The Role of Context in Content

Hugh Taylor


context in contentYears ago, a fan once asked Steve Martin how he got to be so f***** funny. He replied, “I put a slice of bologna in each of my shoes. So when I’m on stage, I feel funny.” I get asked the B2B marketing version of this same question: Hugh, how can you write about esoteric subjects like data encryption and backup storage arrays and make them seem interesting? I wish I had a snappy comeback like, “I put bologna on my laptop keys and it just feels interesting,” but I don’t. There is a trick to creating relevant, engaging content, though. It’s just not flashy. The secret to writing good B2B content is to know your context.

When it comes to content, context is everything

Context is everything that surrounds your main topic. It is “with the text,” so to speak. Your main topic carries some weight, but usually not enough to compel a reader to download the content. For instance, a Chief Security Officer (CSO) is, by definition, someone who cares about data encryption. But, that does not mean that he or she will gravitate to your white paper on the subject. Your paper might be about how encrypting data at rest is a best practice. This is inherently important for people to know but it’s not necessarily interesting. What will make the reader want to read what you have to say about encryption at rest? Usually, it is the context that will create this essential attraction to the subject.

How the Theory of Mind (ToM)  can help marketers understand context

Context takes you into the domain of “theory of mind,” a concept used in the treatment of people with autism. Theory of Mind (ToM) refers to one’s ability to understand how the mind of another person might function differently from one’s own. We all exercise ToM in our daily lives to some extent. Like, if it’s cold out, I might imagine that others feel as cold as I do. Yet, for some reason, when we write marketing content, we often close out our ToM sensors. We might wrongly assume that everyone finds a topic such as at-rest data encryption as fascinating as we do.  This would be an erroneous assumption most of the time. ToM can help us figure out the context that will spur true interest.

Using ToM, we can get inside the head of the CSO. What is worrying him or her? What excites the CSO? What amuses the CSO? If we can access these layers of the CSO’s mind, we can develop context that will draw him or her into our material. With the ToM approach, the magic context for a paper on at-rest data encryption might talk about serious concerns held by corporate security managers. For example, if you start your paper on data encryption talking about recent security incidents where unencrypted data was hacked at rest and improperly shared – and unfortunately, there are many such incidents to choose from – you will most likely reach a higher level of engagement with your reader. Think about it. What’s more of a hook: A) You need to encrypt your data at rest; or, B) You could get fired/sued/disgraced/criminally charged if you don’t pay attention to what I have to say here. I think we’ll go with B.

Context can’t be forced

Once you have context, the next challenge involves working your topic into the context without seeming forced. Sometimes a good context-building lead-in is all you need. In the case of this blog, my ToM calculus figured that reading about marketing was not high on your agenda today. (Was I right?) But, a discussion of how Steve Martin got funny? That might have been the kind of diversion you were looking for…  that is, until I twisted back into the heavy lifting of our marketing profession. Gotcha!

Reel in your prospects

context reelAlternatively, I may use a technique that I have learned from experienced salespeople. I ask a question to which I know the answer will be yes. In this example, the question might be, “Is the risk of a data breach considered serious at your enterprise?” The answer will be yes. If it’s not, you’re talking to the wrong person. The salesperson knows that once the prospect says “yes” and agrees with you, you have that person in an agreeing state of mind. The barriers to making the sale have dropped. A paper is not all that different. You ask the question and get the yes. Making a statement up front is less effective. If you lead off with, “Data breaches are a serious risk,” you would be right but doing a worse job of engaging with your reader’s mind.

Get the “yes” first, then build a bridge to your topic

One approach that can be effective is to form what I call a context chain. After asking your “yes” question, you digress into some meaningful discussion about the issues involved. In the data encryption case, it might be sharing where hackers have succeeded in stealing at-rest data that security managers thought was protected through security controls. This way, after getting the “yes” and opening the door to the possibility that some security controls are weak, you are ready to create a bridge to your actual topic. Having opened the mind of the reader with context presented in an effective question and discussion format, you’re ready to go in for the kill and deliver your main content to a receptive audience.

Understanding context is useful for creating content that is always relevant regardless of whether the topic is familiar to readers or not. Realistically, many B2B topics are similar and even repetitive over time. Encryption has been an important topic for decades. How do you make it relevant today?  Context is your friend. It gives you a way to get inside the head of the reader and make them care about the subject that you consider important. Go ahead. It’s time to bait your hook with context and reel in those prospects.

context blog Hugh Taylor

 Hugh Taylor, is the President of Taylor Communications, a firm specializing in long form content for technology companies and the author of the book B2B Technology Marketing. You can follow Hugh on LinkedIn.


Context image via Shutterstock

B2B content, content, content development, content marketing, contextual, technology marketing

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