Content marketing: How to sell without selling

What is your first reaction when a salesperson or marketer takes aim and gives you the Big Sell on a brand or a product? Do you stare blankly? Shake your head? Walk away? Or maybe even all of the above? Selling is not like it used to be. It’s now so difficult to break down a consumer’s barriers that it may be considered an artform of sorts.

But still, the sales show must go on. Brands need to find a way to continue to push through those barriers and encourage consumers to make purchases.

Many brands have cottoned on that consumer behavioural trends have evolved and, most notably, their psyches have changed. They will absorb the right information if they are served in a way that means something to them.

According to Havas Group’s annual Meaningful Brands study, which covers 1800 brands and more than 350,000 respondents globally, 77 per cent of brands could disappear and no one would care. At the same time, brands considered “meaningful”  – those classified as making a difference to a consumer’s life and wellbeing – are perceived as helping to make the world a better place.

Competing for wallet share

The results also tell an interesting story: “meaningful brands” are outperforming the stockmarket by 134 per cent, with share-of-wallet multiplied by nine against those that aren’t considered so meaningful, and there is a significant increase in purchase intent and advocacy.

So what does this tell us? Brands need to consider what matters the most to consumers and consider a value exchange. Selling is not functional any more. The world is far too sophisticated for that now. And it’s going to get even more of a challenge to cut through as consumers are more spoiled for choice than ever.

And this is where the magic C-word comes in: Content.

Content marketing: that’s the new strategic and ever-so-flexible platform that enables brands to have more meaningful conversations with consumers, who will hopefully then become their customers. It’s a platform that enables brands to “sell” but without actively selling. Instead, it’s about building trust, educating – and even entertaining, if you’re smart enough.

A sign on a window, a flyer, a character dressed in a suit, a person with a sandwich board, isolated print ads – all these sales tactics are now “old school”. That doesn’t mean they are completely redundant, but it does mean you need to rethink how they can fit into a broader and more widespread strategy to connect with your potential customers.

This is where content marketing comes in.

So what exactly is content marketing? Well, let’s start with what the experts say. According to the Content Marketing Institute, its true definition is: “A strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly defined audience and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.”

Brands become publishers

This has come to fruition as some brands have decided to become more like publishers, relying less on traditional media and advertising and instead utilising their own channels to create genuinely interesting content that people actually want to engage with.

Brands are turning the passive, one-way conversation into interactive two-way dialogues and empowering consumers as part of that process. The trade-off is that, as a result of the consumer’s interaction, they have felt a greater affinity with that brand, which will then influence their decision-making next time they are making a purchase.

Sounds simple? Well, it is. But to make it work for your brand, it’s important to take the time and consider how your approach can become less transactional and more about provoking more dynamic consumer action.

So how do we do this? Firstly, there are a couple of key psychological attributes to consider: our emotional responses to engaging with content and our rational reactions.

From an emotional perspective, we want to be entertained – consumers need reasons to love a brand. It’s important to be memorable, witty and demonstrate a personality – to demonstrate what your brand really stands for and why it exists, and give your consumers compelling evidence as to why their hard-earned cash belongs to your brand.

We also want to be inspired. Customers believe products are functional – they have a single purpose and that’s the end of it. But you know that your product means more than that. So you need to show it – but be careful not to preach.

On the rational side, we need to ensure your potential customers are given access to a breadth of information which shows your product has more reasons for being and that it stands for something much greater than what they often see. It’s time to shift perceptions – or potential purchase barriers – and encourage your consumers to really notice it next time they see your brand or product name in lights.

Finally, when you have hooked a potential customer in, it’s time to convince them that their interest in your brand and their investment in time in engaging is worthwhile – and that it’s time to make the purchase.

So how do you actually “do” content marketing? Well, it comes in all shapes and sizes but the best place to start is look at your brand website – arguably your best asset. How hard is it actually working for you? A hot tip is to make your website a destination for consumers – a place they can and want to spend for a little while to immerse themselves in your world – a virtual window-shopping experience, you could say.

Go for the visual effect

A good way to make that happen is ensuring your content is highly visual. Photos, videos, and big fun facts that are a good human representation of what your brand is and how customers can benefit.

Think about the way you present information and the way you talk. Present as a consumer talking to another and remove yourself from “brand talk”. Be confident, empathetic and embrace the human side – and have some fun while you’re at it. After all, don’t we all want to have a bit of fun when we’re not all working hard?

Creating new assets is important – and video is now more important than ever. Short-form video – lasting between 15 and 30 seconds – is a particularly powerful tool to provide a unique window into your brand. What stories do you have to tell? These could come from your brand’s HQ, your employees – or better, your customers, living the dream (which ideally involves them using your brand).

Another key tip is sharing your own tips. We all love lists and facts and stats. Even though many of us pretend to know it all, we all like to consult the search engine looking for answers for things you may sometimes be too embarrassed to ask out loud. So why not make your brand’s ecosystem a hub of information and advice that helps your audience out and makes them a fan as a result.

The key takeout is this: think about your audience and put them first in your communications. Focus on creating a long-term value exchange vs a short-term transactional relationship where they feel they are being talked at. Instead, invite them into your world and once you have built trust, you will (hopefully) have them returning again and again.

And you wouldn’t have needed to actively sell to them at all.

Adam Freedman is head of consumer at Red Havas and has consulted numerous brands and retailers across Australia and the UK on their marketing and communications strategies.

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