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How does culture influence content marketing? How can you navigate the cultural seas of your prospects and customers?
Much has been written about content creation, SEO, online communities, big data, analytics and influencers in content marketing. Unfortunately, little attention has been paid to culture.
This is surprising considering the significant role culture plays in consumer behaviours – both online and offline. The backbone of your collective and individual identities, culture shapes your beliefs, values, habits and behaviours in a major way.
To understand how culture influences content marketing, let us first define culture.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, culture can be defined in 3 ways:
- the beliefs, customs, arts, etc., of a particular society, group, place, or time.
- a particular society that has its own beliefs, ways of life, art, etc.
- a way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization (such as a business).
Every society has a distinct culture. Rooted in a community’s heritage, culture covers a wide spectrum – social etiquette, dressing norms, language, religious beliefs, food, and various other customs and traditions.
Beyond these practices, communities are also defined by their unique rites and ceremonies. These may be universal like birth and circumcision rites, or highly specific like the secret handshake of the Freemasons.
Cultural mores evolve from generation to generation. What used to be unacceptable behaviour in one generation may be perceived as culturally acceptable by the next.
Beyond more evergreen expressions of culture bounded by geography, ethnicity, religion and nationality, sub-cultures may also be formed around common interests.
Teens around the world could be “Little Monsters” united in their love for Lady Gaga (aka “Mother Monster”). Lovers of Apple computers congregate online and offline as members of the Cult of the Mac. Greenies everywhere swear by the 3 Rs – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.
Culture and Marketing
Now that we learned a little about culture, how does it relate to marketing?
According to Business Dictionary, cultural marketing is defined as:
“A specific type of marketing that is geared towards promoting a message to a certain group of potential purchasers from a particular culture or demographic.”
If you think about it, virtually all forms of marketing are cultural in nature. Our customers could be as broad as belonging to a continent (eg North America) or as specific as insurance agents needing a CRM system to keep track of client portfolios.
For companies that sell to multiple markets, a related term called multicultural marketing was invented. Also known as ethnic or cross-cultural marketing, multicultural marketing is defined by Wikipedia as:
“…the practice of marketing to one or more audiences of a specific ethnicity—typically an ethnicity outside of a country’s majority culture… Typically, multicultural marketing takes advantage of the ethnic group’s different cultural referents—such as language, traditions, celebrations, religion and any other concepts—to communicate to and persuade that audience.”
What Data Doesn’t Tell You
In content marketing, online analytics play a major role in informing strategy. Unfortunately, such data are often devoid of softer qualitative insights such as culture.
Focused on hard data like demographics (age, location, sex), website visits, social media usage, and click throughs, web tools capture online behaviours after the fact.
Predicting consumer behaviours based on historical online patterns aren’t enough. You need the richness and depth of cultural insights to create impact in your content marketing efforts.
Cultures are both subtle and sublime. Slight shifts in language or visuals change the entire meaning of a message.
Used incorrectly, local slang in the wrong hands result in hilarious and offensive outcomes. What appears “cool” to you may be perceived as a joke or an insult by a person from a different culture.
Unfortunately, the codes of culture – context, authenticity, relationship, symbols, heritage, and others – are not easily communicated through digital data. You can’t discern cultural nuances by reading a Google Analytics chart or dissecting a social media word cloud.
Sharpening Cultural Intelligence
How then can you improve your understanding of cultures?
First, you should strengthen your Cultural Intelligence Quotient or CQ.
Developed by Christopher Earley and Soon Ang in their book Cultural Intelligence: Individual Interactions Across Cultures, CQ measures our ability to function effectively in various national, ethnic and organizational settings.
According to the authors, there are four parts to CQ:
CQ-Drive is a person’s interest and confidence in functioning effectively in culturally diverse settings. It includes three key areas:
- Intrinsic interest – how one derives enjoyment from culturally diverse experiences;
- Extrinsic Interest – how one benefits from culturally diverse experiences; and
- Self-efficacy – the confidence to be effective in culturally diverse situations.
CQ-Knowledge is a person’s knowledge about how similar or different cultures are. It covers:
- Business – knowledge of economic and legal systems;
- Interpersonal – knowledge of values, social interaction norms, and religious beliefs; and
- Socio-linguistics – knowledge of rules for language and non-verbal behaviors.
CQ-Strategy is how a person makes sense of culturally diverse experiences. It occurs when people make judgments about their own thought processes and those of others. This covers:
- Awareness – knowing one’s existing cultural knowledge;
- Planning – strategizing before a culturally diverse encounter; and
- Checking – qualifying assumptions and adjusting mental maps when actual experiences differ from expectations.
CQ-Action is a person’s ability to adapt verbal and nonverbal behaviors to suit diverse cultures. This involves non-verbal behaviours like modifying one’s gestures and facial expressions; and verbal expressions like accent, speed of speech, and tone.
To determine your CQ score, you may wish to take a CQ Assessment test here. Do also check out the slides below to learn how you can improve your cultural intelligence:
Cultural Intelligence: A Leadership Skill for the Future from Cheryl Doig
Culturally Savvy Content Marketing
After you have deepened your cultural intelligence, you should weave that knowledge of your customer’s culture into your content marketing process. This could be done in three key areas: content development, community management, and campaign management.
#1 Content Development
Being culturally savvy means producing content which is relevant to your prospect and respectful of his or her culture. This would cover all aspects of content production – magazines, newsletters, blog articles, slides, e-Books, white papers, videos, infographics and more.
Cultural appreciation is important to both B2C and B2B businesses. While the language of business tends to be more formal, you still need to ensure that your content hits your prospect’s sweet spot of emotional resonance. This can only be done through a deep understanding of your prospect’s culture.
Some of the things to look out for include:
- Religion and spirituality – How much prominence do religious and spiritual beliefs play in that culture? Are there sacred elements which you must stay clear of?
- Language – Do certain terms translate well? Are there offensive words to avoid? What about colloquial phrases?
- Aesthetics – What constitutes beauty in that culture?
- Symbols – Are there any designs, shapes, mythical creatures or persons which have strong symbolic value?
- Politics – What are the political orientations of your customers like? Are they likely to be more conservative or liberal, democratic or authoritarian?
- Education – This is closely related to language. The more well educated your customers are, the better able they are to appreciate metaphors and linguistic tricks.
- Context – Are the cultures high context or low context in nature? In other words, are they more open and frank in the way they relate to each other, or are they more protocol conscious? (Read this article to understand the difference.)
- Humour – Ensure that your jokes do not get lost in translation.
#2 Community Management
Likewise, managing and growing communities require cultural insight. As you are interacting with large groups of people, it is important to be sensitive to socio-cultural cues like language, tone, flow, as well as non-verbal expressions (emoticons are used online).
Beyond the points on content development above, do also consider the following:
- Social organisations – Are the cultures more individual (eg Western cultures) or communal (eg Asian cultures)?
- Power distance – How much respect do the people have for hierarchy and authority?
- Gender roles – Are there differences in how males and females interact and engage with each other?
- Taboos – What are some of the cultural “no-nos” that you must be mindful of?
- Rituals – What are some of the rituals and routines practiced in social interactions?
- Modes of interaction – Certain cultures prefer face-to-face chats while others are more comfortable engaging behind a keyboard.
#3 Campaigns and Contests
Finally, the success of online campaigns often depends on how well you understand the culture of your target audiences. Here you need to consider additional factors like the following:
- High context versus low context – How literal should your communication be? Would they appreciate metaphors?
- Seasonality – Are certain times of the year taboo for launching an online sale? (eg the 7th month “Hungry Ghost” festival in Chinese culture)
- Decision makers – Who controls the purse strings in the household or the company?
- Traditions – Are there certain occasions which warrant more spending (eg anniversaries and festivals)?
Complex and multi-faceted, culture is a vital aspect of consumer behaviour. By strengthening our knowledge and understanding of cultural principles, we can empathize more deeply with our customers and engage more effectively both online and offline.
What I’ve covered above barely scratched the surface of how cultural intelligence and insight should be infused into content marketing. However, I hope that it has given you some food for thought.