We Can’t Predict the Future, But We Can Prepare

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Growing up in England in the ’60s, I was fascinated by a series of action-adventure TV shows produced by Century 21 Productions. The shows featured machines that traveled in space, underwater, underground and performed fantastic feats or flew at tremendous speeds.

Then in the late ’60s I came across a show called “Star Trek” — and I’ve been thinking about the future ever since.

My first job out of college was working on the Concorde supersonic passenger jet, and I also was tangentially involved with a project to design a hyper-sonic space plane.

Now here we are in the 21st century and none of that happened! 

Who Can Predict the Future?

I love living in the future, although it’s not the one I was expecting.

We may not have flying cars and jet packs, but look at what we do have.

We all walk around with a pocket sized device that connects us to the greatest repository of human knowledge in history. We can have instantaneous conversations across continents, and use that same device to take photos, watch TV and movies, store and read a library of books, access the world’s news organizations, socialize with millions of people around the world — and maybe even make the occasional phone call.

It’s a technology that no one saw coming, yet in the space of less than a decade the smart phone has changed the way we live, the way we communicate and the way we do business.

The Times They Are a Changin’

As content professionals how can we possibly predict and prepare for a change like that? The answer is that we probably can’t.

In the words of America’s newest Nobel Prize winner, Bob Dylan (and who would have predicted that?), “Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?

But we can look at where today’s trends and activities are heading and extrapolate.

One of the greatest moments of realization for me around how people interacted with content was watching my then 15-year old daughter doing a homework assignment on Pearl Harbor. When I passed her a book on World War II from my history bookcase she ignored the table of contents and index and instead flicked through the pages until she found a photo she knew related to the subject she was studying. Only then did she start to read around it.

She was doing a visual search and then browsing the book like it was the web. At that point I realized that the traditional book paradigm no longer produced the user experience her generation needed.

Find the Opportunities in Developing Trends

So what’s happening now that will impact the near future? For the last decade I’ve been a big proponent of Augmented Reality (AR) as a way to communicate, engage and inform. I believe it has great potential to deliver as yet unexplored customer experiences. I think AR will win over Virtual Reality as the latter is too immersive and isolating (but I could be wrong — the future will decide).

Look at what technologies are developing and how new generations are using them. Extrapolate, and think how that will impact your business.

Don’t look for potential threats, but look for potential opportunities. It’s not about chasing the current hot gadget, the future is about recognizing change. Look outside your industry, outside your area of expertise. We need to get comfortable about being uncomfortable about new technology and trends. Study across many fields: technology, psychology, sociology, story-telling, movie-making and more.

So how do we address the challenge of mapping the future? First, learn to recognize the future, and then be prepared to adjust when the jet pack turns out to be an iPhone instead.

 

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Is Your Website a Reflection of You or Your Customers?

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Hey Dad, did you have any feedback?” That text from my daughter was part of an ongoing discussion around the website that she was designing for a new business venture that she and a partner were launching. It was the third iteration of the site, and this was the first version that was fully mobile friendly.

My feedback was that with just a few minor tweaks, this iteration was very close to where they needed to be for the launch. It told a good story and provided the basic information their customers would be looking for.

It wasn’t always the case. Early in the process of them developing a business case I asked my daughter and her business partner what they wanted the website to communicate.

The immediate response was “We want it to let people know what we do.”

A logical answer, but my response was something along the lines of “That’s great, but other people do what you do. What makes you special?”

We are focused on people with a particular problem area.”

Great. So think about the people who need help solving that problem. What are they going to be looking for?

As these sort of discussions continued, the website design and prototypes evolved from their description of what the new company did, to a series of short articles that addressed the potential customer’s problems, and how my daughter and her partner can help.

They also looked at the list of services they were offering and decided to focus on the three where they have had the most interest. Now instead of a webpage with a shopping list of things to pick from, each solution article has information about the relevant service, with pricing and contact information.

But it’s not only small businesses or start-ups that need to be switching their thinking from a website that, no matter how slick it’s presented, is little more than a digital brochure. Often these sort of “inside-out” websites end up being a reflection of the corporate structure accompanied by a list of products. Switching the mind set to a customer driven “outside-in” view can pay dividends, not only in an improved experience that can help customer’s solve their problems, but they can also have a direct impact on the company’s bottom line.

I once worked on a project for a large company whose website was a perfect reflection of their corporate and business unit structure. You had to know what part of the company was responsible for a particular product to be able to find it; even the employees had a hard time figuring out where to find information. But a customer focused analysis showed that 80% of the traffic went to the website for just four things: to look up product specifications, pricing, buy spare parts, or get support. Once we rebuilt the website around making those tasks as easy as possible, traffic, leads, and online parts sales revenue all increased, and support costs decreased.

Improving the customer experience is now regularly cited as a top strategic imperative for many companies, and the website is the always-on global showcase for that. Delivering a customer-driven web experience means not only changing the mind-set and the content, but also delivering a more engaging relevant and engaging experience that delivers value to the individual customer. It can rapidly become a complex process and needs the right sort of management tools to enable and support an effective web presence.

Avoid Brand Disasters with a Visual Content Strategy

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It took a man with his sleeves rolled up to make me understand that we had a problem.

A Flawed Hero

At the time I has heading the marketing content delivery group at a major equipment manufacturer and we’d just posted a new ‘hero’ shot on our website. We were very proud of the image: a burly rugged looking guy on a job site stood in front of one our machines. A perfect illustration of our brand.

Or so we thought, until I logged in to my email the following morning to find my inbox stuffed with requests to take the image down.

Most of those emails came from one specific geographical market. What we hadn’t realized was that the burly man had his shirt sleeves rolled up, and in one of our biggest, most important, markets that was a safety violation. And safety violations were definitely not something we wanted to be seen promoting, or have associated with our brand.

The image was quickly taken down and metadata added that it wasn’t to be used in certain markets. On reflection, we should have already done this. But like many large companies we drew our content from all across the enterprise, as well as from outside suppliers and agencies.

Customers Don’t Care About Your Silos

The man in the shirt sleeves got us thinking: Did different parts of the company use different images to represent the same things based on their local and business knowledge? Did they assume an implied level of knowledge about the subject and its applicability? Did the images chosen just reflect the siloed make-up of the business’s organizational structure? How was metadata applied — if at all — to ensure correct usage and attribution?

Most importantly: how did all this affect the customer’s experience when interacting with our brand across different channels around the globe?

It doesn’t matter how your company is organized, or what separate lines of business you have. As far as your customer is concerned every interaction with you is a representation of your brand, and they expect a consistent experience. But it must also be a consistent experience that is relevant to them and their locale.

Pull Things Together With a Visual Content Strategy

So how do you deliver a consistent brand representation while still being aware of localization and cultural issues?

You need to develop a Visual Content Strategy:

  • What do you want your images to do? — Showcase your products? Showcase your customers? Show customers using your products?
  • What business need do you want your images to help achieve? — Engage prospects and lead to click-through and lead capture? Educate and help customers with self-service thereby reducing support costs?
  • What sort of images will you use to reflect your brand? — Photographic and realistic, inspirational and abstract?
  • Where will the images be used? — Global generic images? Regional and local application? If regional, how localized?

Next, look at the images that you are already delivering or have in development. Do they match the aims and business drivers outlined in your visual content strategy? If not, stop using them.

Content for the sake of content, no matter how pretty it looks, is a waste of resources and opportunity.

Take a detailed look at how your products are represented and localized. After the “shirt sleeves” incident one of the decisions we made was that for the equipment product pages on our website the main product shot would be just the machine against a plain white background.

Presenting the equipment in a consistent way made it stand out and avoided localization issues. The job-site shots were relegated to a gallery that could be customized based on the customer’s location.

The next step is developing a strong metadata model that is applied to the images to ensure that you use the same images to show the same ideas and concepts. Attach data that fits your workflow and that allows you to deliver the sort of customer experience that reinforces your brand. Balancing consistency with creativity should also be considered and trade-offs need to be made.

Delivering Consistent Experiences

With a strategy and metadata architecture in place you need a way to store and manage images so that they can be easily located and used in the correct manner.

A Digital Asset Management system is key to delivering a consistent visual user experience. I’d recommend starting with an achievable object, such as a DAM to drive your website and then grow it organically across the enterprise, to cover other delivery channels. Get people used to using it, prove that it provides value and it will lead to improved customer experience.

The man in the short sleeves helped my team develop and deliver a platform that quickly grew to an enterprise solution with over one million assets that could be tracked and reused to send the correct message in the correct market.

[NOTE: This post was first published on CMSWire September 2016)

When customer experience needs to get physical.

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It all started with a drip of water. You know that moment when you open the fridge door and feel a drop of water on your hand where you shouldn’t. It didn’t take me long to track where it was coming from, a dislodged pipe.

At least that’s what I thought it was. I managed to reconnect the pipe, but although the trickle of water lessened, it didn’t stop. Whatever was wrong was deeper in the workings of the fridge than I could see or reach.

No problem, the fridge was still under the manufacturer’s warranty. So I headed over to the manufacturer’s website and opened the online form to book a service call. It was all going well until I got to the line that asked for the fridge’s serial number.

It was back to the kitchen where I opened every door, and peered at every surface of the fridge writing down any number I could find; but it turned out none of them was the actual serial number. The serial number that was a required field on the service call form.

I called the customer help desk number, and the lady explained they needed the serial number so they could make sure they had the right information about model number for spare parts, and to check the purchase date and warranty coverage. That all seemed fair enough.

“So where do I find the serial number?” I asked.
“On a sticker on the fridge.”
“And where’s that sticker located on the fridge?”
“Oh, it’s on the back.”
“On the back of the fridge. The back that’s against a wall and enveloped in custom built kitchen cabinets? “
“Yes.”

This experience brought back memories of when I was working in the manufacturing sector. One of the companies I worked for also used the product serial number as the prime data point to identify a piece of equipment when customers needed service or spares.

An analysis of our online service portal showed that 70% of customers got the serial number wrong. They either guessed, or in most cases input the product’s model designation instead (the nice combination of letters and numbers painted on the side in a big bold color and large font).

The actual serial number they needed was on a small metal plate under a cover – but it told you how to find it in the owner’s manual, so there shouldn’t be a problem. Right?

Both are great examples of the disconnect that often happens when companies focus on the digital customer interaction without considering the actual physical product as part the overall experience.

Customer experience is a holistic exercise, and companies need to make it easy to transfer the process, and the data associated with it, from the physical to the digital, and vice-versa.

Think about your car. Need to access the VIN number for any reason, service, DMV registration, insurance etc. it’s right there at the bottom of the windshield where you can easily access it. Need to know the correct pressures to inflate your tires to – just open the car door and look at the stickers on the sill by the door catch.

The motor industry has done an excellent job over the years in standardizing how to provide essential information to the owner/operator in an accessible manner. It’s a lesson that many makers of many other products need to learn

As the internet of things comes to life around us, the boundary between digital and physical is fast disappearing and the customer experience needs to be an essential part of that evolution.

The Redefined Customer Journey – Remove System Friction

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The customer journey is being redefined in the digital age from a linear process to an ongoing loop of BUY then OWN with the companies you choose to deal with becoming more and more engaged in every part of the cycle.

So far in previous posts I’ve discussed what that on-going loop looks like from a customer perspective and how the loop model aligns the customer’s activities to those of the organization, and which departments need to work together to deliver the continuous connected experience.

As we continue to dig deeper into the journey map the fourth layer (above) connects the departmental level activity to the typical enterprise systems that record, drive, and promote the various aspects of the customer’s journey. These processes and systems have to interact. Technology bridges need to be established to allow data to flow between them to ensure a consistent experience and to maintain a relevant, valued engagement. The platforms in use must promote a sufficient degree of interoperability that allows the multiple interactions to work together.

But unfortunately the truth is that they rarely do. How many times have you transitioned from trying to do something on a website, had to call a help desk to get your goal completed and they already know your account details and what you want to accomplish? Rarely, if ever. It shouldn’t be that way.

I recently moved house and needed to change my address on various accounts. Simple I thought; just go on the various companies’ websites, open my profile, and edit the details. In most cases that worked, but in a few cases I had additional questions and needed to make a call.

With one credit card company I had a question about why my statements had stopped being delivered. The call went something like this:

Automated System: Please state your name.

Automated System: Say or input your account number.

Automated system: What’s your account safeword?  (Note not the account password, but a separate “safeword” I set up when I opened the account years ago and have never needed to use since – of course I had no idea what it was).

Me: I have no idea.

The Automated System passed me on to a Call Center employee.

Call center: How can I help you?

Me: I need to change my address and I have a question about my statements.

Call center: What’s your account safeword?

Me: I have no idea.

Call center: I have to pass you on to our security team.

Wait while call is transferred.

Security team: How can I help you?

Me: I need to change my address and I have a question about my statements.

Security team: What’s your account safeword?

Me: I have no idea, that’s why I was passed to you.

Security: OK I can help you with that. What’s your name and account number? (Information I had keyed in the automated system at the start of the call and which the first call center person had).

After some back and forth we eventually got the “safeword” thing sorted out.

Security: I’ll hand you back to the customer service so they can set up your payment plan?

Me: Sorry? What payment plan? I just need to change my address and I have a question about my statements.

Security: Oh. Hang on.

Wait while call is transferred. – Get a different customer service rep.

Customer service: How can I help you?

Me: I need to change my address and I have a question about my statements.

Call center: What’s your account safeword?

Me: You have got to be kidding me!

To cut a very long story short I eventually got my address changed and asked about my statements not getting delivered. You guessed it, I got transferred yet again to a different department and went through the same run around. It turned out that when the account hit zero balance they stop sending statements. When I pointed out that it might be nice if they sent the account holder an email to let them know about that policy, or put something on the statements themselves, or even their website; I received a “oh that’s a good idea” response. An idea I doubt will get passed on as I’m sure billing and the website content are yet two more siloed operations.

Ideally silos between systems such as the ones I encountered need to be broken down, but as a minimum they should be bridged by data sets that can be easily transferred. Such data sets should reflect the information to support the customer at any given point in their journey and grow incrementally in detail as the customer progresses through their series of interactions with the company. Ideally at no point should a customer have to provide information that they have already supplied earlier in the process. It’s all about removing the friction from the process.

The processes and systems you employ shouldn’t define the customer experience, they should support it.

No Pain, No Gain.

I hate the gym. I’m happy to admit that. I’ve never consider myself to be any sort of athlete; and I find working out just for the sake of exercise boring in the extreme.

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As for pain, I’m a total wuss – I don’t like any sort of pain, so the tried and trusted mantra of

“No Pain, No Gain,”

has always been something of an anathema to me. – With one exception; Content Marketing.

We need to feel pain in business. Not physical pain, but the pains of delivering what we are in business to do. While overcoming our own business pains can indeed help us grow, that’s not the most important pain to consider.

The pain we should be considering, especially when it comes to Content Marketing, is our customer’s pain.

Every company, no matter what its size, exists to solve problems, be it with a product or a service. We are in business to fulfill a need, and that need is our customer’s need. We drive our revenue by making sure that we meet that need by solving the problems and pain points that stop our customers from being successful in their business and meeting their own customers needs.

Often as companies grow they lose sight of the customer and become more internally focused, especially in areas that don’t have direct contact with customers. As I mentioned a few blog posts ago, when that happens traditional marketing starts to be more about messaging how great we are and not what we can do to help.

Content Marketing changes that.

Content Marketing is about providing value to our customers to help them succeed; and to do that we need to know their pain points and focus on delivering the information, knowledge, and inspiration to remove that pain.

If you want to make business gains, then you need to start feeling some pain – just make sure that the pain you know most about is your customer’s pain – Then become the trusted source to ease that pain.

This Song ISN’T About You

“Marketing is about TELLING the world you are a rock star; Content Marketing is about SHOWING the world you are.”

The above is a quote from my friend Robert Rose of the Content Marketing Institute and it’s easily the most repeated phrase I use when introducing the concepts of Content Marketing – In fact I like that quote so much that I had a slide made up and with it on and have it hanging in my office.

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It appeals to me on several levels, not least of which is that I’m a rock music fan and occasional historian with a particular interest in the early days of rock ‘n’ roll.

Robert’s right in that traditional advertising and marketing has been about putting on a glitzy show, in the hope that our potential customers will notice us. We have built a whole industry and profession around shouting “Look at me!” – We’ve been singing songs that have been about us.

When everyone is singing the same song to different tunes it becomes a cacophony, and the louder they sing it becomes a raucous din in which everyone’s message is lost.

The only way for you as marketers to cut through that noise is to stop singing about yourselves. It’s time to start singing about the things that help our customers achieve their dreams.

I developed a Mission Statement for how we want to deliver marketing content at Caterpillar that hangs on my office wall right next to Robert’s quote, it reads:

We will provide ENGAGING, RELEVANT, ACTIONABLE content that provides VALUE to our customers, enabling them to be successful in reaching their business goals.

Our aim is to make sure that the song we are singing shows our customers that we understand their business goals and needs.