The book’s authors, Newt Barrett (my mentor) and Joe Pulizzi, predicted content marketing would become marketing. The internet would continue to disrupt marketing plans, as well as traditional magazine and newspaper models.
Businesses would increasingly fuse the two and begin communicating directly with customers and prospects online, along with finding ways to provide expert insights and education to their customers.
I remember the moment in early 2008 when I first saw the term “content marketing.” I was SVP in charge of editorial in the New York office of one of the “big three” tech-industry publishing houses when a former boss and mentor emailed me a near-finished draft of a book he co-authored: “Get Content Get Customers.”
What Is Content Marketing?
Today, content marketing is a mainstream marketing activity for any business. It's the intersection of customers' needs and the business’s marketing objectives.
Content marketing can create positive brand awareness by providing high-quality answers to important questions in areas adjacent to the products and services you sell. Content marketing should never be about your products – that’s what traditional marketing is for. Consumer needs have evolved, and serving those needs should be a priority for businesses.
“Content marketing is all about providing useful and educational content versus promotional or ‘salesy’ content,” says Stephanie Stahl, general manager of the Content Marketing Institute (CMI). “We call it 'a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attain a clearly defined audience – and, ultimately, drive profitable customer action.'”
How Content Marketing Benefits Businesses
Content marketing can lead to many benefits for a business, from an improved digital presence to increased customer loyalty to lower costs for acquiring new customers.
CMI’s annual research survey, a partnership with MarketingProfs, surveyed 810 self-identified content marketers globally for a 2021 report.
Top five goals achieved by 60% or more marketers:
- Create brand awareness (80%)
- Build credibility/trust (75%)
- Educate audiences (70%)
- Build loyalty with existing clients/customers (60%)
- Generate demand/leads (60%)
Other benefits included nurturing audiences until they become sales leads, driving attendance to events, generating sales, supporting new product launches, and building a subscriber database.
How to Create Excellent Content
Since the content in a content marketing program should focus on customers’ and prospects’ interests, understanding their needs is key. It can be challenging for many marketers because their thinking usually starts with the business in the center.
But marketers have a multitude of qualitative and quantitative research techniques to learn what’s most important to their audiences – from surveys to focus groups to just emailing or calling to ask.
Next, it’s crucial to understand your core audience’s preferred formats and channels. Are newsletters best? Blog articles? Research papers? Podcasts? Videos?
When starting out in content marketing, choose the one format/channel that works for the largest segment of your audience – only one – and master that first. Then you can experiment with a second, and so on. Stahl notes that this has been CMI’s mantra since the organization launched in 2011.
“It's all about just creating great content," Stahl notes. "I mean educational, shareable, relatable, unique, human stories. That's a lot to ask from content, but that's what great content needs.”
Start With a Strategy
According to Stahl, creating great content can’t happen without a content marketing strategy that details the business’s marketing goal(s), identifies customer needs, defines how to measure success, and includes a company mission statement.
These core elements should be in writing: a good content marketing strategy is likely to affect the organization’s communications with multiple internal and external stakeholders, who will all need to understand why you’re doing it and what to expect.
Like any strategic business program, a content marketing strategy should be managed and thoughtfully cared for over time, Stahl says. A clear-eyed strategy document provides a foundation for long-term content development.
Additionally, choose the right team to produce the content based on key themes and specific topics. Before content is produced, determine the right “voice” for your business or brand – and apply it consistently across your content.
“You can’t decide you’re going to be really formal in whitepapers, for example, but really snarky on social media,” says Stahl.
How to Execute a Content Marketing Plan
A great content marketing strategy can lean on the foundations of American journalism: fair and objective reporting. These 'news' skills can help maintain focus on the audience’s needs and deliver information for them – avoiding a business’s natural tendency to promote itself.
Stahl notes four specific elements that can help accelerate a content marketing plan.
1. Publish consistently.
Whether it’s once a month or five times a day, the frequency and channel(s) where readers can find your business’s content have to be reliable, Stahl says. Sure, random people can find your content, but they won’t become your audience unless you provide a place they can return to and rely on consistently.
2. Test different approaches and measure results.
Whether it’s subject lines in email newsletters or images on a web page, test different ideas and let the numbers speak for themselves.
3. Analyze reader responses.
Analytics can help, but also review comments on your site and social media – and then use those tangible insights to improve your content.
Don't be afraid of experimentation. Try new things so your content feels original and memorable.
Content Marketing Examples
Here are several examples that might spark your imagination:
- Paw Print is a print magazine sponsored by Mars Petcare, dedicated to a small niche of pet owners who have both cats and dogs.
- Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI) runs a blog, Uncommon Path, that celebrates outdoor activities. The company constantly refreshes its content with new programs like #OptOutside.
- The Cleveland Clinic’s Health Essentials and Health Library blogs provide trusted health and wellness information.
- Lockheed Martin’s immersive “Field Trip to Mars” aims to inspire kids to pursue STEM education. The global security and aerospace company transformed a school bus into a giant virtual reality landscape by replacing the windows with LCD screens and stowing a powerful computer containing miles of digital Martian land mapped to local Washington, D.C. streets. The LCDs looked like clear windows as students boarded for a class trip before the experience totally transformed once the bus started. In 2018 Lockheed donated the bus to the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum.
Content marketing is a great way for any business to create awareness among potential customers and build better relationships with existing customers. Starting small is better than not starting at all. No matter the scope, a good content marketing program requires strategic planning and an investment in professional content execution to create authentic content that's helpful to an audience. This will help benefit the business in the long run.
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