Choice: the secret sauce that powers content marketing

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Jamie ScheuI recently interviewed Jamie Scheu, Vice President, Associate Director of Content at Hill Holliday about content marketing.

The fact that we choose what to view, read and interact with as a result of content marketing, rather than having messages thrust upon us as in traditional advertising, makes a huge difference to what we think of the products and services being marketed.

That’s the contention of Jamie Scheu, Vice President, Associate Director of Content at Hill Holliday, an ad agency that works for such brands as Cadillac, Bank of America, John Hancock, Liberty Mutual and Major League Baseball.

I saw Jamie talk about the science behind the power of choice in content marketing at a recent meeting of Boston Content, and then spoke with him about it.

What is your background? Did you study marketing?

Jamie ScheuMy background is fairly varied and is not deeply rooted in advertising, which is kind of interesting given that we’re all here at an ad agency. In college I was a founding partner of a tech and marketing start-up in Boston, so my background was in the development world and the tech end of the marketing spectrum. I worked more in digital marketing from then on, managed digital marketing for a healthcare company here in Boston for two years, and then came to Hill Holliday to work in this department, which was fairly new when I joined.

How’d you get interested in content marketing?

For a number of reasons I think that some of the principles of doing effective content marketing represent the future of marketing more broadly. The forces that are shaping the effectiveness of our marketing efforts include consumer behavior trends that lead to fragmentation, the huge expansion of the number of channels, devices and formats, and filters that allow us to limit the amount of noise that prevent us from getting to the things that really interest us. In terms of filters, there are tech trends that are affecting the ability of marketers to reach customers without those customers opting in. And there are some legal forces in play that affect the tools that marketers have to reach consumers and the use of these tools. So for all those reasons I think the content space is exciting and represents an exciting area for marketers to get into and do well.

What got you interested in the brain science behind choice and content marketing?

To be honest, that was one of the things that interested me so much about how Hill Holliday approached content when I first started to have conversations with them. They take a very rigorous view of content beyond the hand-waving going on in the industry, to quantify the value that content can provide, which includes research that we’ve done and a pretty rigorous survey of research that’s been done around the world. Hill Holliday’s approach is that content is special because people choose to seek it out. It’s not marketing messages that seek them out. Effective content works because it is entertaining, interesting or useful enough that a brand’s target consumers will choose to seek it out and engage with it.

One piece of secondary research that you describe has to do with the value that people assign to a lottery ticket, using a deck of cards as an example.

This was an early secondary piece of research that we found that led us to think about choice as something important and powerful. Some higher ed. researchers took two groups in a workplace setting and gave them a lottery. Group A was told to pick a lottery ticket at random. They did it with 52 lottery tickets, so it’s like picking a card. The second group was given a choice of which card they wanted to pick; they could see all the cards. And each group has a $52 pot that they can win if their card is chosen. And the experiment is to go back to both groups and tell them there’s another person who wants to get in and ask, “Will you sell your card back to us?” The first group wouldn’t sell their card back for anything less than $2 — which is double the $1 expected value of the card in a purely economic sense. But Group B, which chose their cards, would not sell their card back for anything less than $8.52, which is 4.4 times the value assigned by the people in the group that had no choice. So that’s really interesting, and confirmed what we found in our own research.

Right. You did a piece of research at Hill Holliday using a movie trailer.

We looked at secondary research first and found a lot of great examples of very smart people who had studied the value of choice, including the financial value of choice, in a lab setting. So we wanted to see if those results held up in a marketing setting, and quantify the value of choice in a marketing setting. So we took a movie trailer of “Father of Invention”, a Kevin Spacey film that wasn’t widely publicized, and we divided our test group into two groups. We asked the first group if they wanted to see movie A or movie B, and based on what you choose we’re going to ask you a few questions at the end. But it was a false choice, because both the descriptions for both movies accurately described the one movie and that’s what they saw.

The second group was just told we’re going to show you a trailer and ask you some questions. They didn’t have a choice in which trailer they thought they were seeing. They too were shown the trailer for “Father of Invention”.

What we found was pretty interesting. We looked at recall and likeability, and some sub-dimensions. The group that was given the choice had a 32% increase in key facts about the trailer: what was the product, the benefit, etc. — all things that are very relevant to marketers. In terms of likeability, there was a doubling of likeability among those who were given a choice. And then we looked at believability: did people think that the film would be enjoyable? And we found a 22% percent lift there, which is what marketers are trying to do – make people like what they’re promoting. So that was very exciting to us because it validated that research on choice in a marketing context.

Those two examples are in the real world. Have you done any tests around digital content and choice? Is Hill doing testing on this for your clients?

That’s one of the great things about having a great in-house analytics group. I can’t disclose specific results, but I can say that everything that we and others have found about the value of choice versus no choice is confirmed in the real world at scale.

Aside from the question of choice, what about the content of the content? Organizations like Eloqua have their ideas of what content people want at different points in the B2B buying cycle. Have you done any work on that?

We have looked at that. Eloqua’s in a different specialty. They’re very focused on leadgen, lead nurturing and down-funnel tactics to close sales. We look at that as a piece of it, but we look at it as a system. No one piece of content will close the sale but all of it works together to drive the customer down the funnel. Our sense of the funnel starts higher than theirs. We think about increasing the awareness and likeability of brands, then consideration and trial of product. And the content that companies like Eloqua are great at optimizing, which is truly down funnel content for people who are in a consideration and buying mode and are ready to make a purchase. But we don’t think that there’s only one format for any of these purposes: it really comes down to what a given audience is looking for from a given brand; a tech audience might want a white paper but a consumer audience might like a compelling film.

Is there any difference between B2B and B2C?

The most fundamental way to express it is that effective content has to serve customers’ needs in order to serve a business’s needs and goals. That’s going to mean different things for different businesses and customers, and it’s something that has to be effective to serve those needs. And those needs can include entertainment and diversion, and if brands do a good job on content they can have it ready when customers are seeking it out.

With the huge increase in attention to, and spending on, content marketing, it will be harder and harder for your content to get found. Will we now drown under a tidal wave of content? Will it take a space jump to get attention?

Content that is well-produced, or produced on a level for the target audience, will get found and shared. It does help to give it a little push from time to time. There are many ways to promote and amplify content. We think of the distribution of content as the circulation of content. After we produce something that’s valuable, we then ask ourselves “how do we circulate this so people do find it?” And we use the term circulation because it suggests the circulatory system where information and content is being circulated, not in a linear way, but in a more organic way that truly reflects how we consume and share content.

The approaches to that will vary widely depending on the audience, brand, and type of content that you produce. On a very tactical level, if you have a video piece of content there are important things to do to make sure it’s discoverable, like being tagged and on all the major platforms. But we take a much wider view beyond SEO and social into things like getting some of our client’s films into film festivals. That can be an even better way to circulate the content to the types of audiences that we’re trying to reach.

This interview originally appeared on the IDG Connect blog.

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