Facebook managers must have mentioned “content” a dozen times at its marketing conference Feb. 29 in New York City. While everyone else was focused on the new bells and whistles, I was tuning my ears to their focus on content.

The message was clear: marketers must now become real “storytellers” and ignite their fans with engaging content. Facebook promotions (“sponsored stories”) will revolve around strong, compelling content. Your Facebook Page will increasingly be measured by how much fans engage with and share your content.  Content, content, content.

We’ve heard this mantra for so long it’s easy to write it off as just another turn of the marketing screw. But this time I think Facebook is on to something.  Indeed I believe we’re witnessing a wide-sweeping, fundamental shift in the way we communicate to customers-and ultimately, do business. And it starts and ends with content.

Image representing Facebook as depicted in Cru...

Image via CrunchBase

First, think of content  as  how we engage with our customers, like real people. The “content” is the fodder for the engagement, the oil that greases the wheels of communications. Today’s model is more like a cocktail party than the old corporate model of push marketing content (White papers, advertising, corporate case studies and so on). There’s still a place for those, but they must take hold now in the context of social interactions. (See this awesome infographic for an excellent primer on content marketing.)

In other words, companies need to think more like their customers. The problem, as I’ve said before, is companies aren’t people, even though they’re made up of people. Social isn’t in the corporation’s DNA. So marketers fall back on what they know, like offering coupons on Facebook. Studies have shown this is what their customers desire of brands, so why not?

The problem is the resulting short term buzz is a quick-fix drug. For a longer term strategy, companies need to think, act and operate like modern day publishers and create customer-centric content. This in turn will ignite customer conversations, build their brands and ultimately drive leads and sales.

This is a major leap for most companies.

First they need to revamp their social media marketing efforts to unleash the employees, the real corporate voices. This is a huge endeavor that will require senior-level and cross-organizational support, but it’s essential. The employees must be free, within limits, to talk naturally in their own voices, not in corporate speak, to their audiences.

Companies also need to be more creative. Think about creating new types of platforms for customer-centric content. Look at the Huffington Post as one model-full of engaging stories, a combination of stock news stories and multiple voices and opinion pieces. Several companies are experimenting in this area- American Express’ Open Forum and Intel’s Free Press are  good examples.

The key is creating engaging, customer focused content. Editorial systems must be put in place, and every piece of content should meet strict guidelines:

  • Is it focused on your audience needs? What really do your customers care about (not what you want to say). I’m helping my wife launch a new gluten free website and blog ( part of a new Asian gluten free food business). While our main audience has some interest in gluten free news and trends, what they really care about is finding wholesome, tasty gluten free food-so at least 70 percent of our content will be about recipes and food subjects (where to find good gluten free food in your town). We’ll also go where our audiences are already connecting, like  Pinterest boards.
    • Is it engaging? What would make your viewers read it and share it with their friends?  That means it needs to be educational, informative, humorous or strike a personal or professional chord. Focus on  creating stories that can catch fire with your audience. Think like a storyteller.
    • Is it shareable? Look at how easy Pinterest makes it  for even nontechies to share their posts. No wonder it’s exploding in popularity-and, for now at least, it’s not hugely social.

Back to Facebook. Its marketers are nudging companies to develop ads that look and feel like real editorial content, sort of-interesting company stories, engaging pieces, etc. They’re blurring the distinction between advertising and editorial (“The content is the ad.”)  Its marketers envision a new world of online interaction where people converse as naturally with the brands as they do with each other.

I’m not sure we’ll ever get there completely, but we may not need to.  Companies are already sitting on a goldmine of untapped and powerful content. They have vast amount of information and subject matter experts that can be of enormous interest and value to consumers. Bloggers are our modern day storytellers. They just need to quit thinking like marketers and more like the people they serve.

So the message from last week was another reminder: companies will now live or die by their content. Maybe Facebook is the canary in the coal mine. Ignore it at your own risk.

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About Mark Ivey

Mark Ivey

Mark Ivey is a social media consultant with the ION Group and a published author with a broad corporate background in editorial, marketing, social media and executive communications. He’s served as a Bureau Chief at BusinessWeek magazine, national media spokesman for Intel, and recently, as Editor in Chief for Hewlett Packard, where he pioneered a new program to drive its enterprise blogs and other social media activities. Besides family, friends and good wine, his passion is social media-training, strategizing, and exploring new digital paths for his clients. Find him on Twitter at @markivey.

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  • http://social5150.com/ Kirsten Wright

    I love the shift with the new Facebook timeline because of the power it does put into content. Removing like-gates and CTA from the cover image forces brands to think in a more creative manner and bring conversation to a new level. I am excited to see how brands will start changing their concepts towards social to accommodate the changes Facebook is bringing to the table.

  • http://twitter.com/sMoRTy71 Shawn Morton

    I didn’t take the same message away from the announcement at fMC. Facebook has always been about content even for brands. In fact, content marketers have spent years telling brands how to craft the right cadence, the right voice, the right content types, the right calls to action, etc. to build a winning brand community of FB. And due to a lack of data and/or proper measurement on what worked, it was hard to prove them right or wrong. 
    However, when Facebook mentioned that, according to comScore, only 16% of brand fans see a given piece of content, it confirmed that super awesome content isn’t enough to drive significant brand engagement. It isn’t a failing of Facebook’s or the content, it is just the nature of a News Feed that fills with more content that most people can consume. Stuff gets missed entirely or overlooked when your brand’s “What are you doing this weekend?” post is next to something more meaningful from a friend or family member.
    When you say, “For a longer term strategy, companies need to think, act and operate like modern day publishers and create customer-centric content. This in turn will ignite customer conversations, build their brands and ultimately drive leads and sales,” how are you connecting the dots between content and sales? That sounds very Field of Dreams to me. 
    The key message from fMC, for me, was that there is still a massive audience for brands to reach on Facebook, but that you need to use the Premium ad units if you want to reach more of them (50-75% versus 16%). Just because you build it (great content), doesn’t mean that they will come.

    • http://www.ioncorporation.com/blog markivey

      Shawn- maybe “content marketers” have been beating that drum for years (I have) but I haven’t seen Facebook pushing it to the degree they did during this last conference. In their first big conference for marketers, they talked about the value of high quality content several times-almost a running theme. I wouldn’t call what I’ve seen on FB the last few years “super awesome content”- much of it is pretty weak. So why should it drive brand engagement? In any case, consumers are increasingly judging companies by their content-on Facebook and across the Web; it’s part of their brand now. No one’s arguing you can just create great content and sit back for them to come (this is where content marketing comes in).  I agree that part of the problem is the nature of the loud newstream and now we have FB trying to push marketers toward higher penetration (and profitable) Premium advertising packages – big surprise,right? Thanks for the comments. 

       

  • http://www.ivisionmobile.com/ Maria

    Thanks for all the valuable information related to Facebook!

  • http://adamjustice.me/ Social Media Marketing Expert

    Only 16 percent of content gets through to people who liked your page as it is, and from what I’m hearing, that will not change. What will change, is that you’ll have access to place paid stories in more places, which willl give you access to closer to 90 percent.

    I don’t think they are taking the gates down to spur creative advertising, they may want you to think that. They’re taking it down to remove the mostly widely recognized means of having a successful campaign on Facebook (There are other ways, but everyone and their mother knows about Gated like pages and competitions). Now you don’t have much of a choice but to buy some advertising. You’ve probably spent some amount of money on an advertising campaign, or spent time marketing to users to get them to like your page. Well, that just rented you a few years, now you’re going to have to pony up to have regular access to them again.

    It’s in the face of the IPO to prove that their one trick is still a magic one. I hve some Timeline ideas though, so never fear ;)

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