Using Content to Grow Customer Relationships
Published: June 8, 2009
Want to keep your customers despite tough economic times? Don’t add yet another feature to your Web site. Stop worrying about redesigning it. Instead, take a hard look at improving your site’s content.
Why content? In this age of automation and technology, Web content is often how a company communicates with its customers. B.J. Fogg, author of Persuasive Technology, tells us that technology can be a “social actor” that “creates relationship.”  However, I believe the true social actor is the content that technology delivers. In fact, content can play the roles of many social actors. The content on a business Web site, for instance, may take the role of a sales executive, a customer service agent, a technical support assistant, and more. Because your site’s content mediates customer relationships, it offers an opportunity to deepen those relationships.
In this column, I will explore the idea of Web content as a nurturer of customer relationships and share a few examples of what this can mean. My focus is on company content that communicates to customers, because, in my opinion, that’s the content most in need of improvement. I recognize the importance of considering user-generated content and social media in customer relationships, but many companies first need to improve their core communications with customers.
Content Comes from and Represents People
“People don’t relate to companies, they relate to people,” says Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh.  The Zappos solution is to employ real people who are readily available to communicate with customers by phone, Twitter, and more. These people are well trained and enthusiastic, and Zappos encourages them to spend time with customers. I applaud the Zappos approach. At the same time, this approach does not replace the need for self-service or automated means of managing customer relationships. In my experience, some customers strongly prefer interacting with a person, while others strongly prefer doing things themselves—and some customers may prefer either option, depending on the task, topic, or context. However, the Zappos approach signals a change in perspective on customer-relationship content that other companies would do well to emulate.
In a recent Webinar, content expert Ginny Redish suggested a new perspective, calling for UX professionals to “shift the focus” on content by viewing it both as critical and as a conversation with users. 
This change in perspective means content that supports customer relationships is not merely documentation or filler or marketing blast or user interface. It is an extension of a company’s best people. Viewing content in this way implies that content should, among other things
- sound human, not machine-like
- be helpful
- have an appropriate tone
- reflect social norms such as politeness
- represent the company’s personality and values
The more a company’s content acts like its best people, the better customers will relate to it.
The Right Content Makes Customer Relationships Thrive
Clearly, content plays an important role in connecting a business with its customers. Yet, many companies fail to approach content from that perspective. Often, if companies do put effort into content, they focus their effort on winning new customers. Microsites and landing pages provide a couple of examples of this. This is not enough. Most businesses, especially those offering services, depend on establishing customer relationships that last a while. Businesses must continually win the loyalty of their customers. One of the most effective ways in which businesses can win customers is by communicating well—that is, through good content.
In this view, I am not alone. Forrester analysts consistently state that content is important to the customer experience. Their report “The Persuasive Content Architecture” notes, “Customers want faster responses to requests, more conversational interactions, and more relevant content.”  Likewise, “Use Persuasive Content to Improve the Customer Experience” states that companies “can drive significant improvements in customer experiences. How? By putting more emphasis on using content to help customers—whether it is providing relevant information when customers buy a product or delivering easy-to-use and understandable content for customer self-service Web sites—rather than simply focusing on how to create, manage, and search for content.”  (Emphasis in both quotations is mine.)
Now, considering content as the way to cultivate customer relationships raises some important questions.
Doesn’t CRM (Customer Relationship Management) or CMS (Content Management System) technology do this?
These technologies, as well as the business rules driving them, are critical to efficiently supporting customer relationships. They let us manage, personalize, and optimize Web content on a large scale. However, use of these technologies alone does not make communication with customers more effective. In other words, businesses cannot merely invest in a CRM or CMS product and expect excellent communication to happen automatically. Businesses must still craft their communication’s content. The recent Forrester report “Stop Managing Content!” states, “Web content management (WCM) efficiencies…remain important, but they pale in comparison to the need to create Web sites that engage, persuade, and help visitors achieve their goals.”
Doesn’t improving the product or service do this?
A true improvement to a product or service, not mere feature creep, does help customer relationships. However, communication between customers and the business is and always will be a substantial part of the customer experience. It sustains the customer relationship. (For more detail about why I think communication largely is the customer experience, see my first UXmatters column “Rediscovering Communication.”)
Think of trying to fuel your body for a marathon with a diet consisting only of Twinkies. Improving your running technique, but continuing to eat only Twinkies would not help you to run much further. Without the right variety of good foods, you could not run for long. Without the right variety of good content, your customer relationships do not go the distance.
Delightful Content Engenders Loyalty
Planning for customer experience that engenders loyalty through delight is a brilliant approach that Adaptive Path has described as “The Long Wow.”  While this Adaptive Path approach does not mention content or communication specifically, the company’s blog has given some examples of wow moments that are well-executed communications. For instance, Adaptive Path’s Brandon Schauer enjoyed an unexpected annual report from the service Dopplr.  I am convinced that, if the strategic planning process Adaptive Path espouses added a hard look at effective communication and content, businesses would find more opportunities for wow moments.
Figure 1—A Dopplr communication that provides a wow moment
To give a sense of the possibilities for developing customer relationships through good content, I’ll share a few more examples. Zappos.com recently shared on Twitter that a fellow business lives by the mantra of “warm welcomes, magical moments, and fond farewells.” I can’t think of a better framework for developing customer relationships.
Jet Blue makes a bold statement that the company cares about its customers. Such content is valuable early in a customer relationship to convey a company’s values and build trust. It could also offer a clear reminder later in a relationship. (For more about influential reminders, see my previous column “Ten Recipes for Persuasive Content.”) A key to any promise, of course, is a company’s ability and willingness to actually fulfill it. If a company truly advocates for customers, customers will be more likely to advocate for the company.
Figure 2—The Jet Blue Web site talks about its advocacy of customer rights
I crafted the revamped Cingular Service Summary as a customer welcome. When presented to a new or renewed customer, this welcome concisely summarized the customer account, educated the customer about its features, promoted self-service options, and set expectations for the first or next bill. Achieving a laser-like focus on content that is relevant to new and renewed customers was tough in a large, traditional organization with many stakeholders and a complex service offering. But it paid off with overwhelmingly positive feedback from customers in surveys and anecdotes. Before the redesign, customers did not remember receiving a Cingular Service Summary. After we revised its content, customers reported they not only remembered receiving the document, but actually used it.
Figure 3—The Cingular Service Summary focuses on the needs of new and renewed customers
The Payment Request
I love the T-Mobile story about turning a customer’s bill into a useful communication about the customer’s account. Design Council offers an excellent case study, pointing out the combination of graphics, writing, and layout that made the bill clear and helpful.  I also discussed some tips for improving the bill in my UXmatters column “Better Bills.”
Figure 4—The T-Mobile bill, a true touch-point for customers
The Helping Hand
37signals offers a simple, but effective newsletter, featuring a pertinent case study and tips for using its services. Rather than focusing on upselling customers, the newsletter reminds customers of the company’s complete set of service offerings.
Figure 5—37signals newsletter helps customers use its services
From Transacted to Flourishing Customer Relationships
The examples I’ve described—the promise, welcome, request for payment, and helping hand—represent just a few of the many possibilities for delightful content. Of course, exploring these possibilities takes time and effort. In a design process, how often does a company’s communication to a customer remain only a transaction node in a process flow? How often is the creation of customer communications left to development or marketing alone? How often do the business rules driving communications become development decisions? In my experience, the answer to all three questions is more often than not. I am hopeful that content strategy, an emerging discipline, will help UX and content professionals change the answer to never. (For more about content strategy, see the references in my previous UXmatters column, “Toward Content Quality.”)
In summary, view content less as a means of transacting relationships and more as an opportunity to make them flourish. With that perspective, you will be more likely to take the time to craft content that cultivates deeper relationships with your customers—and that can transform them into your advocates.
 Fogg, B.J. Persuasive Technology: Using Computers to Change What We Think and Do. St. Louis, MO: Morgan Kaufmann, 2003.
 Colony, George. “Social CRM Is Like Sex.” Destination CRM, May 8, 2009. Retrieved May 19, 2009.
 Redish, Ginny. “Content As Conversation.” Rosenfeld Media: Future Practice Webinars, May 28, 2009.
 LeClair, Craig, and Stephen Powers. “The Persuasive Content Architecture.” Forrester, July 2, 2008. Retrieved May 30, 2009.
 McNabb, Kyle. “Use Persuasive Content to Improve the Customer Experience.” Forrester, December 7, 2006. Retrieved May 30, 2009.
 Schauer, Brandon. “The Long Wow.” IA Summit 2008, April 12, 2008. Retrieved May 20, 2009.
 Schauer, Brandon. “Dopplr’s Moment of Long Wow.” Adaptive Path Blog, January 26, 2009. Retrieved May 20, 2009.
 Design Council. “T-Mobile: Making Monthly Communications More Effective.” Design Council, June 3, 2008. Retrieved May 20, 2009