What is your content mission? Customer-First Marketing was a major theme at our C3 Conference this year. From the opening keynote to the closing panel, marketing leaders kept reiterating the belief that to truly succeed at marketing, you have to put your customers’ hearts and minds first.

Catherine McManus, the Senior Director of Brand Content at Aetna, was no exception. She gave a presentation about Aetna’s recent brand campaign (“You don’t join us, we join you”) that embodied this Customer-First ethos. It looked at both the business and human side of marketing. I don’t want to spoil the ending here, but by the end there were tissues being passed around in the audience.

Catherine shared a valuable, repeatable approach with the audience that other organizations can use to replicate Aetna’s success—all within the familiar elements of the content lifecycle: Create, Amplify, Connect, and Optimize. Then, she showed us how approaching marketing as a Customer-First practice can lead to some incredible real-world results.

But let’s start with how she did it.

1. Create

The first element of this approach is Aetna’s content creation process. Content is easier to create when you know why you are creating it. And it’s easier to create content at campaign scale when all that content contains a common thread.

With this in mind, Catherine’s team set out to create original, owned content from the many stories Aetna collected during day-to-day interactions with customers. Aetna’s marketing team’s editorial content mission, which included a commitment to using storytelling, education, and empowerment to help people achieve their health ambitions, provided a guide for how to tell and honor these customers’ stories.

And that’s what it’s about, right? Missions are pretty empty if they aren’t about helping your customers. Like Aetna’s focus on their members’ health ambitions, you have to find a way to look past your products and services to see what problems your customers want solved.

You also have to meet your customers where they are so that you can share your message. To do this, Aetna created content that could be shared across different channels. With TV spots, local display ads, and digital ads, Catherine’s team drove customers to a microsite dedicated to their campaign.

2. Amplify

This one you probably know pretty well. You can’t just publish content without a distribution plan. Aetna amplified their campaign and its content through paid, owned, and earned channels.

But it’s important to remember that you don’t have to go it alone with your outreach. Aetna also partnered with media outlets like CNN to co-brand and expand their reach. Look for like-minded companies out there with strong brands that might be looking to organizations like yours to find new audiences.

3. Connect

Aetna is a big company. And even if your organization isn’t, I’m willing to bet there are some silos between departments. Whether it’s size or just departmental territorialism, it’s important to connect the dots across your organization when you roll out a content campaign. Catherine said Aetna aligned its efforts behind their brand campaign to maximize their content assets and to reinforce brand consistency.

4. Optimize

Campaigns don’t stop when they are out in the wild. Even when a campaign is working, it’s not enough to just let a good thing be. From the best to the worst, outcomes give you insight into how you can approach other content or campaigns that you can optimize for the future.

Aetna continually measured its performance across all of their channels to figure out where they could improve on the content they had already created. Using their editorial mission as a guide, they optimized headlines, videos, and content structure based on A/B testing, social video performance testing, and other analysis.

The Bigger Picture

Catherine’s presentation had an important takeaway that brought the humanity back into this marketing process. One anecdote highlighted how connecting with your customers can create ROI that isn’t simply measured in dollars. Committing to Customer-First Marketing can certainly mean better return on your company’s financial investment, but also in increased trust, stronger communities, and better human relationships.

One piece of content Aetna produced in partnership with CNN was a look into the work of a Houston-based community not-for-profit called AFC, which provides “mentorship programs to at-risk, underprivileged, and displaced students through a multifaceted youth development program.”

Two weeks after the Aetna team was in Houston with AFC, Hurricane Harvey devastated the local community and AFC’s headquarters. Aetna followed up with help to fund the not-for-profit until they were back on their feet.

This might simply seem like a nice feel-good story about corporate philanthropy, but there’s more to it than that. The relationships that Aetna built with AFC during their content campaign were directly responsible for the opportunity to provide material help after Hurricane Harvey. It was because Aetna’s team looked for customer stories that they knew about AFC. Because they learned about and gave voice to their customers, Aetna was able to offer help.

This is the promise of Customer-First Marketing. Beyond the dollar signs that might drive us toward higher ROI, there are real connections that we as marketers can build with our customers. The work we do—just from building actual relationships with our customers—can have profound effects that go beyond the scope of our day-to-day work or our organizations’ stated business goals.

If you’re not helping people…

As attendees left the registration desk at C3, they were handed a tote bag with a message that underscored what we heard from Catherine and what we saw in action with Aetna:

“If You’re Not Helping People, You’re Just Selling Stuff.”

Too true.

Ready to take your content strategy to the next level? Check out our resource on the content creation process for everything you need to get started.