Anyone involved in marketing in the last five to ten years cannot fail to have noticed the rise of a new term: content marketing. Content marketing strategies are everywhere, and every business wants to be doing content marketing. However, is that the right approach?
This page discusses the definition and nature of content marketing, and explains why it is used. It also sets out some ideas about how you might approach content marketing—and also what you might want to avoid.
Defining Content Marketing
Definitions of content marketing (see box) share certain features. They all involve the creation of ‘content’, and its use to attract, engage and retain current and potential customers.
Definitions of content marketing
“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.”
The Content Marketing Institute
“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.”
Joe Pulizzi and Newt Barrett, in a 2010 paper entitled “Get Content Get Customers”-Turn Prospects into Buyers with Content Marketing
However, these definitions beg some further questions. In particular, what exactly do we mean by content?
Content is broadly defined as any information produced by a business or organisation, to share with customers or potential customers. It therefore covers both print and online information, and may take many forms, including leaflets, white papers, blogs, explainer and other videos, emails, product information, and social media posts.
The Key Difference
What exactly makes content marketing different from ‘randomly sending information out to customers’, also known to more cynical people as ‘spamming customers’?
The Content Marketing Institute suggests that the key difference is that content marketing focuses on relevant and valuable content: in other words, information that customers want and need (see box).
The purpose of content marketing
It is important to understand that the purpose of content marketing is to sell—but not directly.
Instead, it is about building a relationship with your customers. This may include showing that you (or your company) are experts on your customers and their problems. By building this relationship as a ‘trusted adviser’, you hope to translate your activity into profitable action from your customers (for example, buying your products or services).
Content created for content marketing purposes, therefore, does NOT have to directly promote your products or services. In fact, it’s usually better if it doesn’t. Instead, it has to provide information that is valuable and relevant to the customer, that should eventually lead them back to you.
It is a fine line—but it is vital to remember this and avoid direct marketing in your content.
It will, however, be clear that one person’s content marketing could easily become another person’s marketing spam.
Content marketing therefore requires a lot of care.
It also requires a fine understanding of customer wants and needs.
It relies heavily on the ability to analyse customer requirements and tailor information to those needs. This may require some strong customer segmentation, so that you can really drill down and identify particular groups of customers. Ultimately, some content marketing actually goes as far as considering a ‘segment of one’, particularly in business-to-business marketing—that is, you are effectively targeting each customer individually.
Content marketing is also often much less ‘pushy’ than traditional marketing mailings.
Instead of emailing customers, it often relies on customers searching for information, or engaging with the company via social media. It is therefore much more customer-led, as well as customer-focused.
The Benefits of Content Marketing
Companies that engage effectively with content marketing generally report:
- Increased sales;
- Reduced costs; and
- Increased customer loyalty.
They also have the ability to see content as a profit centre, rather than a cost.
It is important to understand that ‘content marketing’ is not a process in and of itself. Content actually underpins every aspect of marketing. For example, social media marketing relies on sharing good quality content and amplifying its reach by using social media. Search engine optimisation is enabled by good content that people want to read.
Content should therefore be a key part of your marketing strategy.
The Process of Content Marketing
The fundamental difference with content marketing is that it starts with the customer needs.
This means that the first step in any content marketing process is to identify your customers. You then need to establish their needs, and particularly, their pain points or problems. What is interesting about this process is that these pain points are not (yet) always obvious to the customers themselves.
Ideally, for content marketing, you need to be one step ahead of your customers.
Why? Because when they go looking for answers to their problems, you want them to find your content. And for that to happen, you must have created the content before they started to search for those answers.
The process of identifying customer needs and problems starts with market research and competitive intelligence. This enables you to understand your customers, and what is available that might solve their problems. You can then start to build content that explores their issues, and shows how they may be resolved.
For ideas about how to create great content that achieves your objectives, you may find it helpful to read our page on Writing Marketing Copy.
Ultimately, this process may even drive you to create not just content, but also new products and services that will better solve your customers’ problems.
A Final Thought
Perhaps the most important thing to remember about content marketing is that it is not about direct sales. Instead, it is about building a strong and productive relationship with your customers and potential customers. Get that right, and the sales should follow.