H ave you ever taken a quiz to find out what Disney Princess you are? Or clicked on a listicle on Buzzfeed promoted by [insert brand here]?
If so: Congratulations. You’re a human being.
You’ve also been on the receiving end of one of the most formative marketing trends of the 21st century: content marketing.
Content marketing isn’t exactly new – it’s been sweeping the marketing landscape for a decade or more now. “Content is king” the headlines proclaim – and for good reason. From blog posts and infographics to Youtube channels and branded podcasts, brands today are tapping into an ever-expanding toolbox of tactics and storytelling techniques to get their message across.
But, what about the plan behind the substance? What is it that makes these pieces of content tick? What makes a good content marketing strategy? And how do you know if content marketing is the right fit for your company in the first place?
Before we dive in, let’s get clear on this: what exactly are we talking about when we talk about content marketing?
There are a bunch of definitions floating out there, but one of our favorites comes from The Content Marketing Institute:
“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.”
There are a couple of things worth noting in this definition:
Content marketing isn’t about flinging content around willy nilly. It’s a strategic initiative, executed over time, with a specific business goal in mind. More on that in a minute.
Good content marketing doesn’t just serve itself: it serves its audience. In a media environment where audiences have an entire Internet worth of content to choose from and the next diversion is just a click away, your content needs to work hard for every second of engagement you get.
A blog post or an email newsletter by itself is just a blog post or an email newsletter. A series of blog posts or email newsletters that delivers a consistent stream of valuable content – now that’s a content marketing strategy.
This is the big one. As we’ll see, the ways that content marketing can drive profitable customer action are more nuanced than some other marketing tactics out there, and it can take a while for those benefits to kick in. But at the end of the day, content marketing that doesn’t drive your business goals isn’t content marketing – it’s just content. And content that is just content isn’t worth your money – or your team’s energy.
So let’s dive into the seven key ingredients that truly kickass content marketing strategies have in common. Joining us for this exploration are three of the absolute best in the content marketing business.
Kelsey Meyer is the president of Influence & Co., a content marketing firm that specializes in helping companies ranging from venture-backed startups to Fortune 500 brands showcase their expertise through thought leadership.
Caroline McCarthy is the vice president of communications and content at true[x], a digital advertising company that aims to bring the excitement and creativity of the television commercial to the web.
Joe Putnam is the founder of ConversionEngine, a PPC advertising agency. Joe has also co-authored two in-depth guides on content marketing with Neil Patel — in addition to helping a nonprofit use content marketing to increase SEO traffic from 5,000 to 65,000+ visits per month.
With as trendy as content marketing has become over the past handful of years, it’s understandable that startups are feeling the pressure to make content marketing part of their marketing strategy. But doing content for the sake of doing content, or because it’s what everybody else is doing, is one of the biggest mistakes you can make.
Like so much else about building a company, the question isn’t whether content marketing is right – it’s whether content marketing is right for your company. So the first step in formulating a successful content marketing plan: getting clear on why you want to try content marketing in the first place.
“Having a content marketing strategy starts with understanding why you’re creating content… otherwise, you’re just a media company producing content for the sake of content.”
“It’s important for brands to define why they want to be creating content,” says Caroline McCarthy. “I have never seen it work out well when companies just want to create content and they aren’t really sure why.”
Joe Putnam agrees. “Having a content marketing strategy starts with understanding why you’re creating content so that you can use it to reach business goals; otherwise, you’re just a media company producing content for the sake of content,” he says. “Without a strategy, you can produce lots of content but just end up spinning your wheels because you’re not producing the right type of content for the right people.”
This idea, of creating the right type of content for the right people, brings us to our next point. As important as it is to make sure you know why you’re creating your content, the flip side is equally as important: why are your customers reading, watching, or listening to that content?
Finding that point where your business goals and your customers’ need intersect is what makes content marketing an art as well as a science. Get it right, and you can produce great, creative, valuable content that captures your audience’s imagination – while strengthening their relationship with your brand and pushing them toward greater interaction with your products at the same time.
One sign that content marketing could be a particularly effective strategy: if your business is in a high-knowledge area. In areas like finance, fitness, even fashion, users are likely looking for information and advice. If you can position your brand as a source of information on the subject that users can trust, you strengthen the case for why they should trust your product that much more. The same holds true for more service- and B2B-based businesses. Write content that showcases your expertise, and you position yourself as an expert that customers will want on their side.
But just because your business isn’t knowledge-driven doesn’t mean that content marketing can’t work for your company. As evidenced by our examples at the top of this post, some of the most effective content marketing being done right now comes in the form of goofy Buzzfeed quizzes and listicles.
People come to the Internet for all kinds of reasons: to be informed, to be entertained, inspired. The most important thing is to know what’s motivating your audience in particular – and produce content that speaks to those motivations.
One aspect of content marketing strategies that often gets overlooked: your content’s lifespan. There’s one thing the best content marketing strategies have in common: they focus on producing that is evergreen.
What’s “evergreen content”? It’s content that is going to have repeat value for your brand. No matter when or where you post it, evergreen content has value for someone reading it.
As Caroline McCarthy puts it, “It’s like how you’ll get better ROI on a Halloween costume you can wear year after year, as opposed to one that’s based on an in-joke that’s dated by the time November’s over.”
Building a content marketing strategy entirely out of one-off content is like trying to build a fire entirely out of kindling.
You may invest more time and resources into putting together a piece of evergreen content. Evergreen content tends to be more in-depth, more deeply researched, more involved – but the investment pays off. Over its lifespan, evergreen content can be used to convert thousands or even hundreds of thousands of leads, as opposed to just a handful.
None of this is to say that a well-placed, well-timed post on a current event can’t be part of your content strategy, too. That’s especially true if the event or issue under discussion dovetails perfectly with your brand and what you do. But building a content marketing strategy entirely out of one-off content is like trying to build a fire entirely out of kindling. You’ll spark a flame, sure, but you’re going to have to keep feeding it in order to keep the fire going. A couple of good, solid, cornerstone pieces of evergreen content, on the other hand? They’re the logs that keep your fire burning long and strong.
Like with social media marketing, one of the big questions those who are new to content marketing is how often should you post? People ask that hoping for a hard, fast answer. But the honest truth is – there is no hard fast rule for how frequently you should publish.
“It totally depends on your brand,” says Caroline McCarthy. “We publish about once a month. Anything more frequent would be excessive, and in addition, would require hiring a second person to manage content. Given that additional expenditure, we don’t think we’d get double the ROI from double the content.”
More important than frequency when it comes to your publishing schedule: consistency. “The biggest mistake I see is people coming out of the gate strong and then fading before quitting,” says Joe Putnam. “It’s better to do once a month for 6 months, and then ramp up to twice per month for the next six months when you can sustain that, than it is to publish twice a week for six weeks.”
Find a cadence that you and your team can sustain so that you can keep putting out content consistently. That way, your audience knows when to expect something from you, and you don’t have to rebuild your audience from scratch with every new post.
If a tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound? No, and neither does your content if you just post it to your blog and leave it there to languish in obscurity.
“Promoting your content is huge, and not promoting is probably the biggest mistake people make,” says Joe Putnam. “You create something and then wait for the world to respond but nobody notices.”
How much should you promote? An old truism of content marketing says that for every hour you spend creating content, you should spend three hours promoting it. Joe Putnam’s answer is less concrete but more straightforward: “As much as you possibly can,” he says. “Content you invest time and money to create doesn’t do much good if it doesn’t get found.”
As for how you should promote? A good place to start is with paid social media advertising. A promoted Tweet or Facebook post is a great way to boost the signal for your content. Teaming up with a partner or influencer in your industry who’s willing to share the content with their audience is also great. And lastly, don’t underestimate the importance of getting creative with where you post.
Building content marketing strategy doesn’t necessarily mean publishing just on your blog – even starting a blog at all. From social platforms like Medium and LinkedIn to full-blown publications like Forbes or Inc, there are tons of established media platforms out there. Many of them have built-in audiences made up of exactly the customers you’re trying to reach. And many of them are hungry for original, authentic content – content that you could provide.
Failing to promote content is one of the big missteps companies make when it comes to content marketing. Another common mistake: quitting on their strategy before it has a chance to pay off.
More than any other marketing strategy, content marketing is an investment – it takes time to see returns. Some brands get spooked when they don’t see concrete ROI after a handful of weeks and pull the plug. The reality is that content marketing can take longer than that to pay off. But when it does pay off, it pays off big.
“I watched a video the other day with Gary Vaynerchuk. He mentioned that he had less than 100 views on his first few videos,” observes Joe Putnam. “If he’d given up, where would he be today? So it’s difficult, right? On one hand, you want to measure and get a return. But on the other hand, it requires commitment and dedication.”
What we’re about to say is going to give the metrically oriented among our readers a heart attack. Giving your content a chance to breathe means easing up on some of your favorite sales-oriented metrics.
“I think it’s a fallacy to focus too much on ROI of content. It takes a while for a content marketing strategy to build up. And a lot of content KPIs aren’t directly related to revenue,” says Caroline McCarthy.
Adds Joe Putnam, “You can attempt to measure ROI too closely. A lot of what content marketing accomplishes is difficult to measure. That includes things like establishing authority, or top-of-funnel views.”
Not to worry, metrics nerds. As tricky as gauging the success of content marketing can be, there are metrics you can track. And track them you should.
“In the short-term, I’d look at metrics like engagement on the articles themselves. What actions are people taking after reading?” says Kelsey Meyer Raymond. “Do you see a small increase in traffic? Do you see people connecting with you on Linkedin? It might be small numbers at the beginning, but seeing some indication that the content is resonating with your audience is key. From there you can know what content is working well. Then, focus on promoting that content more and creating more content like that.”
Content marketing is a giant topic. We could easily devote ten times the length of this one to exploring what makes good content marketing tick. But for now, we’ll leave it here:
Good content marketing is hard. It takes patience, planning, and a whole lot of persistence. But stick with it. Find the sweet spot where your business goals overlap with your audience’s needs. Commit to putting out the high-value, high-impact content you’d want to read if you were your audience. Your hard work will pay off – big time.
Looking to go even farther down the content marketing rabbit hole? Check out this Startups University series to learn from one of the all-time greats, Neil Patel.
Need a bona fide content marketing expert to help flesh out your strategy? Head over to Clarity to find an expert today.
Want a real-world example of the impact content marketing can have on a startup? Check out Slidebean Founder Caya’s article on how a few content marketing jiu-jitsu moves helped them knock out their biggest competitor on Google.
Need to learn more about how paid social media can boost the signal for your content? Revisit our conversation about social media advertising.