Spy goggles are an essential tool for deep espionage and reconnaissance. An agent in the field may need to watch a mark from a distance, record a conversation, snoop about at night, or even use thermal imaging to scan an environment for hidden elements. Content marketing may not feel equally high-stakes, but marketing directors, sales people, and writers also need to gather info in creative ways, sometimes undetected.
Producing effective marketing content—the sorts of pieces that will truly educate and compel your target customers—requires a spy’s eye for reliable sources of data and relevant information. This is not only to make sure your marketing intelligence and planning is effective, but also to ensure it’s in line with your company’s ethics, values, service offerings, and goals for growth. As a content marketing writer who spends every day writing effective content for brands in a variety of industries, I find success using these modes of observation to inspire genuine content that supports adaptive marketing missions.
Surveillance and Questioning: Gathering Primary-Source Marketing Intelligence
The primary way any piece of marketing content should be sourced and supported is through first-party information provided by subject matter experts. For writers, this means employing tactics like employee shadowing, site visits, and interviews with key stakeholders outside the marketing department. Some marketing writers may claim to know their business well enough that this isn’t needed, but that overconfidence commonly leads to pitfalls like a lack of integration between sales and marketing.
This recon is also essential to preserve your marketing ethics—it can be easy to oversell something or make promises that don’t align with the truth when you haven’t done due diligence in gathering accurate, up-to-date information, even if it’s all from the guy that sits next to you.
One of the first projects we worked on when I was hired at Metonymy was an empathy training for the customer service reps of a nationally-known insurance company. While the material we were creating wasn’t exactly client-facing, it did need to do the job of selling the notion of empathy to these individuals in a way that helped them pay it forward. But before we even started planning, the first step was a few days of shadowing customer service representatives on the job in a call center. The client provided us with recordings of extremely non-empathetic calls to listen to, but it was during the observation process that we got to hear straight from the audience what challenges they faced every day, on every call, not just in heated moments. As we went through the process of writing games and dialogue to be programmed into the interactive experience, we went back to the barriers they shared with us and were able to come up with multiple ways to get past each one at different levels of severity.
Even in an external marketing scenario, it’s possible to use internal resources to give a writer this level of insight into the challenges of the audience. Sales professionals, business development people, and your company’s leadership are the three targets to start with, but your best source of information about the problems your brand’s products or services solve are the experts who do the building and the serving.
X-Ray Specs: Reliable Sources and Marketing Ethics
When writing marketing content about industry trends, new developments and technologies, or how your services and products compare to others, it’s time to do some research. People can overthink this part when it comes to setting out, but truly, the place we usually start is Google. From there, though, the under-thinking often begins. Not everything that turns up in that web search is guaranteed to be accurate information, even from known sources like magazines. A good spy knows that there’s a lot in interpretation and will put on their x-ray specs to see past the surface and find the solid facts beneath.
One of the writers I manage was working on an article about eco-friendly habits people can bring to their workplaces. We agreed with the client that the recommended tips should be based on factual evidence, so she conducted heavy research to gather the data about how much paper offices use a year, how many water bottles go in the trash, how much gas we spend commuting, and so on. As I was reviewing the piece, one of the stats stuck out to me as simply too monumental to not be more well-known. (Darned now if I can remember what it was, but this was many months and projects ago.) I clicked through to the source she’d linked, and what I do remember is a few flags went up right away.
First off, the site was full of a ton of ads. Banner, sidebar, flashing in my face, not loading and leaving the little x thing. There was web copy between them, though, and it even backlinked to an official study, the one thing I was most concerned over. I decided to look at the data myself and see where the (unidentified) author got the information. As it turns out, the fact they cited wasn’t actually included in the study, but was instead an inference they made themselves based on some of the facts in the study that they decided to do a bunch of creative interpretation around. That might be in line with their marketing ethics, but for our part, we revised the copy to reflect the (far more believable) truth of the data beneath the “data.”
Do I wish we lived in a world where this strict due diligence wasn’t needed? Yes. But I didn’t become an agent in this content marketing spy game because it was easy; I did it because perpetuating the craft is worth it, and sometimes that means seeing through the immediate usability of the source to assess if it’s trustworthy.
There are a few basic elements that can tell you right away if a source is credible or just more white noise:
- Is the author clearly identified?
- Is the date the content was written provided?
- Do you know where the author got their information?
- Do the sentences and grammar all make basic sense?
These questions don’t guarantee a source is credible or unbiased, even if they can all be answered yes– but if the answer to any is no, go back and look for another source. Beyond this, ask yourself what the website’s goal appears to be. Remember that any operative can buy a web domain ending in .com, .org, or .net and start spreading poorly-supported claims as fact. Sites with more academic or government authority like .edu or .gov are where a lot of studies end up living, because those institutions fund and conduct most of the peer-reviewed research out there.
I’ll end with a word in support of Wikipedia—while the copy written there may suffer from the same perils of interpretive error as the example I shared above, they at least do the work of providing sources or letting you know there are none. If you find what you need there, explore the list of links and references at the bottom of the page to back it up for good.
Thermal Display: Marketing Planning with a Purpose
Adaptive marketing relies on sending personalized messages and then reacting to how your audience receives them. If you share a blog on social media, for instance, and it gets a ton of shares and comments, you can put that “heat” to work in a number of ways. Maybe you do another blog about that topic next month, update the popular one as new data or events make your current copy irrelevant, or even consider a new piece of content like a whitepaper or webinar that gets more specific and captures the obvious interest.
Web traffic and social media performance are easy high-level numbers to give a quick sense of which content is performing best, but some other metrics can go further toward showing why. Time spent on page will show you where people are actually reading versus where they may be clicking through from an ad but not staying around. An average reader covers around 200 words per minute. If you’ve got a 1600-word piece of content that people are only reading for ten seconds, that content isn’t that effective, even if it gets a hundred clicks a minute to the website. Imagine if you were watching its performance through thermal goggles—it would be getting hot, then cold again, when what you’re looking for is the sustained burn that catches and kindles.
It’s also important to remember that content marketing is a long game. For example, we recently did an exhaustive data analysis of the content performance on the website of a long-time client. We’ve been writing blogs for this company since 2015 and wanted to see how everything had stacked up over the course of time. We discovered one unexpected blog from our early days was a top performer on the site despite only speaking to a very, very small subset of the client’s overall audience. “Do you think this is why we’ve gotten like three calls about this service in the last few months?” the client asked. And while we’re always cautious about claiming too much pride in leads that might have come otherwise, in that case, we were happy to say that we did think so, indeed. Since then, another blog on the topic has performed equally well, and now gives those who are interested a natural way to stay on the site and keep learning about the brand. This is how marketing intelligence, planning, and great copy really converge, helping you see the “hot spots” you’ve created on the Web, maximize their current potential, and inform the next content you decide to release.
Without tools like spy goggles, a spy could get their job done, but they’d probably be a lot less effective in certain situations. In much the same way, a marketer may be able to write content without using one of these three methods. However, they’ll be opening themselves to risks like not making the right appeal to the right audience, presenting cringe-worthy factual inaccuracies, or being ineffective with content and not even knowing it. If one or more of these modes of collecting intelligence to inform marketing strategy, content, and planning is new to you, don’t panic—download the manual below provided by the Central Office for all field operatives, and get your bearings before going one step further.