When looking outward with your content marketing, don’t forget conversations with customers are two-way
By Alistair Norman

When looking outward with your content marketing, don’t forget conversations with customers are two-way

Most marketers use email and web content to educate customers — but far fewer turn those communications into conversations. This blog uses research by the CMI to illustrate the value of keeping the talk two-way.

Let’s keep the discussion going

A huge proportion of content marketers — nearly nine out of ten as found in the CMI’s latest research — use email to talk to their audiences. Almost as many (77%) use educational content (like blogs and downloads) on the web, too. But a much smaller number make those communications two-way. And that’s a problem, because the strongest customer relationships are two-way conversations.

It’s easy to see why. A back-and-forth flow of information is how participants build shared understanding, resolve differences, and empathise with each other’s goals. Most win-win outcomes are the result of conversations.

Friendships are conversations. Relationships are conversations. And entire markets, from the Greek agora to the Internet, are at heart just … conversations.

It’s no coincidence that the greek word for “gathering place” (agora) is the root of not one but two Greek verbs: ἀγοράζω (agorázō, “to shop”) and ἀγορεύω (agoreúō, or “to speak”). Trade – whether in goods or ideas — is a process of give and take between two parties.

So as a content marketer, isn’t it in your interest to create those conversations with customersand keep them going?

In this blog, you’ll see some ideas for doing so — backed by some recent survey data from the Content Marketing Institute.

The art of conversation

Hardly a day goes past without a media pundit bemoaning today’s technology-obsessed, switched-on, always-connected culture. They say it’s turning our youth into mindless robots addicted to WhatsApp. That nobody talks anymore. That we’re losing the art of conversation.

What if that view was completely wrong?

Today’s connected citizen has access to more knowledge and knows more people than at any time in human history. Those text messages, social media posts, and SnapChat exchanges are just as much a ‘conversation’ as two people talking face-to-face. (Of course they’re without the body language that forms a large part of human communication, but emojis and selfies can carry surprising nuances.)

It’s a safe bet to say today’s millennial is in contact — often daily contact — with far more people than his/her counterpart of just twenty years ago. Far from dehumanising, technology is an enabler of conversation. And as a content marketer, you’re part of those conversations.

So why do just 23% of us use conversation-fostering methods — like community-building and audience participation — to bring new voices to the table?

Perhaps there’s a perception that it’s hard. But it doesn’t have to be. And if the rewards were large enough, wouldn’t you want to at least explore it? Especially if doing so put you ahead of 77% of your peers.

Let’s look at conversations through the lens of the well-known five-stage model: opening, feedforward, business, feedback, closing.

1. Opening: kicking off the conversation

Openers are easy. It’s the reason you’re in business, positioned from the customer’s perspective. In other words, it’s whatever business pain your product or service soothes. And let’s face it: if you don’t know what your customer benefits are, you probably shouldn’t be doing content marketing in the first place.

According to the CMI report, 90% of successful content marketers prioritize the customer’s informational needs over their desire to hard-sell.

Why not hard-sell straight off the bat? Because the customer isn’t ready. Any more than you’re ready for a cocktail party guest to start telling you about his hemorrhoid operation the moment you’re introduced. An opener ticks the most basic box of all: whether the person you’re talking to actually speaks your language.

With any luck your openers are on your documented content marketing strategy. (65% of top marketers have one.) So if you don’t, now’s the time to start. 

2. Feedforward: finding your common ground

The opener must be no-obligation. You’re simply getting the measure of each other. But the second stage of a successful conversation involves more reaching out: finding what you’ve got in common with your prospective customer, feeling your way towards mutual understanding. It needs you to be interested, to actively seek information about your customer. 

It’s no surprise 88% of successful content marketers use social media analytics. They let you examine which approaches worked, what brought in useful information — and which didn’t!

Face-to-face, many conversationalists use the FORD method as subjects to talk about: family, occupation, recreation, dreams. (That’s one of the many advantages of using customer personas, which present a target audience as an illustration of a living, breathing individual.) It does make a difference where your customer lives, what their hobbies are, how large their family is – and your customer will enjoy talking about them. So ask! Again, there’s no reason to hard-sell. You’re building a relationship here. 

But old adages apply: keep the conversation away from sex, politics, or religion. Face-to-face or connected by technology, you’re looking for conversation, not a fist fight.

3. Business: Keeping the conversation going

The business stage is where you finally get down to, well, you know what. It’s the reason for the conversation. Still no hard-sell — but having learned something about the customer’s hopes and dreams, it’s now time to present your products and services as potential solutions. 

Worried about managing all these conversational stages? That’s why 63% of top content marketers use marketing automation software.

If you use email marketing, like 87% of decent marketers, this is where customization comes into play. Only present solutions that match the business pain your customer actually has; cross-selling a product that doesn’t do anything for the customer will dilute your value to him.

Look at who’s Liking your posts on social media, who’s retweeting your guides and blogs, who’s posting comments on your content. Every response is an utterance in the conversation, even if it’s just a smiley face.

4. Feedback: summing up the wisdom

The feedback stage is the ideal place to check in with your customer to make sure you’ve understood everything they said: “So, you mentioned you preferred the blue paint job to the red… 

52% of successful content marketers optimize their content to the customer – simple sentence substitutions in a marketing email can tailor a single piece of content for thousands of readers.

Even now isn’t the time to ‘ask for the sale’. But it is time to check you know exactly what it is that the customer wants or needs. Because if you’ve built comfort and trust over the course of the conversation — however many touchpoints and milestones that customer journey had — you both know what’s coming next.

You’re ready to sell. But even more importantly, your customer is ready to buy.

5. Closing: taking it to the next level

Closing the conversation means closing the sale. It’s where you invite (and incentivise) your customer to buy. But closing isn’t the end of the relationship. Indeed, it’s just the start. 

50% of content marketers use a Content Management System (CMS) to keep a steady hand on their content and keep it fresh over time.

Whether it’s a three-year sales cycle or a one-day buyer’s event, a successful sale closed is just the start of a beautiful friendship. If you’ve sold a solution that precisely answered his/her needs, you’ve built trust that will keep that customer coming back, again and again, for more conversations. Conversations that should prove profitable for you both.

As a final thought, think about how much the five-stage conversational model looks like other business models you probably use already — like the sales funnel, customer journey, or product roadmap. They’re processes — not events. You build familiarity and friendship over time, foster credibility and comfort. And when the sale occurs, it feels like the most natural thing in the world.

There’s a common view that technology dehumanises. Technology like email marketing, content management systems, social media analytics, and marketing automation can build warm, fulfilling, and profitable bonds with customers from first contact to sustained relationship. If used correctly. So for success in content marketing, turn your communications into conversations… and keep the conversations two-way. 


  • The best communication isn’t you to your audience, but a two-way conversation
  • Face-to-face conversations have five stages – it’s no different for content marketing
  • Technology is an enabler of human conversation – if used correctly
  • Successful content marketers listen to and learn from their customers before ‘selling’ to them
  • Markets are conversations, and so are successful customer relationships

Find out how other CMOs keep the conversation going. Read The Future of Content Marketing: 10 interviews with leading CMOs on the trends they’re using to disrupt in 2019.

Read the latest positioning trends and insights.

Tap into our brand and product positioning, storytelling, and creative expertise to inspire your next strategic move.

Subscribe to insights.