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A Content Supply Chain Journey

12/23/2020 | John Kottcamp

Your company is in the experience business.

While this is not a new concept, especially at the end of 2020, this notion has taken on a new meaning. It's the digital experience that connects companies to their customers and the world around them for many brands. And at the center of the digital experience is content. We call it the "Currency of Digital Experience".

Content that is created, targeted, distributed, and measured is commonly called the "Content Supply Chain" or the "Content Journey". This article will stick with the term content journey because, at its heart, the content journey is the evolution of a concept that spans the conception, conversion, delivery, and impact of content as it impacts the individual who consumes it. Content is more than artifacts or assets. It is the impression it makes on the customer. As Maya Angelou reminds us...

"I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."

We understand the content journey by identifying each step in the evolution of the content journey and how companies track, measure, and manage the process.

 

Meaningful communication starts with a concept.

All business communication should begin with a purpose, an organizing idea. Whether it is a new insight from the CEO, a warning from the CFO, or the latest data modeling from the strategy team, every digital experience starts with having something to say.

At the highest level, the rationale for a program or campaign may be about getting a short-term bounce to impress shareholders and analysts. Or it may be making a new product launch successful. It may focus on attracting new customers vs. retaining and growing existing customers. Success metrics for each objective will vary. Success may be defined in terms of volume of sales, size of sales, or frequency of sales. It might be focused on developing lifetime customer value or simply improving customer satisfaction. Each motivation described above is a valid reason for engaging with your customers.

The goals for communication are not only essential but that those goals are articulated before the content is created. Business leaders, marketers, sales, and IT must align around why communication is being advanced.

It is equally critical that performance and success can be measured by a set of clear, measurable metrics. Results only count if they can be measured. In addition to alignment on the goals, there needs to be alignment around success metrics. For example, if increasing customer lifetime value is the goal, all stakeholders must understand what that customer lifetime value is and how it will impact the bottom line.

Customer engagement begins when a customer wants to engage.

The starting point of a content-driven journey is to understand its purpose from the customer perspective, not just that of the business’. Just because the company wants someone to buy something right now does not mean the individual will come to the website, view a digital ad, or physically visit the retail store.

Your customers may want to research your products, get support, or even be entertained. But they will only continue to engage with your brand if you allow them to accomplish whatever it is that gives them a reason to engage with you in the first place. You must align your goals with their need. This explains why the click-through rate on digital display ads continues to plummet. It is currently less than 0.35%. Contrast that to the average CTR on search ads, where the individual has demonstrated an interest (through their search). It is almost six times higher, averaging 1.91%.

The most significant failure companies experience is the mismatch between customer and brand expectations. Forrester Research states, “Customers are no longer satisfied with waiting for information from companies, companies lack a single-source-of-truth for content, and they risk alienating proactive customers with confusing, disjointed, or out-of-date content.”

This sentiment has been reinforced by the findings in a recent study conducted by Salesforce Research:

Customers expect more from brands

  • 76% of customers expect companies to understand their needs and expectations 
  • 76% of customers say it’s easier than ever to take their business elsewhere. 

Customers feel companies are missing the mark on the experience

  • 51% of customer say most companies fall short of their expectations for great experiences 
  • 54% of customers don’t believe companies have their best interests in mind 

Customer Experience Impacts the bottom line for better or worse

  • 57% of customers have stopped buying from a company because a competitor provided a better experience 
  • 67% of customers say they will pay more for a great experience 

Source: State of the Connected Customer – Salesforce Research

Brands must learn to understand who their customer is, what makes them tick, and what will define a successful engagement. Traditionally, this understanding comes from market research, the discipline of demographics and psychographics, and the creation of personas and segmentation strategies.

In today’s digital world, those elements are just the starting point. Successful companies consider age, household income, and location. They understand behavior, motivation, and intent. They focus on developing engaging customer experiences that produce the right content for the right people.

Top marketers understand that the language used to communicate with customers is as important as the concept itself. The advanced study of semantics and the introduction of linguistic AI helps companies create the right taxonomies, metadata, and ontologies to improve customer communication, not to mention enhancing their search performance and SEO rankings.

Knowing your customers allows you to target them better.

Sometimes the smallest data point will have an immense impact. A couple of years ago, a research study concluded that the average household income of someone using an iPad versus an Android tablet was almost 20% higher and possessed a more considerable disposable income. A women’s apparel retailer used this information to present higher quality recommendations to anonymous customers who visited their site using an iPad.

They further refined their recommendations. Traditional research showed that married women with children at home were most like to shop weekdays between 9-11 pm recreationally. The logic was that this segment tended to cherish their “me time” only after the kids had gone to bed. At the end of the day, this audience segment liked to kick back, open her iPad, and relax by window shopping some of her favorite brands.

Isolating and targeting this time and device segment resulted in a double-digit increase in sales volume and the average shopping cart value (SCV). The e-tailer used what they learned about behavior and motivation to create a more contextually relevant experience that met the customer where and when she was most receptive.

Targeting happens when clients have access to analytical tools, databases, or CRM systems that flag the right customers from a content supply chain perspective. Successful companies rely on content publishing tools that follow the rules to present more relevant content to the right person, at the right time, via the right channel, and on a suitable device.

Bob Dylan famously told us, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” But you do need data scientists to know which way the wind is likely to blow tomorrow and what you should do about it.

Design is a way of thinking.

We have talked about what it takes to understand your audiences, but simply understanding them is not enough. To design the most engaging and impactful customer experiences, the designer must empathize with the audience. They need to be able to walk in the customers’ shoes to design a relevant experience.

As we said initially, the content supply chain journey starts with a concept, a goal, an objective. It then needs an audience with a clear understanding of behavior, motivation, and intent, all of which will vary from segment to segment. There is no one-size-fits-all experience anymore. Each content-driven experience must target the right individuals and craft experiences that are most relevant to them.

All these stages prepare the way to design the actual customer experience. From a discipline standpoint, CX Designers rely on information architects to help organize the content around user models. User experience designers lay out the experience, component parts, and interaction model along the entire length of the experience. And finally, UI designers create the visual user interface representing how the customer will interact with the content.

Be careful what you wish for.

So far, there have been business analysts, researchers, data scientists, marketers, UX, UI designers, and information architects all involved in coming up with a good customer experience, ensuring content is relevant to the users. Before content is ready for prime time, there needs to be review and reflection to make sure the designed experience will accomplish the business's goals. This requires oversight, governance, and project management. The approval stage is the time to make sure you are doing the right thing – for the customer, brand, and company.

That said, don't fall into the trap of analysis paralysis. Too many review stages can impend your ability to get to market in a timely fashion. It can lead to a design by committee, where the winner is always the lowest common denominator. A slow approval process can detract from the success of the program. Care must be taken to balance the governance needs with the experience needs. Either extreme can put the organization at risk and end up alienating the customer. As the famous philosopher John Stuart Mill once said, "The disease which inflicts bureaucracy is routine."

Build it before they will come.

A lot of content is being produced every day. Every minute the internet proliferates:
  • Messages shared by WhatsApp users 41,666,667 
  • Voice or video calls 1,388,889 
  • Amount spent online by consumers 1,000,000 
  • People engaging with Reddit content 479,452 
  • Hours streamed by Netflix users 404,444 
  • Stories posted by Instagram users 347,222 
  • Amount worth of payments sent by Venmo users 239,196 
  • Participants hosted in Zoom meetings 208,333 
  • Messages shared by Facebook users 150,000 
  • Photos uploaded by Facebook users 147,000
  • Clicks on business profile ads on Instagram 138,889 
  • Jobs applied to by LinkedIn users 69,444 
  • Users connected by Microsoft Teams 52,083 

Source: Media usage in an internet minute as of August 2020, Statistica 


It is estimated that over 90% of this content is never indexed by Google and never seen by a human being. What a wasted effort.

It is up to the marketer, UX designer, content manager, and web producer to turn a brilliant idea into reality. No matter how engaging the design is or how accurate the targeting is, the campaign, website, or program must first be delivered. We rely on marketing operations, marketing technology, and those developers who can translate the content journey into the bits and bytes that make up a digital experience. They use content management systems and digital asset management software. They build in HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and many more languages to assemble and prepare the content and the experience for publication and distribution.

If content is published in the forest, is there no one there to see it?

Over 90% of all content is never indexed by Google and never seen by a human being.

Your campaign might be focused on a single channel like email or multi-channel combining email, website, and display banners. When your campaign is omnichannel in nature, where content presents itself to the customer via multiple channels, devices, your content must be relevant to your customer. It must be published when, where they are, to the mindset they have at the time. People think differently when they are in a “productivity mode” vs. “leisure mode”. It is possible to publish and distribute to as many or few channels as warranted in an age of decoupled or headless content architecture, all simultaneously and all automatically.

In the digital content world, marketers tend to speak about publishing content because their model and processes have been derived directly from the publishing world. This implies a finite set of content, organized in a particular form and style, to be made available to any individual designated to receive or consumer that content. Functionally, it is a one-to-many model, proceeding in one direction from publisher to consumer.

In a contextually relevant experience universe, the term “distribution” is preferable over “publish” because content flows both ways. The process involved connects the consumer of the content with a set of content that may or may not be assembled dynamically and potentially exclusively for them.

Distribution of content can take place over traditional marketing channels, digital and analog. Content quickly moves past desktops to include watches, cars, refrigerators, and in the ether by entities named Siri, Alexa, Cortana, Bixby, or Hey! Google. All are engaged in the distribution of content.

Kirk said “Engage”, Picard said “Make it so.” What do you say?

When the content is ready, the experience will be launched. When the experience is launched, it takes on a life of its own. Sometimes it works as planned, but often content surprises those who sent it out into the world. Customers do not always do what the business wants them to do or how the user experience designer planned. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing. The least expected outcome can sometimes be the best. The key is for the business to watch, observe, and collect data that classifies all the engagement parameters within the experience. This can be as simple as tracing web traffic on Google Analytics or tracking bounces, opens, and clicks on an email. Or it can be as complicated as measuring engagement, tracing the path to purchase, and connecting individuals and their behaviors via AI powered semiotics.

Companies must marshal plenty of support to deliver a successful customer experience. The website must remain up and running. The personalization within the email must work. And when the audience engages with the content, any responses, comments, feedback, or sharing behavior must be documented, addressed, and, if needed, responded to. If a link is broken, someone must fix it.

If you do not measure it, there is no proof it happened.

Almost twenty years ago, Jim Gray, who worked at Microsoft, defined a transformed scientific method considering the explosion in data volume. He posited that the only way to use and learn from data was a process that first requires the compiling of that data. Next, the data needed to be curated into a form or language that could be understood by man and machine. And finally, it was up to the data scientists to analyze the data to understand what it meant. It was the process of converting information into knowledge and knowledge into insight. That is the penultimate stage in the content supply chain journey. At the beginning of the process, there was a concept and a goal. Then, the goal was attached to appropriate metrics used to measure performance and success. With the experience live, people are engaging with it, and there will be data that can be collected, organized, and examined using the agreed upon metrics.

The analysis will produce two distinct outputs. In the first case, results are reported out to the business. They are compared against the plans, goals, or expectations. They are expressed in terms of money – sales, revenue, or reduced costs. And this revenue can be compared to costs providing a means to calculate and report on the return on investment (ROI) to the business.

If at first you don't succeed.

The second output is more meaningful to the experience and the content itself. Examining the content's performance and experience allows marketers to understand what worked, what did not, and what could be improved. This can lead to testing alternative elements using A/B or multi-variant testing and interaction modeling to predict what changes may lead to better outcomes.

The critical point is never to expect perfection out-the-gate and never assume the content journey is linear in structure and has reached its endpoint when results are measured. The last stage of the content journey is also it is first. The learnings from the programs, experience, and content should spark the next new idea.

The first step is taking the first step.

The purpose of this piece is not to criticize the way your company currently works. The purpose is to take a very pragmatic look at all the steps that comprise the content supply chain journey. It is intended to give you a primer and starting point to discuss what direction your company should take before you initiate any major content transformation program. Indeed, it should orient you before you engage with myriad software vendors that provide tools to create, manage, deliver, and measure your content-driven experiences.

But a word to the wise – The content supply chain/content journey is not a technology problem waiting for the right software. It is a business problem first, a process problem second, a change management problem third, and only then is it a technology problem. If you plan out what you want your content supply chain to look like and how you want it to function, you will be in a better place to evaluate what tools and systems you need to make your content journey a reality.

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