While running the real estate blog for Trulia, then-marketing manager Tara-Nicholle Nelson got a surprising email. A woman wrote in to tell her that a Trulia blog post saved her marriage. It wasn’t about the perfect combo of beds and bathrooms or whether to buy a Craftsman or a Colonial. It instead outlined the variables that make up one’s vision of a home — a proxy for how buyers wanted to live after they bought a home. The article’s title clearly defined what would follow after the click — and delivered. Having found the advice, the woman and her partner changed the tenor of their conversation. They stopped quibbling about specific properties and started talking about how they wanted to live together. That’s the impact that actionable content paired with faithful headlines can have. Under Nelson’s watch, the blog’s readership grew to 11 million regular readers. Since, Nelson has become an expert in building branded content that can reach customers and improve their lives.
After Trulia, Nelson was the VP of Marketing for MyFitnessPal, where she more than doubled users to 100 million, drove a 25% increase in user engagement and oversaw the eventual $475 million acquisition by Under Armour. She then became VP of Marketing at Under Armour Connected Fitness, where she oversaw growth, engagement, content marketing and user insights. Nelson now consults on these topics and has written The Transformational Consumer, a book about building brands and customer engagement by tapping into the human aspiration for a better life.
Here, Nelson talks about how to combat clickbait and create real engagement through content. She outlines the top mistake companies make in content marketing and the process to mapping your customers’ journeys in order to create content that is actionable and impactful.
The Single Biggest Mistake in Content
The biggest trap Nelson sees content makers fall into is this: they create clickbait — content that lures in a reader, typically with a suggestive headline, then fails to deliver material that’s promised. Saddled with the burden of demonstrating growth, marketers run themselves ragged on a content hamster wheel, feeding the beast of more posts and more clicks. They then write evermore bombastic headlines in a desperate bid to hit their KPIs — typically growth in clicks, views, likes, traffic and email list size.
Stop, Nelson says. Just stop.
“People find clickbait detestable. Abhorrent. The paradox is that people generally hate clickbait the most right after they click on it. I call this the Clickbait Conundrum: People hate it, but it works. The online content powers-that-be have taken stab after stab at legislating its extinction for years. Google has long sought to demote content farms into oblivion. Not long ago, Facebook announced algorithm changes designed to minimize exposure of headlines that ‘withhold information required to understand what the content of the article is’ or ‘create misleading expectations for the reader,’” Nelson says. “In the war against Internet tomfoolery, I’d say these shots were fired with equal aim at brand content publishers as at online media outlets. Consider this: the volume of brand published content was up 35% in 2015, yet consumer engagement with that content was down by 17%. Yet 77% of brands surveyed at the end of the year by Content Marketing Institute and MarketingProfs report that they were planning to create even more content this year than last.”
Not everyone sets out to publish clickbait. “I see this a lot when brands first invest in and launch a content program. Building a content team is often an inspired decision, so the content is inspired, too — at first. Then someone tinkers with headlines and puts KPIs on the program that are misguided. The only way the team knows to meet them is to publish more and publish more bait-y headlines,” Nelson says. “You then see content performance decline and ultimately readers stop clicking. That’s the danger for most companies: Investing to build a relationship with an audience via content that either never really catches spark or has an initial flare of engagement followed by dramatically diminishing returns over time as readers learn your headlines can’t be trusted.”
Trust is earned in drips and lost in buckets. Every clickbait headline endangers customer trust.
Why Clickbait Happens
Clickbait is tough to quit, Nelson admits. “Branded content publishers don’t do clickbait for the heck of it. They do it because people click the links and add their email addresses to the popup form fields to get to the content behind the gates. It’s growth above all else.”
Below, she spells out here the top reasons companies publish clickbait — intentionally or unwittingly — instead of putting out deeply engaging content:
They prioritize growth over engagement. This is a matter of playing a long versus short game. “There’s the short game of hitting quantity targets. And then there’s the long-game of building quality: engagement, loyalty, love and respect. Given the choice, I’d choose engagement over growth every time,” Nelson says. “Companies often mistake clicks with engagement. But it’s all for nothing if people leave your content disgusted. You want readers to open your messages regularly, share the content, download your app, buy your product and use it over and over again. You can buy growth through big ad spends, but you can’t buy engagement. That requires a steadfast commitment to quality over quantity.”
They fixate on clicks over relationship-building. Clickbait creators forget or ignore the real people behind the traffic numbers. “The biggest lever we all have at our disposal is the undying human longing for transformation. It’s the most powerful motivation people have for buying products and consuming content. Their strongest desire is to live healthier, wealthier and wiser life. That’s why every New Year resolutions list looks exactly the same: eat less, earn more, save more, exercise more. Yet it’s hard to make good habits and break bad habits,” Nelson says. “There’s a gap between what we know we need to do — eat less sugar, work out, save more — and what we actually do. That gap is a massive opportunity to provide solutions to these challenges with products and especially with content.”
The content team on the frontlines aren’t able or willing to push back. The fault of clickbait isn’t on your team, Nelson says — it’s on the leadership. “The junior members of your content team know that what they’re being asked to do doesn’t work in the long run, but they’ll work to drive very short-term metrics. These people, who I talk to all the time, do not feel empowered to push back. They may not be fully represented at the leadership table or executive team,” Nelson says. “So they A/B test for the clickiest headlines, putting up large numbers of posts and clicks, and feel good about having hit targets. Until Facebook says ‘no more clickbait,’ and the freak-outs commence.”
It’s easier to do clickbait and it’s scarier to go deep with people. But I can tell you that deep calls unto deep — and that drives engagement.
Your Customer Map is the Path Forward
If you’re stuck on the clickbait treadmill or otherwise struggling to build engagement through content, trust Nelson when she says there’s a better way. In particular, she implores marketers to build what’s called a customer map. “Sketch out your customer’s actual, everyday struggle to solve the problem your company exists to solve. Circle points of friction. How do their motivations, capabilities and aspirations relieve or exacerbate these points? The goal is to become an expert in how they do or do not achieve their goals,” says Nelson. “This isn’t easy, but it unlocks an incredibly rich trove of fodder for creating content that people will actually be eager and excited to read. What you get out of a customer map can literally change lives.”
Here’s how this strategy worked for MyFitnessPal: “First, we mapped a person’s journey from unhealthy to healthy. We broke it down into four stages, starting with inertia and ending with the phase at which people default to healthy behavior and are resilient to being derailed,” Nelson says. “It got us clear on where we could reduce friction on a customer’s path to good health.”
During the process, her team and she noted common hurdles to losing weight: challenges and costs around cooking healthy and the difficulty of logging restaurant food. “We heard moms talking about how they could ‘feed their families on $20’ at all of the fast food restaurants, so we started posting meal plans and recipes with that sort of language in the title. We did deep research on what prevented people from cooking — which is a major success factor of developing a healthy life — and created basic cooking skills videos and a deep, deep recipe program that represented some of our top performing content. The product team was focused on the same customer journey, so they were building restaurant logging features and recipe logging functionality at the same time. In the end, the program we built drove a 22% increase in customer engagement, strictly with content, in less than a year.”
A customer map can play a crucial role in building enduring content programs and even product features. In particular, they can be useful beyond content and used by the whole company, from HR to marketing to product. Nelson lays out the following guidelines for building a great map:
Draw a line from “problem-plagued” to “problem-solved.” Your customer’s journey isn’t the same as their lifecycle with your brand or product. “The journey you need to map is their path from having the problem — that your company exists to solve — to being free of it,” Nelson says. “For example, a customer’s journey could start with wanting to read more, and end with completing a book a month with the help of a service like Audible. You must understand every step they make along the way — each hurdle or speed bump they face. Those moments are times they’re looking for solutions and where content and products will resonate.”
Expand your definition of a customer. Your customers, for purposes of mapping their journey, is everyone who solves the big, human-scale problem your company exists to address. “If you’re Slack, that problem is doing your best work efficiently, so you can live your best life. If you’re CVS, that problem might be living a healthier life than you do currently,” Nelson says. “Most companies only research existing customers, which is so dangerously limiting. If you want your content to reach people beyond your walled gardens, don’t build your average customer personas around the opinions of people you already engage.”
Spot patterns and parallels. “Your customer journey map should spot the near-universal stages your customers experience, as characterized by their behaviors: how they feel, what they want, what they think they need at each stage. Pay special attention to two big categories of patterns: what are the things that get people stuck, and what are the things that get them unstuck,” Nelson says. “Content that addresses those topics will get reads and shares. You’re essentially looking for highly specific problems in people’s lives, and presenting a solution that actually works. This isn’t easy, but it works time and time again.”
Nelson looks for the following patterns when talking to customers to build out maps:
Stages. Look for clear delineations in a person’s journey to understand how people progress through stages to solve their problem. “The stages of their journey define the challenges they face that you can solve with content,” Nelson says. “At Trulia, we found five stages — wanting to buy a house, researching mortgages, dream home shopping, discouragement from the buying process, then either the sale or failing to buy a home. Understanding that helped us build content for each part of a homebuyer’s path.”
Micro-moments. Find micro-moments, a term coined by Google, as moments when customers look to their devices — typically their phones — to research what they need to know, go to, do or buy. “Find these and build content in response to these. Really hone in the specifics. What triggers them? What are they looking for? Where are they when the thought occurs to them?” Nelson asks. “For example, at Trulia we found that when people were paid on the 15th of each month, they would check their bank accounts. Seeing their savings would trigger a search on the average size of a down payment. We were able to develop content that targeted a reader in that very specific moment, and it paid off with an uptick in email newsletter opens, blog post views and reader comments.”
Resistance and progress triggers. Look for the things that get people stuck and unstuck along the way. “Inventory these pretty intensely. You’d be surprised at how universal they turn out to be. Most of the time, people say the same things over and over again,” Nelson says. “In the case of healthy living, it’s ‘I don’t have time to work out,’ or ‘I don’t know how to cook.’ Your collection of these feeds into the solutions you can offer with content. It also helps you develop an overarching set of big-picture messages.”
Natural language. Write down how your customers talk, then phrase your content in the same way. “Not phrases people say time and again as they share their experience with a problem. How customers describe their problems gives clues on how to translate your content and articulate it back in their terms,” Nelson says. “This is the difference between publishing ‘Exercises for People With Knee Injuries’ and ‘Workouts for Bad Knees.’ We found that no one with knee problems says I have a knee injury — people say ‘I have bad knees.’ Tweaking that sort of phrase, along with some other content optimizations, helped us boost email opens, clickthroughs and visits to the blog by as much as 20%.”
Focus on the Right Metrics and Messaging
Your goal, instead of just piling up clicks, is to nail down the right metrics and focus on improving them. At the same time, a good content program has safeguards and well-defined overarching themes. “You’re looking for engagement, not clicks. It’s so vital to understand the difference between the two. The whole point of a content program is to build brand respect, loyalty and love,” Nelson says. “To do that, you have to have metrics that indicate actual engagement of your particular customer, and ignore the ones that don’t. It’s also so important to be centered — to really understand the story you’re trying to tell, and whether or not that story is resonating.”
Here’s Nelson’s step-by-step breakdown on the steps you should be taking to get those components right:
Create message pillars. These are your greatest guardrail from mission or clickbait creep, and message pillars often come out of resistance and progress triggers. “You want to create recurring, higher-level story points and messages that span an entire content program. I often work with companies on using the Story Spine tool to build out a content program’s overarching narrative and break it down into recurring pillars,” Nelson says. “A set of pillars, for example, might be ‘cooking is crucial to weight loss’ and ‘choose healthy indulgences over junk food.’ Guide your content team to what messages every post should telegraph. This helps you create a consistency in every interaction with readers.”
Choose and avoid taboo messages. Establish no-go zones for your content. “These are concepts you don’t publish, as an outgrowth of brand positioning and message pillars. This is where you return to to truly understanding your customer’s journey, as well as what they need and when,” Nelson says. “These messages lead to content that fails to help them or makes the problem worse.” Some examples of taboo messages at MyFitnessPal include:
“The One Thing You Need To” posts, which sell “silver bullets” and oversimplify the complexity of real weight and health journeys
Topics that trigger shame
Extremely thin or unrealistic body representations in imagery
Eating trends not approved by in-house nutritionists
Institute purpose-driven KPIs. Measure real engagement instead of relying on false approximations like opens, clicks and traffic growth. “While those are important to watch and track, the whole point of a content program is to build an ongoing connection with customers that causes them to care about, buy, use and share your content and products,” Nelson says. She recommends that companies pay attention instead to the following KPIs:
Shares. This represents virality, and drives audience reach and growth.
Repeat to unique visit ratio. This should increase over time as people return to your content and it becomes a part of their consumption habits.
Time on the site, blog or app. As a basic engagement metric and indicator of quality, this figure also guards against clickbait, which people will quickly abandon.
Net promoter score (NPS). This number quantifies how likely people are to tell others about your brand, product or content.
Word-of-mouth referrals. As this number grows, the lifetime value of your customers increases as the cost of acquiring them decreases. Word-of-mouth referrals are powerful — and free.
Social media shares. This figure is another indicator of virality and engagement, and you’ll want it to be high – it’s one way to demonstrate impact.
Unsubscribes. It’s paramount that this number stay low. If it’s not, your content isn’t creating value.
Comment and product sentiment, including reviews. User-generated content like this reflects how deeply engaged readers are with your product or content, and can make or break e-commerce goals – it’s critical that they be favorable.
Enlist a second editor and experts as a gut-check. Make sure you’re examining everything before it publishes. “When I run a content program, I actually sit in on editorial calendar meetings and review the calendar for titles that spark concern. It’s easier to train people about what not to publish in real time,” Nelson says. “It can also be helpful for sensitive subject matter content to be created or reviewed by subject matter experts or professionals. At MyFitnessPal, we had two nutritionists on the content team, specifically to manage that and ultimately, to create a lot of the nutrition content themselves.”
It’s simple. If you promise people something they want, deliver it. And give it to them with as few barriers as possible.
Bringing it All Together
If you take one piece of advice from Nelson’s counsel, it’s to stop publishing clickbait. You’ll think it’s a magic carpet until the rug is pulled out from under you. Instead, create customer maps to deeply understand their real-world journeys. The segments of that journey are defined by different challenges, which are are pain points that you can and should address with your content strategy. Define message pillars and taboo messages, as well as involve experts in editorial oversight. Use the right KPIs and ditch bad ones: swap out open rates and clicks for more meaningful metrics like shares, unsubscribes or time on page.
“People are deeply interested in content that can improve their lives. The problem is that literally everyone claims they’ve got it. The only way to distinguish yourself from the pack is to put in the work to study your customer’s journey. But most won’t do it because it’s much easier to trigger a customer’s reflex to click than commit to building a relationship that extends beyond the bottom of an article,” says Nelson. “But the gains go to those who think of their relationship with their customer as a storyline — then each post is only a touchpoint, not the endpoint. You’ll clear the path for people to develop real love and trust for your brand. That’s when more happy customers, a better brand image and a stronger reputation clicks into place — and that’s the click worth working for.”
Photography by Bonnie Rae Mills.