Too often in content marketing and storytelling, the focus is on the company or brand sharing the content. It’s all about generating an outcome, getting a result, and creating ROI. In this episode, I argue that this approach is flawed, and that ROI should be the last consideration. Instead, focus on your audience and what they need. The results might be surprising.
Welcome to the storytelling companion episode 14 in this episode, I want to talk about the idea of goals and objectives and ROI, return on invest investment specifically as it relates to content marketing, communications and storytelling.
Throughout my career, every project that I've been involved with has started with a goal. What do we want to communicate, what will affect do we want to have on the audience? What action do we want customers to take?
And that's only natural. We're in the business of creating outcomes of generating return on investment, but I would argue that it's not the right way to think anymore, at least not all of the time.
I think that ROI should be considered last, if at all, when it comes to most forms of content marketing and storytelling. To explain, let me start with the little story.
A few years ago, I was commissioned to write a series of articles for a manufacturer for an advertising insert in a trade magazine, and the goal was to make the case for this manufacturer, for retailers to start carrying this manufacturers products, and it was a compelling case.
They had a great product. It was unique in the marketplace. There was growing market demand for this product and products like it and the company itself was a strong company. They had robust manufacturing capabilities, they had great customer service, they're innovative, they had strong marketing to support the retailers.
So the opportunity for the retailers to get on, get in on the ground floor of this new product line was undeniable. So the thinking was what we should do is logically lay out all of this information and then the retailers would just naturally see the light.
How could they not? Everything was going to be laid out there for them. Right in black and white point by point.
But that line of thinking as you might imagine in my opinion, is flawed. Let me tell you a little bit why.
As I mentioned before, I've spent most of my career in marketing and it's been my job to help sell stuff, whether it was this manufacturer’s capabilities to retailers or products to consumers, whatever the case might be.
And every project that I've been involved with -- a press release, an ad, a brochure, and now more recently things like blogs and social media content -- have all been aimed at creating some sort of outcome. To create a result, to get the audience to take some sort of action to buy or to consider buying or to be persuaded to do something, to do something that would benefit the bottom line of my client or my employer.
In other words, generate ROI.
It costs money to produce and distribute this kind of content. So it's only natural that companies would want to generate that kind of ROI.
Now, in the old days, this kind of approach worked. There was not as many media outlets and there are fewer ways that people could get information. So you had sort of a captive audience.
Well, that's changed today. There is limited limitless information available and I don't have to tell you in the area of blogs and Youtube and podcasts, there's just so much information.
And people just don't like to be sold to. They probably never did, but in the old days they didn't really have much choice. Now they have all kinds of choices. They have so much information available to them and it's so easy for them to get the information that they want, the information that they need, the information that they want to consume or the content that they want to enjoy.
And it's even easier for them to tune out what doesn't resonate with them. So if your message isn't relevant or relatable or interesting, all it takes is a click of a mouse or a swipe of a finger and you're gone.
But the biggest problem with this ROI focused approach is it's focused on the sender and what they want to achieve. And it has little, if anything, to do with the receiver, the audience, the customer.
So it's easy to ignore and forget these messages. And in my opinion, the focus on ROI over the audience is misguided.
I saw a post on LinkedIn recently that the poster said that every piece of content, everything you do should be created with some sort of an outcome in mind. What do you want the audience to do? What they, what do you hope to get out of it from them?
And I get it. Listen, we're, we're all marketers here and we have a reputation of being kind of soft and squishy and producing kind of feel good, BS kind of stuff. And so there's this drive for this trend to attach our efforts to hard measurable outcomes.
But I still think that this is the wrong way to approach most forms of content marketing. Not all forms of content marketing. There certainly is a place for the hard sell and we'll get to that in a little bit.
It's the same approach for the example I gave a little bit earlier in that with the manufacturer trying to reach the retailers. In that case we were focused on generating some sort of a result, we wanted to demonstrate the value of this brand, of this company to retailers. And we did so very, very clearly.
We wanted to generate ROI and produce because producing and placing this piece was expensive. And the client of course wanted to get some sort of return out of it, but the result was, in my opinion, a pretty forgettable piece. Maybe it generated some of the results, I'm not sure, but it was really just one more advertising in a sea of sameness in the industry.
The problem in my opinion of starting with a laser focus on ROI is really threefold.
The first is that it's logical. When you start with an end goal in mind, you will naturally draw kind of a straight line to get there. It's the logical thing to do. It makes sense. You're kind of thinking through strategically how you're going to get from point A to point B.
If you want your audiences to learn and to understand the benefits of working with your company, of purchasing your product, of using your service, you clearly and concisely lay out that case. You take your audience from awareness to understanding, to consideration to action or whatever model it is you follow, but you kind of follow a linear path.
The problem is that's not how people think. That's not how people receive messages or make decisions despite what has been said in the past. We are not rational beings, humans. We're emotional beings. We make decisions based on emotions and then we justify them with logic and data and facts. So that's my first problem with this ROI driven approach to content.
The second is that it assumes a captive audience. Now, I mentioned this a little bit earlier, but when you start with an end goal of some kind of customer action, you are inherently in sales mode. You're laying out the features and benefits and building a case for why people should buy your product or sign up for your service.
But as I mentioned before, people don't like to be sold to. They're naturally skeptical, so when they see a sales-oriented message making claims and so forth, their BS detectors kind of spring into action or more likely they just tune it out. They click away from the message and they're gone and they do that because they can.
They are not a captive audience anymore. People have lots of choices. When it comes to content and they certainly aren't going to spend any time with sales-oriented messages that don't really resonate with them.
But the third and probably most important reason why I think starting with an ROI approach to your content is problematic is that you naturally put yourself and your needs first. So you're producing this message after all and you're trying to earn a living and generate sales. And I get that. It all makes sense.
So when producing that kind of content, your needs, your product and your brand, as I said, come first. And then the tendency is to give the audience's needs, the customer's needs, short shrift or sometimes no shrift, no shrift at all.
Now this doesn't always happen. There are certainly good examples of audience-driven content out there. There's plenty of them. And I'm sure most, if not all marketers are well-meaning and they're doing their best to try to serve their customers and their audiences with content that's helpful in the content that they can use.
But when you look at everything through this lens of generating a return on investment for yourself and for your company, there's this gravitational pull that happens of meeting your needs and it can be too much for your audience's needs to overcome.
So I think when it comes to content marketing or even marketing in general, in most of its forms, the focus should not be on you or your ROI, but on your audience and what they need first.
And when you take that approach, a funny thing happens.
A few episodes back, I shared a story about a LinkedIn post from a gentleman by the name of John Seabreeze who is the brand management director for Hampton Inn hotels. And I know I mentioned before, but it's a great story and it bears repeating.
The story is about Khalif who is a front desk employee at a Hampton Inn hotel and it talks about how he generously gave some time each day to a young autistic boy who just needed a friend. He did some card tricks for him every day and took some time out of his day for the time that he was staying there to kind of be this boy's friend.
It was a great post, and it was a heartwarming story and really the only purpose behind it as far as I could tell was to celebrate the compassion and the kindness of the employees that typically work at this hotel chain. There's really nothing more to it than that.
But it's also a great example of this ROI last approach that I'm talking about now. Just take a step back a little bit. Imagine if John had approached this LinkedIn post with the goal of generating some ROI and reporting and promoting how great and compassionate and nice and kind Hampton Inn employees are.
What would that have looked like? Well, I'm not sure. I didn't talk to John about this, but the way I might've approached it in the past was I would've focused first maybe on how the employees are hired and how they look for employees who have a certain kind of human skill set. And then focus also on the training of employees and how we had trained them to be compassionate and to be nice to our guests and so forth and to give them a great experience.
And I would have made some kind of broad statements and claims to that effect. And then at the end of the post there would have been a call to action, a link perhaps to book a stay or sign up for a rewards program or whatever, whatever you would want a as a hotel chain your customers to do, to engage with you.
What kind of a response do you think a post like that would have generated? How would you have responded if you saw something like that?
Most likely the response would have been probably lukewarm at best. You might've gotten some a few likes here and there and that kind of a thing, but you certainly wouldn't have received hundreds of thousands of engagements and the message would not have been exposed to exposed to potentially millions of people on LinkedIn, many of whom are potential customers of Hampton Inn.
I don't think that would have happened at all, but that's what happened with John Seabreeze’s an original post about Khalif and the story with the autistic boy.
And that's what can happen. I think when you focus on the audience's needs first, you generate content that they want to consume, that they're interested in, that they engage with, that they share.
In short, this is kind of a funny thing here, but you can get better ROI by not focusing on your ROI.
Now, as I mentioned before, there is a time and a place for more hard-hitting sales driven content. Sooner or later you have to sell your product. You have to show people how to buy it, where to buy it, how to use it, what kinds of benefits they can get from it and so forth. I'm not disputing any of that.
But when you're talking about reaching a new audience, building your brand, building your reputation through content, generating interest in your brand and in your company, you need to focus solely on what your audience needs, what they need to hear, what they want to hear, read and see.
In other words, ROI should be the farthest thing from your mind.