By Brad Young published October 19, 2014

How Merrill Lynch Uses Content Mapping to Reach Affluent Americans

ContentDiscovery

Visualize your brand’s ideal customer – not the numbers but the real person. Now think of how she interacts with your product. Where does it meet her in the real world? What needs does it answer? Does it make her smile or make her smarter?

You want to know enough about the people in your target market to clearly answer these kinds of questions about your relationship with them, and for content marketers, to create successful content mapping.

Bank of America Merrill Lynch understands that a customer’s relationship is the fundamental core of its content marketing. The company’s key value proposition lies at that moment when a Merrill Lynch advisor sits across from an affluent investor who asks, “What should I do?”

“The advisors spend time understanding the clients’ goals, their needs, the things on their mind,” says Joe Corriero, head of digital marketing for Merrill. “Once they understand what the person is trying to do in life, what they care about, what their priorities are, then they can come up with solutions for them. If you think about how it works in the physical world, from a marketing perspective, we try to do the same thing.”

But it’s one thing to have someone walk into, call or email a Merrill Lynch office looking for help. It’s another when they ask a search engine or a social feed. When they do, Merrill wants to be there with an answer just the same. To achieve this, Corriero enlists his team partner, John von Brachel, who leads thought leadership and content integration for Bank of America’s wealth management businesses.

As the saying in content marketing goes, content is king, but distribution is queen, and she wears the pants. So like many content executives, Corriero and von Brachel constantly refine the tactics aimed at getting their intellectual capital discovered by their audience – in their case, a challenge that is made more difficult by the fact that they target a highly specialized demographic of affluent Americans with investable assets between $250,000 and $10 million. Here’s how they do it.

It’s personal

The first step in rising to the top of the swirling content sea is to create hyper-targets that hone more specific profiles within that larger investable-asset range. Merrill goes micro by analyzing combinations of age and income and, most importantly, individuals’ financial keep-you-up-at-night questions. “There might be a segment of folks whose concerns for family are top of mind,” Corriero says. “Specifically they might be thinking about caring for their aging parents. We dig deeper into the full set of needs where Merrill could add value and go find people online where they are researching or exploring those needs. Getting the right message to them, the right piece of content, at a time when it’s on their mind is critical. That’s even more complicated than just finding your audience.”

It’s still search

Search remains paramount for Merrill. “The easiest way to detect that signal is for them to tell us, and they do that with search,” Corriero says.

That’s not to say search in itself isn’t evolving. Here are three key ways it is working well for Merrill now:

  • Managing SEO and SEM as a publisher would, optimizing headlines and imagery in real time to pop effectively.
  • Refining search terms beyond generic words like “retirement” and “investing” to words describing a specific life-stage situation. And given the importance of personal referrals, Merrill has started to own search terms for all of its advisors’ names and spelling variations. When someone receives a referral from a friend offline, he goes online to research the advisor. Merrill wants to provide as much content in that scenario as possible.
  • Relying more heavily on recommendation engines like Taboola and Outbrain – puts Merrill content with links on other content sites. The posted Merrill content corresponds to the subject matter the viewer is reading on that non-Merrill site. Von Brachel says it’s “an environment where people are absorbing information based on what they want and are looking for.” Beyond the vital factor of a relevant environment, the platforms allow for efficient experimentation with different terms and headlines.

Its influencers

Not surprisingly, social is another tool to identify the signals. Corriero and von Brachel use a mix of paid social campaigns and organic promotion to create a steady drumbeat – a strategy focused on targeting individuals rather than boosting certain pieces of content. The Merrill Lynch Clear™ platform and hub houses its needs-based content created for retirement-minded investors and answers to retirement-related questions – needs increasingly being addressed in social by experts.

For example, Merrill’s content marketers can identify 200 Twitter handles that are most influential in the elder-care space. It then looks at their millions of followers. “That’s a pool of people that have raised their hand and said, ‘This is of interest to me.’ We can go after them and target them with our message in those native spaces,” Corriero says. One new format that von Brachel says is seeing good engagement is embedding longer-form videos (three minutes or so) right into the Twitter feed.

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It’s going native (and display)

Content-driven, in-stream ad environments from publishers offer guaranteed reach, relevant alignment and the credibility that comes from the halo of The New York Times, Atlantic, or Fortune. The challenge? Publishers are pricing these opportunities at a high premium. And while more publishers are stepping up, Corriero says there is still a shortage of quality inventory. Due to these limitations, Merrill still mixes display with native advertising to create awareness of the company’s content.

The value of native is more critical on mobile where search is less reliable and other advertising mechanisms (read: banners) are an annoyance. Placing branded content within the content feed fits the form and function of the smartphone and is driving significantly better engagement. Even though Merrill sees only 10 percent of the traffic to its owned sites coming from mobile, it designs all new content for mobile first.

Is it working?

It is working. “We’re hearing a lot of great things from our advisors,” von Brachel says. The content that Merrill uses to answer the online signals (i.e., questions) is the same content Merrill advisors use to help their high-net-worth clients.

Online and offline strategies meet again. “We talked about the targeting that gets done technologically through the site, but think about the targeting that gets done through human interaction,” Corriero says. “It’s the same core set of content, not only being curated through our targeting engines, but it’s curated by humans – the advisors who use it as a tool to share information with clients and prospects.

“It all comes back to the way Merrill Lynch and its advisors do business. It’s about understanding you, your personality, who you are, the things that matter to you in life and helping you get there. It’s the same approach whether it’s through the internet or through the advisors.”

The full version of this article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of Chief Content Officer. Sign up to receive your free subscription to our bi-monthly magazine.

Author: Brad Young

Brad is the Global Content Strategy Leader at Dun & Bradstreet. Follow D&B at @DnBUS and follow Brad at @byoung07016.

Other posts by Brad Young

  • http://www.stephaniesammons.com/ Stephanie Sammons

    Fascinating article Brad! I spent 10 years with Merrill. Very interesting how they are working to own search terms for advisors’ names, although I haven’t really seen any evidence of this yet (even for top advisors). It seems that firms like Merrill could create all kinds of owned digital media assets for their top advisors – from PR-type articles showcasing an advisor’s viewpoint or community involvement, for example, to a short video montage designed to tell the advisor’s story. Barron’s does a great job of this in the short pieces they cover about some of the advisors who make their top advisor lists.

    Stephanie Sammons
    http://www.wiredadvisor.com

    • Brad Young

      Thanks so much, Stephanie. Appreciate your comment and your kind words. And great ideas, too. I know in our work at Dun & Bradstreet we are looking to tap into subject matter experts and great storytelling wherever it is happening across the company. Merrill would indeed seem to have a great chance to do something similar with their network of very smart financial professionals.

  • http://www.ElevatingYourBusiness.com/ Maria Marsala

    Interesting what they’re doing…. although there have been many stories lately about the exodus of ML advisors from B/A.
    Maria Marsala
    http://www.ElevatingYourBusiness.com

    • Brad Young

      Thanks for your comment, Maria. We obviously didn’t get into that with the article scope we had here, but the content approach does seem to be helping the Merrill advisors with their client relationships.

  • wooderbeen

    “It is working. ‘We’re hearing a lot of great things from our advisors,’ von Brachel says.”

    Beware the anecdotal feedback! I need numbers, data, dollar figures…

    • Brad Young

      Totally fair point, wooderbeen. I am always looking for those hard facts as well – in my own work and in stories like these. With a business like Merrill’s, which is soooo relationship-driven, word from advisors that the content is actively aiding the expansion and fostering of those relationships is the important ROI metric for the firm.

  • Amenda W

    I’m actually disappointed in Content Marketing Institute that in this article you are mentioning and linking Taboola and Outbrain to it. Taboola and Outbrain are known hijackers and why it gains so many impressions, it’s not through their creative content or creative ad placement strategy that has gained them high recognition , it’s through malicious means, and that is not Content Management Friendly or Strategically advisable in my books

    http://www.removeworms.com/how-to-eliminate-api-taboola-com-from-firefoxremoval-guide/

    http://fixvirusfast.blogspot.ca/2014/06/keep-redirecting-to-trafficoutbraincom.html

    • http://contentmarketinginstitute.com/ Joe Pulizzi

      Hi Amenda…sorry you are disappointed in us linking to these providers. We will definitely look into your claims. Our goal with the article is to tell our audience how ML leverages paid content distribution as part of their program. Most enterprises that we work with leverage paid media as part of their content marketing (since many of these companies don’t initially have an audience for their content). But I believe what you are talking about is different, so we will be sure to look into it.

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