Content Strategy and Language: Driving Strategy with Science

content strategy and language

Whether it’s an executive presentation or a Slideshare deck, effective marketing communication needs to achieve three primary responses from the audience:

  1. Attention: actively engaging with the content being offered
  2. Understanding: grasping both the content and its meaning to the audience’s situation
  3. Persuasion: deciding to act, ideally of their own accord

On the surface these don’t seem like overly complex reactions; we marketers should be able to hit these out of the park.

The problem is that many of us make the mistake of starting our entire marketing strategy in the wrong place. We begin with what we want to tell our audience instead of with what they want to know.

But in order to succeed, communicators need to speak their audience’s language rather than their own, according to Tamsen Webster, the CMO of Oratium and a speaker at MarketingProfs B2B Marketing Forum.

While her points were primarily about leadership, they apply eerily well to content strategy as well.

People are simply better persuaded by reasons that they discover themselves; it’s our job as marketers to help them discover those reasons. Follow these scientific arguments for grounding your content strategy firmly in your audience’s language, and you’ll see how that foundation benefits your marketing outcomes.

Content Goals and Driving Action

The outcome of communicating with our audience isn’t complicated. As Tamsen put it, “for communication to be successful, it needs to drive action.”

But complications creep in because we all suffer from sender-orientation, a.k.a. a fundamental focus on ourselves:

“Humans are wired for survival, which means we’re wired to be self-oriented. Sender-orientation is the most powerful natural law of all. It’s also the most dangerous, as it can blind communicators to the needs of audiences.”

As content marketing approaches the age of maturity, businesses are increasingly demanding that content creators move past their sender-orientations. We have to prove that our content is driving profitable action and contributing to business goals.

We can no longer just throw stuff out in the general direction of our audience and hope something happens.

Of course, to get people to take these actions we have to have a content strategy that is firmly rooted in the actions we want people to take.

The Audience Always Wins

Our sender-orientation may be an evolutionary benefit that’s difficult to bypass, but if we want our audience to act their perspective always wins.

To be clear, this goes beyond just creating some personas and pretending that we’re those people while writing content.

Tamsen outlines a four step process for designing a strategy back from the action we want people to take:

    1. Define the action. Who am I talking to? What do I want them to DO?
    2. Define the problem the action solves for the audience. How will their day be easier after they encounter my content?
    3. Define the content that will drive action. What do they need to BELIEVE in order to take the action? What do they need to KNOW in order to believe? What type of content can I deliver that will offer this information?
    4. Make it stick. Look for opportunities to show, not just tell. Give audiences ways to remember your message.

Making Your Marketing Message Sticky

Our brains are “cognitive misers,” which means they will only do as much work as they feel is necessary to solve a problem, even if the solution they come to isn’t right.

Tamsen offered this example:

You’re buying a baseball and a bat.

The total cost is $1.10.

The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? (answer after the picture)

baseball and bat

Most of us answer $0.10 right away, because this seems to be the obvious solution. But that would mean the bat costs $1.10 (which is $1.00 more than $0.10) making the total $1.20.

In reality the ball costs $0.05, and the bat costs $1.05, giving us the $1.10 total.

The point of this example is that information that’s not immediately and apparently relevant to the problem at hand will get rejected and ignored.

Content strategies need to take this tendency into account and get to the point — our audience’s solution — as quickly and succinctly as possible.

The good news for content marketers is that when people are trying to solve a specific problem they are infinitely more receptive to letting new information past their cognitive miser.

cognitive miser and content

Breaking through to the cognitive miser during problem solving.

By simply offering a cogent solution to their problem we can gain access to our audience’s attention (which is why content marketing works so well when it’s done right).

But our strategy also needs to address both halves of the audience’s brain, as we are all “split brain” decision makers. Or, as Tamsen put it, rationalizing decision makers rather than rational decision makers.

Essentially we make decisions on an emotional (right brain) level and then use our rational left brain to justify those decisions. If our content strategy only appeals to one “side” of the brain then we hurt our chances for immediate retention and future action.

Barriers to Content Marketing Success

Even when we understand the power of offering solutions, appealing to the whole brain, and driving profitable action our content can still fail.

Tamsen outlines these Seven Deadly Sins of communication failures, which happen just as often in content strategies as they do in professional presentations:

  1. Wrong problem: The communication is about the speaker’s problem, not the audience’s. It’s fine to find a common ground for discussion, but the focus should be on benefits to your audience.
  2. Wrong content: The content focuses on the story the speaker wants to tell, not on what the audience needs to drive action.
  3. Too much content: The volume or complexity of the content exceeds the audience’s ability to process the content.
  4. Wrong order: Having a sequence that is random, opaque, or follows the speaker’s logic, not the audience’s.
  5. “Killer” opening: Starting with background or credentials rather than the audience problem you’re solving.
  6. Flat or boring content: Fact-based content that is abstract, boring, and forgettable.
  7. Wrong format: If your audience has shown a preference for infographics, don’t force them to download hefty white papers to get your latest research.

The outcome of committing any or all of these sins is simple: rather than taking your desired action, your audience will ignore, reject, and forget your message.

Basically, your content strategy will fail.

Using Science to Speak Your Audience’s Language

These scientific principles are a great reminder that our content strategies need to rooted in solving the real problems that our audience faces.

If we don’t, there are huge neurological and evolutionary incentives for them to simply ignore our content.

What other neuromarketing tricks do you have up your sleeve to keep your audience engaged with your content?  

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Andrea Fryrear
About the Author:

Andrea Fryrear

Andrea loves to dissect marketing buzzwords and fads looking for the pearls of wisdom at their cores. Her favorite topic is agile marketing, which she believes holds the key to a more fulfilling (and less stressful) marketing career for individuals and a more powerful marketing department for business. When not scrutinizing the latest agile methodologies, Andrea can be found on the volleyball court, at the park with her two delightful kids, or baking “calorie-free” cookies. Connect with her on Twitter @AndreaFryrear, or on LinkedIn.

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