Branded Content From Banks And Credit Unions

In a paper titled Identity and Opinion: A Randomized Experiment, researchers wrote:

“Content and identity are inextricably linked in social media. Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Pinterest, Reddit, Netflix and Amazon all provide identity cues that affect users’ link formation decisions and choices about who to follow for the best content. [This] raises an interesting question: To what extent are opinions about content influenced by features of the content itself or the identity of the user associated with the content? [The results of] a large scale field experiment show that identity effects exist and vary with a content producer’s reputation, activity level and reciprocity with the viewer.”

My take: This research has important implications for banks and credit unions deploying content marketing strategies.

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In a previous post here titled Content Marketing For Banks, I wrote about one bank’s efforts to pursue a content marketing strategy.

According to an article in American Banker, a rather large bank “is launching a new online magazine with a goal of driving more traffic to its website.” According to an EVP at the bank, “we’re tapping into the growing trend toward trusted sources for news and information and doing it in a way that will drive new and more frequent visits to our public site.”

The article went on to say:

“The digital publication will feature branded editorial content, including promotions for the bank’s events, market data, personal finance tips and lifestyle stories on style and health.”

I had some issues with the goal of driving site traffic, and questioned whether or not the bank really thought through what kind of content would truly be effective in producing business benefits. But the academic research cited above raises another important question for banks and credit unions to consider: What, exactly, is “branded content”?

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The AB article’s description of the bank’s efforts implies that the bank will be producing and distributing content under the aegis of the bank’s brand. What the academic research implies, however, is that consumers’ perceptions of the content will be influenced by the strength of the bank’s brand. In other words, content itself can have a brand–a brand that is shaped not just by the objective quality of the content, but by the brand of the producer of the content.

Yet, it seems likely to me that the bank in the AB article–as well as other banks and credit unions deploying content marketing strategies–is expecting that producing content will enhance the organization’s brand.

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The research cited implies–if not outright indicates–that this is a multi-step process. Perceptions of content quality are influenced by the producer’s reputation (and degree of interactivity). But that reputation had to be built somehow, presumably by producing high quality content. The key questions–unanswered in the research study–are:

  • What was it about the reputable content producers’ content that led to the strong reputation?
  • What “level of activity”–i.e., frequency and duration–is required to develop a strong reputation?

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Bottom line: A half-assed approach to content marketing is a prescription for failure.

Half-assed from two perspectives: First, from the perspective of content production. It seems very unlikely to me that the brand development that can occur from content development and distribution won’t happen after a month, and might even take years (hell, it’s taken me 8 years and 950+ posts to get Snarketing where it is).

But half-assed from another perspective: An institution that doesn’t create and nurture an overall brand image consistent with one that relies on content marketing, and consistent with the content produced, isn’t going to get the full bang for the buck from its content marketing efforts.

The big “aha” here is that banks and credit unions that turn to content marketing to enhance the brand must recognize the fact that the strength of the brand influences consumers’ perceptions of the content.

And sorry, folks, but anybody promising to show you “best practices” in financial services content marketing is probably only showing you interesting pieces of content–and not showing you how non-content related branding efforts setup, created, and/or reinforced the content marketing strategies.

Content Marketing For Banks

A recent American Banker article states (with the name of the bank anonymized because I’m a wuss and don’t want to be seen as picking on the bank):

“Big National Bank in Big City is launching a new online magazine with a goal of driving more traffic to its website. ‘We’re tapping into the growing trend toward trusted sources for news and information and doing it in a way that will drive new and more frequent visits to our public site,’ said an executive vice president at the bank.”

My take: If you don’t see anything wrong with this, you haven’t sufficiently thought through your organization’s content marketing strategy.

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What’s wrong with what the bank is doing? For starters, having a goal of “driving more traffic to its website.”

If you’re Amazon, and you sell lots of things on your site, then driving people to your site is a worthwhile goal. If you’re an online magazine, and the rate you charge advertisers goes up based on your website traffic, then driving people to your website is a worthwhile goal.

But for a bank, why is driving site traffic a good thing? Are people really going to open more checking or savings account because they visit the site more often? Are they really going to deposit more money, or put more money in an investment account, because they visit the site more often?

You’re going to have a tough time proving that the answer to those last two questions is “yes.” You might have data that shows that customers who visit your site more often own more products and have higher balances–but that doesn’t prove that visiting the site more often caused the product behavior.

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Here’s another part of the article:

“The digital publication will feature branded editorial content, including promotions for the bank’s events, market data, personal finance tips and lifestyle stories on style and health.”

Does “branded” content mean it’s original content? If so, I can only imagine how much the bank will have to spend to develop original content regarding market data, personal finance tips, and lifestyle stories. All for what? Driving people to their website. The ROI on this investment–if indeed, the content is original and fresh for the publication–seems pretty shaky to me.

It also seems to me to be a big bet–even if the content is fresh and original–that the content will be truly be better and different than the hundreds (if not thousands) of other sources of financial content regarding personal finance and market data.

And I trust that the bank did its homework and confirmed that its customers really want lifestyle stories on style and health from the bank. I’d find that hard to believe, but hey, it’s possible.

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Bottom line: I can’t help but conclude that the bank in question–and, in all likelihood, plenty of other banks, as well–hasn’t figured out if content is simply fodder to engage customers that leads them to do something else (whether it’s visiting the website or some other truly desirable behavior), or if the content is valuable in and of itself.

All content is not created equally. Some content is effective at leading the audience to take action. Other forms of content, however, is valuable to the audience in and of itself. That is, just producing or distributing the content provides value to a customer or prospect.

Unique content can fulfill the latter role, but isn’t guaranteed to. Re-purposed, re-branded content might support the former role (i.e., driving desirable behavior), but isn’t guaranteed to. Not figuring out which content marketing strategy you want to pursue is guaranteed to do one thing, however: Cause you to fall short of your marketing goals.

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People read Wired or Quartz or whatever they read because they like the content–and because they can’t find that type of content, and that quality of content anywhere else. In other words, the content from those publications is valuable in and of itself. The content from these publications isn’t designed to produce residual behavior.

In the financial services space, there’s no shortage of content available. For the bank described in the AB article to develop some new and different is a huge task. Why not simply curate the overwhelming volume of content already out there for well-defined customer segments within the bank (because not all content will be seen as equally valuable to all segments)?

The Problem With Financial Education (And Content Marketing)

A Wall Street Journal article titled Start Early to Raise Money-Savvy Kids states:

“Three of four American teens lack the skills to decipher a pay stub. Researchers at the University of Cambridge concluded that basic financial habits are pretty much set by age 7. A University of Wisconsin report showed that children as young as 3 are able to grasp basic financial concepts like value, exchange, and choice. Teaching kids about money is terrifying for parents who feel shaky about their own financial knowledge. Studies have shown that simply opening a college savings account for a child will exponentially increase the chances the he will go to college. The first step is to talk about money with your children. When kids are young, you can stress the virtues of waiting and delayed gratification, and as children get older you can drive home the idea that spending less than you have is the linchpin of a healthy financial life.”

My take: See how easy financial education is? You just need to start early, and tell your kids about the virtues of delayed gratification! Then, when they get older, just tell them to spend less than they have! Why haven’t we been doing this already?! What’s wrong with us?@#!

What a load of crap. First of all, three of four American teens have the skills to decipher a pay stub. They might not know how to decipher it–because they’ve never had a job, or ever had to read a pay stub–but they have the skills.

Second, researchers at the University of Snarketing have concluded that researchers at the University of Cambridge do too many drugs.

Third, it would have been nice if the author of article–who has written a book titled Make Your Kid a Money Genius (Even If You’re Not) <surprise, surprise>–offered some evidence proving that “stressing the virtues” of delayed gratification and “driving home” the idea of spending less than you have actually produced any positive results when kids became adults.

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Imagine that you wanted to learn how to play tennis. You go online and read articles on Tennis Magazine’s website on how to hit a topspin backhand, and the “secrets” to how the pros hit 120 mph serves. Maybe you even watch a few YouTube videos demonstrating how to hit certain strokes, and what to do in certain game situations.

When you walk out onto the court, how good a player do you think you’ll be? I’ll tell you: You’ll suck. Because no matter how much tennis-related education you read, putting it into practice is a totally different story.

It’s the same with financial education. Reading about it does not (necessarily) make you better at it.

Yet, many financial institutions–credit unions, in particular–continue to deceive themselves into believing that their efforts to post more financial education-related content on their web sites is somehow contributing to the improvement of financial literacy among their customers and members.

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Speaking of content and self-deception…

As I reported in a post titled Why Content Marketing Falls Short, the author of an HBR blog post believes that:

“We are in the midst of a historic transformation for brands and companies everywhere—and it centers on content. The phenomenon of content marketing and brand publishing has unfolded rapidly because it responds to consumer preference. According to the Content Marketing Institute, 70% of people would rather learn about a company via an article than an ad.”

Arguments relying on consumers’ stated preferences rarely sway. Prove to me through testing that content marketing approaches work better than other marketing approaches, and then I’ll jump on your bandwagon.

As it applies to credit unions, Bryce Roth wrote, in an article on CU Insight:

“Content marketing is storytelling and your credit union has a story. At its very essence, content marketing is telling a story that consumers will connect with and find valuable. Instead of saying, ‘We’re for people,’ why not tell a story about something your credit union has done in the community to make it a better place to live, work or worship? Instead of saying, ‘We’re not–for-profit,’ publish a blog on your website that talks about the value and impact your credit union has made as it relates to partnerships you have established with local schools.”

Isn’t that what financial services advertising has been doing for the past 10 years? Bank of America commercials tell “stories” about how they lend to the community, making people’s “dreams come true.” TD Bank tells “stories” about how small business owners who do business with other banks get closed out of the bank at 5:01 because those mean mean banks aren’t as “convenient” as TD.

And what good does this “content” really do?

To oversimplify consumers’ decision-making process, there are a number of questions that consumers have to answer:

Who are you? -> Why should I do business with you? -> Why are your products/services better? -> Which of your products/services is right for me?

It’s never that clean and sequential, but you get the picture. The problem with Bryce’s examples is that addresses–at best–the first two questions, and not the latter two.

Here’s my assertion: The opportunity for “content marketing” to have a meaningful impact on marketing performance is by addressing the latter two questions, and not the first two. Traditional marketing approaches have taken care of the first two, but not the latter two.

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What does this rant about content marketing have to do with the shortcomings of financial education?

It’s all about context.

Financial education, provided out of context–for example, when a consumer is making a financial decision–is useless.

Content marketing, done out of context–like when a consumer is trying to decide which providers’ products are better, or which of a selected provider’s products to select, and the content provided relates to “stories” how about the credit union partnered with local schools–is useless.

These two streams of thought come together when you realize that the key to improving financial literacy is providing relevant information in the right context (when consumers have a decision to make), and that the key to successful content marketing is providing relevant content in the right context (when consumers have a decision to make). 

Financial education IS content marketing. Or, at least, it should be.

If you believe financial education is posting static content on your website, and that content marketing is telling stories about your credit union, I think you will end up failing on both sides of the equation.

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I could go another rant about why it’s so important to create tools that create and manage context (or what I would call activity-based marketing), but that’s probably better left for another blog post.

Why Content Marketing Falls Short

In a Harvard Business Review blog post titled The Content Marketing Revolution, the author writes:

“We are in the midst of a historic transformation for brands and companies everywhere — and it centers on content. Nine out of ten organizations are now marketing with content – that is, going beyond the traditional sales pitches and instead enhancing brands by publishing relevant information, ideas, and entertainment that customers will value. The phenomenon of content marketing and brand publishing has unfolded rapidly because it responds to consumer preference. According to the Content Marketing Institute, 70% of people would rather learn about a company via an article than an ad.”

There is at least point of evidence supporting this “phenomenon.” A Marketing Daily article reports that:

“At the end of a Proctor & Gamble quarterly earnings call, P&G’s chief financial officer, Jon Moeller, revealed a striking shift in a core business strategy. Moeller announced that the company ‘thinks it can impress consumers who buy household products such as Head & Shoulders shampoo more effectively by ramping up marketing via social media, mobile, search engines and digital content on the Internet.'”

As the article notes, this is as much remarkable for the fact that this was the CFO–not CMO–talking as for the shift in marketing philosophy.

My take: Content marketing isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. The real revolution in marketing–for products with any degree of consumer consideration–will be activity-based marketing.

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First, let’s dismiss the “finding” that “70% of people would rather learn about a company via an article than an ad.”

Of course people are going to say that. No one wants to admit to being influenced by advertising. And a majority of consumers will always say that they make rational, well-informed decisions. Yet when we look at consumers’ actual purchase decisions–from everything from soap to Presidents–we realize that that’s hardly true.

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The HBR post claims:

“Brands are no longer merely peddling products; they’re producing, unearthing, and distributing information. And because they do, the corporation becomes not just economically important to society, but intellectually essential as well.”

Intellectually essential? Give me a break. Exactly how does “content” about toilet paper and laundry detergent qualify as “intellectually essential”? If I’ve learned anything about marketing, it’s that some marketers will glorify the latest trend as the end-all be-all, and content marketing is fitting the mold nicely.

Another thing I’ve learned about marketing is that marketers–unlike accountants who have a nice neat little thing called a chart of accounts–have no standard definitions for the terms they throw about. Review the past seven years’ history of “customer engagement” to help prove my assertion.

And so what, exactly, qualifies as content? Is there an agreed-upon definition regarding how much brand-related information is allowed in something called content? No, of course not.

“Content marketing” is merely the evolution of advertising from messages (1960’s thru 1990s) to stories (1990s to present) to content. No matter what you call it, it’s still about persuasion–getting someone to buy your product, or at least, be more favorably disposed to your company and/or product, so they will buy one day.

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The results of a study from Demand Metrics goes to lengths to prove that “interactive” content is more effective than “passive” content. The interactivity range of content (and percentage of marketers whose content fits the various segments) were as follows:

Content Type % of Respondents
Very passive: content produces little or no engagement with the buyer 13%
Somewhat passive: content produces slight engagement with the buyer 23
Moderate: content produces some level of engagement with the buyer 39
Slightly interactive: content produces measurable engagement with the buyer 19
Very interactive: content produces highly engaging experience with the buyer 6
Source: Demand Metrics, June 2014

The study goes on to show that 70% of marketers consider interactive content to perform “moderately well” or “very well” on producing conversion, versus 36% who rated passive content in those two rating categories.

A couple of problems here. First, the study found that17% of participants have no content effectiveness measurements in place, and 49% only use basic metrics such as clicks or downloads. So how could they know how effective interactive or passive content really is

Second, if content is “intellectually essential,” as the HBR post claims, then there’s no reason why passive content–which could stimulate thought processes as easily as interactive content–needs to be inferior to so-called interactive content.

This line of reasoning on the part of Demand Metrics does nothing except take us back to the argument over what “engagement” means.

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The lack of a common definition of what content is and isn’t isn’t the only thing holding back content marketing from being the “revolution” that HBR claims. The Demand Metrics study also found that

“During their journey from need to purchase, only 25% of buyers reveal their interest to vendors early. 90% of study participants believe that it is somewhat or very important to engage buyers earlier in their journey.”

And therein lies the real reason why content marketing falls short: In and of itself, it does nothing to change the timing of interacting with customers and prospects, it only changes the nature (or maybe I should say “form”) of the message.

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The real revolution in marketing (for considered products) is activity-based marketing:

Marketing within the context of an activity being performed by a customer or prospect.

Activity-based marketing doesn’t simply change the nature of messaging, it changes (and, in some cases, creates) the buying or decision journey or process.

USAA’s Auto Circle mobile app is a great example of activity-based marketing. It’s an app that creates, guides, and simplifies not just the car buying experience, but the associated purchases and decisions like car financing and car insurance.

Sites like Edmund’s can provide content to help car shoppers understand the differences between Car A and Car B. But an activity-based marketing app like Auto Circle creates and tracks the entire buying/decision process. Activity-based marketing has a number of benefits. It:

1) Helps marketers understand where a prospective buyer is in the decision journey and what type of message (whether it’s content or something else) is most appropriate. By tracking activities and actions over time through an activity-based marketing app, marketers can collect the (big) data needed to better understand the effectiveness of certain marketing actions at the various points in the consumer journey.

2) Gets marketers involved in the customer’s decision process far earlier than they ever have been in the past. What gets a USAA (in the case of Auto Circle) involved early in the process isn’t content–it’s process. It’s the promise of creating a better, simplified, and more convenient process that gets a prospective car buyer to download the app, and use it to manage their car (and financing and insurance) shopping process.

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Bottom line: Marketers can fawn over content marketing all they want. It’s just another stop in the delusionary journey of advertising that makes them believe they’ve got something new to offer. They don’t. Not until they develop activity-based marketing apps, that is.

Social Business: Not How, But What And Why

In a Forbes blog post titled 10 Strategies For Building A Successful Social Business, the author lists what he calls “strategies” for building what he calls a “social” business. Here are a few of them with my take:

#1: Replace Traditional Marketing with Content Marketing

“Traditional marketing via TV, radio and print is…failing because consumers are tired of the one-way broadcast. People want interaction and the chance to develop a relationship with the brand. Enter Content Marketing. Content created on SlideShare, YouTube, Flickr and corporate blogs is easily shareable and interactive. TV is not. Smart visionaries are publishing high value content directly to its database of customers and in turn their social networks.”

My take: A misunderstanding of the role of traditional and content marketing. First off, forget the term “traditional.” There are different channels, or media, that marketers can use. Some have been around longer than others. Regardless of their age, some channels are better suited for different marketing objectives than others.

If you think of the customer lifecycle, or funnel, as consisting of awareness->consideration->preference->purchase->engagement, then it becomes clearer that TV is not particularly good at engagement. But Slideshare or corporate blogs may not be particularly good at generating meaningful improvements in broad consumer awareness.

Content marketing doesn’t replace traditional marketing — it supplements it.

#2: Recruit a Chief Social Evangelist

“Every company needs a Robert Scoble. Scoble personifies the type of individual every company should have onstaff. His formula is simple. Produce or share quality content with his legions of followers in order to create what psychologists call the herd effect.”

My take: If I had a nickel for every consultant who recommended the creation of a Chief Fill-in-the-blank Officer position, I wouldn’t have to work anymore.

There are three problems with this particular recommendation: 1) Scoble is Scoble because there aren’t a lot of Scobles out there who can produce high quality content about being or becoming a social business; 2) No offense to Scoble, but I really don’t think that there are a high percentage of CEOs — the people who can bring about a transformation towards becoming a social business — in his legions of followers. What this means is that the content produced by the Scoble Clone is likely to be read by the converts, not the heathen; and 3) What the hell is the “herd effect” and how does that influence senior executives to transform their companies?

#5: Chief Marketing and Sales Officers will be Social or Become Obsolete

“Earlier in the year I surveyed the Fortune 100 and found only 15 of the CMOs/CCOs had twitter accounts. Unfortunate, since the primary owners of Social lay with the marketing team. Social absence also appears to be the case for VPs of Sales and Chief Revenue/Sales Officers. The reason CMO’s need to be social is because traditional marketing has become less effective as people search for dialogue, and it will eventually be replaced with content marketing, brand communities, social campaigns and thought leadership. They’ll need to adapt quickly.”

My take: Individual executives do not need to be the ones using Twitter or Facebook if there are other people in the organization with better skills for those tools. Would you agree that the quality of a product is important? Of course you would. Does that mean that the CEO needs to know how to use the lathe on the machine floor that produces that product? Of course it doesn’t.

Second, I’m not so sure that people are necessarily “searching for dialogue.” A CMO Council study found that people are looking for “free stuff” not necessarily to “be heard.”

#10. Re-focus Human Resources on Human Experience

“Employee problems are dysfunctions of the corporation, and if left without correction, become degenerative diseases. But for the social organization, and, above all, for human resources, they represent a major source of opportunity. Here’s how. In the future workplace, human resources will focus more on developing internal communities that are supported by a social business platform. HR’s role will be to ensure the platform’s user experience, aesthetics, and collaborative elements support the HR mission of employee recruiting, satisfaction and retainment. So if analytics and sentiment about employee discontent is trending, HR can take meaningful steps to stop or learn from it.”

My take: Degenerative diseases? HR will develop internal communities? HR will ensure the social businesss platform’s “experience, aesthetics, and collaborative elements”? Huh?

Conclusion. The author concludes by saying:

“The top 10 strategies for building a social business represent the most frequently cited transformations occurring within the world’s most visionary organizations. Of course, mobile will be important; so will cloud computing. Interestingly, policies around the ownership of social information created on internal social business platforms is something the visionaries are just starting to think about.”

My take: No discussion of the “social business” would be complete without at least one gratuitous mention of mobile and cloud computing, would it? But who exactly are these “visionary” organizations that represent the “most frequently cited transformations”? I don’t recall seeing a single mention of them in the Forbes post.

BOTTOM LINE: In addition to the strategies being questionable in and of themselves, the Forbes post suffers from two serious flaws:

1. It doesn’t define exactly what a “social” business is — and isn’t. There’s a construct I’ve used when writing that was hammered into me when I worked at Forrester. I call it the “Stuart Dopey Graphic.” It was named after…wait for it…Stuart, who was anything but dopey. Stuart’s contention was that in describing something new or different, that we (as analysts) should have a chart that so clearly differentiates the current situation from the future, proposed situation that even a dope would get it.  In this Forbes post — and quite frankly, it pretty much everything I read about the “social” business — there’s little clarity about what’s really different in the social business other than having a Twitter ID, Facebook page, and posting YouTube videos. 

2. It doesn’t define why any business should become a social business. God forbid you should walk into your CEO’s office and tell him/her that you have 10 strategies for becoming a social business. First thing s/he’ll say is: Why the hell do we need to become a social business? 800 million people on Facebook is not a reason. “Strategies” for “how” to become a “social” business are useless if the rationale for why a company should become one is missing.

And you wonder why I think Social Media Gurus are DOA?