The great thing about content marketing is that it has a knack of working for you as long as everything you create is built with the user in mind.
But content marketing that just works is different from content marketing that functions.
A functional content marketing strategy is one that has actually been optimized to provide maximal business value, no matter which metrics you’ve landed on for your guiding principles.
It’s different from content marketing that merely works because it’s not built with the nondescript goal of increasing engagement and earning brand exposure.
Instead, it’s built to address more specific business needs.
The fundamental attribute that separates the functional from the non-functional is the fact that every piece of content plays a specific role in the lead funnel.
The funnel is clearly defined, and while it will inevitably be tested and iterated upon, and experiments will lead things in unexpected directions, we are not taking a shotgun approach. Instead, we are taking aim at specific targets and measuring the results.
How do the various types of content fit into a functioning content marketing strategy?
There are many different ways to think about the lead funnel, or the purchasing funnel, but I’ve found that this rough psychological model has been most useful so far:
- Emotional Decision
- Rational Justification
Let’s go through them piece by piece.
While it’s true that exposure is the stage where somebody first becomes acquainted with your brand, the goal of this content should be more than just that.
You can probably guess a few of the types of content that belong here:
- Guest posts on popular media outlets.
- Blog posts designed to capture long-tail search traffic.
- Expert roundup posts that collect contributions from a diverse number of contributors, and the inevitable cross-promotion that comes with that.
- Content designed to go viral by focusing on the outlandish or memorable.
We could talk all day about how to create content for exposure (and it’s what the majority of us in this industry spend most of our time talking about), but here I’d like to stress something equally important, the need for exposure to lead to recognition.
We often call this stage of the funnel “Awareness” but that’s really jumping the gun.
We can easily earn exposure without earning any awareness.
It’s crucial that exposure is leveraged to create an association in the audience’s mind between your brand, personal or otherwise, and the subjects and values that are most directly relevant to your brand.
I’m not arguing that you should try to sneak a tagline into a blog post. I am arguing that you must make a memorable enough impression that visitors will want to know who you are, as well as approach a topic in a way that is “sticky” enough to associate with your brand, as opposed to merely being an interesting piece of information that could have come from anywhere.
I see the educational stage as a period of time where a lead has a clear interest in a topic and potentially an awareness of some problems that they need solved, but they don’t feel strongly enough about the topic or problems they face to throw money at those problems.
The purpose of educational content is to maintain interest by helping your lead identify gaps in knowledge that they have, sparking their curiosity and drawing them in to learn more. In the process, they will become more educated about the problems your products can help them solve.
The goal at this point isn’t necessarily to start pushing your product, but to educate them about the context in which it exists, the theory surrounding it, in such a way that if you weren’t every once in a while presenting them with a call to action, they would already be saying “it sure would be nice if a product like [your product] existed to make all of this easier.”
The educational stage is also precisely where you should be aiming to convert leads into email subscribers as aggressively as you can without putting them off.
Rather than trying to drag them from blog post to blog post to keep your “time on site” metrics up, you should be pointing them toward quasi-proprietary resources that promise to answer their most burning questions if they sign up with their email address.
This stage should be considered parallel with education, and even with exposure. But I also believe it’s accurate to say that it doesn’t hit its full stride until the educational stage is well underway.
Even if your lead hasn’t joined an email list, they will likely need to be a repeat visitor before the humanizing aspect of your content really starts to take effect. That isn’t to say these humanizing aspects shouldn’t always be present. It’s just important to recognize the time involved and where your contacts are psychologically.
Humanizing is a somewhat vague concept, but we’re talking about building trust and rapport with our lead. This is about transcending the rational benefits of your product and about building a connection with your lead based on shared values, concepts, and interests.
It’s also about earning that trust by going out of your way to help your leads as much as possible with the content you provide. That means providing them with practically actionable content, even (perhaps especially) content that will help them deal with the kinds of problems your product solves.
Whether you choose to create content explicitly to humanize, such as with personal branding that uses personal anecdotes, your you choose to work that humanization into your educational content by embracing a few quirks and working a worldview into the structure of your educational content, is a choice that will be unique for every brand.
But functional content marketing requires an understanding of the role humanization plays in to lead funnel.
4. Emotional Decision
The first decision every buyer makes is an emotional one, not a rational one.
I am firmly convinced this extends even to the business sector, even if “rational” decision factors play a more important role there.
It’s important to be aware of what those decisions are as well as when and how to appeal to those emotions.
Identify the emotions associated with the problem your SaaS helps solve. You can do this with split testing, surveys, marketing automation and big data tools to limited extent, and good old fashioned empathy, and ideally some combination of all of the above.
A fairly natural content path for addressing this is:
- An emotional frustration or desire arises and is addressed naturally within a piece of educational content.
- There is a natural call to action in the educational content that leads into content designed to address the emotional issue (think of a contextual link at the end of a blog post, no special formatting, as the kind of call to action that will actually work for people who read blog posts).
- The content is a landing page or quasi-landing page meant to appeal to those emotions in a somewhat cathartic way while drawing a clear connection to your SaaS as the solution.
- This landing page leads naturally into the next stage.
5. Rational Justification
The second decision every buyer makes is a rational one. After making their emotional decision, the lead’s rational brain will still be skeptical.
This is where your content needs to address every rational concern involved. Some of the obvious ones include:
- Any remaining uncertainties about what the SaaS actually does that weren’t addressed or that the lead missed in the educational content.
- A desire to compare with similar products.
Your content needs to address these and other more product-specific rational concerns before a purchase is made. Some obvious solutions include:
- A free trial period.
- Videos of the SaaS in action.
- A feature comparison chart with competitors.
- Various pricing tiers.
- Statistics demonstrating that the product will earn them money if in a B2B setting.
I like to view the purchase itself as separate from the emotional decision and rational justification stage
Your only goal here is not to perturb a sale which is already in completion.
That means identifying and rooting out any bottlenecks like surprise charges or interface difficulties.
If your onboarding content isn’t sufficient, you will suffer in your customer lifetime value metrics.
Onboarding is crucial to ensure that your buyers understand how to use your product to accomplish all of the things promised, or they will feel underwhelmed, drop the service, and possibly even leave negative reviews.
A solid approach to onboarding will:
- Include an email drip campaign that starts with an easy to understand introduction to the SaaS basics. The introduction should be as visible as possible and include as tangible an example as possible.
- Send additional tips over the following days to ensure that they have a comprehensive understanding of the product before the free trial ends.
- Continue to provide tangible examples of the product in use, even if those different examples ostensibly use the same features, to instill an idea of how diverse the use cases are for the SaaS.
The only major difference between loyalty focused content and onboarding content is that loyalty content continues after the free trial ends. Beyond that, the transition should be seamless.
Loyalty content should continue to provide ever more complex examples of how to use the SaaS to solve more advanced problems. All the better if you are using marketing automation to target these emails based on the use-cases that seem to fit them most appropriately.
Loyalty content can include an established email drip and marketing automation, as well as more regular blog updates that go out to your whole audience.
Once enough users are in place, establishing a community forum for power users is a must have. The user-generated content keeps the community thriving as well as brings in new users interested in the community.
Keep in mind that loyalty content and educational content should not be entirely gated from one another.
For one thing, showing some “loyalty” content to leads in the “educational” stage will help them understand better what the product can do and how it can help them with their problems.
For another, since the educational content is what brought in a significant portion of your customers, they associate that content with your brand and will expect to continue seeing it and using it. This strengthens their desire to reciprocate by continuing to use your SaaS.
For most SaaS, loyalty will be the final stage for most customers, and it’s important to keep that in mind when it comes to these last two stages.
Expansion is for two things: power users and fundamentally different SaaS products.
Think of the expansion stage as a short version of 1 through 8 all over again. This is the best way to think about it, since you are essentially selling them a new product, even if it is just an upgrade to the existing one.
The psychology is very much the same, but with the benefit of having established trust already.
Brand advocacy isn’t really a stage of the funnel that you can specifically produce content for. But brand advocacy is a goal you should be keeping in mind with every piece of content your produce.
A brand advocate is somebody who is so impressed with your brand identity that they will actively recommend and defend you.
It’s important, also, to keep in mind that this can happen for your brand as a content provider or your brand as a SaaS provider, separately or in concert.
The whole point of content marketing is that these two brands become closely associated with one another, and functional content marketing, in particular, has that as a fundamental goal.
To create brand advocates, you really have only one option: dazzle the lead/customer throughout every stage of the funnel.
Blow away their expectations with both the usefulness of your content and of your SaaS.
These two forces together will leave a lasting impression on your customers that they will not keep to themselves.
More Content Marketing Resources:
- 6 Fundamental Rules for Building a Practical, ROI-Based Content Strategy
- How to Build a Content Marketing Strategy That Works in 5 Steps
- How to Develop an Effective Content Strategy
Subscribe to SEJ
Get our daily newsletter from SEJ's Founder Loren Baker about the latest news in the industry!