Selling or Telling: What Should Your Content Do?


Amid all of the clamor and fawning over content marketing is often an overlooked but kind of important consideration: What should it be accomplishing? Oh yeah, there probably should be a business-driven reason for investing in producing marketing content. It is not uncommon for creative and content channel considerations to overshadow the more fundamental question of what is the marketing objective that will be supported by content strategy (you do have a strategy, right?).

This question of what should your marketing content do is one that comes up in my mind regularly as I read blogs and articles on content marketing strategy. One of the most significant discussions that takes place with regard to creative strategy is whether content should focus on delivering utility by persuading the audience via rational presentation of product related information or by connecting emotionally through stories that can put a brand, its employees, and customers on a more personal, relatable, level. So when the question is asked “Should your content sell or tell?” the answer is simply “Yes.”

Three Questions to Guide Content Marketing Strategy

Marketers need not feel like they must make a choice between information-based content designed to provide utility and emotion-based content packaged in stories. Just as a brand would not design every ad message using only a rational or emotional appeal, your marketing content should exhibit variety in creative strategy. Emphasis on selling or telling for a particular content marketing campaign depends on how the following three questions are answered:

  1. Who is the target audience? The group or groups you are trying to reach will influence type of creative used. Content aimed at existing customers may be less about convincing them of the value offered in your products (they already have been persuaded and are your customers) and more about building bonds with your brand. In contrast, if you are trying to win over competitors’ customers or other non-users of your product, content that communicates product utility would likely have greater impact in terms of influencing them to switch buying behavior to your brand.
  2. What is the marketing objective? Once you have identified the target audience, the next consideration is where are they in terms of their relationship with you? That answer could be very broad, running the spectrum between unaware you exist and loyal customer. Chances are your target audience is narrower than that (it probably should be to make your content marketing efforts more effective). Given your target audience, what are you trying to accomplish in terms of advancing or strengthening relationships with them- Build trust? Demonstrate product capabilities? Influence their liking of your company or brand? Schedule a meeting with a sales rep? Make a purchase? Establishing what you want the target audience to do as a result of being exposed to content should guide decisions about content creation and presentation.
  3. Where is the brand in content maturity? This issue about selling versus telling is maddening sometimes because what approach to content creative strategy should be taken is not the appropriate question to ask. The more telling question is where is our brand in terms of the evolution of our content?  Lee Odden of Top Rank Online Marketing discusses a Content Marketing Maturity Model that consists of five stages:

Stasis > Production > Utility > Storytelling > Monetization

  Brands grow up, or mature and progress through these stages. Let’s consider two examples to show the progression:

Blendtec – Demonstrating Utility

One of the best known uses of content marketing is done by Blendtec. Its “Will it Blend?” videos have been viewed more than 300 million times since 2006. The videos demonstrate product capability in unconventional ways, like how it performs “blending” an Apple iPhone 5s:

The videos sell using a humorous approach to one of the oldest tactics in selling, the product demonstration.

WestJet -The Power of Stories

At just under 20-years old, Canadian air carrier WestJet is a relative newcomer to the industry. The company places a premium on service, touting how much its people care. A company can make these claims all day long in mission statements and advertisements, but when it is told as a story the message can connect in a powerful way. This WestJet video describing what one WestJet customer service agent did for a stranger for Father’s Day poignantly illustrates that the people of WestJet truly care about others:

Notice what this story does not contain- An effort to sell. It is not necessary.

Ask, Then Create

The takeaway from this discussion is to ask before creating. Ask questions about who you want to reach, what you want to accomplish by reaching them, and where your brand is in content maturity. Answers will make it easier to decide on the mix of selling and telling content to create.

Share and Enjoy

Author: Don Roy

Marketing educator, blogger, & consultant- Having fun with all of the above!

1 thought on “Selling or Telling: What Should Your Content Do?”

  1. Timely and insightful article Don. Content marketing became one of the most used outlets for marketing purposes since internet and social media became part of people’s daily lives. This as well could be used by small-, medium-, and large-scale business owners. Writing a great content with this regard is crucial. It should be persuasive not demanding and should showcase what you have got that your target market’s needs. Branding is essential as well.

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