These days, you can’t even open an article about marketing on line without reading of the importance of content marketing. We’re even guilty of tossing this particular marketing term of art around all too frequently, as we work with clients, in articles on our company blog, and at industry events like the September Inbound 2012 conference.
But what is content marketing really, and why can’t anyone seem to utter a sentence or write a proposal without stating how important this new strategy is for digital marketers?
The reality is that the definition of what content marketing is, isn’t as well understood as you might think. Wikipedia, offers:
“Content marketing is an umbrella term encompassing all marketing formats that involve the creation or sharing of content for the purpose of engaging current and potential consumer bases. Content marketing subscribes to the notion that delivering high-quality, relevant, and valuable information to prospects and customers drives profitable consumer action.”
Others, including, Jason Falls of Social Media Examiner offer the following definition, which attempts to detail the specific elements of content marketing:
“Content marketing is using any type of content (newsletters, blog posts, white papers, videos, Tweets, podcasts, wall posts) to attract an audience you wish to market to. Capturing their attention through great content gives you the opportunity to present calls-to-action to them to purchase or try your product or service.”
Yet a third definition provided by Sam Decker of Mass Relevance takes a slightly different angle, emphasizing the non-product (or service, I’ll add) aspects of content marketing:
“Content Marketing is creating or curating non-product content—be it informational, educational, entertaining, etc.—and publishing it to contact points with customers to get their attention, to focus on the topic around your solution, and pull them closer to learning more about you.”
What is Content Marketing?
Where does that leave us? Looking for common themes in these definitions we can deduce that content marketing involves two principal elements:
- Publishing high-quality, non-product content
- Using this content to build relationships with your prospects
Let’s explore each of these two elements in more detail…
In the absence of “high-quality, non-product content,” content marketing couldn’t exist – seems pretty obvious. Because content marketing is based on the idea that people will be more likely to share “good” content and form a favorable opinion of the companies that publish these marketing materials, it’s simple to see why mediocre content simply won’t cut it.
If you share simply average level content, how does that reflect on you? Except to demonstrate how not to do something, would you share mediocre content with your friends/fans/followers? Certainly, you’ve read plenty of “content factory” articles that provide only surface-level knowledge of subject matter. How often did you go out of your way to share these content pieces with others?
At the same time, content marketing materials must be published free-of-charge (as in, not released as part of a paid product) in order for sharing and the viral nature of content marketing to operate. While you can use your content marketing material as top-of-the-funnel offers in a sales process, releasing them in a paid-product form creates a significant barrier to person-to-person on line sharing.
Considering these requirements, it’s simple to see why content marketing practitioners tend to stick to a few standard formats when publishing their material. The most common types of content marketing pieces you’ll find include:
- White papers
- Downloadable ebooks, guides, or “manifestos”
- Case studies
- Youtube or Vimeo videos
- Lengthy (2,000+ word), educational blog posts
The distribution of these content pieces helps you to build relationships with your audience. When you make the effort to release high-perceived-value informational products for free, you both expand the reach of your brand (as a result of the viral sharing that often occurs with free, high-value content) and improve your prospect’s perception of you as a leader in your industry.
Sound familiar? Those accustomed to the principles of inbound marketing - a phrase that’s often used to distinguish new authority-based marketing tactics from old-school, “outbound marketing” - will recognize these same benefits. So we can say that content marketing is a type of inbound marketing.
For review, outbound marketing techniques involve pushing information to prospective customers in order to interest them in your brand. As an example, companies practicing outbound marketing strategies might have called targeted leads, sent direct mail pieces to carefully curated mailing lists, or purchased TV advertising spots during the hours that were most likely to reach their target demographics.
While these tactics were and still are, to some extent, successful methods to build new customer relationships, inbound marketing techniques like content marketing can bring about the same or even better results for substantially lower investments of time, money and effort.
Free Content Produces Real Results
To experience just how effective content marketing can be, check out some of the case studies on line. For example, take a look at Mint, a personal finance tool that employed the distribution of free infographics and other content marketing pieces to grow large enough to justify a $170 million buyout offer from Intuit. Or take a look at the example of Coca Cola in this video, which expects to double its business by the year 2020 through the use of content marketing promotions.
Although these examples are exciting, there’s something about all the recent enthusiasm over content marketing that raises questions for me. If content marketing is the practice of building exceptional value through free information in order to connect with customers, what makes it so different than, say, the way successful people run their website?
Content Marketing: Nothing New?
I quickly concluded, and I think you’ll agree, content marketing isn’t new. The principles that make this technique so successful are the same best practices that have made websites and businesses successful from the earliest days of the web and even before there was a web! It’s not exactly a new revelation to recognize that delivering good content will help you form stronger connections with prospects. That’s essentially what every white-hat web expert has been saying since the dawn of the Internet. So what’s changed?
What is new, and what successful on line marketers need to pay attention to, is that content marketing is increasingly becoming one of the only strategies to produce consistently good results in the face of widespread search engine algorithm changes like Google’s Panda. What’s at stake is whether your business – or a competitor - is connected with prospective customers by Google.
In the recent history of on line marketing, it was widely recognized that content marketing was effective, but at the same time, similar results could be achieved and sustained using keyword stuffing, link building schemes and other grey-hat techniques. And so, for many on line marketers, the question was obvious, “Why invest time and money producing high-value content when I can get the same results from aggressive SEO and a few forum links or link wheels?”
Doesn't Aggressive SEO Achive The Same Result?
Not everyone opted to pursue these shortcuts. But enough on line marketers chose to cut corners – we’ve all been the victim of a piece of flimsy, paper-thin content at the top of a search results list - that search engines like Google have found it necessary to overcome rampant SERPs manipulation with algorithm updates like the recent Panda and Penguin changes.
Because I doubt Penguin and Panda will be the last of these crackdowns on low-quality content, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that content marketing isn’t just the latest “SEO technique”. It’s one of the few on line marketing strategies remaining that offers both good business results and protection from future search engine changes.
If you’re ready to start taking advantage of the power of content marketing, there are plenty of tutorials out there that will give you step-by-step processes to follow in order to launch these campaigns. Keep in mind that content marketing isn’t some marketing dark art. Focus on providing your customers with the high-value, free content that meets their stated needs, and then test and tweak your results as you go. The benefits will be real, measurable and will increase as you see more engaged prospects who become qualified leads.