If you’ve been anywhere near any sort of business anytime in the past few years, you’ve heard the term content marketing. You probably have at least a vague idea of what it is, but if you’re fuzzy on the details, read on.
The most universally accepted definition of content marketing comes from the Content Marketing Institute:
“Content marketing is a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly defined audience—and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.”
That’s a lot of information, so let’s unpack it.
First, content marketing is a form of marketing, so its goal is to sell products or services. It’s strategic, not just thrown together. It relies on content. When content is valuable and relevant it drives customers to action. What action? Purchasing your product or service or communicating its value to others.
Okay. But what actually is it? Let’s start with what it isn’t: traditional advertising.
Why bother learning about content marketing?
People have reached a saturation point with traditional advertising. Think about the last time you flipped through a magazine. Did you stop and admire the pages of advertising at the front of the book, or did you skip right to the articles?
That’s what consumers are doing with advertising. They’re skipping it. Many people hardly notice ads—if they even see them. Ad-blocking software can keep many forms of traditional advertising completely out of sight.
To make matters worse for traditional advertising, Google has adjusted its standards, penalizing pop-ups and other interstitials.
So where does that leave businesses that are trying to market goods and services to customers?
Content Marketing is the key to customer engagement.
The magic of content marketing is that it can get people to actively seek out your marketing. They will go in search of it, eager for the next installment.
You’ve almost never heard someone say, “Oh, man, I can’t wait for this show to be over so I can watch the commercials.” (Except maybe during the Super Bowl.)
But people do get excited about content marketing. They want to engage with it. They’re eager to read, to watch, to listen. But why? Because good content marketing doesn’t just sell. It educates. It entertains.
An ad is promotional. It says, “We have the product or service you need, buy now.” Content marketing is useful. It says, “If you have a certain problem, here are some ways to solve it. And if you need more help, we have this product or service you might want to look into.” It’s low pressure.
It’s the difference between a used car salesman desperate to make commission, and a true car lover who really wants to show off an amazing new sports car. Who engenders more trust?
Content marketing is good for SEO.
Search engines like quality content. A Search Quality Senior Strategist at Google named content as one of the top three ranking signals used by Google’s algorithms. And content means more than keywords now. Google and other search engines are introducing technologies that reward natural language and true relevance.
In fact, websites with blog content get 434% more indexed pages than those without blogs. That’s a lot more opportunities for someone to stumble across your website while Googling.
Content marketing helps shoppers self-convert.
That’s important because according to Forrester Research Analyst Lori Wizdo, the average buyer is 60% to 90% through their buyer’s journey before they contact you. What does that mean in practice? That means that your content is doing the selling for you.
A Demand Gen Report for 2016 found that 47% of buyers viewed 3–5 pieces of content before engaging with a sales rep. If you have no content for them to view, they might just move on to a company that does.
How does content marketing compare to other forms of marketing?
Content marketing is probably the most effective form of marketing available today. Compare it to any other form of marketing, and you’ll wonder why you’re not spending your entire marketing budget on content.
Take traditional marketing like magazine ads, commercials, and billboards. Content marketing costs 62% less but generates 3 times as many leads according to Demand Metric.
More potential customers by spending less money? Yep. But there’s more.
In the long run, content marketing is also less expensive than paid search. For paid search to continue working, you have to continue dumping money into it. But content marketing becomes more valuable over time.
Impact found that their highest traffic blog posts are often six months old or older. The same holds true for video, infographics and many other forms of content marketing. You create it and put it out there, and it starts getting shared. The next thing you know it’s popping up on your kid’s Facebook feed.
Who else is doing it?
Because content marketing is so effective, practically everyone is doing it. We’re doing it right now with this blog. Our Epiphanies video series is also a form of content marketing. We’re showing off what we can do while informing and entertaining you in the process.
The Search Engine Optimization company Moz used blogging to grow their business into an inbound marketing and analytics powerhouse. The blog itself even acts as a revenue stream by charging for special bonus content.
You’ve even seen it yourself. Those magazines that pop up in every hotel room? The ones that tell you exactly what to see and do in the city? That’s content marketing, too.
Basically, everyone is using content marketing to a greater or lesser extent. But not everyone is doing it well.
What does great content marketing look like?
While pretty much everyone from Fortune 500 companies to the hotdog vendor down the street from your office is getting on the content marketing bandwagon, some are seeing better results than others.
The reason why is pretty simple, companies that succeed at content marketing make great content. Companies that fail make… let’s call it less-than-great content.
So what does great content look like? It’s targeted, informative, and consistent.
Great content is targeted.
To make great content you need to know your audience. Your format, your tone, your subject, your style—these are all informed by who your audience is.
AARP sends a print magazine to their members. Coca-Cola encourages users to share photos on social media. They’re speaking to two different audiences in a medium that those audiences understand.
While you certainly want to make engaging content, don’t forget that the medium is part of the message, too. The decisions you make around distribution channels and topics need to be made in order to reach your target audience.
Great content is informative.
Content marketing doesn’t bash anyone over the head with a sales pitch. Instead, it educates and informs.
For example, Bank of America partnered with Khan Academy, an online learning platform, to create video content on building better money habits. They’re educating potential consumers and building trust while keeping their brand front of mind.
The best content also entertains. If you’re a member of Dollar Shave Club, you’ve probably chuckled over one of their irreverent Bathroom Minutes newsletters. If you’re not, take a look at their Original Content page to see what all the fuss is about. It answers questions men had but were afraid to ask.
Great content is consistent.
It aligns with your overall brand voice. Keeping your content consistent requires a documented content strategy. Basically, you need to know what you’re saying, who you’re saying it too, and what you hope to accomplish.
It’s also published regularly. Remember that thing about people actively seeking out your content? If they don’t find anything, they’ll stop coming back.
Okay, but, really, what is it? Let’s get practical.
What are the most common forms of content marketing?
Content marketing is a huge umbrella term. Some of the more popular options are listed below, but there are a lot more out there.
Blogs. A single, focused website with regular posts on varied topics. Many companies start their content marketing with blogging. Blogs are text-based, usually with some photos or graphics included. Consistent blogging can improve your SEO and create a platform for customer interaction.
Newsletters. Regularly distributed digital or analog publications. A great way to stay connected to existing customers or potential customers who are interested in your industry. These can be print or emailed. Usually they include a few longer form pieces, some graphics, and any resources your customers might find useful.
Social Media. Profiles that represent your brand on different social media platforms. These are more than just a way to field customer comments. They’re also opportunities for content marketing. Every link, article, and image you post should work toward your marketing goals.
Videos. From awareness through follow-up, videos can help at every stage of the buyer lifecycle. You might create an explainer video showcasing your company mission or a tutorial helping customers discover new features for your product.
Infographics. A single-page graphic with lots of information on a specific topic. Share data and information in an easy-to-access format with infographics. They’re easier to read (and more entertaining) than charts and graphs. Plus, they can double as graphics in your blogs, newsletters, and social media.
Downloadables. Digital content, like checklists, templates, or workbooks. Whatever format, they’re designed to help your customers. These work best in PDF or Google Docs formats to make them easily accessible.
Podcasts. Audio recordings that users can listen to online or download to a device. Almost like an on-demand radio show, podcasts are great for expert interviews or customer Q&A sessions.
E-books. Short, downloadable books that dive deep into an issue, e-books are usually longer and more involved than a blog post and might require some extra graphic design.
Webinars. Online classes that help your customers understand a product or an issue. You can do a standalone or put them together in a series. Or, if you do them live, customers can ask questions and build personal connections with your brand.
You don’t have to use every one of these. In fact, there are some you might never use at all. You’ll find that some forms work for your audience, budget, and brand style, while others don’t.
Choose one or two to focus on. Trying to do a little bit of everything often leads to doing it all poorly. The most effective companies have one keystone format and build the rest of their content marketing strategy around that.