If you want to understand your users, market early

The product designers sit together and innovate. They present, they create, they bask. Then the marketers come in, slick and smooth, and carve a funnel. It’s the dirty work, the necessary evil, the indeterminate drain on resources that deserve better allocation.

Or that’s how we tend to think of it.

The most charitable and cynical interpretations of marketing share the assumption that marketing is a posterior art. Even the most forward-thinking, research-based, make-it-share-it-test-it development methods tend to relegate marketing to the end. Marketing is the launching pad, only ready for use once everything else (everything important) is tested and ready for takeoff.

This made sense in the advertising era — when the expense of communication was only worthwhile once you were ready to coat the world with a perfect, pre-tested message. Marketing entered hand-in-hand with scale.

Content marketing is marketing for the digital era and it presents a different strategy.

Market on the frontier of user need

No one wants to hear about all the time spent on a product or service, and how now, just now, you need some advice on marketing it.

Marketing should be parallel, if not primary, to initial development because modern marketing is best suited to investigating user needs.

The process of creating, defending, maintaining markets — marketing, by definition — has been revolutionized by the ability to effectively create and distribute content. Now that marketing is a value center unto itself, its economics shift from message distribution to value creation. In a world where everyone can distribute, marketers must create.

Leading by value means that content marketers must flow upstream, against explanatory PR and toward stories that investigate user needs.

A company’s mission statement, which previously languished in an about page and received rare, staidly references during board meetings, can be the compass of a content operation that creates value on the behalf of users and users yet to be.

Every time a reader interacts with content, they leave signs for the direction of the company. Comments on blog posts, shares on social media — even sheer views on one post over another all indicate trajectories of user engagement.

A commitment to building and serving an audience will produce better products and services, more likely to succeed, from that relationship.

A primary goal is achieving what Brian Clark calls an MVA: the minimum viable audience necessary to begin to determine what the audience really wants. Without an MVA, experiments are futile, good products can flop, and research remains assumption.

As Jimmy Daly cautions, however, not all content marketing operations need to consider themselves audience-generating media operations. In other words, organizations don’t need to commit to consistently producing new content and gathering new users while retaining old ones. Not everyone needs a subscription.

Different businesses have different types of audiences, so the audience model will depend on the business model. For some, it will be capturing users in a newsletter; for others, it will be capturing users at points of need with SEO. An MVA is a sample size significant enough to learn from and dependable enough to show up.

The earlier marketing begins, the earlier a developed audience can inform product development.

Use content to capture past, present, and future customers

Good content can attract an audience that extends beyond immediate customers. It includes future customers as amateurs or students, thought leaders with influential approval, and users who are already committed to a different service, but may provide a valuable recommendation by wishing they could start over and choose again.

Content provides another vector along which to measure engagement beyond sheer purchase. Content is a long game. It includes would-have-been customers and might-be customers as well as immediately available prospects.

Content is made useless without analysis, however, because this fragmentary audience can easily dissolve into an unrecognizable mass. Strategy must always delineate between targets of conversion and targets of distribution. Broadly speaking, strategy must differentiate between an audience that enjoys, learns from, and shares content and an audience that does the same but has the capacity to covert.

Sub-segments fissure from there, but it’s that initial differentiation that demarcates a publication from a strategic content marketing operation. A publication targets anyone who will read read; content strategy targets users that have participatory value.

This strategic marketing embeds user need into the DNA of a company. The earlier it’s employed, the better user centricity can persist.

Marketing creates and maintains markets

A great market “pulls product out of the startup,” and good content can create an audience that clamors like a great market. A good story, anchored by product and expanded by content, can transform bystanders into participants.

If a market is, as Geoffrey Moore says, “a set of actual or potential customers, for a given set of products or services, who have a common set of needs or wants, and who reference each other when making a buying decision,” then content can play a role in realizing and improving the latter two essentials.

People who bought razors from the drug store whenever they ran out were unlikely to buy shave butter, for instance, but the product/content combo from Dollar Shave Club transformed a routine into a lifestyle that necessitated new products. A fragmented but unreferenced need — shaving — became a common want weaved into a shared story.

Dollar Shave Club razors aren’t a transformative product. They’re re-branded, up-sold generics. This isn’t a secret. But through content, bundling, and convenience, Dollar Shave Club wrote customers into the story they told. Tricia Levasseur explains: “People often don’t buy the best products, they buy the best products they understand.”

Dollar Shave Club products are not the best in class. But they are one of the most easily understood. And due to that story, the weakness of any single product is elided by the bundle of products that the story can cohere into a monthly care package.

A good story clarifies a product; a great story centers the user as protagonist, the product as climax, and the needs of user and company as shared quests.

The startup graveyard is full of products and features that were unequivocally great. Some failed because they couldn’t identify a market that referenced itself so each sale became a dead-end. Others failed because the need was common but the understanding of it wasn’t shared. Others failed still because the product or service was merely a tangent, rather than a newly integral part of the narrative.

Great things can’t grow outside of a context that nurtures them. Content provides those conditions and story that force.

Marketing is no longer a function to be appended after scale is achieved. Content marketing is the primary digital answer to the analog past of marketing after the fact. Do it as early as possible to understand user need, capture user trajectory, and develop from user stories.