The Rise of Custom Content Development and Ultimate Convergence in Product Simulations

By | August 19, 2010

In BtoB Magazine‘s most recent issue (Aug 16, 2010), there are three articles by Sean Callahan on the B2B marketing trend of developing custom content: (a) “Commited to custom”, (b) “Custom programs getting larger portions of budgets”, and (c) “Makino retools marketing program with custom content”.

The gist of ‘custom content’ seems to mean information for industry professionals that is expected to be vendor-neutral, information about news or techniques that are outside of traditional sales materials that promote a company’s products.  However, in the third article, Makino clearly demonstrates that there may not be a clear line between custom content and promotional material:

We’re using content to drive engagement and develop discussions with our customers and prospects, and we’re doing that in a way that shows how our premium products and high technology can help drive their business’ success, performance, and profitability,” [Mark] Rentschler [Markino’s marketing manager] said.

I think this cuts to the heart of the message I have been developing/emitting — if you make marketing materials using product simulations that show how your products solve real-world problems, those materials themselves can make valuable training (‘custom content’) beyond a sales pitch.  For example, we produce training materials for one of our client’s products that use interactive simulation to show how the products are applied.  Word on the street is that their competitors even use the material to illustrate how the device works and should be applied.  This effect is echoed in the article by Tom Gaudreau, PureSafety’s VP of marketing — “[i]t’s all about thought leadership for us.”

So in my view, the border (if there is one) between neutral content and content involving branded products is pretty fuzzy, and something completely in line with using product simulations to sell products through teaching.  Product simulations that teach about how to solve problems are a perfect fit, and the savvy marketer can present problems that their products uniquely solve or solve in a particularly effective way.  In this way, marketing/sales is about solving customer problems in a demonstrated way, as opposed to merely hawking products by features and benefits.

The articles point out the greater demand for custom content and how many companies are investing more money into a marketing strategy incorporating custom content creation, rather than traditional paid media.  That sounds really sensible to echo the shift in adapting to more social ways of selling.  The author quotes Joe Pulizzi (who I mentioned in a previous post on B2B digital marketing as a ‘Custom Content Expert’) about why custom content is growing:

  1. Search engines have made it imperative for company websites to have worthwhile and relevant content
  2. Social media’s popularity has forced companies to create content that can be shared
  3. Current emphasis on lead generation has prodded companies to produce content from which they can get leads.

It all comes back to the ‘e’ word — engagement.  The second article points to results from a recent survey “B2B Content Marketing 2010 Benchmarks, Budget and Trends,” — highlighting that

[t]he biggest challenges to custom media players are producting “engaging” content [36%] and producing enough content [21%]

Emphasizing the point about finding where to create good, engaging content, and like the quotation from Makino’s marketing manager above, where better to start regarding content than around a company’s current product set and the problems they solve?

To me, scenarios, stories, etc. that feature branded products solving real customer problems — the heart of product simulation advertising — make great custom content.  There might be some fear that focusing on a company’s products would make the user feel too much like it’s a sales pitch.  That is a fine line to walk, but if the content is really good (relevant to the user’s problems), I believe the user will be more appreciative than skeptical, as in the case of my client mentioned above.

In some areas, creating custom simulation content can bring issues into the conversation.  Another one of my client’s is in a somewhat controversial but growing area of the Fire Service and is producing simulations to educate users about safe application of the device.  As you can imagine, debates can get quite heated (no pun intended) because of misinformation and misapplication.  Of course videos and technical reports are part of the mix, but the simulations put users in the driver’s seat to ‘experience’ it for themselves.

Calling the readers to action

Another theme regarding content topics is presented by Dan Blank (founder, We Grow Media).  The article quotes his opinion that the biggest hurdle is making custom content “actionable.”  “It’s not just informing and entertaining, but calling the [readers] to action….”  I think product simulations that are framed in the right real-world customer problem have strong calls-to-action because they put the problem squarely in front of the viewer to solve (and relate to).

Is it wrong to involve your products?

There is an interesting point of conflict in these articles between the case from Makino, recognizing that custom content can “show how our premium products…help drive their business’ success”, and Matt Johnston’s (VP marketing, uTest) aim that

the goal of [uTest’s custom content] site is simply to create useful content for their market–not to immediately sell uTest’s products and services.  “It’s not a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” he said.

I almost feel like the latter statement expresses a feeling of guilt if a company makes content around its products (the “wolf in sheep’s clothing”).  I think in this context, we shouldn’t fear that viewer’s are going to expose a promotional intention–we should focus on making good content that solves customers’ real problems.  The hard sell is bad content, but we as vendors shouldn’t feel embarrassed about helping our potential buyer’s solve their problems with our products — after all, that’s why they have found us, and that’s the information they want from us.

2 thoughts on “The Rise of Custom Content Development and Ultimate Convergence in Product Simulations

  1. Craig Badings

    There is a very clear distinction between thought leadership content and product related content. The two are entirely separate.

    Thought leadership content should engender trust in your brand, position you as the ‘go to’ experts in your space and frame the debate/s around issues your customer’s businesses face. Once this platform has been laid and the lead has been generated or the customer is ready to move the next stage it makes sense to move to product simulation or product marketing content.

    The point about thought leadership is that the entire process underpins the sale without talking to the sale. Sales specific talk and product information should only come right at the very end of this cycle – on its own it certainly isn’t thought leadership.

  2. Jonathan Kaye Post author

    I don’t think the distinction is so clear–it’s very hard to say where to draw the line on an absolute basis, if you (the thought leader) truly believe a particular product solves an important problem well. Maybe I shouldn’t have said “convergence,” but I believe there is a significant opportunity for overlap and connection between thought leadership content and product marketing content.

    To be recognized as a thought leader, one needs both to identify and solve customer’s or prospect’s problems. If a solution involves a product capability, especially in an interesting or unique way, does the thought leader avoid mentioning that capability, to avoid being branded as a salesman? Would mentioning several products take away to feeling of being sold, even at the expense of not solving the problem most effectively, hence potentially diminishing his or her status as a thought leader?

    I think we often look to thought leaders to reveal products that can solve our problems.

    I like your observation that “thought leadership…underpins the sale without talking to the sale.” If thought leadership involves approaches to solving a problem, then product-related content has a place in that discussion, not just at the point of sales, because many problems do not have 100%-effective solutions, or potentially they introduce other (hopefully less severe) issues.

    I agree with you completely that product-related content is not on its own thought leadership. The thought leader who frames the debate around customer issues is not necessarily bad/evil/deceptive if the leader believes and expresses that a certain product solves the issues most effectively.

    Thank you for your comments, Craig!

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