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Brand image should be grounded in brand origin.

By that I mean, the foundation or “genealogy” from which a brand draws its image and differentiation.

This thought came to mind as a colleague and I sketched on a white board possible solutions to a client’s marketing challenge. Marketers at this company believe their brand owns a premium position in a crowded category. Their advertising is all about clothing their products in that premium image.

But when we talk with people who know the category well, they tell us buyers and specifiers regard the brand’s products as “pretty good.” Better than average, but by no means best in class.

If that’s true, then one of the brand’s challenges, it seemed to us, is that its image is not converting into audience influence. And we think we figured out why:

The brand has neglected to articulate its origin.

Brand Origin: Underpinnings to an Image

We tested the half-baked thought with a few examples.

Pick a German auto brand. Say Audi, or Mercedes-Benz. In the minds of consumers, it might seek to own “precision” as a brand image. The origin of that image? It wouldn’t be shocking if the brand’s marketers pointed to “German engineering.”

Now, I don’t know if German engineering qualifies as legendary. But based on bits and pieces from history and present-day global business, I have a general perception (accurate or not, I’ll confess) that Germans as a society and economy do a pretty solid job manufacturing, running government, and building and driving the Autobahn.  So, to some degree, there’s a “back-story” on which the auto brand’s image is based.

How about IBM? Computers and consulting services. IBM is telling me with its marketing that it’s about empowering a “smarter planet.” Behind that, at a more fundamental level, I have this sense that IBM has spent, and continues to spend, a fair amount of time and energy pondering the intersections of human and machine intelligence. Let’s consider that the origin of its “smarter” positioning. So I might be inclined to go along with the idea that if IBM is making it and selling it, it’s probably a fairly smart solution.

One more: Apple. Personal computing, communication and media devices. In our white board exercise we had to choose a word that Apple wants to own as its brand image. We chose “usability.” Apple products are renowned for being so easy to use, a user manual is superfluous. We’ve all heard stories of precocious toddlers quickly learning to operate an iPhone or iPad.

The origin of all that usability? Steve Jobs.

Uh oh.

For all the great achievements of Jobs and Apple, were they ever able to establish that the origin of their brand’s image and products was something other than Jobs’ brilliant vision?

We’re not sure they did. And with that, we had two takeaways from our little white board exercise around branding and positioning.

One: If you want to own a brand image in the minds of your target audience, it has to be based on something other than: “Believe it because our advertising shows and tells you it’s so.” Your position and image must be grounded in something more fundamental. Something original.

Two: If the origin of your brand resides in a single human being, even a brilliant founder, that might not be enough to sustain your brand image when those underpinnings pass away. ___

Does this simple “origin” thought model resonate for your brand? Have you pondered your brand’s origin? Is your content marketing strategy informed by that origin? Comments and discussion welcome.

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This post, originally published on Hanley Wood Marketing’s Content Is Marketing blog, is cross-posted here for subscribers to Touch Point City. For more marketing ideas and insights from my colleagues at HWM, subscribe to Content Is Marketing

Content marketing and advertising are sometimes presented as either-or.

Creating your own value-adding content and “channels,” some people argue, means you don’t need to “rent” others’ media to reach your target audience.

In other words, you can reduce or eliminate the need to advertise.

If you’ve taken that approach, you might have discovered that audience development is no easy task. One of the reasons marketers advertise, it turns out, is that there are a bunch of smart media companies already in the business of publishing great content. Very possibly, one or more of those media firms has already developed the audience you, as a corporate marketer, wish to reach and engage.

In other words, advertising can be an effective way to make a target audience aware of your content.

Publisher’s Online Platform + Sponsored Content = Native Advertising

If that idea makes some sense to you, then as you look for ways to jump-start a new content strategy, or to extend the reach of an existing content program, be sure you check with the media companies that serve the audiences you wish to reach. It could be they are making it easier and more attractive than ever for you to reach their audience with your content.

Some marketers are attaching a relatively new label to this idea: Native advertising.

Depending on the publisher, a native ad program might include the ability to “own” your own content microsite or stream within the publisher’s broader online editorial platform. To contribute sponsored posts to the publisher’s blogs. To benefit from a program of display advertising within their websites and e-newsletters. Maybe even to participate in the social media conversations they are creating with and among the audience.

One of the highest-profile native ad programs is Forbes’ BrandVoice, where the publisher is reported to be charging marketers a minimum annual fee of $1 million to showcase their content within Forbes’ broader online editorial environment.

Hanley Wood, parent company of Hanley Wood Marketing, serves multiple construction industry audiences with first-rate B2B trade magazines, trade shows and websites. One of those sites, architectmagazine.com, offers marketers the opportunity to sponsor an “Industry Center” and populate that microsite with content on a particular industry topic or solution category.

Here are four recent posts that provide informative looks into native advertising:

  • Eric Wittlake’s post, “The Intersection of Content Marketing and Advertising”
  • Digiday’s post on Forbes’ BrandVoice program, and another on what Zynga is doing in the realm of native advertising.
  • AdAge’s recent post in which Buzzfeed’s native ad program gets a closer look

Evolving How We Think About and Use Advertising

Some of us never believed content marketing and advertising are mutually exclusive. Instead, content marketing lets us evolve how we think about and use advertising.

Rather than “rent” media to deliver purely promotional messages at an audience, we can leverage those channels to invite the audience to consume content we’ve created for them.

Native advertising isn’t a panacea. But if you’re a content marketer, it doesn’t hurt to see if the media companies serving your most important audience offer “native” opportunities to grow awareness and reach for your content.

And if they don’t?

Maybe you can partner with them to invent one.

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This post, originally published on Hanley Wood Marketing’s Content Is Marketing blog, is cross-posted here for subscribers to Touch Point City. For more marketing ideas and insights from my colleagues at HWM, subscribe to Content Is Marketing.

Do you avoid the word “sales” in your marketing communications?

I don’t mean “sales” the noun, as in “Sales were up 12 percent year over year.”

I mean “sales” the adjective, as in “sales representative.”

When you publish your 800 number and invite prospects to call, who do you say is standing by to take their calls? Customer service agents? Or sales associates?

Have you decided, at some basic level, that labelling the people who call on your prospects and customers “sales reps,” and the work they do “sales,” carries a negative connotation?

The Age-Old Debate: Is Sales a Dirty Word?

If it’s true that sales is the world’s second oldest profession — and maybe even the oldest, come to think of it — then the debate about whether to call a spade a spade, and a sales rep a sales rep, has probably been going on for eons.

On one side, there are the con arguments. Where at some level it seems smarter, maybe cleaner, not to remind customers and potential customers that you are out to sell them something. Better, instead, to call members of your selling force “consultants,” “business developers,” “relationship managers,” “account directors” — anything but sales reps, for heaven’s sake, on their business cards.

Then there’s the pro perspective. Where nothing happens until somebody sells something. And where, let’s face it, nobody’s fooling anyone with touchy-feely euphemisms. After all, sales is an honorable profession. Done well, it has little to do with fast talking and high-pressure tactics. Instead, it’s all about attentive listening, adding value and solving problems.

As I said, this is not a new argument. And if you Google around the topic of “does sales have negative connotations,” you’ll find any number of interesting and entertaining perspectives, including this article by Roger Bostdorff, titled Why Customers Hate Sales People, and this post by Andrew Rudin, headlined: Stop Selling! Trendy Idea but Bad Strategy.

One Rep’s Take

So where do I come down? It so happens this very question jumped out at me today, on my way to catch the afternoon bus.

Strolling past a downtown hotel, I noticed a sign touting the hotel’s banquet and meeting services. The sign offered a phone number, with a call to action which said I could speak to one of the hotel’s “sales representatives.”

It was as though the word “sales” was suddenly presented as a Rorschach test.

And in that split second, as my mind went searching for the essence of the word, along with any emotional or intellectual attachments, what flashed to mind — right or wrong — was the image of “sales” as a mostly one-dimensional, uni-directional value exchange. Value moving from the person buying the service or product (me, need-to-plan-a-meeting guy), to the person pitching the service or product (hotel sales guy or gal).

So I reflected a little more on that visceral reaction (because, after all, you’ve got time for such weighty matters while sitting on the bus).

Were I to call a hotel, looking to plan my next meeting or banquet, would I look forward to speaking with a sales rep? Or would I feel more motivated and optimistic at the prospect of speaking to an “event manager”? A “meeting specialist”? Maybe even a “certified meeting planner”?

I have to admit, despite being a sales professional myself, I think I’d prefer talking with someone who’s title seems to promise that they will help me solve my problem first (value coming my way), knowing full well they will eventually want my money (value going their way).

Maybe that’s why, some years ago, I asked that my supervisor allow me to use the self-fashioned title “VP, Solutions Development,” as opposed to “VP, Sales.”

Granted, it might sound a bit high-falutin’, even egg-headish. And most definitely it’s a bit namby pamby, judging by red-meat, there’s-nothing-wrong-with-the-word-sales standards.

But what I hope the title signals, to people I meet on behalf of my organization, is that they can expect me to focus, first and foremost, on seeking to understand and be of value to them and their business…before I try and sell them on mine.

So I guess that puts me in the anti “sales” camp, at least when it comes to using the word as an adjective in a job title.

But again, Boss, if you’re reading this: I’ve got absolutely nothing against the noun. Just the adjective. Just the adjective.

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Where do you and your organization come down on the word “sales”: Negative connotations, or a non-event?

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This post, originally published on Hanley Wood Marketing’s Content Is Marketing blog, is cross-posted here for subscribers to Touch Point City. For more marketing ideas and insights from my colleagues at HWM, subscribe to Content Is Marketing.

What’s the secret to getting Marketing and Sales alignment on your message?

Here’s a thought: Forget about the message for a while.

Focus instead on content.

Recently a firm called Corporate Visions surveyed more than 700 B2B marketing and sales pros on the subject of messaging development. They asked respondents whether their companies had a collaborative, repeatable process for creating their “message.” Further, the survey asked which of their organizations’ stakeholders were typically involved in message creation.

You can see the survey results here, but I’ll summarize  the two key findings:

  • 33 percent of those surveyed said they do NOT have a collaborative messaging process, while another third said their process is only “semi-collaborative.”
  • Of those involved in message creation, field sales reps — the people who presumably know customers and prospects best — were least represented in the process.

As marketing and sales challenges go, coming to alignment on a message is not a new challenge. Chalk it up to egos, silos, or honest disagreements. Whatever the cause, aligning around a message is a persistent struggle for many organizations.

But let’s take a closer look: Alignment around a message. Put another way…

What’s the best way to describe the benefits of our product? How can we position ourselves most effectively against the competition? What can we say to customers or prospective customers that will make them most likely to become aware of us, consider us, and ultimately decide to buy our service?

In short, coming to alignment on a message requires that Marketing and Sales agree on the answer to this question:

What can we tell you about us that will make you want to do business with us?

Try Alignment on Content

Therein, perhaps, lies the alignment challenge.

For starters, it’s a complex question. There might even be several good answers. But the thing to remember is this: More and more, your “message” is a fairly deep-in-the-sales-funnel consideration. By some estimates, today’s B2B buyers might get two-thirds of the way toward making a purchase before they are interested in, or ready to hear, a “what can we tell you about us?” message.

To help them arrive at that stage in the buying process, there are plenty of questions you can help them ask and answer. Questions that call not for your message, but for relevant information. Useful insights. Case studies. Research. Content.

Content that, done well, speaks volumes about your organization and its ability to understand and solve customers’ challenges, long before you have to come up with a message that tells them you understand and can solve their challenges.

Assuming your Marketing and Sales teams will spend time getting in alignment this fall, consider: It’s conceivable that the more time and effort you devote to understanding your audience, and then planning and producing great content, the less time you’ll spend sweating and struggling over a sales message.

Value your audience enough to provide them with great content, and don’t be surprised if they get your message, loud and clear.
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What say you, marketing and sales pros? Have you found the secret to achieving Marketing and Sales alignment on your message? Or are you spending more time focused on content, and not worrying quite so much about message?

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This post, originally published on Hanley Wood Marketing’s Content Is Marketing blog, is cross-posted here for subscribers to Touch Point City. For more marketing ideas and insights from my colleagues at HWM, subscribe to Content Is Marketing.

As a marketer, do you sometimes find yourself more frustrated than illuminated by what passes for research about the practice of marketing?

Colleagues will attest to seeing me pulling my hair (what hair I have left) and hearing me bark colorful phrases at my computer after reading the results of yet another study that left me more infuriated than informed.

Often the source of that consternation stems from one, two or all three of the following:

  • Loose language. The terminology on which survey questions were based is so loosely defined, you have no earthly idea how to interpret and apply the results. In fact, you’re pretty sure the respondents had no clear (and, as important, shared) understanding of what they were being asked.
  • Quirky questions. The question(s) seems so poorly thought through and formulated, you wonder if the sponsor had any true insight or empathy for the information needs and gaps their audience might be facing.
  • Blatant bias. Sometimes you can just tell which response a survey’s sponsor was hoping for by how a question were framed. Then, when the responses come in as you might have expected they would, you start to look askance at the legitimacy of the entire study, and the sponsor behind it.

I had one of those hair-tugging spells early this week, while reading an article by eMarketer about a new piece of research conducted by SEOmoz. Let me say, before levelling this critique, that I’ve found both of these organizations to be extremely valuable sources of information about online marketing trends and emerging best practices. So I’m going to chalk this particular instance up to someone having an off day.

But if you read the article, and take note of the first survey question it reports, I think you might share my frustration:

Judging by how the results are reported, this question apparently asked more than 4,000 marketers how frequently they “use select inbound marketing tools,” including SEO, site analytics, social, content marketing and conversion rate optimization. Optional answers included “daily,” “2-4 times a week,” “once a week,” “monthly,” “quarterly.”

Now right there, as a marketer, aren’t you stopping and shouting at…er, politely inquiring of your computer monitor: “Wait a minute. We don’t think about or approach marketing that way. Social media. Content. SEO. Conversion. These aren’t things we pick up and put down sporadically, like exercise equipment. These are integrated activities. Things we’re thinking about and doing — or at least trying to do — holistically, pretty much 24, 7, 365.”

If so, then don’t you wonder how any of the marketers being surveyed could have formulated an intelligent “choose one” response to that question? And don’t you then tend to doubt what value there is in learning that of more than 4,000 SEOmoz readers surveyed, 8.7% “use” conversion rate optimization twice per month?

Do they schedule doing it on the same days payroll checks come out?

There’s actually some potentially valuable information to be found in the survey results, such as which types of content are used most often by survey respondents. But then, two questions later, another hair puller: Reasons that online marketers use select social media channels. Glance at these results, and you might be suprised to learn that the reason 79.1% of marketers surveyed use Facebook is for…wait for it…”social media.”


Ground Research in Audience Empathy

Look, I’m an absolute advocate for research as a content marketing asset. Done well, it can be hugely valuable in almost any content marketing program, especially for BtoB audiences.

After all, what you’re trying to do with your content is create and serve a community, right? Typically, a community that shares business or personal interests, challenges and unanswered questions.

If any one of those community members had the time and the resources to commission their own research study, to get answers to those questions, they would probably do so. But by taking on the task of conducting research on behalf of the entire community, you can demonstrate that you understand them, value them, and are willing to invest in being a partner and a resource for them. And that you are willing to use your scale and resources to develop content that benefits the community.

But if you’re going to do research, then for the sake of your brand’s reputation, and your audience’s affinity for your brand:

  • Make sure your research study is grounded in empathy for the information gaps and needs your audience actually has.
  • Define your terms, both for people answering the questions and people reading the results.
  • Evaluate questions and answers on whether they are likely to produce information your audience will find valuable, even actionable.
  • If there’s any doubt, be sure and work with a professional research firm to craft your questionnaire.
  • Maybe even vet the draft questionnaire with a few members of the audience you seek to serve with the research findings. “If we ask this question, and ask people to choose from these answers, would the responses we get back be interesting and relevant to you and your life or business?

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Are you using proprietary research as a core asset in your content marketing program? Are you seeing some of the same frustrating marketing research I’m seeing, and is it driving you just a little crazy, too? Comments welcome.

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This post, originally published on Hanley Wood Marketing’s Content Is Marketing blog, is cross-posted here for subscribers to Touch Point City. For more marketing ideas and insights from my colleagues at HWM, subscribe to Content Is Marketing.

If you’re looking for a “True North” around which to orient content planning, consider this advice from Marcus Sheridan, one of the keynote speakers at last week’s Content Marketing World 2012.

But before I share Sheridan’s secret, first know that about 1,000 marketers and technology providers were gathered at #cmworld. Something like 40 seminars and keynote speeches were delivered, by some of the leading corporate marketers, agency professionals and technologists in content marketing today. 

Which means hundreds of thousand of words — ideas, best practices, tips, techniques — were expressed, discussed and debated during the three-day event.  

But after a week of digesting notes and reflection, it was four simple words — articulated by a swimming pool contractor from rural Virginia — that just might be the greatest bang-for-the-buck takeaway from the entire event.

Ready for the four words? Here goes:

They ask. We answer.

 

Content Planning Under Duress

To understand the value and utility of those few syllables, it helps to have a little background on Sheridan.

Marcus is a swimming pool contractor who nearly saw his company, River Pools & Spas, go out of business during the recent historic downturn in the residential construction economy.

In the nick of time, Sheridan discovered and began aggressively practicing the principles of content marketing and inbound marketing. Today, just a few years later, his company dominates search results for almost anything you might wish to know about swimming pools. Largely as a result, his pool business is going well. So well that now he has a second business and professional persona, as a content marketing blogger, consultant and speaker (aka, The Sales Lion).

If you haven’t seen or heard Sheridan speak, imagine someone who combines the in-your-space urgency of a Marine drill instructor with the upbeat energy of a cheerleader. Then throw in a pinch of pulpit-pounding Baptist preacher for good measure.

In other words, Marcus is a piece of work. A dynamic speaker. And an insightful content marketer.


Words to Plan Content By

With the four words noted above, Sheridan shared what he considers the core content planning strategy that propelled his content, and with it his company, to rapid success. Here, in a nutshell, is what they did:

Sheridan and his employees made a list of all the questions they could think of that consumers might have about swimming pools. Questions customers and prospects had asked over the years. Queries they might have on their minds when they go online searching for information about pools, and pool contractors. 

  • “Concrete vs. fiberglass pools, pros and cons”
  • “How to choose a swimming pool contractor”
  • “Above ground vs. in-ground swimming pools”
  • “How much does an in-ground swimming pool cost?”

The result for Sheridan’s team was a list of dozens, maybe even hundreds, of questions. Then they simply set out to answer those questions, primarily by writing blog posts. They topped each post with a headline that, rather than sound cutesy or flowery, was written simply and directly. In a way that spoke directly to the consumer’s question (and, in doing so, spoke directly to search engine spiders). Incidentally, here’s a post from Marcus on blog headline writing for effective SEO.

Content Planning for Business, Enterprise or Otherwise

If you’re marketing a small business, you’d be wise to follow Sheridan’s advice.

But if you manage content marketing for a mid-size or enterprise business, you might be saying to yourself: “That’s fine for a small company. But that won’t really work for us. Our business and marketplace is more complicated than that.” And you’re probably right. But only partly.

Because it’s hard to imagine any business that wouldn’t benefit from having “they ask, we answer” at the heart of their content planning. It will keep you on track, when it comes to creating relevant and useful (vs. purely promotional) content. It’ll keep you coming back to True North, in terms of  focusing on customer pain points and opportunities. And it will keep you listening, so your content topics keep pace as your audience’s needs evolve.

In fact, the bigger and more complex your organization, I would suggest, the more systematic you can and should be about making “they ask, we answer” central to content planning.

Why?

Because the bigger and more complex your business…

1. The more complex your distribution channel, which means the more “theys” you have out there who are asking questions. Keeping those audiences and their needs and priorities straight is fundamental to organizing and executing an effective content marketing strategy.

2. The more likely you have competitors who are looking to beat you, with content as a differentiator. Marcus was able to catch his small-business competitors flat-footed. But if you’re not pushing yourself to be THE marketer in your category who’s best at anticipating and answering customers’ questions via content, it’s likely someone else will gladly seize that position.

3. The more probable that the answers to many of your customers’ questions are going to be complex and technical, helping put your content out where long-tail searches happen. Ideally, put you out there relatively alone.

4. The greater the ability and resources you have to identify what it is customers are wondering about, puzzled by or deciding based upon. Because, if you choose to be systematic about it, you can get that intelligence (often deep-in-the-sales-funnel insight) from your sales force. Or from your customer service reps or field technicians. From dealers and distributors. Through social media. By mining organic search metrics. By listening in on conversations at trade shows and conferences. Conducting surveys and focus groups. Or from a content advisory board that you recruit and manage, made up of people who represent  your sweetspot influencers, specifiers and buyers. 

They ask. We answer.

In four words or less, a pretty darn good strategy around which to launch, focus and continuously improve content planning.

Whether you’re marketing swimming pools. Or enterprise software, technology and service solutions.

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Curious to hear what you think. As a content planning technique, does your organization seek to be systematic about anticipating and answering audience questions? Feel free to share tips and best practices on how you accomplish that.

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This post, originally published on Hanley Wood Marketing’s Content Is Marketing blog, is cross-posted here for subscribers to Touch Point City. For more marketing ideas and insights from my colleagues at HWM, subscribe to Content Is Marketing.

One of the great rewards of being a marketer today is that we can measure so much of what we attempt and accomplish.

But all the potential and promise of measurement can quickly become a pain if we struggle to make sense of the myriad metrics.

Maybe that’s why it was standing room only this week inside a convention center conference room in Columbus, OH. The overflow crowd was furiously scribbling and typing notes based on a presentation by Jay Baer, CEO of Convince & Convert, a social media and content consultancy.

Despite the hyperbolic (or more likely, tongue-in-cheek) title of his presentation, “The Ultimate Guide to Content Marketing Metrics,” @jaybaer delivered one of the more takeaway-filled seminars during Content Marketing World 2012. Apparently BtoB magazine agreed, having led one of its daily e-newsletter dispatches from #cmworld with a synopsis of Baer’s remarks.

See if this handful of takeaways helps bring clarity and focus to how your organization approaches content measurement:

Mind your business. While it’s great to “think like a publisher” in order to get yourself in a content marketing mode and mindset, “You’re not really in the publishing business,” Baer cautioned. “You’re in the action business.” In other words, you’re looking to generate meaningful results for your business and brand.

Focus on a quartet of categories. Baer suggests organizing content measurement around four metrics categories. Category labels and broad definitions he suggests include:

  • Consumption. How many people viewed, downloaded or listened to your content assets? Consumption is a top-of-the-sales-funnel metrics category. So if you’re looking to expand and fill the pipeline, ungate your content. “Forms are the enemy of spread,” Baer said.
  • Sharing. How resonant is this content, and how often is it shared with others? Here’s where you’re tracking likes, tweets, retweets, and don’t forget e-mail forwards. Key to growing sharing metrics? First and foremost, said Baer, create great content. Beyond that, make sure sharing buttons are readily available in and around your online content.
  • Lead generation and nurturing. Now you’re moving deeper in the funnel, getting into registrations for gated content assets. Opt-in e-mail subscriptions. Blog subscriptions. Even blog and social media comments can be “soft leads,” Baer said. Here’s where conversion rates start to become meaningful: The ratio between consumption metrics and leads generated.
  • Sales. The end game. For e-commerce firms, it’s about online transactions. For companies with a more complex and largely offline sales cycle, you’ll need a process to capture offline sales activity and outcomes in order to truly measure success.

Don’t quit at consumption. B2B published this quote from Baer: “Consumption alone doesn’t matter. You want to look at whether prospects engage in other, more desirable behaviors as a result of your content, such as returning to your site in greater ratios than others. If you don’t know these things, you are lying to yourself about content effectiveness.”

Don’t forget: Do something trackable. Closing by returning to his original point, Bear reminded attendees to embed content with plenty of opportunities and offers to take action, in order to have something by which to measure content effectiveness.
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This post, originally published on Hanley Wood Marketing’s Content Is Marketing blog, is cross-posted here for subscribers to Touch Point City. For more marketing ideas and insights from my colleagues at HWM, subscribe to Content Is Marketing.

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