More than a month has passed since I attended Content Marketing World. Even so, new things keep popping into my head.

Sure, I saw Kevin Spacey. I listened to entertaining, intelligent keynote speakers. I realized there are waaay more content marketing software vendors than I suspected. What was my one biggest takeaway, though? I would have to go with this:

Content marketing professionals are on the right track with content strategies, but as progressive as we may think we are, we are still falling short on a fundamental need: Thinking like a consumer, empathizing with our audience and communicating in a manner that will have the most impact on their lives.

Many in the marketing community have realized that useful content has great potential for building rapport with target audience members, and it can help to boost brand affinity more than overtly promotional material in many cases. If we are not putting that content where consumers will find it, however, and if we are not delivering it in a manner that they want to consume, then we are failing to make the most of our efforts. We need to begin challenging our assumptions of how consumers think, make decisions and ultimately behave to ensure our content is effective.

Surmising How Consumers Search
We may be a bit short-sighted in how and when we are engaging consumers during the buying cycle. Much discussion has taken place in recent years regarding the way consumers search for product and service-related information. The marketing industry has more closely embraced the posting of information within “owned” spaces, and companies have invested heavily in optimizing content residing in those spaces so that consumers will find their offerings when they turn to search engines. This is a useful practice, but it may not fully capitalize on opportunities to attract people to a brand.

Ask yourself this question: How often do you turn to Google to conduct a rational, planned search? Sure, there are times you plan and execute an orderly search for a specific product or service online, But if you’re anything like me, however, much more often your Google searches are spontaneous endeavors to look something up because you had an unplanned moment of inspiration. You needed a recipe. You heard a term you didn’t understand and wanted to know what it meant. You saw an opportunity for improvement, and decided to see what options existed to capitalize on that opportunity. And more likely than not, your search was not just a single search, but a series of searches, one thing leading to another and another.

People do not often search like logical robots, but more so like the flighty, spastic creatures that we are. And we do it because we were spontaneously inspired to do so, usually. As a result, content marketers may well have more success in seeking to create the moments of inspiration in people’s lives that drive their behavior rather than focusing so much on creating content and hoping the right people find it. As brand storytellers, we should not start thinking of a potential buyer’s journey as starting when they begin typing in a search bar, but rather focus on what comes before: those moments of inspiration that create an irresistible urge to act. We should be thinking like producers, finding new ways to inspire actions by building suspense, creating aspiration, driving empathy and harnessing emotion in our content.

Rethinking How Consumers Think
We also need to question our assumptions about how people consume content once they encounter it. Traditionally we have marketed to the “rational consumer”, doing our best to persuade them to choose our products, services and so forth. This may work in some cases, but for content marketers trying to harness storytelling to increase consumer attachment to a brand, it may not be the best approach after all.

Research is showing that humans form attachments to brands in the same way that they form attachments to other humans. As brain imaging shows, these attachments are emotionally driven (taking place deep in the brain’s limbic system), NOT driven by rational decision making (which takes place in the neocortex). This tells us that not only is our messaging sometimes flawed in the types of appeals it makes, but our methods of analysis are lacking as well—surveys call upon respondents to rationalize why they feel the way they do about specific objects and ideas, but the truth is that people don’t generally know why they feel the emotions they do.

This is important because brand attachment correlates to sales/buying behavior substantially more than whether a person shares, Likes, shows favorability toward, or is willing to recommend a brand or piece of content. Whereas promotional, rationality-based messages have higher short-term direct effectiveness on sales, emotional brand-based messages have more lasting indirect effectiveness, and thus have a greater impact on total sales. Additionally, people who exhibit strong brand attachment are more likely to influence others’ feelings about the brand, making it important to measure. And it can be measured: Algorithms have been developed and are being refined to analyze big data created across social media to create measures of brand attachment.

The bottom line, as I heard it, is that we need to expand our thinking to encompass how our audiences think. Content marketing may still be new to some, but like everything in the communication industry, it is constantly evolving. Right now, that means not only focusing on what we are creating, but whom we are creating it for in order to maximize our content marketing ROI. The message in the marketplace is clear: Be empathetic, and be inspiring, or be left behind.

Lukas Treu is Content Architect at AKHIA.

Want more AKHIA #CMWorld coverage? See here, here, here, here and here.