is the beginning of a human conversation. Rather than hitting the “spray and pray” button on your content marketing efforts, why not take the extra step to engage intentionally, creatively, and efficiently?

First, Start the Conversation Your Reader Wants to Have

Sean Shoffstall of Teradata relayed a similar message: “Marketing is a conversation. Start with hello.” If you were at a party, and someone came up to you and handed you a stack of business cards, then started spewing information about how great his company was, and asked you to buy one of his thing-a-majigs, without even asking your name, saying hello, or evaluating your interest, this probably wouldn’t convince you to buy, and it would also be a great waste of energy on his part. Needless to say, this is considerably rude party behavior. So, why would we expect anything different from our content marketing efforts?

If content can be the beginning of a conversation, you probably first want to know who you’re talking to, in other words, who your audience is, and whether they are even interested in the conversation in the first place. This can be accomplished through various audience targeting methods, including market segmentation and persona building. Rather than thinking of blasting content through a megaphone to whoever will listen, we can more fruitfully craft effective content if we think about it as a two-way conversation—with a person, not a computer or a search engine.

Then, Humanize Your Content Strategy


This may be a new way of thinking about content production if your content marketing strategy has been solely focused on the technical aspects of digital marketing. Well-meaning companies may take a mechanical approach, for example, churning out exactly three 600-word blog posts per week, just to hit a quantifiable mark or maintain ranking status. Perhaps these blogs are written sloppily, focused loosely on topics that don’t capture the reader’s attention, and in general, prioritize word count and keywords over quality. In other words, they’re written more to satisfy the search engines than the human searching for the content—even though, at the end of the day, it’s the humans who will be buying your products (or not).

Of course, content marketing should have a goal and an aim, and should definitely incorporate how search engines operate to increase effectiveness. It’s not wrong to aim for a certain number of posts per week, or a certain number of words per post, or to engage relevant keywords (in fact, these are all good practices!), but as Seal and others bring to our attention, powerful content marketing strategies are shifting towards prioritizing humanization.

Though not every post can be brilliantly unique, the goal becomes to really connect with the reader, prioritizing people over search engines. Search engines won’t share a piece of content 1,000 times or sign up for an e-mail newsletter; people will—if the content moves them. What if one amazing post per week is worth more than three hollow ones? As Seal said at the conference, “Methods based in humanity always scale.”

For Example: Human Connections in Southwest’s Content

Consumers are people. Marketers are people. The closer we can get to closing the emotional gap between content creators and content consumers, the more effective a piece of content will inevitably be. Southwest Airlines representative Brooks Thomas shared at Digital Summit LA how the airline company incites their Internet audience (read: potential and current customers) to laugh and cry through thoughtful, creative content creation (thereby building a strong emotional bond with the brand):

  1. Emphasize Human Connection: In one instance, a Southwest employee went above and beyond, driving an hour out of her way to bring a vital pair of running shoes to a racer—this turned into a series of inspirational photos and blog posts highlighting this touching connection between strangers. The conversation starter here might be: when has someone saved the day for you?
  2. Feature Emotional Moments: In another instance, a little boy was perched outside the Southwest runway, excitedly waving to pilots as they took off; one pilot stopped and waved back—and then, after a proud mom posted the photo on Facebook, Southwest went the extra mile to invite the boy to meet that pilot and take a tour of the airline. Many photos, videos, and articles later, audiences tear up at the special connection sparked between a pilot and a child, remembering how childhood dreams take root. The conversation starter here might be: what did you want to be when you were little?
  3. Give Your Brand a Voice: Finally, a Southwest employee with a comedic edge, widely known for her hilarious quips and funny personality, rose to Internet fame and even appeared on Ellen. Her passengers, and then her Internet fan base, appreciated her unique spark—which inherently reflects the character of Southwest. The conversation starter here might simply be sharing a laugh.

All of these examples reflect how Southwest incorporates the human element into their stories and content. There was no obvious preoccupation with how many likes, clicks, or customers the content would get, but a primary focus on telling a good story and connecting at a human level. Naturally, stories that invite a personal connection are widely shared, as all of these were. You can see countless examples of other companies catching on to the trend, too—just think about any heartwarming video of a cute animal, and the warm awwws that follow, and notice if there is a brand behind it.

Making the Shift: Begin Crafting Content as Conversation

What if you don’t have these sorts of tearjerker moments in your specific company? That’s all right, because everyone and every company absolutely has the potential to relate on a human level—we are, after all, people behind the screens. As Shoffstall said, “Just be as close to the moment as you can.” In other words, know your audience, know your value, and connect online in a real, meaningful, emotional, value-oriented, human way. Anyone and everyone can employ the practice of remembering your reader.

Prompt: What Conversations Would Your Reader Be Interested In?

Think about the emotions and the motivations behind your user’s engagement with your content. In other words, what questions are they asking?

For example, if you are a jewelry artisan with an online shop, you might craft different pieces of content that discuss:

  • Different jewelry styles and your unique approach.
    • Imagine a conversation where you explore a reader’s particular style and aesthetic, showcasing your knowledge along the way.
  • The high quality of the materials you use.
    • Imagine a conversation where a sustainably minded person is interested in learning where you source your materials.
  • Your process.
    • Imagine talking with another artist who is curious about your craft.
  • Your passion for designing.
    • Imagine a conversation where you have the opportunity to express what excites you about your work—remember, as Steve Jobs said, “People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it.”

These could all be ways into a conversation with your reader, formulated into blog posts, videos, infographics, etc. If your reader is engaged with you, stays on your page longer, and becomes more curious about your product, then you are opening more doors for conversion by connecting on a human level.

Checkpoint: Questions to Keep in Mind for Meaningful Content

Jordan Koene of Searchmetrics poses the following questions to help establish a humanistic connection in your content, instead of a formally business or marketing edge:

  • What emotion does a piece of content produce?
  • What does your audience want, and what might be their response to the content?
  • What is the user experience of the content?
  • And finally: Is your content awesome?

Of course, not every piece of content can do everything: engage a reader emotionally, provide information, answer a question, spark new questions, or garner a chuckle—but most likely, one piece of content can achieve one of these. It can be time-intensive to craft a piece of content well, but the time it takes is often worth it: providing clear value in your content can translate to providing clear value in your products. If you aren’t approaching your readers in this way, well, there are surely competitors out there who are.

Begin Shifting Toward Your Reader, and the Results Will Follow

Just beginning to think about your content in the light of human connection can go a long way in providing value to your reader, which inevitably sparks a stronger connection to your brand. If you want readers to land on your page, buy your products, and share your brand, and you hope to do this by engaging them with a piece of content, it’s just good digital etiquette to offer up something of value (perhaps an exceptional story, a delicious insight, pertinent advice, or inspiring news) before expecting something in return. If your content is consistently focused first on what you are able to give to your reader in a specific conversation, then that content is more likely to engage users, build momentum, and ultimately propel your business forward.

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