Good question. If you Google this phrase, it’ll return a myriad of responses (or 3,000,000,000 results, and counting). Which only adds to the confusion. If the lines are blurred, what hope do you as a small business have understanding it?
A great way to break down what content marketing is, and how to do it well, is to start with what it isn’t.
"Traditional marketing talks at people. Content marketing talks to people" — Doug Kessler
It’s not advertising. Or social media (unless you run your social media account solely as a micro blog). Or PR. Marketing that uses content isn’t the same as content marketing. That’s marketing with content.
Put simply, content marketing uses words, stories, photography, images, video, audio, and mixed media to reach an audience in a meaningful way. Its purpose? To build relationships, create awareness, establish trust, influence perception, and develop value, whether you're a big or small business. In fact, it’s purpose is to create purpose.
So, why even bother with content marketing if it’s not directly going to sell or spruik your product or service? What’s the point? How can it be justified in your overall marketing spend?
Because capturing an audience’s attention is equally as important as capturing a sale.
The importance of a content marketing strategy
Developing a solid content marketing strategy first will help when it comes to producing the right content. Addressing existing content flaws, gaps, opportunities and considering customer personas, are all important factors. In a way, it’s about taking the sales and marketing hat off for a second (which can often cloud the type of content produced) and focusing on original, purpose-driven content your customer will genuinely enjoy, keep coming back for and, hopefully, share with others. What’s in it for you shouldn’t really come into it.
Put the content first, people.
When producing a piece of content marketing, ask yourself: how does this benefit my customer? What does it help them with? Why am I producing it? If the answers are self-centred, you’re on the wrong path. While it can be easy to fall into the trap of content creation that prioritises your product or service ahead of useful, customer-centric information, it's not the purpose of content marketing.
Let’s take a really simple example of content marketing.
Holly is a yoga enthusiast looking to buy a sustainable yoga mat. She discovers a brand on Instagram that sells cork-based yoga products. While looking on their site, she finds an instructional video: ‘5 yoga poses you can fit into your lunch break’, which she watches, then shares with a friend. She notices that the brand posts regular how-to videos from said yoga instructor, as well as opinion pieces from thought-leaders in the sustainability space. She follows the brand on Instagram and signs up to their e-newsletter. Said business understands that a customer who is interested in buying a sustainable yoga mat is also likely to be interested in learning more about fitness, the planet, general health and wellbeing, and will use this knowledge to shape their content marketing, and grow their community.
Way too many businesses want to be the hero of the story, but the success of your business is found in its purpose; solving problems and creating value for real people.
Don’t mislead your audience.
Consider whether the content is delivering on what it says it is (and not drawing the customer in, only to ‘clickbait’ them). The Content Marketing Institute’s Gina Balarin touches on this in her piece, How to Stop Creating Content That Disappoints Your Audience. She details why so many brands and marketers continue to let their audience down with ‘meh’ content, and how we can do better, by adopting the BRACES method:
Brave – When it’s done right, it’s possible to create content that sometimes challenges assumptions.
Researched – People believe because it’s based on real research.
Astute – It credibly assesses situations so readers can turn challenges into advantages.
Credible – It is believable (credible) for the same reasons.
Educational – It seeks to expand the reader’s knowledge (educational).
Skimmable – And it is easy to flip through – readers can dip in and out at will.
If you treat content marketing like a 'hack', you’re a hack.
When it comes to content marketing, it’s less about the marketing, and all about the quality of content. As Intercom’s John Collins explains, “where playbook content marketing goes wrong is in trying to market and sell from the get-go. We have to give you, our readers, something of value – our knowledge, insight and experience – before we earn the right to market to you."
This makes total sense to someone (like me) from an editorial background, who has been trained to find a story that hasn't been told, to always looking for a new ‘angle’ and to value 'the truth', but for most digital marketers, not selling can be a hard habit to break. Think: tabloid journalism, vs a well-researched, thought-provoking feature article or opinion piece.
According to HubSpot, almost 70% of businesses are investing in content marketing in 2020, but getting it ‘right’ is the real challenge. Provided the content produced is compelling, well thought-out, and not just there for the sake of it, it has value. People buy stories, not information.