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Photo: Chainarong Prasertthai/iStock/Getty Images Plus

LLet’s imagine you’ve bought into the church of content marketing. You’ve invested in copywriters, graphic designers, SEO pros, social media hotshots, and a swarm of marketing managers. But you’ve somehow missed the sermon on how conversion shouldn’t be your only goal. You learned the acronym for return on investment, and ROI became the only word you can speak. Your impatience and your desperate need to steamroll your customers through their decision journeys at epic speeds will leave you high and dry.

Newsflash: Sales and retention are the objectives of every business — otherwise, it’d just be an expensive hobby. But sales shouldn’t be your first and sole objective.

Are you tired of your story strategy not turning passive browsers and readers into paying customers? Are you frustrated with your content marketing and its inability to move the revenue needle as fast as you want it to? Breathe it out, because I’m sharing the one major perception shift that could be holding you back from your sales goals.

Let’s start with how customer acquisition doesn’t work when it comes to your content strategy.

Gain trust, not sales


You design a multichannel story strategy. You spend a considerable amount of time and resources mapping out content for your ideal customers. You create content calendars, schedule photo shoots, and spend days generating clever, on-brand captions. Once you create the content and share it on social media, you sit back and await the revenue free-for-all.

Then, crickets. Tumbleweed blows past your office. You go through various states of confusion and grief. You watch Seth Godin videos and shadowbox to the Rocky V soundtrack. There might be emphatic fist-pounding on a conference room table or the firing of some of your in-house staff and your content management agency. You circulate a new RFP with your single objective in bold: SHOW ME THE ROI. You keep reconfiguring your content and multichannel distribution strategy in hopes of cashing in your unicorn ticket, but repeating the same behavior won’t deliver different results.

Here’s where you failed: The primary objective of your content should be to gain trust, not sales.

Trust me, the sales will come, but you have to consider your customer’s journey. It’s not always linear, and it doesn’t always follow your unrealistic, instantaneous timeline. People don’t just wake up and see the gleaming halo around your product. They don’t just fall under the hypnotic incantation that is your product copy and hand over their wallets.

Customers are busy, skeptical, and often paralyzed by choice. They’ll take a dozen steps before they even encounter your brand and even more to include it in their consideration set. And one blog post, no matter how many SEO optimizations you shove down its CMS throat, won’t be the conversion clincher.

ABF media

Acquiring customers is a relationship — like any other — that you build on trust. Trust that you understand their needs, wants, pain points, motivations, influences, and buying behavior, and trust that you’re the one who could satisfy those needs.

Let’s examine a sample journey using the hospitality industry to determine how you can employ a content strategy to cultivate a relationship and transform browsing into booking.

Step 1

Kevin is planning to book a direly needed vacation in three months to the Florida Keys. He’s already secured his flight and will wait a few weeks until he decides on a hotel. He casually starts researching options on, Airbnb, Expedia, etc.

Step 2

He notices your hotel — maybe through a sponsored ad on a booking site or based on the criteria he selected — and clicks through to browse the photo gallery, amenities, price for a single room, and, most important, the reviews. He pores over your TripAdvisor reviews, and they’re all fairly positive. He logs off for the night.

Step 3

Kevin logs onto Facebook to announce he’s going to the Keys, and then he sees an ad about your hotel with a link to a blog post you’ve created: “The Top 10 Secret Must-Visit Spots in the Keys.” His interest is piqued. He clicks over to your hotel’s blog and consumes the content you’ve created. He jots down notes of places he might like to visit. He hasn’t chosen your hotel, but he likes the fact that he has information that will make his holiday a memorable one.

Step 4


Kevin scrolls through your posts related to the Keys and shares one on Twitter. His validation of your content is his first step in forming a relationship with your brand. As a consumer, he knows the value of social currency and how his sharing your article signals that he vouches for your brand, albeit on a minor level. He also shares another post from one of your competitors that he found interesting. Make no mistake: Kevin is not loyal to you, because he doesn’t know or care about you yet. He just wants ammunition to fuel his decision.

Step 5

Your social media manager spots the shared post and engages with Kevin, asking when he plans to visit and offering up some suggestions about local crab shops. Kevin likes that you haven’t bombarded him with sales messages and the fact that your hotel was the only one that acknowledged him online. Your competitor was radio silent. Kevin also receives a retargeting ad displaying your recent TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence award. Kevin trusts TripAdvisor, and this makes him feel better about your hotel versus the competitor option down the street.

Step 6

Kevin becomes invested. He signs up for your newsletter (which promises exclusive offers and deals) and decides to follow your page on Instagram. He checks out some of your stories and likes the vibe of your various hotels — the images of the guests sporting athletic and scuba gear feel “just like him,” and he likes that the crowd is mostly young and adventurous. Kevin leaves a thumbs-up emoji on your photos from the Keys. He asks some questions on Instagram about nearby attractions and dining in the hotel, and your social media team responds promptly, guiding him to links that show him everything he needs. At this point, he leaves for his holiday in a month.

Step 7

Kevin is a fan. When he has time, he engages with your hotel on social, likes that you chat back, and then receives a targeted offer in a newsletter that qualifies him for one free night if he books within the next 48 hours.

Step 8

Kevin is in! You’ve gained his trust with your knowledge of the Keys, the solid TripAdvisor reviews, and the badge of excellence. He appreciates that you’ve always treated him like a human rather than a wallet. He transitions from a fan to a customer.

A customer can go through this journey, or they can take a year and cycle through several competitors to get to you. You’re here to play the long game, not to judge the efficacy of your marketing strategy by how much attributable sales each tactic earns per quarter. You don’t gain customers by screaming “Buy my product!” in their face.

Feel first, think second

Here’s why the fusion of customer-centered content and human connection works to ultimately drive sales.

First, you created content that you knew would resonate with your target audience. You learned about your customer beyond their basic demographic info and spend propensity. You got to know them as people who have real and complicated problems, motivations, behaviors, and habits.

Once you know everything there is to know, you become the person who gets them. You post the lifestyle photos that Kevin wants to see. You talk up the allergy-free options in your local restaurant. You talk to Kevin like he’s a person instead of a number, and this act goes a long way in establishing that “like, know, and trust” factor.

You also realize the power of mirror neurons and how becoming a reflection of your customer is the quickest route to establishing trust.

We understand others not by thinking but by feeling. Customers feel first, think second. Scientifically, we home in on “mirror neurons,” creating words that simulate your customers’ actions and the thoughts and feelings behind their actions. They feel like you’re talking to them, about them. Customers want to see themselves in you. They want to know that you see them, understand them, and they’re part of your reason to be.

With mirroring, people who consume your content will experience similar activity to the people depicted in your images or videos, as well as to the storyteller. In short, our brains are wired to empathize and make connections with others and the stories they tell. Our reactions are primarily emotional until the rational, more pragmatic side of our brain kicks in, which means stories have the power to immediately draw people in.

If you gain customers’ trust through your stories and authentic, relatable connection, what started as Kevin reading a blog post dovetails into Kevin booking a room in your hotel for his Keys holiday.

When you’re developing a story strategy that centers on gaining a prospect’s trust, make sure your content:

  • Fosters a dialogue: You want customers to comment, ask questions, and be engaged. Let them experience your difference firsthand.
  • Taps into their feelings: When your content evokes feelings of amusement, joy, hope, happiness, interest, and delight, customers are more apt to engage and share, because we’re all hardwired to crave endorphin-boosting emotions. Let your story focus on the emotional benefits of your brand and properties, and then swoop in with the rational considerations of price, location, rewards, etc.
  • Evokes feelings of familiarity and comfort: Because of mirroring, people cleave closer to that which is familiar. Even though your social media team sits behind a computer screen — they’re strangers to Kevin — he establishes a sense of knowing them, because they’ve communicated with him in a human and real way. Leverage the information you know about your customer to deliver content and experiences that feel familiar yet exceptional to them.

Give your content time to yield the returns you’re seeking. Trust isn’t given or earned overnight, but your stories are the first step — the bait that lures them in — to creating a real and lasting relationship with your customer.


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