By John Lane published January 31, 2014

Think People Hate Marketing? Try the Right Content in the Right Place

boxing glove holding back others-biasI have a hypothesis that I tend to look at clocks when there is a pattern present. It always reads things like 11:11, 12:34, or 5:55. Happens all the time. I’ve told my wife this on more than one occasion. And every time I do… she tells me I am crazy. She thinks I look at the clock all the time but only remember — or point out — the times that a pattern is present. (This follows the same logic as people thinking they always choose the slowest line in the grocery store.)

Neither of these things reflects reality. These are examples of perception bias.

If you think honestly — really honestly — about how many times you are in line (at the grocery store, fast-food restaurant, gate at the ballpark, and so on) and how often your wait is actually longer than the people around you, the percentage simply isn’t that great. (This hasn’t stopped people from thinking they’re overwhelmed by Murphy’s Law and searching for pointers on how to avoid it.)

So now that I’ve seen the light on my clock theory, I have another hypothesis to share: People don’t hate marketing. 

It’s become popular to say people do, but it’s not necessarily true. People think they hate marketing because they are more apt to remember — and complain about — the times when they are interrupted by marketing and advertisements that they don’t want to hear.

The interesting thing about this new hypothesis is that experiments to prove its validity have already been done. A lot of them. Because people continue to be influenced by marketing and advertising every day, and they spend money on the things that they need and want with an eye toward name brands that resonate with them. Whether they saw it on TV, heard about it on the radio, were told about a product by a friend, or learned about a brand on Facebook, they were influenced, and happily took action.

But perception biases don’t come from nowhere. So let’s explore two possible origins, and discuss how the right content can neutralize them both:

The “misdirected marketing” that people seem to reject most fervently is that which is considered disruptive for one of the following reasons:

A. Marketing in the wrong place: It’s the right message, but it interrupts the wrong audience.
B. Marketing with the wrong message: It reaches the “right” audience, but the message itself doesn’t resonate, for various reasons.

In either case, the disruptive nature of the message is conspicuous, and is likely to trigger a perception bias/negative association with marketing on the whole.

(There’s also: C: It’s the right message, and gets in front of the right audience, but it also reaches others who aren’t interested. Don’t worry so much about this one. This can never be completely eliminated, and “collateral hate” usually doesn’t become significantly detrimental to a brand… even though some companies tend to overthink it — and overreact to it.)

So if the perception bias of hating marketing is due, essentially, to missing marks by using blast methods of marketing, what is the best way to avoid the vitriol yourself?

Effective content marketing, of course.

The right content plan can help you avoid the perception bias altogether, because a primary directive of content marketing is this: to provide the right value to the right person, at the right time, and in the right place. (Notice this is the antithesis of both A and B above.)

To create the right content marketing, you need to start with a clear understanding of your audience. This provides you, the marketer, with a greater ability to anticipate its needs, craft more relevant messages, and place them where the eager audience is most likely to find them — rather than interrupting them with it when they aren’t interested in the least. It’s about recognizing patterns, and planning the best way to capitalize on them.

There are simple, direct ways to find these patterns. Here are three:

1. Primary research: That’s right, the old standby of actually asking questions of the audience you want to connect with. What kind of information (value) are they craving? What channels do they prefer? What is the optimal frequency of communication? Asking one person isn’t enough, but if you have an audience of any size, you’ll see that people will give similar answers and you’ll be able to map patterns of the right messages, the right times, and the right places.

2. Social listening: Not everyone can afford primary research. Or, perhaps you don’t actually have an audience yet that you can talk to so openly. In these cases, social listening can provide powerful answers that will point you in the right direction — only this time, you’ll be looking as much for the questions as you will for the answers.

For example, take a look at the Twitter activity of people who work in your target industry. What questions are they asking about most — what is the gap in information — in relation to your offering? On LinkedIn, what are the discussions about in relevant groups? In the comments of relevant blogs, what are people challenging authors on? What are the opposing points-of-view they are voicing? Where are they linking in order to support “their side”?

Within these platforms lies a gold mine of questions for which your audience is craving answers. If you’re willing to dig, you’ll be better able to map these patterns, and build a plan focused on right messages, right times, and right places.

3. Mining your call center or other customer service channel: We are constantly amazed by how much fodder for powerful content slips right through the grasp of organizations — the questions that are asked (and answers that are given) every day that aren’t being repurposed into content that serves the good of the rest of the audience (i.e., those who aren’t actively asking the questions that are on their minds).

By simply documenting the questions posed to you through customer service channels, you can find patterns that reveal what types of information your audience craves most. And by simply documenting the answers that your knowledgeable reps are providing, you’ll have the makings of proactive content — the kind of messages that hit the right audience at the right time, no matter where they look to find them.

Case in point

Any of the three means above (or others that exist) could have led McDonald’s to all the insight it needed to create the “Our Food. Your Questions” site for its Canadian audience — a perfect example of using pattern recognition to identify content that people will love (as opposed to marketing they “hate”):

example-mcdonalds our food your questions

Yes, there are a lot of questions about McDonald’s food being raised all across the internet (and beyond). And many of those questions are based in not-so-flattering assumptions (like the commonly accepted thought that McNuggets are random chicken parts blended and pressed into friendly shapes). Now McDonald’s could make a commercial about their nuggets being all-natural (and they likely have). But the company would probably have to spend a lot of money to make such an ad, which 1) many people would ignore (A, from above); 2) others wouldn’t want to hear about in the first place (B); and 3) some non-customers would simply use as fodder to depict McDonald’s as a liar, or denigrate the brand in other ways (C).

But what about people who were actively seeking information about McDonald’s food? For this audience, “Our Food. Your Questions.” is exactly the content they need — at their exact moment of need. It’s an engaging experience that provides the content people are looking for, while avoiding the pitfalls of A and B (and C) that add to the perception bias of hated marketing.

McDonald’s identified this “pattern” because the company listens to the questions its audience is asking. Then, it created the right content, and found a way to put it in front of the right people at the right time.

So start looking for the behavior patterns your audience is expressing — and stop feeding perception biases that keep our industry from achieving greater success and acceptance.

For additional examples of content that delivers the right messages at the right time and place, check out CMI’s Content Marketing Playbook: 24 Epic Ideas for Connecting with Your Customers.

Cover image via Bigstock

Author: John Lane

Watching TV as a kid, I used to run to the bathroom during the shows so I could make it back for the commercials. Today, as Vice President of Strategy & Creative for Centerline Digital, I craft content strategy that helps clients like IBM, GE, and ChannelAdvisor engage their target audiences. You can find me on Twitter and LinkedIn (among other social channels).

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  • Brian McDonald

    Good points John and I agree people don’t hate marketing. A great example will be this Sunday with SuperBowl ads getting more attention than the game itself. These ads and the marketing campaigns that will continue after Sunday will build relationships with their customers. The challenge will always be how to get right message, right person, right time. I like your tips on how to craft content that is relative using social listening. Great way to start and build from there!

    • johnvlane

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Brian.

      I think the Super Bowl is a unique opportunity because, exactly as you said, people are tuning in for the commercials. They’ve lowered the barrier to entry — the trip-wire of “disruption” has been slacked. The problem advertisers seem to have is keeping that attention post-Super Bowl; the numbers prove that people don’t remember the advertiser as much as the advertisement, and they don’t act on the ads.

      So… how to use this opportunity as a time to get attention when people have their guard down and translate that into an ongoing state of acceptance? How do you extend the permission you’ve been given? Maybe the way is to *not* make an ad after all. Maybe you should use that :30 to start more of a conversation… to sell nothing. Maybe not. But I’d be interested in thinking more — or hearing more — about how to turn that moment into a relationship.

      Thanks again!

      • Sean Hartigan

        Good stuff! I tell my clients that if we continue to make our marketing brand-centric — all about us — we reduce our ability to truly achieve our KPIs and build long-term relationships. Basically, we’re all talking about customer centricity. It’s all about the us, versus the brand. By catering to “me”, brands win because I can get invested, own the relationship (versus the other way around which doesn’t work) and help marketers provide me with 1:1 service that is relevant, builds trust, loyalty and advocacy.

    • Jono Smith

      RE: “These ads and the marketing campaigns that will continue after Sunday will build relationships with their customers.”

      Part of the reason people “hate marketing” is because marketers think their campaigns should build relationships with their customers. Consumers don’t want relationships with you; they just want you to help them make smart buying decisions.

      This was documented in a 2012 Corporate Executive Board study (which was turned into an HBR article last year) which showed that consumers have little interest in
      having a relationship beyond the merely transactional. Their top reasons
      for connecting with a brand: to get information and discounts, and to buy

  • Jeff Rasmussen

    This is a great, well-written defense of good and relevant marketing. Thanks John. I appreciate, and have told clients for years, that you have to have the holy Trinity of a well-executed message, timely presented to the right audience. I’m actually one of the few people (I assume) who doesn’t mind the online ads served up to me after having searched for a product—what a service: the info comes to me! Now if someone could just figure out how to tell Google when I’ve already purchased the light fixture I searched for three days earlier, and stop serving those ads (I’m sure the advertisers would rather not pay for my seeing their ads…guess what: AT THE WRONG TIME!).

    This right-place/right-time imperative has become easier to realize in the market/consumer research arena, too. Survey Anyplace builds made-for-mobile surveys that engage customers and prospects “in the moment” they’re interacting with a product or experiencing a brand or attending an event. Leveraging the ubiquity of mobile, they invite interested parties to give more feedback (most often incentivized to do so) by scanning a QR code or entering a URL that takes them instantly to a survey that, because it’s taken IN THE MOMENT, yields far more relevant, valuable, insightful information for marketers. Who in turn can then tweak their content to that group in that instance, since the feedback is instantaneous. Ask someone days or weeks later about an experience and you’ll get far less detail about their opinions, if—because you’re likely interrupting them out of context—they reply at all.

    Thanks again for a thought-provoking post! Keep it up!

    • johnvlane

      Thanks for the comment, Jeff. I really like you’re addition of the “feedback loop” as another way to get a handle on the information most desired. Hitting the most motivated people at the peak of engagement with *simple* and relevant questions about their needs can deliver powerful insights.

  • Joel Malone

    Couldn’t agree more. Content Marketing shouldn’t appear to be Marketing at all.

    It should be consistent to the UX. If the audience is seeking entertainment through YouTube videos, your video should be entertaining. If the viewer is browsing on CNN Money, and you are running native ads to push viewers to your content, the content should have more meat and be more educational.

    Give your audience what they want. Perfect- “provide the right value to the right person, at the right time, and in the right place.”

    • Jono Smith

      “Content Marketing shouldn’t appear to be Marketing at all.”

      This is exactly why people hate marketing, and why “native advertising” has come under so much criticism. People think it’s inherently deceptive–even on websites where it’s clear what is sponsored and what is not, the fundamental goal is to manipulate and to deceive readers in order to sell something.

      • Joel Malone

        I agree with many of the criticisms of native advertising. It is basically banner ads re-skinned, but I disagree on your other point.

        The fundamental goal isn’t always to manipulate and deceive readers in order to sell something. We have many non-profit clients that make content for the sake of informing and use native advertising to share it. They aren’t trying to sell anything. You won’t find a call-to-action in the content or even on their websites.

        That’s the core different between content and sales collateral that many people don’t understand.

  • Ira Haberman

    The point here, is that the most successful advertising, isn’t advertising at all. The best marketing, has always proven to be the kind that tells a story, engages an audience and provides insights into a product or service. There are entire brands that have been built on huge brand campaigns, but their real success has always come from connecting with an audience and creating evangelism around their brand. Think about the biggest brands, that you use on a daily basis (Apple, Google, Zappos). Chances I suspect are high that you love them, tell people about them, and can’t wait to buy your next product from them, or access their service. That’s because they have unreal intelligence about their target audience, develop a story or content for that audience, and trust that if you love their message, you will pass it along. The holy grail, is that deep connection with an audience. That’s what ultimately drives the engagement. Knowing and understanding your audience is the KEY to your success. Since I’m a content guy, I believe that audience crafted content/messaging, is the KEY tactic around all marketing success.

    • johnvlane

      “The best marketing, has always proven to be the kind that tells a story, engages an audience and provides insights into a product or service.” Exactly. Thanks for the comment, Ira.

  • William Holland

    Two things to consider in this post.
    1. Marketing embodying linear didactic stress is fit for older audiences.
    2. Younger audiences enjoy disjointed/disruptive aesthetics, especially digital formats that invite high participation rates.

    Marketers must possess some philosophical rigor. Remember, in the west we give the predicate a function. This shapes the activity grounding perception “bias”; perception and cognitive functioning are indissolubly related.

  • Jonathan Maher

    Interesting read – reminds of me of something Seth Godin said in his ‘Purple Cow’ book – “It is useless to advertise to anyone (except interested sneezers with influence)”
    Essentially he’s suggesting that whilst there is space for targeted adverts – right place & time – it’s very difficult to do – far better, according to Seth, to spend your advertising dollars on designing a ‘remarkable product’…

    • johnvlane

      Seth’s point is a great one to bring up. My only addition would be: Content needs to be one of the ‘remarkable products’ that brands create.

      • Jonathan Maher

        Entirely agree – this is what is so interesting and powerful about content marketing – it’s a new dialogue between brands and their audience – a new type of relationship. That in itself changes the nature of the brand experience, and ultimately the ‘product’…

  • Cliff Pollan

    Another place to find patterns is your sales and account teams. They are regularly having conversations with prospects and customers. They know what questions are being asked.

    They are also an important user of content. Speaking with prospects, they know which content the prospect needs at that moment. Also, the sales reps use content to engage prospects in a discussion. From those conversations they can get additional ideas of other content that might help.

    • johnvlane

      Absolutely right, Cliff. Great addition!