Five years ago nobody talked about content marketing - today, everybody does. But lots of conversation doesn't necessarily produce understanding. When it comes to marketing content, many firms gravitate to extremes; between chasing their tails publishing over-optimized but meaningless content, and pursuing the Holy Grail of "quality content," there is a middle ground that these firms completely miss. So let's talk about how a company can go about producing content that serves a genuine business purpose.
1. Strategic Content Marketing
The first way companies go wrong with content marketing is by having the wrong strategy ... or none at all.
SEO (search engine optimization) is not a reason to create content. If SEO becomes the driver, keywords and volume will become more important than substance and selectivity.
Along similar lines, "establishing thought leadership" is another poor reason to create content. When this is the driver, writing tends to be overly complex and inward focused; the former confuses readers and the latter turns them off.
A more practical - and effective - starting point for content marketing is the customer. The reason to create content is to offer customers something of value that will inspire them to take the next step in a business relationship.
- For customers who have never heard of you, the next step after reading a piece of content might be to read more - perhaps an instructive article on a widely misunderstood topic relevant to your industry.
- For customers who have heard of you, the next step might be to schedule a consultation.
- For customers who already do business with you, the next step might be to learn about an advanced product or service you are offering on special terms.
In short, integral to any content marketing strategy is a conversion strategy. Any content a firm produces - be it a blog post, video, or podcast - should include some sort of call to action.
At this point, social media enthusiasts may object, saying that certain types of content, such as blog posts and Facebook posts, will backfire if they attempt to sell. However, there's a big difference between toning down conversion messaging and eliminating it altogether, between saying "BUY NOW!!!" and "Learn more." Business readers don't object to business appeals if they are appropriate, well timed, and well placed within the content.
2. Tactics for Topics
The second way companies go wrong with content marketing is by writing competently about the wrong things.
Once content marketing has a purpose, the next challenge is figuring out what to write about. A lot of companies go wrong by overthinking it and/or making editorial decisions in a vacuum.
The most effective way to develop topics is to ask customers. Perhaps because this is such a simple idea, companies tend to miss it. This is really tragic, because customers tell you what to write about every day. Easy ways to gather customer input include:
- Review your FAQ pages and those of competitors and firms in related industries
- Review your analytics to find search terms people use to find your site
- Read user comments on your blog and other related blogs
- Read user comments on industry forums
- Track conversations on Twitter for different keyword phrases
- Ask your sales and customer service personnel what types of questions they hear all the time
- Conduct interviews via phone or email with current customers who are willing to participate in your research
It's amazing how internalizing customer language turns dull-as-dishwater content into words that arouse interest and inspire action. Consider something as basic as a product page. Which title do you think will attract more reads and generate more inquiries?
- The High Performance ABC Widget
- How Our ABC Widget Fixes the XYZ Problem
Generally, business content stresses features not because firms don't understand the benefits of their stuff, but because they don't understand the relative importance of those benefits.
When firms don't have a sense of priorities when pitching their products and services, the two default positions are to talk about all of the benefits, or talk about none of them. Very few firms indeed have the confidence to say, for a given piece of content, we're going to stress these and only these benefits. And yet this is exactly the sort of focus that makes for compelling content.
Selectivity is crucial: to a very large degree, the art of content marketing is the art of leaving things out. If you're lucky, customers will remember a handful of things about your brand, your product, and your services. The more information you dump on customers, the less they'll remember.
This is where the quest for "quality" can backfire. Quality is not making a complex idea even more complicated through an infographic. Quality is not solving the world's problems in a blog post where readers want to learn how to select the right windshield wiper blade. Fast, easy to read and informative are the hallmarks of quality.
3. Build It ... and They Shall Never Come
One last area of content marketing where companies go wrong is focusing too much attention on production and not enough to distribution.
If customers are the key to writing effective content, it certainly makes sense to get as many customers reading it as possible! Unfortunately, content distribution takes as much time and effort - or more - as writing it in the first place:
- Social media is not a magic distribution bullet. Building engaged communities on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google+ can easily take upwards of 20 hours a week.
- SEO is a highly effective method of distributing to content organically to people who are looking for your stuff but don't know who you are. Effective SEO programs are ongoing and typically cost tens of thousands per year.
- Paid search campaigns (e.g., pay-per-click advertising) can also be very effective, but again require substantial budgets in order to move the dial.
- Email marketing, still a very useful distribution technique, requires a determined and sustained effort; the costs of the strategic, creative and list-management aspects of a program are frequently underestimated.
To bring this post back to where we started, strategy, it makes sense to think about these four marketing activities as distribution mechanisms for a content marketing program.
All too often, firms put each of these activities into a separate silo, although each depends on content for obtaining results. To maximize and balance the effectiveness of each component, let content marketing be the driver by asking:
- What subset of customers are we trying to reach through each of these activities?
- Which type(s) of conversion activities are most appropriate to each of these activities?
- What level of frequency is appropriate to each, knowing that too much or too little distribution can undermine the effort?
Firms that excel in distribution can out-market competitors who produce "better" content but neglect distribution; in fact, it's quite common for businesses to express frustration that they produce awesome content, but nobody seems to get the message. And many corporate bloggers feel as though their creative efforts are being wasted, that they are speaking into the void.
To permanently avoid these and similar frustrations, remember the simple formula:
Conversion Strategy + Customer Focus + Energetic Distribution = Successful Content Marketing.
("Counting 3" image courtesy of Shutterstock.)