If you ascribe to the notion that content marketing began in 1895 with John Deere’s first issue of “The Furrow,” it’s hard to believe that some companies still struggle with understanding the value of content and landing on the right content strategy—not too much, not too little, and above all, speaking to the right audiences. At RampUp on the Road in Chicago, we spoke with Erin Gulden, AVP, Director of Content Marketing at U.S. Bank, to discuss how companies’ content marketing strategies can get off track and how to rein them back in.
Listen to the podcast here or read an excerpt of our discussion below:
RampUp: When you spoke at RampUp on the Road in Minneapolis, you mentioned that U.S. Bank had 12 content properties, some of which were ‘just left to hang out.’ What were you doing before U.S. Bank and how did you come to content marketing and tackling this challenge?
Erin: I joined U.S. Bank about two years ago. Prior to that, I was on the agency side at MSP Communications but I actually started at a print magazine. I was a journalism major—that whole, typical background. Then at MSP, we started taking on digital clients and doing more in the digital space. I was looking for something new, so I moved over to our digital team and started on content strategy and web strategy, which was a really fun and new way to apply my skills.
I worked with a few big clients like Optum and Delta Sky, and then moved over to the General Mills team, where I was part of about 14 or 15 people who created the content and strategy for Betty Crocker, Pillsbury, and Tablespoon.com. I did that for five years and then moved over to U.S. Bank.
With General Mills, I was looking at data all the time, seeing what type of content our readers really responded to, how we could scale certain content that was doing well, and how we could pull back on some stuff that we thought was a great idea from an editorial perspective, but people just weren’t connecting with the way wanted them to. We honed all of the numbers we had and put them through that customer-first lens to help build our content program.
RampUp: Everyone thinks they create content and serve audiences with that customer-first mentality, but as consumers ourselves, we know that’s certainly not the case. What are some ways to reimagine what a customer-first mentality looks like if they’re not quite hitting the mark?
Erin: I think personas go a long way in helping us focus our content needs and keep the customer front-of-mind. Instead of just having a segment which might be a collection of data points, you have a person, and the persona is certainly made up of your segmentation information. You layer your business goals on top of those personas.
When we’re creating our content for our site, we try to make sure we’re talking in an authentic way. We put ourselves in their shoes when looking at content and sometimes say, ‘this is too product-focused’ or ‘this is too bank-focused.’ We try to bring it back to Ray or Natalie, or another one of our personas.
With some of the brands I’ve worked with or had conversations with that don’t have personas in mind when creating content, it’s a lot easier to let the products or your business goals lead the way. I think creating personas is the easiest way to flip the switch to a customer-first approach.
RampUp: What is a good strategy for making sure that you have the right persona? Are persona exercises something you want to do on an annual basis?
Erin: Yes, I think annual at least, depending on how many personas you have. I’ve worked on brands that had one or two personas. Those personas are ones you can be checking in on more often.
If you’re creating content with your persona in mind and your content isn’t hitting the mark, then there’s probably something wrong with your persona—either that or their interests or maybe the channels that you’re reaching them in or the types of content you’re trying to reach them with are wrong.
RampUp: Tying this back to your first month at U.S. Bank when you saw all these content hubs that were not updated or may not have had a persona in mind, how did you make the business case for getting rid of certain properties and right-sizing your content footprint?
Erin: The manager I worked for at the time had already helped socialize to some of the leadership that we had an issue with different hubs that weren’t connecting.
Within a month of joining, I was in front of leadership with him explaining why this happened. We focused on inefficiency and the fact that we had multiple teams creating content that wasn’t really doing anything for us at the end of the day. We also shared that we had some content that was performing decently, but we didn’t have the resources to give it the proper attention it needed and we focused on the risk. Obviously as a bank we’re risk-averse. We want consistent messaging across the bank and when you have ten different teams creating content, there is no way you can guarantee that your messaging is consistent. Focusing on the inefficiency and the risk helped paint a clear picture for a leadership so they were able to conclude that we needed to shut down certain properties.
There were other reasons to turn some of these old sites off—bad UX, off brand, old technology. I don’t know if leadership cares much about that. If we had come to them with those reasons, they wouldn’t have understood it as clearly as when we focused on risk and inefficiency. Those words got their attention.
RampUp: One thing I think marketers struggle with, especially as they try to build their careers, is to make the business case for why we should be doing certain things, sticking with certain platforms, and continuing to develop certain types of content. How did you make that business case and show the ROI of the pieces that you wanted to keep?
Erin: When we looked at the content that we wanted to keep, we really had our strategy in place. Our content strategy came first. We identified the personas that included our segmentation work. It also included our business goals as a bank so we were able to filter all of the content audit through that lens. We had a whole series on Apple Pay from 2015. Obviously, Apple Pay is still relevant, but things have changed since then, so we needed to start over with that type of content. So, everything went through that persona and business school filter, and that made it pretty easy.
It wasn’t perfect. We refreshed 350 pieces of content on the site. Every once in a while, I run across something that probably shouldn’t have made the cut, but maybe we had a reason for it a year and a half ago.
We’re taking another look at our content and filtering a few of those pieces out. Of what remains, we know there’s a reason it made the site. It probably fit a persona well enough for us to say we’ll keep it.
Now, we’re putting even another layer on top of it by thinking, ‘is this a topic that you would go to your banker, mortgage loan officer, or treasury relationship manager for?’ We’re trying to emphasize that we are an authority in this space because we want to create content that has to do with financial wellness.
We think adding that layer will help us filter out some of the content that’s not true and doesn’t feel like it’s a good fit anymore.
RampUp: It sounds like you have a great handle on connecting with your personas and you also had an opportunity to up-level certain executives or personas within U.S. Bank to the voice or expert on a particular topic. Was there any sort of resistance to making content part of an executive platform?
Erin: There wasn’t any major resistance. We’re still working to get content recognized as its own marketing tactic with some of our partners. We have a lot of partners who 100% understand the use of content in the sales funnel. But we still definitely have partners who ask, ‘what is content marketing?’ That’s going to be a conversation. I come to events like this and I still have people say, ‘we never thought about content in that context.’
It seems crazy, but if you have someone who’s living in the world of display and out-of-home advertising, it’s a shift for them, and it really is new enough that not everyone has the full picture of how content can really plug-in in different parts of the sales journey and benefit the marketing department as a whole.
RampUp: I know you mentioned that when you were on the agency side, you worked with some really amazing travel brands and CPGs like General Mills, and now you’re in this highly regulated space of financial services. How does that affect your creativity? How do you keep that going when you have some guardrails on what you can produce that you maybe didn’t have at other companies?
Erin: That’s a great question. Luckily, we don’t have as much of a challenge as some of the people who are trying to do the same thing in financial services seem to have. I think that’s because we do have this great platform in Financial IQ. It’s a content marketing platform that is not sales driven. We walked our compliance team through the platform and our goals and discussed how it’s about education—we lead people to sales content but we are not selling a product on the site—and they got it. It took a few sessions, some one-on-one time, and some trial and error, but they finally started to see that they didn’t have to police everything we said because it was a different context than you would find on usbank.com when you’re talking specifically about U.S. Bank mortgage products.
I always encourage people in financial services, if they haven’t actually talked with their risk or compliance partners, to do some educating because they don’t know what content marketing is. They’re still looking at your stuff the same way they would if you tried to put an interest rate on a billboard. They have their red flags, so talk them through it. I think they’ll often find that they can came come to a better understanding.
For us, it’s really just about watching the language we use. We’re not going to guarantee you anything. We’re not going to say this is the best. We’re not going to say this is the only. That’s a pretty easy tonal shift to make, and our agencies are really good after one or two rounds of creating content for us. They get the things you can and can’t say pretty quickly. So that hasn’t been as much of a roadblock as I expected it to be when I joined the bank. There’s still a lot more paperwork, but it’s not as much as of a roadblock.
RampUp: That’s great to hear. Thank you so much, Erin for coming to our show today.
Erin: Yes, thank you.
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