“The stock market is not the economy.”
When the stock market is up, it doesn’t always follow that the economy is great. When the stock market crashes, it doesn’t always mean the economy is bad.
That’s as true today as it was 25 years ago when I first got into marketing. And it’s a great reminder to avoid basing business decisions on faulty connections.
Over the years, I’ve learned an adjacent lesson about content and audiences: Popularity isn’t a sign of differentiation. People don’t necessarily regard what is popular among online audiences or the media as high quality – or even true.
If you successfully chase trends and feed popular content to audiences, you have not necessarily differentiated your content. On the other hand, differentiating by taking a contrarian or highly niche view of what’s popular doesn’t always work either. How do you blend popularity and differentiation?
Red and blue ocean strategies
In their 2004 book, Blue Ocean Strategy, W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne explain red and blue ocean strategies for marketing. Red oceans are crowded markets where popular products abound and cutthroat sales and marketing strategies rule. Blue oceans are undiscovered markets with little or no competition, where businesses can create new customers or die alone.
In strategic content marketing, most businesses focus on the red oceans – offering short-term, hyper-focus feeding. They look to drive traffic, engagement, and conversions by getting the most people to consume the content. So a red-ocean strategy focuses on topics and content that have proven popular with audiences.
But this strategy makes it difficult to differentiate the content from everyone else’s.
This myopic view of content often prohibits testing the other side – investing in a blue-ocean mindset to find and create new audiences with less-popular content.
Finding a blue niche in a red world
I recently worked with a financial technology company that provides short-term loans to small businesses experiencing a cash-flow crunch. It’s as sales-driven as any team I’ve seen.
When they started, they put much of their marketing and content efforts into a blue-ocean strategy, targeting small businesses that will need a loan within a month.
Here’s where it gets interesting.
Five years ago, this company wasn’t the only one to recognize the massive opportunity in fast, easily accessible, short-term lending. A red ocean of new customers who needed these loans grew in a relatively robust economy (and historically low interest rates).
The value of these loans grew from $121 million in 2013 to just over $2 billion in 2018. And competition for this audience’s attention grew, too. As short-term, low-funnel content on accessible lending saturated the market, this strategy became less and less successful because so many fintech companies pursued it.
My client’s team knew they couldn’t only count on this red-ocean audience for new business. They recognized the need to invest time in building a new audience – larger, more established, long-term borrowers.
This audience wouldn’t produce immediate lead generation. But the company wanted to diversify its product line and better support the new audience’s loan-related needs.
The genius of this strategy was teaching, targeting, and building demand for new ideas from a niche within the red audience. Put simply: They created a purple audience by targeting a blue audience within the red one.
The blue audience the team targeted consisted of fast-growing smaller businesses that would soon evolve into established, long-term borrowers. These businesses might want to know the benefits of the short-term availability of cash. The team focused the new learning content platform on teaching companies that don’t need a loan now about the benefits of having a solution at the ready when they do.
The purple audiences took time to develop. But when those audience members entered the red ocean, my client company stayed top of mind because it had bucked the popular trends and offered completely different content.
3 triggers for targeting purple audiences
Deciding to invest in cultivating a purple audience requires some thought. These three considerations can prompt the move to a different audience hue.
1. You’re ready to hedge bets on current efforts
So many companies double down on their content to the point where their strategy incorporates the same content at every stage of the customer’s journey. Why? Because everybody is talking about it.
I see some B2B marketing organizations deliver the same “why change” thought leadership content to prospects as they do their customers. Shouldn’t your customers’ needs and wants change after they purchase your solution?
Developing thought leadership you believe is important but current audiences aren’t yet thinking about can be an excellent hedge.
You shouldn’t deliver the same thought leadership to prospects AND customers. After all, your customers’ needs and wants should change after they buy.
2. You believe the consensus is wrong
Many companies fold their content marketing like a lawn chair because their content goes against the consensus. Last week, a chief marketing officer told me, “Our CEO says we can’t go out with that thought leadership message because people will disagree with us.”
You don’t have to invest the entire budget in a contrarian idea. But if you genuinely believe the world will eventually come to your point of view, build the content infrastructure that supports that opinion and experience a multiplier on the investment.
3. You see an opportunity to steal audience
Look at the most popular content, and you see all your competitors fighting over the eyeballs seeking that topic, trying to outrank everyone on search, and fighting a red ocean of potential audience members. Then, look up and ask, “What’s next?”
You might see a slight trend. Or, as my fintech client did, you may notice a niche blue audience in the red audience. Investing in that content can pull audiences from the popular content into your fledgling purple audience.
SAP’s content site The Future of Customer Engagement and Experience illustrates this concept. During the pandemic, the team, led by Jenn Vande Zande, adjusted its editorial focus to steal a segment of the red-ocean audience seeking COVID-19 coverage. Jenn and team designed the content to appeal to people looking not just for lockdown news but also for the most up-to-date practices and industry information for businesses on customer experience in the COVID-19 era.
SAP created a purple audience.
As a marketer, you should think about new audiences. How can you address them with content that may not be widely popular now but can help them better prepare for what you believe is coming tomorrow?
That’s a better question to answer for long-term content marketing success.
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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute