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Something to talk about

Engaging consumers with quality content

by Michele Azrak

The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” One could easily argue that in this statement George Bernard Shaw aptly described the affliction of the world of corporate communication for the longest time. Communication is the exchange of information between people. Yet most companies have left out the word exchange by talking at people instead of talking with them. In today’s increasingly connected world, the power lies in the hands of consumers, who are inducing change in the communication landscape by demanding less noise and more value. While this does not necessarily imply a drastic departure from what already exists, the coming years will surely see major improvements in how we use what we already have — knowledge, tools and platforms.
What is certain today is that this intrinsically complex communication landscape is forcing companies to look within and refocus on the value they have to offer for a new generation of consumers and stakeholders. Understanding where the future of communication lies is driving companies to improve experiences and relationships, and to do so it has become obvious that companies need to focus on delivering valuable content.

Content is still king
In the increasingly virtually vocal society in which we live, everyone has a voice and wants to use it. The amount of content being published online is growing exponentially; with so much competing for consumers’ attention, companies need to become more relevant and authentic in order to break through all the noise. For this, companies should favor the creation and distribution of valuable and compelling content over controlled messages and fabricated sales pitches. The primary intent of such a content-driven approach is to engage and build meaningful relationships with consumers, rather than to sell to them.

Whereas this approach has been around for a while, the focus had been on the quantity of content, with companies trying to publish as much content as frequently as possible. However, it has become clear that the future lies in quality-driven content. Companies should start creating content that educates, informs, inspires and entertains. This can be in the form of blog posts, newsletters, white papers, live presentations, podcasts, standard and micro-videos, and the list goes on.

There have been several success stories so far, with top global brands leading the pack. Last year, Coca-Cola made the news when it completely revamped its website and re-introduced it as an online magazine entitled the Coca-Cola Journey. It featured articles on entertainment, environment, health and sports, later adding food and music channels. The difference of course is that the content in that “magazine” is subjective, not objective: it is stories that favor Coca-Cola’s brands, products and interests. HSBC is also showing the way with its Global Connections website, which helps in the positioning of the bank as an authority on international business with in-depth articles and strategies for global businesses — rarely mentioning HSBC.

Coming to our part of the world, we have started to see local and regional companies begin to dabble in content creation and publishing, but these fledgling efforts remain far from really delivering brand-agnostic content that is seeded with inspiration and that covers topics customers deeply care about.  Though quality content creation is challenging and time-consuming,  it will allow companies to distance themselves from their competition, attract and maintain an audience, and create and sustain business opportunities.

A shift to more dynamic storytelling
It is important to highlight however that it is not enough to simply create interesting content and put it out there. Without a coherent story that brings together the content, one would just end up with more noise and confusion. The goal is to create a unified and coordinated experience for the audience, and to develop deeper emotional connections with them. This can only be done by storytelling, which should be the thread that links the content together across all channels.

Even then, not just any storytelling will do. The new reality we live in also means a shift from one-way storytelling to dynamic storytelling that factors in the consumers’ voice. Moving away from the traditional in-house generated stories, companies need to now focus on stories that spark a conversation with their consumers as well as encourage and make the most of consumer-generated stories. Following through with the Coca-Cola example, the company has established itself as the leader in storytelling, creating a whole stimulating world around the brand, with compelling stories that strongly involve consumers.

While companies in the region have started to listen to what is being said about their brands, there remains a long road ahead: they need to start having a conversation and get the audience involved in it.

Rethinking the landscape
As companies alter the way they communicate with consumers and increase their focus on content, they will need to rethink many of their channels. The most notable one would be their website, which should now adapt to a more consumer-focused philosophy and accentuate the brand’s story flow through design. Instead of being static, websites are starting to look more like magazine portals with greater focus on the content produced with combinations of rich articles, interviews, opinions, interactive functionality, visuals and videos. Soft drinks leaders such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Red Bull are setting the trend and their websites are worth checking out.

This does not mean that the main corporate sections such as investor information, executives’ biographies, and press releases are no longer present on the sites; these are just relegated to the sidelines. And this certainly does not imply that all companies should just stop what they are doing and jump on the bandwagon, especially the less established brands that will continue to need a more business-oriented website for some time to come. They could start with enriching their site with more pictures, sounds and videos, and most importantly thoroughly plan and understand the consumer’s journey through their website before diving into any redesign.

Furthermore, simply creating good content on a visually engaging website is not nearly enough as thousands of pieces of great content go unread every day. The challenge will also be for companies to focus on effectively getting their content outside of their website. They should understand how content spreads across the web and find ways to reach new prospects by amplifying great content through multiple channels. For example, Forbes provides a digital platform for sponsored content, but one that is high in quality and that answers to audiences’ needs. Companies like SAP, Merill Lynch and Microsoft have been writing and distributing thought leadership content that is as interesting as pieces written by reporters and knowledgeable contributors, and their content seems to be viewed for the same amount of time as editorial content.

Content-driven communication does not yield value solely to already established brands. While some companies may be restricted in terms of means or resources, no company is too small to experiment with this approach as long as it crafts a clear communication strategy, evaluates its performance, and makes changes along the way accordingly. With titles such as content marketing manager, director of content, or even chief content officer popping up more than ever before, companies in the years ahead will have to embrace content-focused communication as part of their overall communication strategy. They simply can’t afford to be content (pun intended) with staying on the sidelines in the content world we live in. You can only toe the water so long before you have to dive in headfirst.

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Michele Azrak

Michele Azrak works for Lebanese communication experts S2C

Zeina Loutfi

Zeina Loutfi works for Lebanese communication experts S2C

Ramsay G. Najjar

Ramsay G. Najjar is founder of Lebanese communication experts S2C

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