Selling via content

An article in today's Financial Times ( "Corporate tales to boost sales" ) describes using content to sell products. Such a technique is not new; it has just never been fully accepted by the companies involved.

The idea has been around for years. Marketing textbooks tell you if the customer asks for a drill, find out what the customer wants the drill for, and then identify, and sell, a solution to their problem. It doesn't even need to be as radical as that; when you are buying paint, all you want is a bit of advice on how to use it. As John Kay points out, Western economies are based around service industries, but the "service" is not the provision of the goods themselves - that's the easy bit. What you pay for, at least what you hope to receive, is advice on how to solve your problem. That might be as simple as how to take the lid off, or it might be more complex and consider questions such as the optimum temperature to use the paint, and so on.

A major professional association I worked with maintained over fifteen online forums full of discussion on how to do this or that task in the professional association's domain. In those forums was a wealth of information that any product manufacturer or vendor would have loved to get their hands on. Yet the professional association saw the forums as an irritant at best, a sideline to the association's "real" concerns. "Nothing but timewasters", said one manager to me.

The FT calls it "thought market leadership", but in fact it's much simpler than that. If you are a paint company, why do your customers have to go to YouTube to find out how to put the paint on? Why can't you provide details about what works, what doesn't work, for your product, via a video, a how-to guide, or a forum? And if you use video, why not Twitter, FaceBook, and so on, with real content advice?

Product manufacturers respond with horror at the thought of creating knowledge around their product. They haven't noticed that expertise has shifted from the nice man in the local ironmonger (a job role, and a shop that don't exist any more) to a knowledge-based online community.