Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Persuasion versus Engagement

I was attending a briefing today from a technology vendor with a content management tool and they were highlighting the holy grail of content management – personalised content – which provides content based on a customer's behaviour and that of other customers. What many of us refer to as "like Amazon" – people who bought this also bought this.

The point that really peaked my interest (and apologies to the vendor for not highlighting the rest of the presentation) was the phrase "Persuasive Content".

Delving a little more into the ECM (Enterprise Content Management) world, this is a phrase they seem to use a lot now to wrap up this personalised and relevant content management. Put quite simply by Business Trends Quarterly, "persuasive content influences the behaviour of an external constituency such as a prospect, customer, or business partner".

Above the line marketers would probably argue that this is what they have been doing for years, creating content that influences the behaviour of prospects and customers. What has changed I guess and what makes the internet such a powerful medium is the fact that what influences me may not necessarily influence you. Going back to my technology vendor presentation, they used an example of a Blu-ray player and different ways of "selling" this to a potential customer, whether it's based on promoting a great price, having a slick ad or promoting the technical aspects of the player – people buy for different reasons. Recognising and responding to those reasons can ensure a company hits my "sweet spot" and gets a purchase.

The whole point of persuasive content is in quickly recognising a customer based on explicitly defined information (demographics/profile/etc.), implicitly defined information (browse/purchase history, promotional click-through etc.) and "look-a-likes" (which other customer's exhibit similar behaviours) so that we can quickly serve up relevant information and offers.

The definition of the word persuasive is interesting though. It is defined as "Tending or having the power to persuade". The Oxford English dictionary defines persuade as to "induce (someone) to do something through reasoning or argument". In both these definitions we are talking about having the "power" and "induc[ing]". Both definitions seem a little one-sided to me – like the brand needs to use strong-arm tactics to get people to purchase.

I really don't have a problem with the term "persuasive content", but I think brands looking at content in this way could be in danger of short-termism. There are many ways to sell a product, however if you're in the business of selling more of your product to the same customer then you need to also think about the long-term.

You don't want a customer to be persuaded to buy a product/service; you want them to desire a product/service.

The word "engage" is a good way to describe this. Defined as "to attract and hold the attention of; engross", it suggests that engaging content has to work harder to deserve the attention, it not only has to be relevant but it has to be desired.

This I think is where Amazon works well. Their content is largely based not on what they want to sell me (and what they think I might buy), but on what other people like me have purchased. It's not a hard sell (or a sly sell), it's based on genuine desires – those desires of other customers like me.

You can illustrate this as the difference between a sale and a recommendation. A salesman will try to persuade me to purchase a car (whether it is right for me or not), a friend will simply recommend a car based on their personal experience, their knowledge of my needs and my circumstances.

This doesn't change what a content management tool needs to do – you still want to serve up relevant content to customers. However I'd argue that when looking at what content is good to serve up you need to measure this not just on what drives a customer to purchase today (persuasion), but also what drives a customer to continue to purchase in the future (engagement).

This might ultimately mean the tool needs to work that little bit harder to understand the lifetime value of a customer and the effect any recommendations are having on this.

If you're looking for a customer to return, to purchase more, to recommend you then your content has to do more than persuade – it has to engage a customer.