Recently, I’ve been working on a website project that represents the start of a major market shift for a client. Their value proposition until this point has mostly centered around a B2B market. Their consumers reap indirect benefits of this B2B relationship, but they haven’t been won or retained using the software this company creates. At the same time, another large segment of the company’s business comes through a major corporate partner, whose agents sell their products where no other options are available.
The question is this: as this small brand begins to reach out directly to consumers, how do they compete with a company that regularly snatches up large blocks of superbowl ad time?
On brand alone? They can’t, full stop.
Rather, they hope to act as consultative experts for consumers who can’t find what they need anywhere else. There’s a niche there, one that’s underserved. (Why else would the big corporation be selling their products?) The question is, how do these consumers find them?
It’s a “they don’t know what they don’t know” sort of situation, so there’s a lift to be done in education and branding. Core to both of these components is the C-word: content.
Ah, content. What an utterly meaningless word when it stands on its own: it’s the stuff YouTubers make, the journalism that breaks major stories, the pithy copywriting that sparks interest in a new brand.
How on earth is this all one thing? Long answer, it isn’t – but when it comes to marketing content, the words that comprise business’ voice and tone, too often content falls short.
Copywriting exists at this impossible junction between marketing and design: it’s words that create a feeling, but it’s one that’s created nearly 50/50 by the message and the medium. This is true of all copy: whether it’s on a subway ad, movie trailer, or a website. The last of these items is the one I’m coping with, and fam: we’re terrible at it.
I’m a designer, so when people ask me what I do, I say I create products. But the truth is that design is much more than the interface and visual language of these products. Product design has a lot to do with the words on the page and the strategy that underpins them: their tone, context, and the reading level at which a user can comprehend their message.
Designers outside of marketing are often derisive of the contributions marketing bring to the table. Inversely, product designers are utterly reticent to touch any work that might be perceived as brand collateral. But the truth is that marketing collateral is more and more rarely a static artifact: in the digital context within which the vast majority of modern business exists, you can’t print 1000 copies of a brochure and call it a day.
Websites, even B2B websites oriented towards meeting specific lead generation goals, no longer act as digital pamphlets. This isn’t necessarily a new development, but my point lies at the crux of the way we build them. As marketing websites become more productized, whose skillsets (marketers’ or designers’) have to morph?
It’s a give and take from both directions. Designers have always had opinions on copy, but now we’re responsible for call-to-action text and placement, we’re testing which content modules perform best on the homepage, and marketing looks to us for wireframes before they can write a single word.
Inversely, marketers need to contextualize their writing and campaigns within an interactive context. This isn’t just layout, where a designer needs to see the copy to create the final mock, it’s far more robust a problem.
The root of the issue is content strategy. Who owns it? For most companies, there are a huge number of stakeholders who could (and should) contribute: * Marketing * Design * Subject Matter Experts * Sales Reps * Customer Support (as a proxy for the customer) * Recruiting/HR
When all of these voices are necessary to create a comprehensive strategy, how the heck do you start? Do you start with a headline? A value proposition? A customer use case? The bottom-line KPI that needs to be hit by Q4?
It’s honestly an impossible situation, one that overwhelms marketers and frustrates designers.
In my experience, someone has to own it, but that person will not know it all. They have to be an investigative journalist of sorts, gathering knowledge on the key stakes and goals each department has as the website project unfolds.
I think this phase of most projects is why often times website design happens in a black box: marketers and designers fear that having too many voices involved will muddy the waters, especially with HiPPOs that can individually derail a strong strategy. However, the result is so laser focused on their own goals (or on getting the CEO’s approval), it completely misses the mark for other team members—and the customer.
It’s a problem of scale, and of accountability. And oftentimes, of selfishness: so, so many websites are built to serve the ego of the business rather than the needs of the consumer. “Who we are, what we do,” rather than “how we can help, and why you should care.”
This mode of thinking is rooted in old-school marketing, which doubles down on a pithy, interruptive approach at the cost of meeting consumers where they are. HubSpot has done a lot of really important work on exploring the “inbound marketing” movement, and how creating content marketing that actually serves the needs of visitors can completely transform your business.
But what is that content? And who’s the one accountable for it?
There’s no quick fix: the only universal answer I have is to have a lot of conversations (involving everyone) and a really, really good project manager.