For many years, marketing aimed to pitch a product or service. Regardless of the medium, your marketing approach was to tell the audience your product was the best. Laundry soap, toothpaste, soda, cars, etc., were all marketed the same way.
But marketing has changed dramatically since the invention of the internet. It has allowed companies to reach out to potential customers on a more personal level. The goal is no longer to sell your product right off the bat but to help customers in meaningful ways so that they see your product or service as the best solution to their problem.
That's where content marketing and its role in the age of the internet and social media comes in.
What Is Content Marketing?
The Content Marketing Institute defined content marketing as "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."
However, content marketing guru Neil Patel believes that definition requires clarification.
In a blog post, he said, “It means that content marketing is a long-term strategy that focuses on building a strong relationship with your target audience by giving them high-quality content that is very relevant to them on a consistent basis."
All About Storytelling
Content marketing is all about storytelling; it's not about making the hard sell anymore. It's about educating your customers, helping them with problems and even offering entertainment.
You can use storytelling —offering relevant, valuable content — to guide potential customers through the buyer’s journey, all the way to a purchase.
A Better Experience
Customer experience is becoming increasingly important to business success.
According to Forbes, approximately 60% of customers would pay more for better customer service. And almost 89% of customers will do repeat business with a company that offers excellent customer service, even if that company has made a mistake. (Salesforce)
On the other side of customer service, a bad experience is enough to drive customers away. In fact, after more than one bad experience, 80% of customers said they’d switch to a competitor. (Zendesk)
Related Article: 5 Areas to Factor Into Your 2022 Content Marketing Planning
History of Content Marketing
Content marketing has become a bit of a buzzword, especially since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, you would think it’s a relatively new marketing strategy.
Did you know, however, that the first example of content marketing is 300 years old? Or that Benjamin Franklin, famed writer, inventor and politician, used it?
The Content Marketing Institute credits Franklin's “Poor Richard's Almanac” as the first known example of content marketing. The Almanac, known for its entertaining idioms, was used by Franklin to advertise his new printing business in Philadelphia. And it must have worked because he became the Official Printer of Pennsylvania (and later New Jersey).
The Furrow and GI Joe
Another good example of content marketing occurred in 1895 when John Deere began to publish “The Furrow.”
Distributed for free across the country, the magazine featured subjects of interest to farmers. And farmers soon began to associate the publication’s helpful information with the John Deere brand.
Another example, in 1982, was Hasbro and Marvel’s partnership to launch the comic book series “G.I. Joe – A Real American Hero!”
Hasbro, the maker of G.I. Joe toys, realized that boys aged 5–12 love comics. And, of that same group of boys, two out of three owned G.I. Joes. The brand knew its audience and found a way to provide content that encouraged readers to buy.
Why Content Marketing Is Important
As companies have transitioned from traditional to digital marketing, let's consider the advantages offered by content marketing:
- It allows companies to educate potential customers about products and services using a non-salesy approach
- Brands can direct content marketing to a more targeted audience, resulting in a better ROI and higher conversion rates
- Companies can build relationships with customers that often last many years or even generations of the same family
- Content marketing aims to understand and resolve customer problems or pain points
- It allows companies to build a community around their products or services, frequently allowing customers to help each other resolve issues
Types of Content Marketing
The goal of content marketing is to offer value to prospects and customers. How marketers deliver this value, however, can vary greatly.
Let’s look at some common examples below.
Blogs, aided by search engine optimization (SEO) tactics, are a popular way to make people aware of your company. When someone searches online for a particular topic — using Google, for example — they often discover links to various blog posts.
According to a 2022 report from HubSpot, blogs are the second most popular media format used by marketers — with the first being video. Individuals within your company can write blogs, or you can hire outside freelance writers to focus on topics of interest for your customers.
Visual content is a great way to add value to any blog post or white paper. In a 2020 Content Marketing Institute survey of B2B marketers, 67% said they used infographics to engage their target audience.
Using charts, graphs and illustrations can help users find quick answers to complex questions and ease potential customers’ pain points.
Longer and more thoughtful than most blog posts, white papers attempt to provide users with explanations of issues. When you offer white papers, you identify yourself as a source of a probable solution.
Similar to blog posts, you can use a team of in-house writers or hire freelance writers to develop white papers.
Many people thought the days of email as a valuable tool for business were over — but nothing could be further from the truth.
Email newsletters, produced using in-house software or a template format such as Substack, allow you to keep in touch with your existing and potential customers to provide relevant, up-to-date and valuable information. You can send email newsletters daily, weekly or monthly.
Video is fast becoming content marketing's tool of choice. Videos can be as short as three to five minutes or as long as an hour or more. Marketers can use this medium to educate their audience on a topic relevant to the brand — such as how to use a product correctly. They can also use video to entertain and amuse.
For example, look at Blendtec's "Will It Blend?" video series on YouTube. In each video, founder and then-host Tom Dickson blended unusual objects (an iPhone, Amazon Echo, lighters, golf club, batteries, etc.) in one of his blenders.
The original series started in 2006 and ended in 2020. As of June 2021, "Will It Blend?" has been viewed more than 290 million times. People watched it because it was fun, but it helped them decide what blender to buy. What started as a one-person operation now employs more than 500 people.
A 2020 survey from The Infinite Dial found that 37% of Americans aged 12 and older listened to a podcast within the past month. Perhaps even more interesting was that listenership was divided almost evenly between men and women.
Podcasts can be about any topic, but they work the best when you find a niche not already covered. They provide users with a great gateway into other products you offer.
For instance, Harvard Business Review publishes a weekly podcast called HBR IdeaCast. It includes up-to-date information on significant trends in business and interviews with industry leaders and managers.
CMSWire also hosts a semi-monthly podcast called CX Decoded that features industry leaders speaking on customer experience, data management and other insightful marketing topics.
Writing a book may seem to go against the idea of digital content marketing. Still, with the widespread availability of eBooks and audiobooks, it can be an excellent way for a brand to establish credibility as an expert in its chosen industry.
Once written, brands can use these books (in ebook form) as assets to encourage people to provide their contact information or sign up for a newsletter.
Public speaking is an excellent way for brand leaders to build their credentials as experts. Look to forums such as TED talks, Harvard Business Review’s IdeaCast, The Moth or Pecha Kucha. These talks should entertain, inform and build your brand.
Once the public speaking engagement is over, brands can also share a recording of these talks with their followers in emails and blog posts.
Related Article: The Case for Artificial Intelligence in Content Marketing Use Cases
Stages of the Buyer's Journey
Content marketing requires content strategy. An essential part of that strategy is determining the buyer's journey, or the steps every buyer takes to decide whether to buy a service or product.
Content marketers usually describe the stages as awareness, consideration and decision — alternatively known as the three Rs (recognition, reflection and resolution). Regardless of what you call them, these stages all describe the buyer's various steps before purchasing a product or service.
In this stage, prospective customers realize they need a particular service or product. They might use Google or another search engine to research this need, so blog posts are essential. You can also use white papers, eBooks and original research to engage with your target audience.
Your search engine optimization strategy is critical during this stage. With the right SEO techniques, you can ensure your content reaches the top search results.
Once a prospect defines their problem or pain point — with your help — they enter the consideration stage.
Now is the time to provide them with more in-depth information and resources. Use email newsletters, podcasts and videos featuring experts to describe the problem and how to solve it with your brand.
Finally, it’s time for the prospect to decide on a solution — but they may still be comparing your brand to others to ensure they're making the right choice. Your best content marketing at this stage includes product and service comparisons, case studies and free trials or discounts.
When you approach content marketing from the potential customer's perspective, it changes how you market your product or service. Rather than pushing your product on the prospect with a hard sales approach, you aim to solve their problem.
What Is Content Marketing Strategy?
The key to using content marketing correctly is to design a content strategy. The strategy should focus on your business and your target audience. Key areas to cover when driving a content strategy include:
S.M.A.R.T. goals stand for initiatives that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound. George T. Doran first used the acronym in 1981 in an issue of Management Review.
SMART goals can include:
- Specific: Create a content strategy that utilizes three different types of content.
- Measurable: Increase email click-through rates by 20%.
- Achievable: Develop a new email newsletter template.
- Relevant: Create a video on how to use your brand’s product.
- Time-bound: Outline five new blog post ideas by the end of the month.
Key Performance Indicators
Use key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure your performance against your S.M.A.R.T. goals. Some KPIs include:
- Site traffic
- Mentions on social media
- Conversion rate
- Shopping cart abandonment rate
- Price trends
- Returning customers
- Likes, shares and follows on social media
Choosing Content Types
What will you create? Think about your target audience and their buyer's journey. Ask yourself the following questions:
- What information do they require from you?
- What is their pain point?
- How does your product or service ease or remove that pain point?
- Where are you likely to find them?
- How do you help them complete their journey and find your product?
Choosing Content Channels
The channels you select depend upon where a prospect is in the buyer’s journey.
For example, you might want to publish blogs and white papers on your website for those in the awareness stage. You can also take advantage of social media platforms here, such as Meta, Twitter and Instagram.
For those in the consideration stage, think about uploading videos and podcasts to social media, YouTube, Spotify or Apple podcasts. If you have the prospect's email, you can also craft educational newsletters.
Email can also be a powerful tool during the decision stage. Send out an email offering a discount or free trial. You can also push content that compares your products to competitors’ offerings.
Setting Your Budget
Experts suggest designating 25% to 30% of your marketing budget toward content marketing. If you’re just starting out, aim for the 25% mark and expand to 30% over time.
As part of this process, you’ll need to consider your primary goals, how you will distribute the content (organic or paid), the tools you'll need to create the content and how to measure its success.
Creating Quality Content
Think about the type of content you want to create. In-house teams can produce blogs, eBooks, infographics, videos, white papers, case studies and more.
You can also outsource these creation tasks to third parties — but be sure to include specific instructions on what you’re looking for. Using a third party can be a good idea for brands just getting started with content marketing and haven’t had a chance to build an in-house team (or don’t know if an in-house team is cost effective.)
Once you have the content created, it’s time to put it out into the world. Use an editorial calendar to ensure your content remains consistent, relevant and timely.
You don’t want to release a bunch of high-quality content all at once and then not do anything for days or weeks. One of the keys to marketing is consistency. Without it, your audience might drift away.
Analyzing Your Performance
Your content strategy doesn’t end once you release your content. It’s also important to analyze and measure the results of each piece you put out. That’s where your S.M.A.R.T goals and KPIs come into play.
Did you meet the goals you set for yourself? If you fell short, why? Should you adjust your goals or performance in the future? Do your key performance indicators point toward a successful content campaign? Underperformance could mean allocating resources to new areas, choosing new channels and rethinking the content itself.
It’s important to consistently review and tweak your strategy. It needs to be fresh and informed if you want to see the best results.
Related Article: How to Find Content Marketing Success Through Any Budget
Content Marketing Experts to Follow (and Learn From)
If you want to improve your content marketing, take a look at what some of the leading digital marketing experts are doing.
Luvvie Ajayi Jones is a digital strategist, best-selling author and host of the popular podcast Professional Troublemaker. She’s a great source of humor when talking about her experiences in marketing and communication.
Another expert to follow is Zontee Hou, a digital marketer, strategist and consultant who specializes in helping companies create effective marketing strategies. Hou talks about vital topics in content marketing, marketing analytics and social media marketing on LinkedIn.
Look for Ann Handley, head of content at Marketingprofs, best-selling author and speaker, on Twitter — or subscribe to her email newsletter. She offers in-person and virtual training on storytelling, lead generation, content marketing and branding, topics she frequently discusses on her Twitter page.
Neil Patel is another excellent resource. His website, Twitter page and other digital outlets provide valuable information on content and digital marketing.
With content marketing you can increase revenue, boost brand awareness and build long-lasting relationships with potential and existing customers. And you don’t have to be a large company to get started.
If you've never tried content marketing before, there's never been a better time than now.