Surely you know all of your competitors and always have an eye on how they position themselves in “your” target group through content, marketing and design. You do, right?
But do you know all the alternatives your target audience has to invest their money, time and attention?
This is much more important because consumers no longer compare products and brands from the same “category” (for example, running shoes). Instead, we compare them; we all compare – mostly subconsciously – virtually every experience that we have had in the past with what we are currently experiencing. And this is always accompanied by an evaluation and continuous opinion-forming.
“Customers don’t compare you to your competitors anymore — they compare you to other positive experiences they’ve had.” – Shep Hyken.
In the end, this goes so far that every experience creates new expectations for future ones. If booking accommodation through Airbnb felt comfortable and the vacation was relaxing, why should we ever bother with complicated hotel booking portals again? We now know that it can also be more convenient.
Or when was the last time you went to IKEA, for example? Meandering exhibition rooms as a product catalog that has come to life inspire our imagination, provide relevant, context-related product information (including price tags) and offer us a shopping experience as smooth as it is difficult to find elsewhere. The inexpensive range of restaurants perfectly positioned impulse purchases and whiskey goods, and a warehouse-like pick-up system further reduces specific friction points when shopping. It is crowned by the reward behind the checkout in the form of a hot dog or soft ice cream.
Well, and now the question for you: Do your customers experience the same when they browse your website or comb through your online shop?
What content are you presenting to them? How do you give your products to them? Do you have a “guidance system” that your visitor can follow almost blindly and thus experience your offers? Are there (positive) surprises waiting around every corner, and does the actual purchase feel just as good?
The best inspiration for the content and, above all, how you design and use your content is seldom found in your competitors or the form or other content. It is much more worthwhile to look at what else your customers are doing and experiencing, especially away from a screen.
The “content experience,” as I will call it in the following (or COX for short), is one thing above all: an emotional experience. Therefore, it not only depends on the actual content and design but is influenced by various factors.
Definition: What is “Content Experience”?
“Content Experience” seems like one of those “new” marketing buzzwords that sound hip and essential – just like every “experience” currently. There is much more to it than it looks at first glance.
Randy Frisch, founder of Uberflip and possibly one of the first people to propagate the term, describes the content experience as “the environment in which our content is – how it is structured and how it motivates the user to interact.” In my opinion, these aspects are limited to the experience in the here and now, i.e., to what we perceive directly while consuming content.
How are you feeling right now as you read this article? Which emotions predominate? Curiosity? Appreciation? Disappointment? Are your thoughts already rattling in the back of your mind? Have you subconsciously made up your mind to talk to colleagues about this?
How does it all look in practice?
Let’s play through a few scenarios that each of us has probably already experienced:
The YouTube Experience – Irrelevant content recommendations but excellent search results
As soon as I call up YouTube, I am already in the middle of the content experience: On the one hand, I had a reason why I went to the video platform (e.g., a need for information or entertainment) and therefore a confident expectation of what I would find there and wants to consume. On the other hand, I can already see an individualized feed with content that might interest me.
Let’s pause here for a moment and evaluate the situation:
Will my expectations be met? No, not really. Because even Google doesn’t know what I’m after at this moment. Do I want to watch a specific music video? Or listen to the trendy stand-up comedian? Or do I need instructions on how to best report my jalapeños without them shrinking afterward? The recommendations that YouTube plays to me are usually irrelevant based on the content I’ve consumed in the past. And there are many and, above all, many different!
Imagine that Google would also apply this principle to the Google search and make suggestions on the homepage about what might interest you based on your search history!
Spotify has an easier time meeting my taste when it comes to music recommendations. I also like their approach to categorizing proposals, but more on that later.
Or maybe you’re the type of YouTube user who has subscribed to individual accounts and looks forward to a new vlog of your favorite influencers every Monday; then, the algorithm can probably make you happy. Otherwise, it will likely fall short of our expectations.
But that doesn’t matter, because YouTube is a search engine! Most users ignore the recommendations and click directly into the search box. Now it’s all about delivering the right search results – and YouTube is pretty good at that. Depending on the information they receive from the users, of course. My test with the search term “buy running shoes” produced mostly relevant results.
And after clicking on a video, the content recommendation also works better because now YouTube knows what I’m looking for. The “Next Title” section is not consistently focused on the keyword or topic I am looking for, but some exciting suggestions.
At this point, we have to differentiate anyway:
Are we YouTube, who want to keep the user on the platform, or are we a company that distributes videos via YouTube to generate reach and, if necessary, clicks on our website? The algorithm will favor the former, but not the latter. As a content brand, we have to ensure that we motivate the user within our video to visit our website, for example. And we then have to receive it on a page based on its “YouTube Experience” – for example, its page with videos because anyone who has just watched videos does not want to read texts or browse product catalogs straight away.
The crux of the matter: The search on your site has to work just as well as the one on YouTube to meet the user’s demands. Is she already doing that today?
A simple way out is to offer your visitors an alternative to the search and, for example, to guide them through your content offer with always new, contextual content recommendations. The more relevant these recommendations are, the higher the likelihood that a user will follow them. And the more you can ultimately control what content a user consumes.
But I’m getting too far ahead …
I think we can use this example alone to record the following typical characteristics of a good content experience:
Five characteristics of a practical content experience
From these three areas, we can now derive a few characteristics that make up a good content experience – and consequently differentiate good content from less good. A practical content experience in terms of its effectiveness for marketing is
- Progressive, meaning that each new piece of content (that a person consumes) builds on the previous one. So both gaps in communication and redundancies must be avoided – as I described it before in the context of conversational interfaces: If we want to meet our customers in real-time in a dialogue, the entire customer experience must be part of this conversation – and Although all touchpoints such as email, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. away. A clean database is essential for this.
- Continuous, which means that each new content is similar to the previous one in some way (e.g., linguistically or visually). This consistency gives the consumer a feeling of security that he is still in the right place (keyword: digital environment) and interacting with the same person or brand.
- Contextually relevant, i.e., that it is of interest to the user at the moment and integrates perfectly into the experience – from the format (e.g., pop-ups, slide-ups, dynamic elements etc.), the visual design and, above all, the linguistic tonality. We can often measure relevance because it creates an (emotional) response that can be measured in the form of a user action.
- It is motivating and guiding, which means that the content currently consumed encourages the user to consume additional content and makes contextually relevant recommendations. The aim here is not merely to force engagement, but to accompany the user along his “user journey,” for example, to lead from researching the cause to finding a solution or “product awareness” to a purchase decision. We can set targeted incentives to this end with known psychological, motivational factors (keyword: behavior pattern).
- Structured, which means that the consumer can explore our entire range of content on his own without great effort – because he recognizes how we organize content (e.g., categorized thematically or by keywords), immediately becomes aware of the search function (and this as expected delivers good results; see above) or can navigate from one page to the next using internal links.
Okay, with this understanding of what makes a great content experience, we can analyze our website and how we offer visitors.
COX Strategy: A Systematic Approach to Optimizing the Content Experience
Step 1: Centralize your digital assets
How many blog articles or press releases do you publish each month? How many podcast episodes do you produce? How many videos do you shoot? How often do you post on social media?
How many of these “content assets” do you collect in one central location, such as a content management system?
I’m not (yet) talking about whether you are making all this content available to your target group in one central location – for example, a content hub – but rather, in the first step, whether you even keep an inventory and are always aware of what content you are ( digital).
The sad reality is that companies publish here and there, and after a few months or even years, have completely forgotten what they posted back then. This results in unnecessary work, as the same topics “from back then” are often taken up again but are worked on also from scratch. Companies could have built on what they already have, or should I say: once had … ?! Another consequence is longer production cycles.
Step 1 towards the content experience is, therefore, to centralize ALL content. Be it in a classic (cloud) storage system such as Google Drive, a specific digital asset management system (DAM system for short) such as Bynder or Canto, or a professional content management system such as censhare or Adobe Experience Manager (AEM for short, see screenshot below). The latter put it quite aptly on their website:
When content is stored in different systems, and simple editing takes days instead of a few minutes, it degrades your customer experience – and your competitive advantage is gone. To maintain this competitive advantage over the long term, you need to create, access, and reuse content quickly.
The benefits are clear. Speed, efficiency, transparency (internal) and consistency.
Step 2: organize your content.
The reason for organizing your content in the interests of your users is simple: even if a person lands on your site organically, for example, via Google search, they are not looking for “marketing content” such as e-books or white papers, but for a solution to a specific problem. Therefore, we are well-advised not to organize content (exclusively) according to formats, i.e., text documents, images, videos, audio files, logos, etc., but according to application areas and needs.
Many of the systems just mentioned can automate part of the “organization” and can, for example, tag assets based on artificial intelligence (so-called smart tagging). They also enable categorization according to the customer journey stage, target groups/personas, or specific questions and problem areas.
For the internal organization, I would then add information about the purpose – for example, “organic visibility” (what nasty tongues could call “SEO content”), news, entertainment or conversion. I also find the idea of grouping content in verticals or marking it for specific accounts or individual contact persons (keyword: account-based marketing ) exciting.
In this way, we simplify the internal organization for content planning, production and use, but simultaneously create significant added value for users if they can find suitable content via the website.
Uberflip is a perfect example of this (see screenshot): They primarily sort content vertically in their hub. In addition to a free text search, they also offer the user the option of filtering by formats such as videos, e-books, podcasts, etc.
In my opinion, the key is to define a suitable connection recommendation for each asset – i.e., content that a user should consume afterward because it advances them in their journey. Ideally, we also link these recommendations technically with user data (keyword: Smart Recommendations) so that no content that has already been consumed is recommended to a user.
In this way, the content experience is a closed-loop. This ensures that the consumer can no longer stop – and content binge-watching was born (see an example below).
One approach for this is individualized “content destinations,” as you can create with emlen, for example. Although these are currently only made through manual selection, the platform is still in the beta phase. I see the potential for machine learning to automate and optimize the content selection and prioritize and recommend unique content within the destination for different people.
Another approach is the “Endless Content Chain”, as I call it. The Search Engine Journal (SEJ) uses this form of the endless loop by reloading the next one shortly before the end of an article and adding it seamlessly so that the user can scroll through endless articles.
This experience is similar to a typical social media feed as we know it from Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn, and unfortunately, also carries the risk that we can quickly lose ourselves in it. The challenge for content experience designers, or marketers, is to ensure a particular relevance.
Harvard Business Review has found an innovative approach to this by combining several articles in a targeted “package,” as shown in the screenshot below. The second article begins immediately after the first article, as with the SEJ. And then, the third. And so on, depending on how many thematically related items (or other formats) they bundle. And that’s precisely where the difference lies: HBR bundles (ergo editorially) a specific number of content assets into an experience, while SEJ leaves it to the system, so to speak, which and in which order the articles from the archive are strung together.
I can imagine that this type of “content bundling” will allow visitors to read more than they might be intended initially – as long as the recommendations are relevant.
PathFactory takes a similar route but designs the content offering a little differently: You define a “Content Consumption Path” for the user (see the list on the left in the screenshot below). They bundle different content in different formats that are intended to advance the user in his customer journey. So it is no longer just about thematic relevance as with HBR, but also about the PathFactory “funnel” with a clear sales or at least conversion goal.
This approach is incredibly exciting because the list shows the user where they are within the customer journey. This may trigger the user’s need to correct and, if necessary, first consume other content from the list (“Is this content really useful for me if I haven’t seen the previous ones?”). This, in turn, provides PathFactory with valuable information about the actual customer journey (which content is consumed first?) Ensure that the user is served with the critical information in the correct order and is thus significantly influenced in his (purchase) decision.
Magic happens with data!
However, the closest thing to the principle of binge-watching is that compared to “smartly combined already existing content” as in the previous examples, content specifically produced as series (“Serial Experiences”). A prime example of such formats is Wistia, in shows like Fire Wagon to potential customers to win Humor combine with valuable information and advice from marketing experts for itself. And there is probably no more suitable format for their products than Netflix-like organized videos.
The crux of the matter: internal organization and communication
For such forms of content organization to work in the long term, all content creators and users must be familiar with the system and support it. Anyone who produces new content is also responsible for categorizing it accordingly, integrating it into existing consumption paths and, above all, informing colleagues about the new content! Because only when everyone knows what is available can they actively work with it. Content that was created in marketing cannot be used exclusively for this … The sales team may be just as happy about it.
In any case, it is best if the content is not planned and produced “in secret” by a department, but instead, there is maximum transparency and opportunities for collaboration – let’s call it “collaborative content design.” In my experience, colleagues from different departments can achieve their own goals with the same content idea but often don’t know about each other and thus work on similar topics in parallel. This creates duplicate work and redundant content. A typical target system, such as Objectives and Key Results (OKR for short), could help. Combined with a common content platform, efficiency and effectiveness should noticeably increase.
Step 3: personalize the content experience.
The previous examples are a step in the right direction, but also not there. Because the recommendations are based on a system-based categorization such as tags or defined funnels, it would be even better to personalize the offers based on real user data, as is conceivable with PathFactory.
Personalization is ultimately a core part of an outstanding content experience. It’s no longer just about what is said, but about how it is packaged ( content design ), how it is presented (e.g., structurally) and, above all, how which content is recommended – from the first point of contact to sales and beyond.
Side Facts: On behalf of Adobe, Goldsmiths College at the University of London conducted a study in 2017 to research customer brand loyalty. The result: Almost two-thirds of German consumers are loyal to brands that tailor the customer experience precisely to their needs and preferences, i.e., personalize them. Another finding, says Dr. Thomas Meyer, Director Digital Strategy Group at Adobe, states that “new technologies such as chatbots or augmented reality are particularly popular with buyers in Germany: 52 percent prefer brands that continuously innovate in order to improve the customer experience”. This, in turn, has implicit effects on the content formats and distribution channels (more on this in a moment).
Let’s take Spotify as an example this time: You have recognized that “albums” – comparable to a company-centric categorization of blogs, e.g., according to publication date or topic – are less and less of interest and, due to “playlists” (or “custom listening experiences”), are more user-centered Alternative to be replaced. Spotify combines the push principle in the sense of “Hey, do you already know … ?!” and the pull principle in the form of the search function. In both cases, user behavior provides valuable input to the algorithm.
The algorithm considers or optimizes different metrics, such as the playlist consumption time, with a view to the recommendations and satisfaction in the search case.
The question arises for me here: How can we also adapt these two principles to our content on a website?
- With the push principle, we want to pursue our goals, for example, providing the user with certain information, drawing his attention to our products and services or even motivating him to make a transaction. For example, we measure the length of stay on our website, the number of page views per visitor, more, generally speaking, the “journey completion” in the sense of predefined content paths. At this point, I consciously avoid the term “funnel,”… So we define which content recommendations we make at what point in time and use usage data to optimize them with a view to our goals.
- Does it work manually? No, not really. Corresponding content management or personalization tool is essential; Without a reliable database and machine learning / artificial intelligence, we won’t get far in the long term. A first approximation based on real user data would be recommendations as we know them from e-commerce: “Other visitors to our website also read…”.
- The pull principle’s central element is the search function through which the user wants to satisfy his needs. That sounds simple, but it is much more demanding in reality because, at first, we don’t know the search intention. Is a person looking for something particular (focused search)? Is she looking for inspiration (open search)? Or does she want to see where the path leads her (exploratory search)? Depending on the mindset, a person rates the search results differently:
- Anyone looking for something specific wants to find it quickly – or not, only to look elsewhere and not waste time here.
- Those who are open to results have no concrete idea of what they will look like but still expect satisfaction of this need – in the form of a new idea, an impulse or entertainment.
- Those who are explorative take detours and “effort” in the hope of finding treasure in the end. We have to make sure she doesn’t expect disappointment at the end of the rainbow. 😉
The challenge for companies is to avoid dissatisfaction. Because high effort with a satisfactory result always feels better for the user than any action without a subsequent satisfactory result. In this case, the content experience is primarily defined by the search result.
Step 4: experiment with content distribution
The next step is the distribution of content. Hopefully, you will understand that I am not explaining this topic in detail here because there are too many options, and new ones are always being added. The latter is still a help to me to reflect on the “experimental approach” in content distribution and not immediately and exclusively to take familiar paths. Experience is undoubtedly helpful but not a guarantee of success. I always think it makes sense to test different marketing and distribution channels, and the success stories of well-known companies confirm this willingness to experiment:
For example, in its early phase, Buffer mainly used guest articles to be seen in relevant target groups. The founders wrote more than 150 guest articles for a wide variety of specialist media before they changed their strategy and started with their team to set up their blog and later also start a podcast.
Canva generates a too high amount of organic traffic by applying their SEO strategy to the two push and pull approaches described above in the form of demand-oriented landing pages and extremely well-structured (and internally linked) “discovery pages.” Ross Simmonds, CEO of the content marketing agency Foundation, Inc., has focused on a very detailed analysis.
And Blinkist primarily relies on native advertising and inbound marketing to acquire new users, which is undoubtedly due to the experience of Sandra Wu, paid content marketing lead at Blinkist. Because she’s previously fueled 8fit’s growth through the same channels and kept her approach, nevertheless, she tests a lot when it comes to the design of her content and uses data to validate hypotheses.
Step 5: Get results or at least insights
This last step does not need any further explanation. Ultimately, it’s about using content to achieve your marketing and sales goals. Regardless of whether you are directly concerned with visibility in search engines (keyword: rankings), lead generation (keyword: inbound marketing), a transaction in the sense of a purchase (keyword: e-commerce), customer loyalty or branding, you want to understand learn what effect different content has on which target group and on which platforms. Because without this specifically (!) Generated knowledge (keyword: testing) you cannot optimize existing content assets and successfully replicate them.
Outlook: content experience principles and the question of measurability
To what extent this effort is worth it, i.e., how we can measure content experiences’ effectiveness on our marketing and business growth, I will answer in a separate article. Likewise, general principles can be derived for the design of content to keep the standard as high as possible or to keep it higher so that engagement increases through the content experience.
What to take away from this article
- The “content experience” is the sum of the experiences (past), expectations (future) and experiences (present) that a consumer has with your content.
- Is “Content Experience” the Evolution of Content Marketing? No. It may seem like a buzzword at the moment, but what “content experience” essentially describes is critical to any company’s long-term success that produces content for marketing purposes and beyond.
- The reality is that writing content and putting content into context are two very different things to our audience. (Randy Fresh)
- Understanding content discovery ( how do people become aware of our content? ) And consumption habits and preferences ( how, where, when and with whom do people prefer to read/listen/watch our content? ) Of one’s audience is of crucial importance because it represents the basis for content planning and distribution as an individualized service. Or to put it another way: It enables you to act precisely when a person (implicitly) signals interest.
- How: every piece of content is linked to the next before and after so that there are never “dead ends,” but rather, the consumption is a closed-loop. define a follow-up for each asset
- Customers no longer compare brands, products and experiences with direct competitors – they compare them with other (positive) experiences they have had.