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On the importance of thinking frames — content marketing vs. customer-centric marketing

Content marketing is hot, you cannot read up on marketing without seeing articles, blog posts, and announcements for conferences about the topic. And it should — because it does work.

The term itself, however, is misleading — and will increasingly lead to marketers producing and promoting the wrong content.

When content marketing works, it’s all about delivering the right value to the right person at the right time. At the center of the formula for success is not content, but customer value. If you put content at the center, everyone will focus on developing thought leadership content. As the different social channels get clogged up with thought leadership content, marketers will increasingly start paying to promote that content — and it will all end up like advertising again — not delivering value to the prospect.

When you put customer value at the center of your thinking however, you may come up with different answers. Take an OEM for application development tools as an example. With content at the center of your thinking, you might develop a plan to create thought leadership content that would appeal to VPs of engineering of applications development companies — the ultimate decision maker in buying your tools. If you put value at the center of your thinking, you might realize that the VPs are not the ones doing the due diligence on the available choices.  They will often times task an engineer or a group of engineers to do the research and make buying recommendations. Those engineers are very query driven and extremely reciprocal — helping one another across company boundaries. So if an engineer is tasked to find an XML database for example, she may take to her twitter community and ask for help in finding the best in class product. You could hire a few application development engineers to look for those opportunities and genuinely engage and help those people. If customer value is at the center of their thinking frame, it could well be that in 80% of the cases they would recommend content that does not even come from your company — but instead from magazines or communities in the space, and if you are really bold, even from your competitors. And yet it could result in becoming your best lead gen program — trust me, it actually happened.

Having the wrong thinking frame can be dangerous and limiting. If LinkedIn were to consider its customers as and integral part of their product — they would make radically different decisions that if they would think of us as customers. If you are a SaaS app provider and you evaluate a multi-million dollar investment to speed up your app by a fraction of a second in terms of time or money savings, you would make a very different investment decision than if you were to evaluate the investment in terms of the customer experience. Looking at it through that lens could let you conclude that speeding up the app by a fraction of a second would actually significantly improve the perceived ease of use of your app — making the investment worthwhile. Company leaders have to develop customer-centric cultures, where the customer value and the customer experience are the central frames through which any decision is being made.

Note that the framing effect is actually a well known human cognitive bias.

Being truly customer-centric is hard to do, and we found that in many companies there is a huge dichotomy between leaders’ intent and their execution when it comes to customer-centricity. More on that later.

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