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Want to Create Meaningful Branded Content? Try a Journalistic Approach

To earn consumer loyalty, replace your conversion funnel

Kate Watts is CEO of Long Dash. She formerly founded Faire Design and held the role of president, U.S. at the global agency Huge.

This piece was originally published by Adweek.

There is a familiar feeling of dread when exiting a grocery store only to be greeted by a smiling volunteer requesting “just a minute of your time.” No matter how strongly you support their cause or how authentic the volunteer is, it takes superhuman ability to let your guard down because you’re bracing yourself to be pitched. This is precisely how most customers feel about branded content.

Marketers, even with the best intentions, often over-index on creating content that follows a tired conversion funnel playbook. If each piece of content is conceptualized as a step toward generating a sale, the experience becomes transactional and the touch point becomes a missed opportunity to connect and build trust.

In a recent consumer behavior report, a quarter of respondents said they switch brands now more than ever. Researchers attribute the loyalty decline to consumers trying different brands as the pandemic accelerated a major shift toward online shopping. A national consumer survey also stated that 83% of customers say a positive experience with a brand is just as important as the service or product they purchased. These facts tell us that there is both a premium on loyalty and an opportunity to access that loyalty through creating content and brand experiences that are meaningful.

Think inverted pyramid, not conversion funnel

To cultivate lasting relationships through content, marketers benefit from revisiting an age-old journalism device: the inverted pyramid. The inverted pyramid begins a story with the most captivating and important information up top before filling in context and color later in the piece. This helps hook attention immediately and capture the widest possible audience. The inverted pyramid is also an exercise in empathy—an opportunity to show people you know their time is valuable and you’re ready to get right to the point. It’s a chance to demonstrate that you understand their needs and worldview before asking them to do something.

Brands think they do this but, in reality, they most often lead with the information that’s most important to them, such as a product launch or internal accomplishment. The emphasis on conversion metrics often obscures brands’ view of what is actually useful and engaging to their audience. Today’s savvy readers are skeptical of even the most “journalistic” blog post if it overtly links back to the brand’s own products.

Show, don’t tell, your value-add

Content that follows an inverted pyramid is inherently more relevant to audiences, earning attention because of its usefulness. NerdWallet, the personal-finance education company, employs journalists to develop content obsessively focused on readers’ biggest personal-finance obstacles in investment, financing and retirement planning. What began as an advice blog now generates $150 million in annual revenue. Yet, while NerdWallet’s money comes directly from promoting financial institutions’ products, its commitment to presenting clear, transparent and useful information results in over 39 million monthly visits from readers who seek the clarity and expert opinion behind the company’s advice.

Invest time for deeper loyalty—and greater lifetime value

The inverted pyramid requires repetition. It is a continued promise for usefulness and expertise over time rather than for a singular sale. The objective is for the brand to establish itself as a leading expert in its category. Glossier, the beauty unicorn valued at $1.2 billion in 2019, first developed a relationship with prospective consumers through its popular Into the Gloss blog—well before it had anything to sell. The blog captured millions of readers with product-agnostic advice about skin care and makeup. The high-quality articles gave audiences a reason to return to the brand for answers to their beauty questions. When Glossier finally launched its products, it knew its audience’s needs intimately and already had a loyal, built-in base. By taking an inverted pyramid approach, the brand built a relationship with its audience that valued relevance and utility over transaction.

The case behind using the inverted pyramid for brands’ content is simple: Brands must be appealing in order to appeal. It is imperative in an increasingly content-saturated world to bring to market a story people want to hear—and that the story bears no resemblance to a sales pitch.

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