How should we think about content marketing? It’s easy to get lost trying to keep up with the surprise new developments and overnight trends of the unpredictable world of web and social. Marketers can be forgiven slightly if they’re still getting across the true meanings behind all the fresh buzzwords being thrown around both the internet and the boardroom.
Although the term content marketing was coined within my lifetime (around the mid-90s), which is certainly a long time in internet years, most of us have only been aware of it as a concept for less than six years. The revolution really started kicking off in 2010, when King Content opened its doors in Australia and the Content Marketing Institute started in the US.
Yet already ‘content marketing’ has become a buzzword, regularly being thrown around and often misunderstood. Certainly, online content marketing is growing ever more sophisticated as more brands get involved and more of the world’s great marketing thinkers put their minds to it. But as marketers continue to battle through digital transformations, content marketing is at risk of losing some of the core values that make it such an awesomely effective way for brands to connect with their audiences – by being helpful, human and generous.
Here I’m going to look at the concept from a slightly different angle, by exploring three ways you can think about your content marketing that are relevant to the old-school real world (read: offline) that most people grew up with.
Mindset 1: Content marketing as media
Content marketing is your industry’s favourite magazine that your customers can’t wait to read… except you own and control it.
By providing audiences with real value – content that is entertaining, informative and educational – brands can build enthusiastic fans, just as Vogue, Rolling Stone and Time did very successfully in the past. There’s no doubt that fans keep returning for more, they talk to their friends and they make emotion-fueled purchasing decisions when the time (and product) is right. The trick is to avoid sales talk and let the content speak on behalf of the brand.
“Think like a marketer, act like a publisher.” The internet seems to have lost track of who we should be attributing this quote to, but it’s a particularly invaluable motto for any marketer embarking on an awareness-building content marketing journey.
While many legacy publishers are struggling to make ends meet with their advertising-reliant business models and slow-changing tech systems, marketers are jumping in to satisfy the increasingly niche public interest in more, and better, content. As a former journalist, I see brands as being in the enviable position of being able to produce content without worrying about scrambling for revenue from advertising. The content marketer’s task is the delicate balance between staying on-brand and being interesting to the audience.
As Joe Pulizzi of the Content Marketing Institute points out, content marketers should approach their work in a similar manner to how publishers approach their core business, “Except that in place of paid content or sponsorship as a measure of success, brands define success by ultimately selling more products or services.”
The trick, according to Dan Blank of WeGrowMedia, is engaging an audience around ideas rather than products: “Serve the community first without directly asking for anything in return.”
Mindset 2: Content as shared knowledge
Content marketing is an online immortalisation of your most knowledgeable and passionate person… accessible to anyone, anywhere, anytime.
You know the person – every organisation has at least one. They might be a knowledgeable and honest salesperson, a thoughtful and kind service provider, an engaging trainer or teacher, a charismatic CEO, or a super-keen intern. They’re the people who know your industry inside out; the people who have amazing stories and helpful insights to share. Thanks to content marketing, those amazing stories and helpful insights can be uploaded to the web for everyone’s benefit.
“Sell something and you make a customer today. Help someone and you create a customer for life,” says Jay Baer of Convince & Convert. It’s important here not to forget one of my favourite aspects of content marketing, the idea of being ‘generous’. As marketing thinker Seth Godin regularly advocates, organisations need to show sacrifice and kindness in order to win their audiences over emotionally.
Here are a few offline examples from my own life over the last couple of months:
– The eye shadow advice I received from a makeup artist doing in-shop demos when I went in to find a new foundation. After I mentioned an issue I was having, she volunteered to teach me some techniques, without a hint of a sales pitch.
– The kitchen redesign know-how I received from a tradie who came to measure and quote, and ended up spending an hour and a half sharing his expertise.
– The new appetiser recipe I learned from a man demoing fetta cheese in the supermarket. If it weren’t for him giving away free taste tests, I don’t think I could have convinced my partner to buy the product that is now one of his favourites.
All of this information I received was ‘content’. If the wealth of knowledge each of these people had inside their heads was available online, it would not only benefit thousands more people but improve awareness of, and emotional affinity with, those brands. While there’s no substitute for personalised advice, content allows you to reach all those people who are currently missing out on information.
Mindset 3: Content as customer service
Content marketing is the synthesis of the most helpful minds in your customer service team… that keeps working for you after everyone’s gone home.
Customer service staff generally go through extensive training in order to fill their brains with relevant information and to ensure consistency of service between employees. While the human element indeed serves many benefits, it’s also prone to inconsistencies and inaccuracies. Putting all the relevant information in a user-friendly online location ensures that your customers and prospects can get the best version of your answers to their questions whenever they need them.
“These days, people want to learn before they buy, be educated instead of pitched,” says Brian Clark of Copyblogger.
Your potential customers may desire all kinds of additional information before deciding to purchase from you. Chances are, they’re googling questions and getting frustrated when they don’t find useful answers. Your content can help.
People don’t always want to pick up the phone or walk into a service centre – your online content is your opportunity to stop them from getting so frustrated they feel their only option is to get in touch for help (or give up and go elsewhere).
Even when we’re talking about your products specifically, it’s still important to remain generous and avoid the hard sell in the majority in your content. Gary Vaynerchuk of VaynerMedia coined a particularly catchy phrase that helps to think about how sales pitches fit into your marketing when the focus is on quality content: “Jab, jab, jab, right hook.” Helpful, generous pieces of content are considered ‘jabs’, while sales pitches are ‘right hooks’. The sales pitches come least often, and only after at least three pieces of awesome, generous content.
As content marketing continues to evolve, it’s important that we stay in touch with the goals it’s trying to achieve. It’s helpful to pull your head out of the internet every now and then to get a good sense of how your content is relevant in the real world. In the end, it’s all about being entertaining, informative, helpful, and above all, generous.