New Content Economy? What’s Old Is New Again!

Published in ClickZ on February 19, 2015.

As the marketing ecosystem evolves, we can look to our past for inspiration on how to deal with the new challenges we face.

"What will it take to win in the new content economy? The best way for publishers to earn more is to interrupt less. The best way for brands to emotionally connect is through meaningful content. But for the new content economy to thrive, all of these efforts need to happen at scale." - The Rise of the New Content Economy, VentureBeat

I was reading the above article - by now you know I read a lot; philosophically agreeing with B. Bonin Bough’s thought "I'm so scared to become irrelevant so I try to spend time constantly learning what’s new" – and struggling with a massive case of writer’s block for this piece when an epiphany hit: as with most things, we’ve been here before! I actually agree with what is stated in the article, that we, as marketers, need to think through how we properly engage with our audiences given the latest advances in technology. But with that said, the fundamentals of marketing are just that: fundamental. They still hold true even if we think of "modern" ways of applying them.

Recently I had the privilege of presenting at TEDxUniversityofReno. My talk was called "How Technology Can Make Us More Human," focusing on how we, as people and as brands, are leveraging technology to enhance or interrupt our experiences with others. In preparing for my talk, I researched current data points, forward looking global trends – but I also reflected back on past predictions of what our future may hold. I re-read Fahrenheit 451 (written 1953) and 1984 (written 1949) - which, if you haven’t read in a while, I highly encourage you to do so! I’m also adding Brave New World to my "on deck" reading list – and was reminded how our human history is cyclical. Our discovery and re-discovery of how we engage with one another is both fascinating and humorous.

Currently in the headlines as being new and "must execute" trends:

  • Native Advertising and Content Marketing: While I’m sure it goes back further, native advertising in our modern world can be traced back to the 1930’s advent of radio soap operas - where the brands were in charge of creating original content with which to engage their target audience: housewives.
  • Social Technology: This is really a technological application of our human nature in "word-of-mouth" conversation. Applying this to promote products, brands, and services is as old as time immemorial. Yes, we need to continue to refine our methods of speaking authentically through these channels and yes, tools and analytics can help us do this more effectively, but the concept is not new.
  • Relationship Selling: The latest resurgence in building out sales teams is a trend resulting from our over-reliance on technology (marketing automation, etc.) and people’s true desire to seek advice from a human during complex buying decisions. This seems like common sense to me and apparently customers are beginning to demand it, as shown by the business models supporting the headcount to fund for these new teams.
  • Print Marketing: I’ve been saying this for a while now - print marketing is not dead. In fact, as we focus more on digital channels, the physical, tactical, and experiential nature of print makes it even more special, and I agree whole heartedly with Tessa Wegert in her recent ClickZ article on the topic.

What can we learn here? As we are faced with new and more complex marketing challenges, we can look to our past for inspiration on how best to use these seemingly new obstacles. Tried-and-true foundational marketing practices can be re-imagined and re-engineered to meet today’s expectations.

I love that that as people seek to engage with one another, they are looking for more "natural" ways to do so, a la Snapchat. "'You know this conversation we just had? Snapchat is just like that. It’s like real life. It’s just between us and you’re left with nothing but the memory.' It sort of puts the fun back in social again; just like when some of us were kids," says Steve Tobak.

So, as we look forward, take a moment to look back – we’re an amazing human race, and we have likely already thought through similar challenges.

PS – I also love that Millennials have this affinity for nostalgia; I consider it a proof point of the above, plus it makes me smile to see the toys from my own youth on the shelves today!

IBM’s Michelle Killebrew Discusses the Growth of Social Content Strategy

Social media and content marketing go together like peanut butter and jelly. However, creating a content strategy that takes advantage of social media’s growing power isn’t that easy.

In this week’s Innovator Series interview, I speak with Michelle Killebrew, program director of strategy and solutions for IBM’s Social Business arm. Killebrew has spent the last five years at IBM working to improve demand generation and social content marketing strategy on a global scale. Today, Killebrew answers my questions about her approach to social content marketing—as well as how IBM encourages employees to think differently.

Question: What are three ways you know your social content strategy isn’t working, and how can you course correct to see improved results?

1. Listen: The most basic evidence of engagement is a bidirectional conversation with your audience. If they are not conversing with you as a brand, then you are not engaging them in a discussion—you are talking at them through various channels. Be sure to have a community manager overseeing each of the channels that you are interacting in, and arm them with both the tools and policy to effectively respond to your audience. It’s important to understand how your audience wants to be engaged; not everyone uses the same platform to engage brands. And don’t forget to empower your employees beyond those community managers. Your employees can be your best brand advocates, and we all know it takes a village. Encourage all employees to take an active role in social engagement and content creation.

2. Analyze: Look at engagement metrics to see what is resonating. There are many tools and key performance indicators (KPIs) to investigate here; start small and expand to delve into deeper insights. Look at social interaction metrics to see which conversations are resonating, who’s in the conversation, and to determine your share of voice around a topic. Look at site metrics for engagement with the content that you’re driving to. Things like site visits, returning visitors, conversion metrics, sharing metrics can all start to inform how you optimize your content strategy.

3. Think and Learn: Hopefully most of us realize that just because we’ve always done things a certain way doesn’t mean we should persist. Things are changing so quickly that we need to think about why we’re creating content; in the B2B space we’ve traditionally created white papers, but what are we trying to achieve? We’re trying to inform a buyer about something, so we should consider if we can achieve the same goal more effectively with a video, an eBook, or an infographic. Remember that your audience is going to have different content preferences based on things like where they are in the buyer journey, device, learning style, and personal taste. We need to learn from each other. Read trade publications. Be observant of good marketing in action in both B2B and B2C spaces, think about what made it compelling, and apply those concepts to your initiatives. Understand how other marketers are applying strategies around marketing, social, and publication platforms.

Q: How can you improve user experience to surprise and delight your audience?

Understand Your Audience: Think through your audience’s likes and dislikes and create personas and profiles around them. Do you know their major turnoffs and turn ons? Before you even begin designing an experience, make sure you have a baseline understanding of who they are. Blanket campaigns are no longer effective today because we are trying to reach a “market of one.” You need to personalize the experience to their preferences. You should look to your analytics to fine-tune your understanding over time.

Provide Value: Make sure your experience provides the individual with value. You need to truly think of the person you are creating for: What is going to serve their needs? Can you answer a question or entertain them? Can you offer them content to save them time in a way your competitors can’t? People are busy; provide them value—they’ll appreciate it!

Be Beautiful: Literally. Your user experience needs to offer visual appeal and intuitive functionality. In order to compete for attention, your visual creative needs to be distinct and engaging. It needs to capture the eye and pull it in. The design of the user experience needs to be intentional, providing clear calls to action or value propositions for the individual.

Foster Engagement: If your content is good, people will want to share it with friends, peers, other brand loyalists, and, ultimately, the world. When you think about your user experience, part of that planning should be around planned sharability. Make it easy for your audience to share content, engage with others, co-create, and further the conversation, and make sure that you’re part of that conversation, listening to ideas, frustrations, and new opportunities.

Iterate and Optimize: Instrument your digital experiences, look at the metrics, and, more importantly still, take action on the insight! Look at what your audience is gravitating toward and create more of it. Be intentional in your pursuit to understand whether is it theme or format. For instance, is it a high-value microsegment of your audience that you should customize a new experience for? Never stop iterating.

Q: Can you offer some examples of successful IBM content marketing campaigns?

The Rethink Campaign: A demand generation campaign that was created based on the learnings of several years of campaign optimization (from Coremetrics, acquired by IBM in 2010). Thinking through the 11 new audience profiles in eight recently acquired companies we needed to speak to, the value proposition for each, and the type, quality, and quantity of content was the challenge here; its success was based on driving marketing qualified leads (MQL). Ultimately, MQL and sales qualified leads (SQL) were the success metrics here, but along the way we optimized based on conversion and interaction data.


The Economist Social Business Leaders: An IBM-sponsored awareness campaign that co-branded with The Economist and celebrated the achievements of social business leaders in a variety of accomplishments, including internal collaboration, sophisticated customer engagement, philanthropic endeavors, and more. The success of this campaign is based on visibility and awareness: social impressions, site visitor data, and influencer engagement.


Q: What advice do you have for marketers big and small when it comes to social content strategy?

I was asked at a conference recently if a midsize business should split its social channels as it ventured into a new direct-to-consumer model, adding to its bulk manufacturer-to-installer sales model. The product was the same, but the value proposition to each audience was drastically different. In this case, it was fashion versus function. My advice: Split the channels so that you can effectively engage with the audience’s unique perspective (if you can support the channels effectively). We all know that you can’t create a social engagement channel and then not monitor it for interaction, questions, trolls, or worse. If you don’t have the resources to split the channels to ensure that they are unique, develop a content marketing strategy that engages with each audience based on their specific value propositions, especially around key events. As your resources grow, prioritize the most effective channels to support (in a measured way) those audiences.

Q: Are there any in-house mantras for how IBM approaches this discipline?

One of the (many) wonderful things about IBM is that we truly believe our employees are the best representation of our brand; in fact, it has been said that IBM employees are our brand. To this end, we were one of the first companies to create a Social Guideline for employees to engage and advocate on the company’s behalf. These guidelines were created in 2005 (before Twitter, and only a year after Facebook was founded) by crowdsourcing across the hundreds of thousands of employees through our internal wiki. The intention was to unleash the smart and wonderful people of IBM to engage with users, buyers, inventors, thought leaders, students, and the world.

At IBM, our in-house mantra is “You are our brand: Go out and represent our brand!”

Surprising Lessons from IBM in Successful B2B Content Marketing

Michelle Killebrew Sheds Light on Why Business Customers Crave Engaging Content

Published in the Content Insight Blog on September 11, 2014.

Selling candy, appliances, or fast food can involve rapid-fire, high volume social media campaigns driven by the latest trends in website, mobile, and social content. By contrast, B2B products and sales cycles appear bland. Yet, B2B customers and prospects are people, too. Shouldn’t the same B2C engagement principles apply to B2B content marketing?

Michelle Killebrew

Michelle Killebrew

Michelle Killebrew answers with a resounding “Yes!” However, she points out that leveraging those trends requires a granular understanding of your audiences. Once you understand what content your audience craves, Killebrew says you then know what content they will view, share, and use to eventually buy your product or service.

In this interview, Killebrew offers plenty of insights about IBM’s successful Rethink Business campaign that highlight the importance of audience analysis, effective translation of B2C marketing techniques into the world of B2B content marketing, and measuring success.

Many trends seem to blaze like wildfire through the B2C marketing world but sometimes lag with B2B content marketing. How do you leverage content marketing trends in video or social media to help engage a B2B audience?

B2B marketers need to remember that they sell to people, and they need to engage with those people. It’s easy to look at B2C marketing from a transaction viewpoint as if any of those trends don’t apply to B2B’s longer sales cycles. However, much of the B2B sales cycle leverages an engagement strategy before the prospect passes over to sales. B2B marketers are starting to see that the sales cycle begins with that initial engagement—and what captivates and engages B2C audiences can also apply to a B2B audience. To leverage B2C trends for B2B content marketing, put yourself into the shoes of your target audience, understand their challenges, and build a campaign around those insights.

People crave different content depending on their role. How did you go about segmenting and differentiating content for different roles and audiences for the new IBM Rethink Business website?

We focused on a roles-based messaging approach and really rolled up our sleeves to get in-depth and in touch with each of our target audiences. When creating a digital campaign, we not only look at different content and messaging for various roles but also take look and feel, usability, and interaction into consideration. For example, digital marketers want a slick, engaging, visually-rich, and high impact experience. They’re upheld to that kind of standard in their roles, and they want to learn how to up their game as digital marketers by seeing us practice the digital marketing best practices that we preach. On the other hand, IT professionals feel that slick websites lack credibility. They don’t like marketers marketing to them, and they prefer to hear from other IT professionals. That’s why it’s important to not only consider the content you create but also the experience around that content.

IBM’s Rethink Business page focuses on a roles-based messaging approach.

What particularly made your social content successful with a B2B audience? What ingredients worked that you feel others can use too?

Peer to peer sharing worked especially well for our social content. People like sharing content to their network with a click. For example, when people come to our website and engage with our content, we include visually appealing, sharable facts and data. Sharing this social content shows them off as thought leaders to their networks. For us, we bring their social traffic back to our site. Also, our overall social plan ties into different pieces of content. We might feature a blog post about a webinar that encourages people to participate, and that post offers links back to our main website where people can engage with more content. Or when we post something like an analyst report, we’ll blog about that content and push it out through our social media channels to bring people back to the site. And don’t forget Facebook! I’m surprised how often B2B audiences use it, and B2B marketers should not ignore that platform.

When you sell technology solutions, there’s always a risk of delivering dry technical content that falls flat. How do you avoid this pitfall and engage audiences?

Know where your audience is in their buyer journey. Our campaign primarily intended to capture and captivate new audiences. As users go through their buyer journey, our intention is not to go too deep on that “first date.” Opportunities will exist later to drive your audience toward deeper content as they journey further into the funnel. They may not be ready for a sales engagement, so we don’t overwhelm them with too much technical content out of the gate. Instead, we speak to their business pains, why our services matter, and how other people solve similar problems through sharing case studies and peer-to-peer examples.

How did you measure the success of your campaign? And what was the indicator or visible turning point when you felt a sigh of relief and knew that it all worked?

Given part of our portfolio—and my pre-acquisition legacy—we leverage IBM Digital Analytics (formerly Coremetrics) to analyze and optimize the digital experience. Obviously, we measure page views, conversions, and how people interact with our content (such as the number of video views). During a campaign several years ago (before Coremetrics was acquired), we included an interactive feature where a user needed to click something in order for a video to pop up. We noticed by looking at our metrics that only a small fraction of the visitors looked at it and took an action. In response, we made our call to action more visible so that more people saw the video. Because the video formed a significant investment as part of the total campaign cost, we used metrics to make sure we fixed any engagement problems and ultimately ensured that the video was a valuable part of the user’s experience. We had to rearchitect and reengineer the technology serving up that user experience, but by taking the time to collect analytics, look at the interaction experience, and then act on our evaluation, we increased the sophistication of our user experience.

From a user flow data collection perspective, we collect user information in a relatively short form. After that, we cookie the user. They fill out the form once, but on the backend the user submits an invisible form for each piece of content they interact with. When I pull up John Smith, I can see that he downloaded whitepaper A and webinar B. I know exactly what he likes. The person isn’t bothered with multiple forms, but I can see a user’s interaction and behavior within the site to see what’s working and not working with our content. Additionally, we can leverage those cookies for retargeting with IBM Digital Data Exchange (DDX). That helps leverage the behavioral insights gained from on-site interactions and syndicates it out to demand-side platforms (DSPs) and networks across multiple online publishers.

As Killebrew points out, your B2B campaign can absolutely leverage B2C marketing techniques IF you keep the following in mind:

  • Remember that you’re selling to people. B2B products may seem more complicated and technical than most B2C products, but you still need to captivate and interest people.
  • Deeply learn about each of your audiences. You may need to design different content and user experiences for different customer segments
  • Evaluate your content, and then act upon your evaluation. Make changes when you realize what’s not working in order to maximize your marketing and content investments.

Read more about IBM’s Rethink Business campaign.

To see the end result of IBM’s campaign, visit IBM’s Rethink Business page.