Gartner’s Sorofman: Content Is Marketing’s ‘Currency Of Trade’

Today content is more about customers than the brand, said Jake Sorofman, a research VP at Gartner: “Many brands are becoming more like publishers in that sense.”

Gartner’s Sorofman: Content Is Marketing’s ‘Currency Of Trade’

Jake Sorofman is a research VP at Gartner, where he analyzes digital marketing strategy, trends, and practices. His focus is customer experience and content marketing, helping clients use these techniques to engage customers, evangelize their brands, grow revenue, and transform their business.

Sorofman is speaking at Gartner’s Digital Marketing conference, May 17 to 19, in San Diego. ( is a media partner.) We recently connected with Sorofman and asked him to share some of what he will be presenting. One of your coverage areas at Gartner is CMO spend. So where are CMOs placing their bets?

Sorofman: No. 1 is digital and online advertising, which is probably no surprise. The second is corporate website design and development. The website continues to be the companies’ face to the market. There’s a lot of investment going into replatforming these websites to make them more modern, more responsive, more personalized, richer, higher utility, and more engaging. These replatforming efforts are driving a portion of this spend.

The third priority, from a spend perspective, is social marketing. Social is still very important in the customer’s journey in terms of awareness, discovery, engagement, and customer service. We are also seeing a significant percentage of social marketing investments allocated to paid social advertising.

The fourth area of spending is where we saw the highest increase in priority over last year: digital commerce. We see this driven by the need for marketers to become more accountable and more transparent about driving revenue and profitable growth. That’s why marketers are increasingly taking ownership of a digital commerce strategy. It’s more measureable, more transparent, and it allows you to really understand in a direct and specific way how your investments are yielding outcomes.

We’re seeing digital commerce investments in places you’d expect but also from B2B2C companies—manufacturers and CPGs, for example—who are starting up a B2C commerce strategy for the first time. In part, this is about new sources of revenue, but mostly it’s about customer insight, which is something many of these companies struggle with because of their distance from the end customer. You will also be presenting about content marketing. I talk to marketers pretty regularly, and I have to say that everyone seems to have a different definition for content. Can you define it? Is there one definition?

Sorofman: It’s an interesting point because content has always been the coin of the marketer’s realm; it’s our currency of trade. Content is kind of what we do. Marketers are in the content business. I think what’s different about how we’re describing content marketing today is it’s less about the brand and more about the audience. It’s about delivering something of value or utility. It’s about earning the attention of your audience by starting with what’s at stake for them, and anticipating and responding to their needs with value-added content experiences. And this could be anything from educational content, to enlightening or inspiring content, to humorous content. It really depends on your audience, what they care about, and what your brand stands for.

Content marketing today is about flipping the orientation and focusing on your audience first. Many brands are becoming more like publishers in that sense. They are learning that the way to engage your audiences is by delivering something that they care about, which isn’t about you shouting from the hilltops and extolling your own virtues.

I think one of the reasons we’ve experienced this shift and evolution in how we think about content is because we’re competing for scarce attention. The bar has been raised, which means marketers need to focus on producing something that, in its own right, independent of your product and your value proposition, has value to the audience. What about measurement? Are brands able to measure the effectiveness of their content beyond just engagement metrics?

Sorofman: Not well, in most cases. It really depends on your business model and to what extent you can trace the thread between engagement with your content assets and the conversion events you care about. That’s really the key indicator of the fidelity that you’ll be able to achieve in measuring the performance of content. Companies that are operating in a more complex value chain where they don’t have that end-customer data, like large CPGs, will generally look at correlations over time against their KPIs. And, of course, I mentioned that some of these companies are now going direct to customers, which makes tracing the thread easier, at least for the digital commerce channel.

But the companies that do have that end customer data are increasingly able to connect the dots in understanding how content engagement created lift for the business. What’s really critical is to tag and instrument all your content assets and to really home in on how these investments are moving the needle, even if that simply means looking at correlations rather than casual relationships. You analyze customer experience at Gartner, which is obviously a huge topic in marketing today. Can you highlight some of the big trends in customer experience?

Sorofman: Customer experience is the new battlefield for competitive differentiation. As traditional forms of competitive advantage erode—product- and service-based advantages—it’s the relationship with the customer that is the most enduring. So we see a lot of investment going into customer experience. In most cases, the marketing organization’s CMO is responsible for the strategy and design of the desired-state experience.

The challenge is that marketing generally doesn’t own all the touch points. Customer experience is much broader than marketing; it cuts across every branded interaction pre- and post-sales, which means that it must be a collaborative, cross-functional effort. We’re seeing companies appointing a chief customer officer, or equivalent, who is responsible for arbitrating across all those touch points to ensure everybody’s lined up to what matters most. Sometimes that’s a role reporting into the CMO, sometimes it’s the CMO themselves. Or other times it’s someone who sits within more of an operational role for company. It really depends on the way the company operates. But having that single locus of authority around the end experience is really important.

We’re seeing investment around the voice of customer (VoC), which encompasses three types of customer insight. The first is direct feedback in the form of surveys and any kind of structured customer feedback. The second is indirect feedback, which are things like sentiment analysis and social listening. The third is inferred feedback, which is essentially making inferences through behavioral analytics, transaction analysis, and clickstream analysis.

Having a VoC strategy allows companies to take all this customer feedback and funnel it to the roles in the organization that can take action to improve the customer experience over time. Democratizing customer insight is the first step to getting everyone tuned into how the experience is landing with customers so they can make contributions to improving it over time.

Read related interviews: “Gartner’s Polk: Online Or Not, Today’s Marketing Is ‘All Digital’” and “Gartner: Cross-Device ID Dilemma Is Hindering Great Experiences

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