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The Four Key Types of Content

There are a lot of reasons why content can fail to fulfill its objectives. When content fails, it usually just feels like “stuff” – things that are churned out more for the sake of having content than to serve a specific purpose. The most common reason for failure is lack of a coherent content strategy. Even when a strategy exists, however, content often fails because its role in the customer decision journey isn’t clear. In order for content to be maximally effective, it’s critical to understand the decision journey, the four main types of content, and what role each type of content needs to have within the decision journey.

The Four Types of Content

All content can be binned in one (or more) of four general categories:

  1. Educational Content. Educational content provides helpful information to the audience. It is strictly customer-centric. It can build brand value and awareness by helping customers build useful knowledge and solve problems. It is best aligned to early stages of the buying journey when the need is nascent and the customer may not even be aware of their need. Educational content often is used to make the customer aware that a need exists. For instance, a brochure highlighting problems with an industry-standard method would be educational content.
  2. Validational Content. Validational content serves to verify a belief that the customers hold or a claim that the brand is making. Exceptional validational content does so while still maintaining the customer as the core focus, but all validational content also has a strong focus on the brand or its offering(s). This is most useful when the customers have an established need and you want to guide them towards your solution. For instance, a performance comparison of multiple offerings from different vendors would be considered validational content.
  3. Promotional Content. Promotional content is used to prompt customers who are ready or nearly ready to make a decision into action. It is the most solution-centric type of content, and it often doesn’t look or feel like content as many content marketers would think of it. For instance, an email offering a discount would be promotional content. Most ads we see on TV are promotional content.
  4. Emotional Content. Unlike all the other forms of content, emotional content doesn’t seek to influence the customers’ perceptions of need, but rather seeks to connect with customers on a less tangible, emotional level, although it doesn’t need to be overtly emotional per se. Emotional content is used outside of the context of a purchase to influence customers’ brand preferences, and therefore position your brand to have an advantage in customers’ future buying journeys.

Content doesn’t need to fall into only one of these categories. For instance, validational content is often used in conjunction with promotional content in order to both prove a point and attempt to prompt a purchase. A hybrid of emotional and promotional content may be used to try to induce an impulse buy. Educational content is often used with emotional content to position a brand as a thought leader. Just about any type of content can be used with any other. You could even have all four in one.

Mapping Content Types to the Buying Journey

A fairly simple buying journey model would be one that starts at the consideration of a need, continues through the evaluation of a number of options to fill the need, ends in a purchase, then continues to a post-purchase period where the solution is experienced, affinity with the brand (or against the brand) is formed, and advocacy (or antagonism) may take place. The cycle then begins again at some point when a further need is realized. (For a more detailed discussion of customer journeys, I recommend reading “Competing on Customer Journeys” in HBR.)

In this model, educational content would span from before consideration, where it may be used to catalyze realization of a need, through the early evaluation phase, where it helps shape the customer’s understanding and perception of the need and influences the criteria by which potential solutions will be evaluated. Validational content should be deployed from the late consideration phase through the evaluation phase in order to reinforce the brand’s proposed solution. Promotional content should be leveraged late in the evaluation phase up to the point of purchase in order to induce the customer to initiate a purchase.

Emotional content, unlike all the other types of content, is not reliant on a place within a buying journey and does not seek to directly influence customers’ purchasing behavior. Instead, it exists to shape the customers’ perceptions of the brand, thereby putting the brand at an advantage due to conscious or subconscious preferences / biases in the brand’s favor. It can be deployed at any time.

A basic buying journey with the four types of content mapped to it.

Content requires many things to be successful. It needs to be differentiated and segmented. It needs to be organized and customer-centric. It needs to avoid falling into a pit of skepticism. The most fundamental of requirements when creating content, however, is the need to serve a specific purpose that aligns with specific goals for influencing customers’ purchasing behavior.

To be even more effective in your content marketing, keep an inventory of your content, and include in that inventory which of the four types of content each piece falls into and which stage of the buying journey it attempts to influence. That will help reveal holes in your content marketing program and allow you to spend your efforts on the areas of greatest need that will provide the largest returns.

"88% of B2B companies utilize content marketing, but only 30% believe their content marketing program to be effective. We certainly understand that content marketing is a challenging and resource-intensive endeavor. That’s all the more reason to ensure your money and efforts are well spent.

BioBM has pioneered the next-generation of content marketing strategies in the life sciences, and our leading marketing thinking has been published by the American Marketing Association, Content Marketing Institute, and other prestigious associations. We don’t stop at “best practices,” and we go beyond simple content. We proactively identify new, unique ways of creating value for your audience then design superior customer experiences around those value opportunities. Provide meaningful value to your customers, and they’ll provide value to you. It’s a virtuous cycle. Start yours."

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