Content marketing is about attracting and building relationships with customers. It's a long game without some of the instant results paid ads sometimes gives, but given enough time and effort, it's for many probably the best marketing method out there for what it gives back.
It's a more reciprocative form of marketing. While traditional marketing campaigns have been about convincing the customers that your product is the best, content marketing is a conversation rather than a monologue. It's giving your users actual value without necessarily expecting a transaction in return. In a way it's about returning to pre-commercial marketing where customers would frequent the physical stores which gave them the best advice.
In that line of thought, it's about letting expertise and knowledge shine over flashy ads. It's a chance for the small, focused business to rise above their big, generalist counterparts. To grow your business in 2022 and beyond, you need to produce quality content for your audience to enjoy.
What is content marketing?
The first thing that usually comes to mind when talking about content marketing is a blog. While a blog will almost certainly be the core of your content marketing efforts, the content is also distributed through newsletters, e books, webinars, videos, social media and so on.
From the perspective of your business, it's about attracting traffic and turning prospects into leads, of course. But that shouldn't be your main motivation. That should be to fulfil your company's purpose. Why does your company exist? Making money is hopefully a byproduct of doing what you love and meeting customers' needs in the process.
Content marketing should therefore be about you giving your potential customers and existing customers valuable tools, tips and tricks to make their days better and easier.
Content marketing vs. inbound marketing
It's easy to confuse the two terms, so I'll say a bit about it here. Content marketing refers to a specific part of the inbound marketing process. While inbound marketing as a whole focuses on SEO, emails, automation and website optimization, content marketing is specifically about the content. I find that it's almost impossible to do content marketing right without using the rest of the inbound marketing toolbox. You might be a great writer, but if you don't consider SEO, you're making it more difficult to find your work. If you've already SEO-optimized your content, you'll still want to notify your leads via email when you publish a new post so that they don't have to check your site every day (because they won't).
It really doesn't matter to anyone but us content marketers which term you use. Any marketing agency worth it's salt will work with you to understand which parts of the toolbox you are in need of anyway. I'll probably mix the two terms in this very article, so let's not worry about semantics.
Now, to the actual list you came here for. I've divided the article into the categories I think you should be good at to run a successful content marketing division, and given examples for each. The sections are as follows:
- Answer real questions
- Post regularily and consistently
- Set realistic goals
- Don't ask people to buy things
- Understand your target audience
- Don't be afraid to share your secrets
- Don't be afraid to share your knowledge
- Get comfortable in front of a camera
Answer real questions
Starting off this list of content marketing successes we'll talk about a company which will be known to most who dabble in the field. To those who don't know: let us introduce River Pools & Spas. Their website is practically a meme at this point, as Marcus Sheridan, who made the company into the pool powerhouse they are today, literally wrote the book on content marketing.
Read the book for the full story, but I'll focus on one thing here: Center your writing on solving your audience's problems. It might seem obvious, but trying to reply to questions nobody is asking is where many businesses fail. It's easy to imaging what someone might be wondering about your products and services, but a lot of the time you'll end up writing from an inside perspective. That is: from your business' point of view. Maybe you'll focus on how fast you can do the job, while the clients you actually want are looking for a safe and secure delivery.
What River Pools & Spas did was to go out and ask their potential customers what their biggest questions were when buying a pool. That's why their most successful piece of content is a blog post describing how much it costs to install a pool. Simple as that.
This is the reason why I'm writing this blog post right now: to answer a question I get asked while working with clients: How do I become great at content marketing?
Post regularily and consistently
Here I could bring up any number of blogs, as many of them are good at just this. But I want to highlight a site called Copyblogger. The blog is admirable in a lot of ways, but for this article's purpose they are great at consistently creating and posting content.
Posting regularily has many benefits. Seeing your company name in their inbox every month (or every time you post if they have consented to instant notifications) will keep you in their minds when they are ready to buy, or get the opportunity to recommend you to people in their network. It creates familiarity and trust, which is vital in opening up a space to make a sale.
Not only will your potential customers love the consistency, but search engines will as well. Google's freshness score keeps track of when a website is updated, and full-page updates are weighted the most. If your content is relevant and SEO-optimized as well, you'll have a good chance of ranking for your keywords (watch this space for more on that kind of thing).
But here is a problem most businesses meet when trying to be consistent: they set the bar too high.
Set realistic goals
There is no point in writing two blog posts a year, but there is value in pacing yourself. If you set out to post twice a week without a dedicated team, you'll likely get burnt out. Especially when results in content marketing are slow to appear. If you blog only once a week, it can take up to a year before you have a solid enough content bank to drive traffic "on its own", and you see good results.
The Marginalian is a one-woman act and a great newsletter about the human experience, which comes out twice a week. Our own newsletter only comes out once a month.
So set a scedule you think you can keep up for a year or more, or hire an agency to help you. There is much to be said about how to choose an agency who will intimately understand your business, but that's a story for another day. If you choose the right one, you'll have a long-term partner who will make sure you stay relevant to both customers and to Google.
Don't ask people to buy things
Most people visiting your website won't be ready to buy from you. It's important that your potential customers know that they aren't just a number to you. You don't have to be coy about offering a service - users understand this. But you should have little to no direct content (except from CTA's etc.) about your own products and services. That stuff is for advertising and your product page.
Don't write articles about how great your product is, but rather about how to use your products. Not in terms of "User manual for our Write-o-matic 3000", but more like "In a busy week, how can AI help you produce content for your blog?" If that's what you're offering, of course.
Understand your target audience
One of Marcus Sheridan's mantras (and the name of the book) is "they ask, you answer". I wrote above about answering real questions - and with that comes an understanding of who your clients are. Sometimes they might ask the question: "What are your qualifications, and which businesses like mine have you worked with before?".
It's easy, then, to start listing your successful projects and brag, and there is certainly a place for that (spoiler: it's called your case studies pages). But what are they actually wanting to know? If they ask a question like that, usually what they really want hear, is: "How can you make me feel safe and confident that my investment in your products or services will be worth it?"
How to answer this? Well, your case studies for one, but your blog can contribute through showing your competence in the area where you'd like to cooperate with them. This could mean having opinions on developments in tech, or being present and active on LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram and other social media. Another example could be making videos where you show your face and personality.
In the end, the connection you get with your audience will be determined by the level of trust you are able to invoke in them. This means interacting with your customers in ways not just related to sales situations.
Don't be afraid to share your secrets
The time for company secrets is gone. Assume that everyone has access to your special sauce, and know how to find the recipe. Instead of hiding your prices - give price ranges and explain why you can't give a fixed rate that covers every case. Even talk about your failures and what you learned from them.
Some content should be put behind email address walls, as in, your customers have to give you their email to get access to it. But nothing is sacred knowledge anymore, as Buffer has shown through their blog. They even have a separate landing page dedicated to transparency, where they give detailed accounts of their funding sources, finances and workplace culture, as well as regularly sharing learnings on the blog.
This kind of transparency doesn't happen by accident, you'll have to be intentional about it. I'm not saying that every company has to have their own landing page for sharing "secrets", but keeping some things to ourselves is deeply ingrained in business culture. Therefore, if you want to enjoy the trust that openness brings, you'll have to remind yourself often of the benefits and actually share things that might be a little uncomfortable.
Don't be afraid to share your knowledge
You might think that if you give away too much information about your technology or processes, all companies will simply create their own versions of your products or services and you'll be out of a job. But the point is, as I wrote above, that they already know everything.
Everyone has heard of the secret Coca-Cola recipe that is so well-guarded that they've been able to keep it secret for decades. Thing is, it could be reverse-engineered in a lab if another company really wanted to copy it. It's not magic, and not that interesting to competitors. It's just that Coca-Cola has benefited greatly on this story by deliberately using it as a marketing effect, so the legend remains.
The Moz Blog reveals every technique in the book, without losing customers. In fact, they share all their obscure knowledge and are paid back in customer trust. Any question you have about SEO, they answer it. Instead of customers learning everything and doing it themselves, they think "these people really know their stuff. I think I'll try their products and services".
In the same way, your (or our) company doesn't have any secrets that nobody knows about. A google search could easily tell you everything I know, and more. So by not talking about what your process is about, all you're doing is sending the customers somewhere else, where they will get the answers they are looking for.
Get comfortable in front of a camera
There's no getting around it: Videos are for everyone, and you should go make some. You don't even have to be an actor or super charismatic. Some of the best content on video out there is made by regular people without much production value. TikTok isn't just for dancing teenagers, there is thoughtful and interesting types of content there for every interest under the sun. If that platform feels uncomfortable, you also have the opportunity to create video content on other social media.
One company which does this really well is the Washington Post. Their TikTok is run by a man named Dave, who seems like just a regular guy. He does some light video editing, but nothing that's beyond any normal business owner or employee. His dad jokes are groan-inducing, but that's what makes it funny and engaging.
Making videos might seem daunting, but remember: you don't have to go live (even though lives are great). You can start off small and do as many takes as you like.
Motivate your writers (and bosses)
I find that getting employees to make content alongside their regular jobs isn’t always easy. There is always paid work to be done, and writing blog posts is deprioritized. If you’re a marketer like me, it might help to “arm” yourself with some insights from some successful content producers who know that this stuff works. Besides the book by Marcus Sheridan, Blair Enns has a great chapter on writing in his book “The Win Without Pitching Manifesto”. thefutur.com is another resource which could help understand the value of content, and help your marketing manager and C-level people prioritize this kind of work even though the results aren’t as immediate as current contracts.
If you’re a manager, great! Get a team together (or hire us), and start giving your customers the opportunity to build a relationship with you.