The main challenges for a content strategy in financial services

Your brand’s story and the stories of your brand have become one of the best assets to shape what clients, users or advocates feel about your business. Notice that the sentence refers to two different types of stories, both of the same importance. We will explain what we mean by them later on. 

Stories are part of what is called “content”, the seven-letter word that has become a precious commodity in the last two decades. Digital communication, greatly boosted by blogs since early 2000s and by social media from 2008 onwards, has a lot to do with it. 

Despite the content shock—a term coined by the influential Mark W. Schaefer—that we all are living, content is yet an opportunity for any organisation’s marketing, communication and sales efforts, and financial services aren’t the exception. Actually, among all the economies thriving in this century—the gig economy, the attention economy, etc —there is the content economy as well. Content has become a currency and it also plays by the rules of the law of supply and demand. 

Already by 2015, there were around 4.6 billion pieces of content produced daily. Needless to say, our mental bandwidth is limited and our inability to consume content is more and more palpable. Audiences’ attention is nowadays elusive and ephemeral, so uniqueness and quality are a much required binomial that businesses want to apprehend when it comes to content generation. 

In the list of the most and least type of content consumed that the Ohio State University published some years ago, unsolicited sales pitches and product announcements aren’t even mentioned. However, although the era of cold marketing is nearly gone, marketers are still asked to push cold sales pitches, run paid social media ads without warming up the target or publish old-school media articles only to boost the business ego and to talk about its virtues, offering little substance. That is not uncommon in financial services. 

Stringent compliance rules don’t make content creation in financial services smooth. These rules influence both how to communicate information and share advice, and, even more importantly, the business’s willingness to bet on the creation of content that clients want to consume because it’s both gratifying and interesting. When the business operates in the B2B arena, themes can be even more intricate than in the B2C realm. 

Another fact that makes content creation in financial services challenging is the inability to connect it with sales objectives, often complex, so the role it plays in the buying and post sales cycles isn’t easy to figure out, and much less how to measure its ROI. 

We’ve created a series of articles on content in financial services because we’ve noticed an increasing need to address this XXI-century challenge. This is the first. 

Every business is turning into a media company

There are terabytes of content out there, but, unarguably, a fraction of it is truly valuable. Likely your own experience is an example to illustrate this statement. Think of the last article that became truly unforgettable. 

“Gratifying and interesting” are two adjectives you have read in lines above. Carefully chosen, we wanted to set the foundation to differentiate content marketing, which one can describe by using these two adjectives, and content, or the vast sea of all things that are produced. 

With content marketing, brands become publishers. Owned media, then, gains more importance, balancing things out with paid media. In the content economy, building a digital marketing funnel without content marketing as an ally is almost unreasonable; it’s a bet on failure.  

However, if content marketing seems to be that promising, financial services, especially B2B, haven’t fully embraced it, at least not yet. One major constraint is the lack of understanding of what it really is. “Content marketing sometimes gets a bad rap […] It neither has the journalistic integrity of a newspaper (putting aside some of the tarnish of the fake news era), nor the obvious and necessary intent of traditional marketing efforts” one can read in this Digital Pulse’s article. There is this lack of understanding but also the time factorit takes longer to get it rightand the measurement of ROI. 

Regardless of the challenges, contentcall it content marketing or what you wantneeds to find shelter in the intersection between education, entertainment and business goals. All this should be inspired by a true will to build lasting relationships, and be cemented on trust, the value that will never go out of style.

Finance matters matter—allow us the redundancy—to all, and that’s powerful. Information that financial services businesses hold has the potential to offer invaluable insight to clients in both the B2B and the B2C arenas. The pain points or needs that financial services can address to engage with their audiences are innumerable but the challenge is to package them in a way that’s gratifying and interesting. 

How much content the average exec B2B consume before sales

Source: Contently 2020
In content matters, there is no such thing like the Gollum and Smeagle duality

In financial services, it seems the seriousness complex is common. We acknowledge that because we suffer from the same. There is, indeed, this idea that being entertaining is a desired characteristic of content made for the personal spheres. Because “business is business”, there is a license to be boring, but boring content can kill. 

To some colleagues, that approach is selfish and far from being client-centric. Ultimately, it’s also detrimental to the brand’s story, the business reputation and the trustworthy client relationship that financial services want to build or maintain. 

Sure, creating content around complex issues is anything but a light exercise, however what’s even more challenging is making that complexity easy to digest so it’s consumed, it educates and it attains the goal it was supposed to. More often than not, financial services content results in a heavy piece of information that only the writer and the proofreader want to watch or read. 

Remember, every touch point that both leads and clients have with your brand is an opportunity. A business’s content is one of those touch points.

Unless you think audiences are like Gollum and Smeagle, the unforgettable characters of The Lord of The Rings, always in conflict with themselves, we don’t switch personalities because we’re at work or we’re at home or with our friends. What we change is our attitude towards the people that interact with us and the environment around us. But we assess with comparable (mental) metrics what is gratifying and interesting. That remains unchangeable. 

Buying habits have changed significantly and so does the buying cycle which is increasingly happening online. Financial services’ content has to align with these changes. 

Brand story, content marketing and storytelling

Let’s dissect the nomenclature around content. The first lines of this article referred to the brand story. What is it, exactly? 

Every message we send out by means of paid, earned and owned media, that’s the brand story. It encompasses content whose goal is to be educational but also sales-oriented such as the business’s value proposition or what one can read on the corporate website about the products and services offered. On the earned media side, we can mention social media comments, online reviews or media coverage, for instance. The argumentative that sales representatives, business developers or post-sales agents use is also part of your brand story. Ultimately, on the stakeholders’ side, it’s the experience that clients, employees, allies and others have with a brand. 

While all of them are touch points and all of them are naturally part of the client or user journey, they don’t influence the marketing funnel, especially the digital, in the same way. Funnels are greatly shaped by owned media, therefore, by content marketing. Put it simply, content marketing aims at helping clients and leads navigate their professional – and sometimes personal, challenges. At some point in their journey with your business there is going to be a challenge whose solution requires your product or service. And, the best of all, trust, boosted by content, is already a strong relationship glue. 

To finish off, storytelling-based content (which we’ll focus on in upcoming articles of the series) is a place all one’s own in the larger content marketing field. It’s a technique, let’s say. The story that content tells may or may not involve the product or service that’s part of business development or  advertising campaigns. 

Ultimately what’s worth bearing in mind is that valuable content greatly influences brand stories.

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”, the great Leonardo Da Vinci said. Five words encompass one great challenge in financial services: producing content that audiences consume because it’s palatable without being simplistic.

Frameworks, regulation, compliance matters, procedures, aren’t subjects one can find, at first sight, interesting. However, as long as there is an audience willing to trade time for attention, then there is an interest and the motivation to create content that satisfies it.

If the content is a currency, the one with the best interest rate will prevail over the others.

The main challenges for a content strategy in financial services

Regardless of the industry, common challenges for businesses to produce quality content are the increasing competition coming from content producers and the content fatigue that’s a consequence of a limited human capability in terms of time, attention and motivation, to consume that content.

But there are other challenges that are endogenous whose improvement and control depends on the business’s decision. We have gathered the 10 challenges that we consider as the most relevant for the reality of financial services firms, especially the medium and large ones. 

  1. The long-term sustainability of content initiatives. 

In lines above we mentioned that “it takes time” for a business to get content marketing right. To shape client personascraft, create, design are valid verbs tooa trial-and-error approach is almost unavoidable. True, there are techniques that help the process, but there are always adjustments to do. Accustomed to the push marketing approach whose ROI, even low, is almost immediate, it isn’t easy to get the board’s buy in and, what’s more, the time and patience for the content strategy to get created, tested and adjusted. 

Also, because marketers are commonly “trying to justify their place in the company, it’s difficult to spend time on something that isn’t easily measurable”. 

Source: CM & MarketingProfs, 2020

     2. Content isn’t a product. 

“Content is king” has become a common refrain in countless content marketing-related articles. It could be, if one wants to emphasise its importance. However, in reality, for content to truly work, it should be considered as a product among the others offered by the financial services business, an asset among the investment assets. 

Content is a product that needs a plan and resources. However, it’s still seen as a “nice-to-have”, a mediocre outcome to tick check lists. And quality content is powerful to build or maintain the relationships of a business with its stakeholders, and a pillar of trust.  

    3. There is no agreement on what good content is.

What’s the ROI of content? That’s the one-million question whose answer isn’t a one-size-fits-all.

Because, if ROI was something easy to measure and good results would prove of its effectiveness, its path towards becoming “a product” in itself would be smoother. We think that measuring content’s ROI starts by determining, as precise as possible, the objective to be accomplished with it. That will trigger the right selection of metrics and the acquisition or design of the analytical tools, notably digital, that, when well-configured and well-linked, will answer the recurrent ROI-related questions

The second question to solve is what good content looks like. Because “good” is a subjective adjective, related to each business’s reality and perspective, it needs evaluation criteria that allow for grading it. Defining “good” quantitatively in the beginning is key and that definition must be a consensus among all parties whose business goals, whichever they are, are linked to content.

All and all, good content shares similar characteristics, almost universally. It gives an angle, a perspective or a different point of view on subject matters that are highly discussed, or it is bold and original.  Or it embeds unique elements that make a brand’s content easily identifiable. For instance, there is the use of metaphors. Like this article puts it, “[metaphors] allow you to make the complex simple and the controversial palatable”. Think of how your content differs from the others in your industry. 

    4. Impatience and unrealistic expectations.

This challenge is related to the first and third. 

The need for results “as quick and evident as possible” demonstrates a lack of understanding of the role that content marketing plays in the attention economy. 

The results of content-based marketing – we’re purposely using a term that’s broader than content marketing in case it suits you better – don’t happen the day after tomorrow.

It needs a “lab mindset”, namely, the space to create, test, execute and measure the effectiveness of different content projects and to select the ones that clients and users respond better to.

    5. Content governance.

In research conducted by the Content Marketing Institute (CMI), 9 in 10 B2B content marketers answered that “changing priorities and unclear briefs” are one of the main challenges they face. It includes “drive-by projects or last minute changes introduced by managers who were late to the sign-off process”. This influences their “content’s emotional impact, customer priority alignment, quality of copywriting, and business results”.

This is only an example of how important clear governance rules are for any content strategy, particularly in financial services businesses where regulation and compliance rules are often a burden. The sign-off process is oftentimes a true bottleneck. Business with matrix structures or several heads working in the same field and whose working relationship is tense are a content strategy’s greatest challenge.    

    6. Limited resources (or the lack of them).

This is the omnipresent challenge when it comes to any marketing and communications initiative. Indeed, in the CMI’s research mentioned above, 87% of content marketers considered “budget limitations” as one of their major challenges. That’s an overwhelming majority. 

However, a limited budget isn’t the only constraint. It’s, in general, the lack of resources either technical (software, for instance), personal (content creators) or monetary (including paid promotion).

This is when having a content strategy translated into tangible content plans is very handy. Define clear activities, not many, and go all the way with them so you can prove their effectiveness (or not) to the executives and other stakeholders. 

    7. Working in silos.

“When a business operates in the B2B arena, themes can be even more intricate than in the B2C realm” we stated before. Add the variable “financial services” to that statement. Then, the challenge could double. 

Precisely because of that, content marketers need the support of industry experts and client-facing professionals for the content created to be truly valuable, one that uses the right verbatim (or slang) and it’s accurate, useful and, very importantly, consumable.

This seems to be an obvious consideration but, more often than not, the reality is quite different. The cooperation between content creators and subject-matter experts isn’t about the latter sending a couple of presentations or articles to the former. It must be true joint work.

    8. Content is great but the format isn’t, and distribution is harder.

Sometimes the idea or concept behind the content project is remarkably good, as it is the script (or screenplay), especially when it comes to video making and podcasting. However, the audience-facing professionals may not be the most suitable to perform that task. 

This could be the result of either not having any good speaker or being kindly forced to invite some of them based on hierarchy and not necessarily on skills. 

This situation is arguably one of the most difficult to solve because it is frequently linked to the business culture. However, audiences primarily care about quality content and that also goes for the format it takes and the characteristics of it. 

To the format challenge, we need to add the distribution one. In fact, targeted content distribution in the content shock era is becoming harder. Consequently, paid distribution is becoming a staple in a content marketing strategy. In this recent research, 84% of B2B marketers declared they use paid distribution channels for content marketing purposes.

    9. Generating (good) content consistently.

Already in 2015, Hubspot reported that, to 54% of B2B marketers, producing engaging content was a top challenge. This number has remained or even grown over the course of 5 years.  

The relentless pressure to always be publishing content isn’t only daunting but also unattainable when resources are limited. “Even sites with huge audiences and large teams of professional writers and copy editors frequently publish simply awful articles riddled with mistakes, lazy writing, or incorrect facts. Why? Partly because they have to, and partly because they can,” argues this author

    10. Personas aren’t (yet) part of the strategy. 

Much has been written about personas. There are buyer personas, content personas, social media personas and likely more. We prefer to use the term “client persona” – or customer persona – if it suits you better. 

Literature on personas is nearly endless. There are approaches saying that they could be shaped by means of indirect research, others prefer direct research and others, both of them. Whichever technique a financial services business bets on, the definition of personas has to go beyond the industry, the function and the seniority, factors commonly used to define them. We know it because we have gone down that road too.

Persona definition required to assess, as precise as possible, the needs of that “persona” so content fulfills them. Needless to say, the least these personas want are sales pitches or cold ads, calls or banners, also because the buying cycle in the B2B arena is usually long and requires, as well, the person-to-person interaction so “push marketing” is greatly ineffective.

Conclusion

Challenges. We have named the above-mentioned list like that because we want this article to be easily found on the internet and, therefore, to be useful for you. The truth is, it would have been better to name it differently, for instance “10 opportunities”.  Because, ultimately, only businesses turning every challenge into an opportunity manage to differentiate from the others. 

Content-based marketing, content marketing, inbound marketing, are only names, but what matters the most is the philosophy they embed. Names shouldn’t divert businesses from their approach on generating quality content. There isn’t a workaround unfortunately. The content economy is just a side effect of the world of “digital everything” we live in. 

Educate the business about the importance of quality content and sell the notion that content builds brand equity are much needed tasks in the to-do list of financial services. 

What we think
Luis Salerno, Digital Communications Manager
Luis Salerno, Digital Communications Manager at PwC Luxembourg

Quality content is like any other investment asset that you manage. Its ROI isn’t only about moving leads down the marketing funnel but, even more important, it is about building lasting relationships cemented on trust, the business value that will never go out of style.

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