As much as we like to think of content marketing as a brave new concept, it isn't. Consider the Jell-O recipe books from the early 1900s and John Deere’s "The Furrow" magazine for educating farmers, which dates back to the late 1800s. Companies have long understood the importance of educating and engaging the communities they serve as an effective way of marketing to them.

Despite decades of precedent, today’s content marketers often feel as if they’re throwing darts in the dark when it comes to creating business value through initiatives like blogging, webinars, e-books and infographics. In one recent Forrester Research report, the vast majority of marketing leaders surveyed admitted that their content marketing efforts were only somewhat effective at creating real business value.

For this reason, many companies consider content experimental, and as a result, program administrators are scrambling to find the resources they need to execute a successful strategy. Of course, the best way to learn is through the experiences – and experiments – of others. So here are five lessons learned from my 10 years of content marketing.

1. Resist the Temptation to Create 'Cheap' Content

Audience attention spans are spread thin. Most people in our target audiences are overloaded with information, which means they’re extremely selective about the content they ultimately choose to consume. As a result, they’re vetting every article, infographic and guide based on a perceived level of quality and value.

As tempting as it is to “blog for the sake of blogging” — don’t. Few will read it, and if they do, it can create a negative perception of your brand. Budget-strapped teams should instead focus on producing fewer pieces of higher quality.

2. Context Is Everything

Marketers must understand who their target audiences are and what they’re looking to learn. You also need to consider what topics you have credible expertise around. With all this in mind, you will then have a suitable construct in place for a content marketing strategy.

Once you know what you want to communicate, you need to know when to communicate it. After all, timing is everything. It’s best to deliver relevant content in real time based on when the target audience would be most receptive. For example, presenting a guide to selecting an outdoor grill makes sense if you know a shopper is on your site researching grills, but would not be appropriate to share once they’ve completed a purchase. Better to send grilling tips and tricks at that point.

3. Cross-Channel Is a Necessity

Content empowers brands to become information hubs. But with attention spans shrinking, marketers are challenged when it comes to getting that information to their target audiences. That’s why cross-channel approaches to content marketing are so important.

Digital audiences absorb information in a number of different ways and often need reinforcement through multiple touches. The most successful content marketing programs integrate with other customer acquisition and communication methods like email, paid advertising, content syndication and PR. And, of course, your website — coupled with techniques like SEO, conversion rate optimization (CRO) and Web personalization — is probably the most important channel. Even with the best content in the world, you’ll need multiple paths to effectively reach and engage your target market.

4. Establish Goals Ahead of Time

Content marketing is a broad concept that covers many different activities. That’s why marketers need to have a plan. The decision to “just start blogging,” for instance, can easily turn into wasted time and money.

Outline your goals before launching any content marketing initiative. Examples include improved search visibility, increased customer retention, improved lead generation and even increased social media engagement. Figure out the biggest areas of opportunity for your business and how content fits in. Set goals from there, and, of course, track your progress.

5. Empower Your Teams

Because content marketing is often considered experimental, teams can feel pressure to avoid failure and demonstrate quick wins. While this ambition is good, it can create unnecessary constraints or behaviors that sabotage success in the long run. For instance, “linkbait” may generate significant traffic without facilitating conversions or sales.

CMOs should empower their teams with room to learn, experiment and fail. They need to prioritize long-term, sustainable gains like improved customer education and lead quality over short-term wins like temporary bursts of traffic and downloads.

Final Thoughts

Content is the ultimate marketing tool. With every blog post, case study and infographic we publish, we learn more and more about our customers and target market. It’s critical that we reinvest this knowledge into our content strategies — so that we are continuously learning and improving. This cycle is crucial to growth, retention and an enduring marketing program.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License Title image by  DFAT photo library 

Title image by DFAT photo library