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Managing expectations in content marketing: a pretty good guide

Managing expectations in content marketing

As readers and target audiences, we’ve all experienced the horrible sense of disappointment when a piece of content that promised a delicious banquet ended up delivering a soggy nacho chip.

Or the sense of betrayal when a landing page tricked us into downloading a crass brochure in Thought Leader’s clothes.

Or the feeling of decompression you get when you start a piece about an important, complex issue only to find the argument devolve into an over-simplified sales pitch for a decidedly tactical ‘solution’.

These are all examples of the silent killer of content marketing: a failure to manage the expectations of your audience.

Expectation management plays a huge role in the success or failure of your content marketing efforts (and probably your life efforts too) — but nobody talks about it.

So let’s talk about it.

Set yourself up for a win

If you’re already producing excellent content (you are aren’t you?), then managing the expectations of your audience – closing the gap between expectation and experience – is the next-most-important thing.

The two variables in the ‘expectations/experience’ relationship – what people expect and what you deliver – are both under your control. But if we fix content quality as a constant, we see that:

The exact same piece can either delight or disappoint the same audience depending on what they expected from it – what you led them to expect.

For all of us, the single biggest reason for abandoning a piece of content is disappointment: not getting what you hoped for; what you were led to believe would be delivered. Not a good feeling — and one we can work to avoid.

The expectations target zone

An over-simplified calculus of expectations management reduces it to achieving a balance between under-promise and over-promise. Kinda like this:

The Expectations Spectrum in content marketing

If you under-promise, you’re in the Apathy Zone – Your audience won’t respond to your content offer. You’re not offering enough value, so you never even get a chance to delight or disappoint.

If you over-promise, you’re in the Disappointment Zone – You’ll attract your audience but most likely let them down.

Of these two evils, it might sound like Apathy is the greater. But the opposite is true: you pay a far worse penalty when you over-promise than when you under-promise. Here’s why:

The people who come to consume your content are a tiny, highly selected and hugely valuable subset of your addressable universe.

These are the very few people who actually responded to all your signals – and decided that they want your content. They’ve been seduced by your offer and are willing to invest their limited time to get the experience you promised them.

Two conclusions follow from that:

  1. These people are VIPs – They are far more likely to be your ideal prospects. They matter more than anyone else.
  2. Letting them down is a very bad idea – Disappointment is not a neutral experience, it’s a negative one. Your VIPs will leave the page thinking less of you. All the effort and talent and energy and money and time and resources you invested to get people to invest in your content has backfired. You’ve used your budget to turn people off.

Clearly, it’s critically important to manage the expectations of your VIP audience, so they’re glad they came along and spent time with your content.

If you succeed here, two valuable things happen:

You have a shot at achieving your content goals – the reasons you created the content in the first place.

You dramatically increase your chance of getting your VIPs to come back again the next time you’ve got content for them. That’s money in the bank. Also known as a ‘content brand’.

Okay, so managing your audience’s expectations is a big part of content marketing success. Now let’s zoom in on the expectations themselves.

The kinds of things your audience expects

The simplified Audience Expectations Spectrum above pretends that expectations fall along a single, dimension — say, quality. But expectations are more complex and nuanced than that.

Quality Level is, of course, one of the expectations people bring to the table — but there are lots more, any of which can create expectation gaps. Things like these:

The kind of experience – When you promise hard-hitting but deliver ho-hum. Or signal an unbiased report but deliver an opinion piece.

The scope and scale – When you lure them in with a big issue or benefit (“15 Business-Changing Productivity Boosters!”), then try to show them the role of office supplies in business acceleration.

The topic – When you say it’s about Supply Chain Dynamics but it’s really about lift trucks (‘Bait and switch’ is never a good content strategy). (Ooh. Tweet that sucker.)

The altitude – When the content bills itself as a ‘How To’ piece, but is really a vague list of fuzzy principles or an abstract analysis. Or when you promise Thought Leadership for Strategists but deliver operational tips for users.

The attitude – When you promote an in-your-face rant but serve up a neutral, middle-of-the-road overview. Or signal a grown-up evaluation but hit them with your slime gun.

The agenda – [a huge one for content marketing] – When you pretend to be helping your audience to do their jobs better themselves but you’re actually trying really hard to convince them to stop doing it and pay you to do it. (Hint: if the only answer to your customer’s problems is to buy from you… you’re writing a brochure).

This short sample should make the point: people bring lots of different expectations to the table when they come to consume your content. And for each and every one, there’s the potential to disappoint them by delivering not only something worse, but something different than what you promised.

To actively manage expectations, you’ll want to consider all the relevant dimensions, not just where your content falls on the Pure Gold/Pure Crap spectrum.

The expectations you don’t entirely control

Before we look at the contributors to audience expectations that you do control, let’s look at the contributors that you don’t (or at least not fully).

If you’re producing and promoting a new piece of content, you’re not doing so in a vacuum. You’ve got history with your audiences and they’ve had experiences with lots of other content from lots of other sources. All of this sets a baseline of expectations before you even talk to them about your shiny new content. So think about:

Your company’s brand – The mother brand tells people who you are and suggests what your content experience is likely to be.

Your content brand – If they’ve eaten your content before, they’ll bring these experiences to bear when evaluating the new content offer. (We discuss this in the slideshare ‘Crap: Why The Biggest Threat to Content Marketing is Content Marketing’).

Your ‘personal brand’ – I still struggle to refer to human beings as brands but I grudgingly admit that we each have one. So if your content is by-lined with your name – or if you’re the one promoting it in social channels – your personal brand will signal a lot of things even before you open your mouth.

The market’s ‘voice’ – The way people in your market tend to speak will influence what people expect from your content. For instance, healthcare administration has its own language and voice. If you’re writing to this audience, you need to know that – so you can either conform to it or play against it.

Yes, you (or someone in your company) controlled some of these things in the past – and you might help shape them in the future – but today, they’re your baseline. And they all contribute to your audience’s expectations.

The expectations you do control

Now we come to the crux of the biscuit: the choices you make when creating and promoting a piece of content that directly shape your audience’s expectations.

It’s a short list – you don’t have that many buttons to push or levers to pull in your expectation management efforts. So use them consciously:

The content format and genre – Since our discipline is (disappointingly) convention-bound, the kind of content you produce – and its medium and format – will already send signals that shape expectations. A research study will set very different expectations than an an animated video. An analyst report holds out different promises than a colourful slideshare, blog post, ebook or Prezi.

When you choose a format or medium that’s fit for the story you’re telling, you’re also working with audience expectation instead of against it.

Context – The place where your content lives says a lot about it. Is it in a library full of helpful advice? Is it in a branded content site, sitting alongside a lot of curated pieces? Is it in an ecommerce purchase journey or at the end of a two-year funnel?

Source – Did they hear about it from a trusted influencer? Was it recommended by The New York Times or Breitbart News?

Design – Is it a big, fat, scrawly fun checklist or an elegant, grown-up report? Red, white and black with a fist on the cover or pastel tones with a flower? Comic Sans, Palatino or Helvetica?

Title – A big one. Your title signals way more than the topic, it also signals altitude, attitude, stance, agenda, nature of content, voice & overall experience. For instance, listicles are so damn popular because they signal utility, readability, brevity and structure (there’s a post on this exact topic that I think you’re going to LOVE — or is that over-promise?).

Sub-title – This can play with or against your title to punch it up or balance it out. It can describe the content more accurately, tease the content or suggest hidden treasures.

If your title is big and evocative, your sub-title can help bring it back to earth; to ground it in the specific topic so people know exactly what they’re getting.

Promotional channels – Is the piece promoted through paid media or in a social post? On Facebook or Spiceworks?

Promotional copy – Are you screaming that the piece will change the audience’s life forever or just sharpen their presentation skills? Is the landing page a bunch of hype and the banner ad a patent lie? Hope not.

The introduction – Your audience has already started eating at this point but your expectation management is now at its very peak. I might go so far as to say that the primary job of your Introduction is to manage the reader’s expectations and send them into the main body of the piece with the right mindset.

A good intro doesn’t just signal it demonstrates the voice, altitude, attitude, agenda, stance and subject of the piece.

In the expectations game, this is the moment of truth. You’ve earned this moment through all the other signals. Don’t waste it. Shape your audience’s expectations to set them up for delight and mitigate the potential for disappointment.

You can think of expectation management as all about seduction and foreplay. Everything after this point is the delivery of your content (the actual sex, in this seedy, little metaphor); where your audience discovers whether or not you’ve kept your promises.

Obstacles to managing expectations

So why do so many content marketers fail to manage expectations? Here are some of the all-too-common reasons:

You never really considered expectations at all – you just pimped the content for all it’s worth and hoped they liked it.

The first rule of Expectations Management Club is you have to join. You have to want to actively manage the expectations of your audience instead of leaving them to chance.

You aren’t clear on every aspect of the content – you yourself (or you as a team) haven’t decided on your agenda, the subject, the stance, the right altitude and attitude. So the experience itself is jumbled and your intentions are fuzzy. Or maybe the piece suffered from Scope Creep somewhere along the way and it just doesn’t hit the mark.

You can’t manage expectations if the content itself is muddled. It’s like trying to take careful aim but without a target.

You don’t have confidence in your content  – if you’re not sure you’ve added real value, you might be drawn into the over-promise/under-delivery vortex. To make it seem like this is really great stuff (partly to convince yourself and your team).

Don’t publish if you’re not sure you slam-dunked the topic (or if you think the topic is boring). You will let your most important people down.

You don’t have confidence in your topic – if you think your product/topic/issue is inherently boring (shame on you)  –  you may try to expand its perceived role in the world.

When a lobby carpet company puts out “Customer Experience Starts With the Feet”, you know they’re trying really hard to inflate their place in the business hierarchy.

If you think your products are boring or unimportant, get a new job.

You’ve drunk the Kool-Aid™
Companies can be a bit like cults. If everyone around you has whipped themselves up into a lather about some new POV from on high, you’re likely to sell it like it’s ambrosia-soaked manna served in a holy grail made of bacon.

Start where your audience starts: cold. Assume they’re not in the market for Kool-Aid.

You equate marketing with hype.
Even people who make great content for their audiences often fall into marketing-speak when they try to promote that content. They pour on the breathless prose, addled with adjectives and saturated with superlatives. Usually, this fails — so the risk of disappointment goes away. But sometimes it succeeds, and you’ve set yourself a stupidly high bar.

When promoting your content, tone down the shrill shill with a chill pill. Or two.

What about surprise?

So if all of this feels like expectation management is all about setting up expectations, then meeting them, we’d be in a pretty dull world.

Don’t we also want to surprise people? To make them expect something, then blow them away by delivering the opposite? Or at least fake a move to the left then leap to the right?

Yes. We often do want to do that. Surprise is a powerful force deployed by most of the best content in the world.

But surprise is a delicate thing. To nail it without alienating your audience depends on even more accurate and deft management of expectations, not less.

So all of the above applies. But if surprise is one of your tactics, you’re playing with the conventions of expectation management themselves. If you do it well, the dividend is big (surprise earns attention and attention is the gateway drug of our discipline).

You’ve been the subject of an experiment

If you got this far in this post, you’ve also been the subject of an experiment in expectations management.

Everything we did to get you here was carefully calibrated so that by the time you got to this very line you’re reading right now, you’d be happy you came and glad you kept reading to the end.

The title promised you something kind of important: the analysis of a little-discussed dimension in content marketing. It also gave you a bit of a wink, to let you know it might be a fun ride.

The introduction set you up to want what we prepared for you.

And, if we got it right, the post itself delivered on that promise.

Here’s the question: did we get it right?

Did you get what you expected or did we disappoint or mislead you?

Answers in the comment section would be gratefully received. Who knows, it might even spark a follow-up post.

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