Marketers: This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

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The next evolution of marketing is upon us.

The sharp uptake in consumer use of messaging apps, the shift in content consumption from text to video and audio, and the finally consumer-ready advancements in artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and voice recognition all signal that marketers and consumers alike are in radically new times. Everytime consumer behavior evolves, marketers have new opportunities that were never before available.

I was talking to a colleague the other day about these changes, and she noted how endlessly marketing channels shift. “There aren’t many other fields where the game reinvents itself so often,” she said.

“That’s because we fuck everything up,” I told her.

Let me explain.

Scorched Earth Marketing AKA “Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”

There is a desperation at play in most marketing organizations. A low grade panic to solve for short-term needs  —  the lead goal that month, for example, or a choice media placement. Attention is as fleeting as Snapchat videos, and for many companies, grabbing a moment of it can feel like gasping for oxygen. I get it. I have been there myself, so I’m not passing judgement.

The enemy of remarkable marketing is impatience.

There is so much competition for attention these days that the moment a blue ocean channel or new marketing strategy opens up, marketers flock to make the most of it. At the root of the problem is the channel-based mentality that causes us to obsess over hacks and mechanics more than a great message and engaging experience.

Early adoption is a good thing. It can be the breath of fresh air marketers and consumers alike are looking for. And typically the early days leveraging a new channel or format in your marketing strategy are as pure and innovative as they should be.

But then something happens. We cross the line into a sort of scorched earth marketing mentality where we forget the reason consumers were drawn to that channel to begin with — and we beat the living daylights out of it.  We start to solve for our own goals, instead of our customers’.

New channels emerge in part because we marketers ruin old ones.

Our earnest exploration of emerging channels all too often turns into rabid gaming of the system if we aren’t careful. And consumers, exhausted by our antics, are forced to move on to find new communication and content channels free of spam and brands. It happened with email. It’s happening with content. And if we think messaging and video are any different, we’re kidding ourselves.

How We’re Messing Up Content

Remember when content first emerged as the antidote to disruptive advertising and direct marketing? It was eye-opening.

Before content, if you were a marketer you were primarily using email and advertising to gain prospective customers. Those were the channels and, oh, did marketers use them. They so overplayed them that consumers began to adopt technology to filter them out. They blocked ads. They set up inbox filters. They reduced the noise and took control of their own purchase process. Much of that process began not with the company but on Google, where a buyer would do all the independent research they needed before making a decision.

So instead of pummeling buyers with ads or email, smart marketers started to create useful content designed help the consumer rather than sell them. If good and relevant, this content would find its way to the top of the search results page and, without costing the company anything in ad spend, deliver a compounding stream of incoming traffic.

The world of ebooks and webinars took shape in earnest. Let’s offer something of true value that consumers would otherwise pay for in exchange for nothing but their contact details and permission to reach out.

It sounds silly today because of how commonplace ebooks and lead forms have become, but it was genuine and mutually beneficial at the start. It was a new way of interacting with online consumers when quality, trustworthy information was scarce.

But then we (marketers) scorched the earth.

The volume of content went up, the quality often went down. Content farms popped up. And brands started to fund the spread of bad content through paid channels. As content offers increased, they became less valuable, and then they crossed the line into utter noise.

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Good content still exists, but you have to sift through an awful lot of cheap content to get to it. So where did we go wrong?

We over-solved for the long tail.

The long-tail of search was what initially made content so exciting. You may not have had enough authority to win a top spot in the search results for highly competitive keywords, but there were any number of keyword variations you could shoot for.

It was field-leveling. I get it. I pitched it. But the problem with solving for keyword variations is there are thousands of them out there, which means you have to make thousands of attempts to capture that traffic. All of that has lead to high volumes of mediocre content.

We’re guilty of this too. In the past, we created hundreds of individual blog posts mapped to long-tail keyword variations that got repetitive. We didn’t realize how much it would all add up and clutter the internet.  Since then, we’ve implemented a strategy to update old posts with higher quality and updated information instead of launching into a new post and to redirect repetitive or irrelevant content.

On our Sales Blog, we’re focusing on topics over keywords, mapping each new post to a larger topic or pillar page. This creates a more organized site architecture that’s easier for Google to crawl and index and signals our authority on a subject, rather than a bunch of long-tail keyword variations.

While marketers were busy filling the web with content, Google also got smarter about how it handled search queries. Updates to the algorithm enabled Google to start serving up content that better matched searchers’ intent — not just their keywords. With this in mind, exact keyword optimized content only addresses a sliver of the question and isn’t going to help you get found in the same way it once would have back in 2012.

SEO has changed. It doesn’t reward content for the sake of keywords anymore. SEO in today’s world comes down to architecture and quality content more than it does keywords. And this is a very good thing for readers. It means that instead of writing mountains of content, our new goals should be about creating more value out of less content.

How We Risk Messing Up Messaging

Facebook Messenger will be the next great marketing channel, and it is arguably the best way to engage with the Facebook community as a marketer. My first reaction when I started to see messaging rise as a communication channel was, “Thank god you can’t buy Messenger accounts like you can buy email lists.”

This is an important point: You can’t buy and sell lists of Messenger addresses. You can’t be spammy or impatient in the same way that is possible via email.

That said, marketers are inventive. We can still mess up messaging.

We have to resist the urge to treat messaging like email. This is not a mass communication channel. It’s not a high-volume communication channel. Messaging should be reserved for short, on-demand, personalized exchanges. They should be triggered, whenever possible by the customer, not the company.

Email is company driven. Messaging is customer driven.

Even with behavior-triggered marketing automation, email is still pretty much a guessing game of what the recipient will find interesting. Messaging apps and the bots that live within them allow the recipient to pull the content they want from your repository. It can be completely custom. You can and should have endlessly differing content subscriptions with endlessly differing cadences based uniquely on the person at the other end. That is the promise of messaging: A frictionless exchange that gives the user exactly what they’re seeking and nothing more.

As marketers we need to respect Facebook’s ecosystem and the experience of the conversational UI that is a messaging interface. Let’s have bots help us deliver rich, personal, and helpful experiences. Let’s use Facebook Instant Articles to load web experiences within Facebook instantly. Let’s give our prospects and customer exactly what they need and nothing more.

Ok, so lets say we all agree with that in concept, here’s where our resolve will be tested. Messaging conversion rates are incredibly high right now. Like … gold rush high. In early experiments we’ve run at HubSpot, we’ve seen 4X the conversion rate on Facebook messenger versus email.

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HubSpot’s Messenger bot allows prospects to book a meeting with a sales rep.

There’s a reason those conversions are so high right now. It’s because marketers haven’t yet eroded the trust of consumers on messaging. For the sake of everyone, let’s keep it that way.

If appeals for a better customer experience aren’t enough, consider this. At this time there is one company that largely controls messaging. Facebook has the keys to the castle on more than 1.2 billion users. Its primary incentive is aligned with the happiness of those users. So if Messenger gets abused, Facebook could turn around and remove this option for marketers. And they’d be right to do so.

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Mary Meeker’s 2016 Internet Trends Report outlines the potential of messaging for businesses.

How We Risk Messing Up Video

Remember when infographics first became popular? There were infographics on everything.  Infographics on account based marketing. Infographics on geo-political conflicts. Infographics on world octopus day and shades of poop. Some were interactive and meticulously researched. Others were little more than powerpoint slides and poorly sourced. The internet was absolutely littered with them.

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Source: Google Image Search

Infographics became so prevalent over the past 10 years it prompted Megan McCardle, former senior editor of The Atlantic, to call the whole practice a plague, writing:

The reservoir of this disease of erroneous infographics is internet marketers who don’t care whether the information in their graphics is right … just so long as you link it.

We can be better than this. And we have a chance to be. Today, we are on the verge of the same reckless abandon happening with video.

Video, once a resource-intensive format has become vastly simpler to create. Marketers can stream video at the touch of a button, and pre-produced videos can now benefit from everything from free b-roll sources to voice over marketplaces. This democratization of video production has come just in time for a mobile- and social-led surge in video consumption. The combination of the two creates the perfect conditions for marketers to run amok.

I can’t believe I have to say this, but, let’s make video responsibly.

A responsible video strategy starts with being specific about why you’re making a video in the first place.  How does this video fit into your marketing strategy?

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Is it designed for top-of-the-funnel awareness? Build it to be native to Facebook, YouTube, or Instagram (Pick one — don’t one-size-fits-all it). Solve for time spent watching. Don’t try to drive conversions — drive interactions.

Is it designed to inform buyers on their way to a decision? Incorporate it into your sales process. Wistia, Viewedit, and Loom all offer quick video recording solutions to create custom explainer videos for your buyers. Use it as a way to save your prospects time with the basics before hopping on a call. Record a recap video after a demo. Solve for personalization over anything else. These videos should feel like a direct portal into the customer’s sales rep or account manager.

Don’t know? Don’t make a video.

Want it to solve for all of the above? Really don’t make a video.

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HubSpot’s Marlon De Assis-Fernandez puts his cartoonist skills to work in a prospect video.

Just because a format has gotten easier doesn’t mean we should run it into the ground. Videos should be an integral part of our strategy rather than an add-on or afterthought.

In the past, we’ve made videos just because someone said, “We need a video!” It felt flashy and impressive to have a video for a campaign launch. But because we didn’t consider if video was really the right format for a particular story or how someone would actually discover the video, we saw disappointing results and ultimately, decided it was a waste of time.

The problem isn’t that video isn’t effective or valuable. We just didn’t ask the right questions before pressing the record button.

Let’s Save Ourselves From Ourselves

Every time people flee from overcrowded channels into new untouched ones, companies crop up to build on them. But evolving with customers is less about predicting the next big marketing channel and more about seeing through it to the customers on the other side.

It’s time we stop obsessing over channels, and start focusing on the people within them. Because if history has demonstrated anything, it’s that what’s new now may be scorched earth tomorrow. So yes, dive in. Explore every new channel that comes our way. But more importantly, look at the bigger picture of what the adoption of a channel says about how people want to interact with each other and brands.

Let’s make our mark on marketing by doing it the right way.

 

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