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I’m keynoting the Brand Innovators Content Marketing Summit today and thinking about the connections between what we call content and how customers connect to it. I must admit that what I see confuses me somewhat. Every day brands and marketers spend millions trying to convince consumers to use, keep using, and share their content. But why aren’t they doing everything they can, and using some of those millions to make experiences with their brand remarkable. It would probably be way less that they are spending on those marketing campaigns.  When this happens user-generated, story-telling content flows freely, and is naturally shared.

Opportunities to do this are given to brands each and every day and they simply turn their heads, rave about their latest and great “campaign’ as if it were a military conquest, and pass up ways to really create customers for life.

Content marketing can be part of that opportunity to create great customers and foster a “Return on Relationship.” But let’s take a look at the concept of content and its connection to relationships. Because content drives engagement, engagement drives advocacy and fosters relationship, and these both correlate directly to increased sales. Relationships are the real currency.

With all the noise online today, people are tuning out things like advertisements and promotions from brands. When considering a product or service, what’s more important to them are the thoughts and opinions of their friends—especially now since these are so easy to find via the plethora of social media platforms. Reviews have become the first go-to resource for most people searching for something online these days, so brands need to pay attention to this trend. And the natural extension of reviews are consumers simply telling stories about their product and brand experiences.

For instance, when you’re looking at books to read on Amazon, don’t you check out the reviews to see what others thought about the book before you hit the “Add to Cart” button? It’s human nature to seek out the opinions of others who have tried something—from the books we read to the music we listen to—and especially big-ticket purchases.

Finding a way to empower customers to issue opinions on a product or service, tell their stories, share their experiences, positive or negative, can increase your brand’s credibility online, especially if you make it easy to share this information on their favorite social network.

The numbers are pretty compelling. For example, a recent Dimensional Research survey sponsored by Zendesk reveals that an overwhelming majority of customers are influenced by online reviews, both good and bad. In fact, 90% of respondents claimed that positive reviews had an impact, while 86% said their buying decisions were influenced by negative reviews. Those are pretty hard numbers to ignore.

However, many businesses are afraid that offering reviews and opinions will open up a potential “can of worms.” That’s understandable, but the social explosion has pretty much moved brand perception away from the company and into the consumer’s hands anyway… the train has left the station. Transparency isn’t an option anymore—people will find out the good, bad and ugly by other means when doing their research.

Yes, it can be a scary thought. What if they say something bad about you? That’s why you need to think over your strategy carefully. Opening up this kind of interaction with your brand requires oversight and diligence. You need to stay on top of what people are saying and reach out to those who have a negative experience right away. Critics are a valuable resource. I advise seeking them out, and turning them into advocates. Nothing will help vault your brand to the forefront of consumer minds like being open to criticism… and many critics, when handled upfront, authentically, and with respect, will become what I call “Dynamic Advocates.”

The ability to openly evaluate companies is the wave of the future. Help your customers see how your brand stacks up—give them an easy way to share their opinion socially—and you’ll have one more way to positively influence your brand perception in the marketplace and increase your Return on Relationship.

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