Content Marketing: A Beginner’s Guide

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“Audiences everywhere are tough. They don’t have time to be bored or brow beaten by orthodox old-fashioned advertising. We need to stop interrupting what people are interested in and be what people are interested in.”

Craig Davis, chief creative officer at J. Walter Thompson, said this over a decade ago. I find it particularly poignant because he is a veteran of traditional advertising.

He was talking about content marketing, an approach that has clearly sparked a revolution in modern marketing, although its roots go way back.

Content marketing is NOT traditional advertising.

What is content marketing?

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There’s your Dictionary.com definition. It’s not bad. Content, however, takes many forms and it isn’t only distributed online. Also, because a good portion of content produced by marketers DOES promote a brand, one could argue that this definition is too narrow.

The Content Marketing Institute is a company that’s had a huge hand in evangelizing and legitimizing this form, so I’ll offer their content marketing definition:

Content marketing is 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.

Finally, here’s my simplification of both:

Content marketing is the process of creating and delivering valuable content to your target customers.

Yeah, that’s good, if I do say so myself! The message comes across with less jargon and is less limiting.

As Davis points out, traditional advertising interrupts people as they read, view, watch and listen to various media. An important tenet of content marketing is that the content is for those that want to consume it.

What’s the point?

The point is to get traffic, leads and sales. And the plan is to achieve this by getting people to know, like and trust you. Traditional advertising doesn’t always earn high marks for its likability and is often distrusted.

In conversation, I like to tell clients (or friends, or anyone who will listen) the following:

All day, everyday, people are going to seek answers and solutions to the challenges they face. Thanks to the prolific information available and the near ubiquity of digital media, they’ll surely find them — and fast. So the logical question that follows is:

Will the information come from you or your competitor?

Your brand must satisfy a potential buyer’s hunt for answers. Accomplishing this is not the only point of content marketing, but it’s the most important one.

A valuable resource for further reading:

Does this mean all content marketing is ‘how to’ information?

It does not. Undoubtedly, an immense portion of today’s marketing content does slide into the ‘how to’ file, but content marketing takes many forms.

Online or offline, early in the buying cycle or late, I believe effective content fits one of the following molds:

  • Educational
  • Entertaining
  • Inspiring

These ideas are specific enough to describe many different styles and forms of content, but broad enough to accommodate the huge spectrum of stuff – a.k.a. content – that you see beckoning your every call for gratification via your favorite media channel.

Add the three together — educational, entertaining, and inspiring — and you might call the sum ‘valuable and relevant’ (as the Content Marketing Institute does).

Value is in the eyes of the beholder. For example, a tire ad in a newspaper featuring sizes and prices is valuable only if and when the reader is shopping for tires.

To illustrate, I’ll present some different forms and types of content marketing:

  • A white paper detailing how to master secure-data storage for an enterprise.
  • A recipe or list of recipes for making delicious gluten-free desserts.
  • A series of videos explaining how to tune a guitar and play.
  • A blog post listing affordable travel destinations.
  • A funny cat video on YouTube or any social channel.
  • A contest of the cutest poems by kindergartners.
  • A media empire focused on extreme sports (Red Bull).

Whether some — or none — of the above is valuable to you is irrelevant. It’s valuable to somebody in some way and opens doors that connect brands to buyers.

A valuable resource for further reading:

Does content marketing work?

Content marketing can work amazingly. Some brands spend little to nothing on advertising, direct response and various other traditional approaches and credit nearly all their success to content marketing.

Content marketing can also work so, so. There is a lot of middle ground. Some companies may see significant traction from a blog or vlog (video blog) while others make headway on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, YouTube, etc. Meanwhile, many brands struggle with content marketing or remain perplexed about how to gauge their progress.

Content marketing can also be a bust. Unfortunately, such is the case for millions of marketers. The list of reasons why so many brands fail with content marketing is long. Some leading contenders include:

  • The content produced is not all that valuable.
  • Content is not published consistently or often enough.
  • Using the wrong media.
  • The content is not adequately promoted.
  • Companies forgo testing and analytics.
  • The commitment to content marketing is lacking. Generally, successful content marketing efforts require time, patience, resources and company wide buy-in.

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The 2018 edition of B2C Content Marketing Benchmark, Budgets and Trends, research produced by Content Marketing Institute and MarketingProfs, reveals the minority rate their approach successful and unsuccessful while 50% are in the ‘moderate’ range. Results for the B2B version of the research are similar.

Recent research:

How to make content marketing work.

The basic premise of content marketing begins with satisfying the information needs of prospective customers. It’s not limited to bringing strangers into the fold, however, something marketers call the “top of the funnel.” One of the objectives of this blog post is to provide a beginner’s guide, so I don’t want to veer into advanced content marketing tactics here, but I do want to encourage the use of content marketing for every phase of the buyer journey.

At the very least, content marketing efforts focus on phases 1, 2, and 3 of the buyer journey.

content marketing (3)

  • At the awareness stage, your content should focus on the buyer’s pain points. Objective educational content will point buyers in the right direction.
  • In the mid-funnel consideration stage, prospects are closer to buying. Offer them specific answers to the questions they have about the product category.
  • At the decision stage content is often highly brand-specific. While you want your content to continue being helpful, you also want to deliver reasons to buy it.

A buyer’s journey can extend beyond the purchase.

content marketing 4

An infographic from Uhuru Network depicts a more intricate mid-funnel experience. It demonstrates that content is often valuable at multiple stages after the purchase.

Valuable resources for further reading:

Your starting point: establish a strategy.

As we’ve discussed a little, goals vary and, therefore, dictate different types of content marketing approaches. For instance, your goals may focus on:

  • Building and maintaining a thought-leadership platform for your company or an individual.
  • Accomplishing specific measures of success related to lead acquisition and/or sales.
  • Post-sales goals, such as lowering support costs, improving retention, increasing customer lifetime value and winning referral business.
  • Any or all of the above.

In any case, you begin with a strategy. Content marketers with a documented strategy are more likely to achieve their objectives and are, therefore, able to justify the resources needed to continue building their programs.

In a nutshell, a content marketing plan is likely to include:

  • Establishing goals
  • Developing target audiences and buyer personas
  • Creating a mission statement
  • Performing a competitive analysis
  • Planning content that maps to the buyer’s journey
  • Developing an editorial calendar
  • Establishing KPIs that align with your goals and a plan in place to measure them

Valuable resources for further reading:

When to start content marketing, when to stop.

It takes know-how and practice to succeed with content marketing. It also takes time, patience, and commitment.

When’s the best time to start? Ten years ago. When’s the second best time to start? Today. The longer you wait, the greater the chances of your competitors passing you by.

And, in case it’s not obvious, if you want to enjoy long-term success, there’s no finish line. Content marketing is not a sprint; it’s a marathon. The winners in content marketing recognize their brands become publishers and keep at it for the long haul. They experiment relentlessly and continuously refine their strategy and output.

They also continue to soak in good advice and learn more about content marketing. Are you ready to learn more?

Here’s an informative post from digital marketing expert Neil Patel:

Here’s a post that recommends experts in the field:

And here are two great books I suggest you read and refer to:

  • ‘The Book’ on creating content: Content Rules (by Ann Handley and C.C. Chapman)
  • ‘The book’ on content strategy: Epic Content (by Joe Pulizzi)