Content Marketing and Persuasion Architecture


This blog has included several postings dealing with the skills and team design needed to deliver “digital” well for brands. From the implications of immersive content platforms (Return of the Product Manager) and the different perspectives of millennial staff (The Native Advantage), we’ve thought a lot about what evolving digital platform and ad tech capabilities require from strategy and delivery teams. These organizational design considerations are essential to evolving marketing teams as our channels and customer behavior continue to evolve at a pace never before seen in history.

One thing that won’t ever change is the fundamental objective of marketing and communications teams across channels: to be persuasive about the products or services they are promoting. After we succeed in “interrupting” audience’s attention and attracting eyeballs (and/or ears), and have established the first hints of interest our messaging and experiences must aim to persuade that a service, product, or, yes, brand is worth creating a relationship with.

Persuasion Architecture

Years ago the concept of looking at brand/customer interactions as conversations intended to persuade was cleverly applied to online user experience design challenges as “persuasion architecture.” This took the form of developing website experiences in a non-hierarchical way, so instead of building a site from the top down, which too often mirrored the structure of an organization (company>brands>products & services>product) rather than the way customers explored their needs (search>search results>product) and the questions they were seeking to answer.

Practitioners of this approach, notably industry heavyweights Bryan and Jeffrey Eisenberg, designed experiences to provide answers to questions they would anticipate from customers and prospects exploring a product or service need. So if someone searched Google for “accounting software” and landed on a product page, the designers of that page would consider what questions a shopper would have when viewing the page and provide content or clear pathways to answer those questions. What operating systems does it work on? Is this for personal or business accounting needs? Can I handle invoicing, payments and receivables with the software? These are all examples of questions shoppers of accounting software would likely seek to answer.

Persuasion architecture thinking was and is a great way of delivering a site experience and identifying content needs in a user-centric way that leads a prospect along a clear pathway toward a transaction. In part the content marketing revolution reflects a broad recognition that brands have not done a great job historically of providing answers to questions through case studies, articles, and videos that show the benefits of products and services rather than just showing a picture or list of features and then offering an order button.

Shopping is not a Site Experience

But of course online audiences rarely feel constrained by the boundaries of an individual site domain and rather seek to interact with multiple online sources and platforms to continue their investigation and gather affirmation that a particular product is the right one for them, so persuasion architecture purely in the context of site development is an incomplete answer. This is where implications for how marketing teams may need to (again) evolve and organize themselves in order to be effective should be acknowledged.

Media as Part of the Journey, Not Just the Start

It can appear expedient to separate the thinking and people focused on online platform development from those focused on media messaging and distribution considering that the tools leveraged within those disciplines are very different. I know plenty of UX leads who neither know nor care to know what goes into an insertion order and plenty of media planners who lose consciousness when asked to review wireframes, but for the purposes of building a modern persuasion architecture the skills of both teams are required.

Improving cross-platform identification technology provides the landscape where the principles of persuasion architecture are going mobile… And social… And just about anywhere customers interact with the internet. Customer behavior has always been multi-channel and multi-platform. New tracking and data solutions capabilities are now allowing experience design (very broadly speaking) to be as well.

Facebook and Google do an effective job of tying together your cross-platform journeys, which is why that pair of pink pants you once looked at keep appearing in your feed, and data solutions providers like Neustar, Nielsen, and Merkle proclaim the ability to map customers to a broad database of online interactions with a high degree of accuracy. Retargeting shoppers with images and logos of the products they recently reviewed is just step one of applying that technology.

Content Sequencing

Emerging content marketing platforms like OneSpot (who list the aforementioned Eisenberg brothers as advisors) are starting to gain traction in demonstrating the value of looking at media as an extension of the consideration journey that good web platforms have always labored to deliver. Marketers now have the opportunity to continue answering questions they expect prospective customers have beyond their owned platforms. OneSpot calls this content sequencing, which is the notion of anticipating content browsers want to see based on online behavioral and demographic patterns, and serving that content up on different platforms and channels – wherever a browsers’ online journey takes them.

Right now Adam Weinroth, CMO of OneSpot, sees its platform as being most effective when their algorithm serves content to web browsers based on engagement patterns rather than how a brand would like to see customers explore their offerings. But the Ambililty team wonders if a potential source of revenue for OneSpot and companies like it could be brands looking expansively at persuasion architecture and where customers explore their options online. That, again, would require brands to unify (or, at least, align) their platform and media teams around the fundamentals of persuasion architecture.

Social Team 6

As we fast approach another Super Bowl marketers may recall one of the few (only?) corporate social outreaches that achieved mass awareness – Oreo’s “You Can Still Dunk in the Dark” post. The Ambility team, after much discussion, decided that that was the last example of a social post getting wide airplay that we could remember. We also felt it was a good time to ask “Why?”

There’s an old saying that war is months of boredom punctuated by moments of terror.  It’s likely that someone has said something similar about the marketing world (particularly if they’ve spent time within agencies) but situationally there is no justifiable metaphor between battle and the world of marketing. There are, however, perhaps some lessons marketers can learn from those who practice combat well. Beyond the rigorous physical training (including the Seals’ famous, though studiously unconfirmed, Hell Week when trainees must run, swim in cold water, and crawl through mud almost non-stop for up to six days with only a total of four hours sleep during that time to restore them) the bulk of time spent in elite fighting forces is dedicated to practicing scenarios again and again on the off chance that the same or a similar situation will be confronted. In fact it would not be a far reach to suggest that the mission success of these elite fighting forces is as much about anticipating a situation and preparing for it as it is about training their minds and bodies to function under duress. And here is where marketing teams can look for lessons.

Anticipation & Preparation

The greatest opportunities for marketers to surprise and delight in the social spaces on a mass scale come from being prepared to respond quickly during events that have mass appeal. The Super Bowl, of course, is an example of something people schedule their day (even year) around, but what can be overlooked in this age of time shifting TV watching is that there are plenty of events that Americans seek to enjoy live; events that appeal to our desire for collective engagement, where the very timeliness of social networking can stand out and create mass impressions.

The examples of corporate posts or tweets that achieved mass awareness during such events so far are very few indeed, but those that have are less examples of amazing creative than they are operational success stories. That so few brands even appear at all with timely social messaging around mass events is also more an operational failure than a lack of creative juice.

Oreo’s “You Can Still Dunk in the Dark” post during the 2013 Super Bowl after the lights kicked off and delayed the game for over a half hour is a great, though unique, example of when the preparation and creative action came together to take advantage of an unexpected situation and gain enviable positive brand perception. No one, I think, has suggested that 360i (Oreo’s social agency) anticipated a loss of power to the 2013 Super Bowl but they did recognize that America’s biggest sporting event offered a real opportunity to make a positive brand impression at relatively tiny cost.

It’s Operations Not Creativity

All these years later there are arguments about how well that tweet drove business for Oreo. Oreo’s sales growth has indeed gone from the low single digits to around 20% per year for the last couple of years, but a lot of that is explained by expansion into emerging markets. More notable is that it remains an exception all these years later. It’s clear that this is due not to a lack of creativity on the part of brands and their agencies, but rather the lack of effort in anticipating opportunities and streamlining operations around mass events.

Don’t get me wrong, the meat and potatoes of social engagement for brands is rightly focused on problem solving. In both Gizmodo and HBR’s rankings of brands that practice social media well, they focus more on companies’ use of social networks as customer service channels than brand messaging platforms. The heavy lifting social engagement provides through almost one-to-one exchanges when problems or questions are posed is a very effective way for brands to show what they stand for, gain valuable customer and product insights, and are great opportunities for turning bad brand experiences into positive ones. LinkedIn’s CEO, Jeff Weiner, who frequently engages with customers and his development team publicly on the platform, wins compliments on his posts responding to user’s comments, exhibiting both a high level of executive engagement with the core product offering and pretty effective brand-building. But social channels as mass media branding mechanisms is still a largely unexplored opportunity.

As Facebook’s monthly active user base approaches 2 billion (it’s now over 1.55 billion and counting) and Twitter’s remains over 300 million (and holding) social media’s potential as a mass media outlet relevant for brand building will inevitably be explored. For marketing departments and agencies advising them, the top task should simply be to anticipate opportunity, assemble a few good creatives, prepare a streamlined approval process among decision makers who commit to be available, and then review the attributes of the brand you want to reinforce should an opportunity arise. Then cross your fingers, which is safer than sabotaging the electrical supply of a major sporting venue…