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Content Marketing 101: A Primer (Part 1 of 2)

Ian Blair

“Content is king” is a mantra that marketers have invoked for the past few years—and for good reason. Content marketing is a new breed of marketing designed to work around the inherent flaws in conventional advertising; it’s the driving force behind digital marketing channels such as SEO and social media. It’s not a stretch to say content marketing is the key to a successful digital marketing strategy.

If you’re new to content marketing, or not sure where to start, take heart. This primer will walk you through content marketing in 2016 and give you concrete steps to implement a new content strategy or improve the one you already have—no matter your budget or the size of your marketing team. Ready to begin?

What Is Content Marketing?

The Content Marketing Institute gives this rather formal definition:

Content marketing is the marketing and business process for creating and distributing relevant and valuable content to attract, acquire, and engage a clearly defined and understood target audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action.

More simply, content marketing provides prospects and customers with interesting and useful information that answers questions, addresses needs, or engages emotions to help your business meet its marketing goals. Content marketing is a non-pushy, authentic way to establish relationships and share your brand’s story.

The concept has been with us for decades, actually. In the old days, a brand like Nestle might print a recipe or two on the back of a package of chocolate chips or put an ad in a magazine featuring fool-proof fudge. Today, they’ll publish an interview with a chocolatier on their blog, use a Pinterest board to share recipes and tips, put cooking demonstrations and how-to videos on their YouTube channel, and run a holiday cookie photo contest on Instagram. The concept is the same, it’s the tactics that evolve.

Here are some eye-popping content marketing stats:

  • 92% of businesses engage in content marketing.
  • 70% of marketers plan to increase their content creation this year.
  • The average company spends 28% of its overall marketing budget on content marketing; the most effective marketers spend 37% on content.
  • 55% of businesses plan to increase their content marketing budget this year.

No matter what business you’re in, you need content marketing in order to compete.

Defining Your Objectives

What do you want your content to accomplish for your business? Defining your objectives helps you align your content strategy to help you achieve them. Here are just a few examples:

  • Establish thought leadership to build credibility, respect, and influence in your industry
  • Generate new leads and prospects for sales and marketing
  • Create awareness of, and interest in, your products or services
  • Build and/or improve public opinion about your business and products
  • Develop a large following of friends and fans who engage with your brand on social media

From here, you’ll decide on how content marketing will fit into your overall marketing scheme. A sample strategy for building paid memberships might be:

Newsletter → Blog Post→ Social Media⇒ Paid Membership Site

A strategy to drive B2B product sales might look more like this:

Journal Article→ White Paper→ Case Studies→ Product Demo⇒ Sales/Estimate/Quote

An effective strategy usually combines several content tactics:

  • blog posts
  • video demos
  • podcasts
  • articles
  • newsletters
  • white papers
  • case studies
  • infographics
  • ebooks
  • webinars
  • interviews

As you craft your strategy, keep in mind the difficulty factor in creating each type of content, how it fits with your overall objectives, and if your target audience is receptive to information in that format. 

Identifying Your Audience

One of the reasons content marketing is effective is because it speaks to readers as individuals—if you’re writing content to address a group of people, you’re doing it wrong. To write really effective content, you need to identify exactly who it is you’re writing to, at a very granular, nitty-gritty level. At this point, it’s helpful to develop an avatar, or persona, who represents your target audience; this is the person you’ll write your content for. Start with demographics:

  • age
  • gender
  • educational level
  • income
  • occupation
  • family status and/or size
  • geographic location

Then add in intangibles:

  • values
  • personality traits
  • lifestyle choices
  • hobbies and interests

Once you’ve identified an ideal representative of your target audience, your avatar, give it a name and address all your content to him or her. Your avatar is not the same as your buyer persona; your avatar will help you write more focused, engaging content that advances your marketing goals.

Next, you’ll need to find out where your target audience lives online. Here’s a handy infographic with key demographics for the popular social media sites; you can also use paid services like Forrester to help you track the social behaviors of your own customers so you know exactly where they go for content online. This will shape your content creation choices. 

Matching Content to Your Marketing Funnel

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Image via Flickr

Most marketers have some version of the digital marketing funnel that covers the four basics: Awareness/discovery, consideration/acquisition, conversion/transaction, relationship/retention. The beauty of content marketing is that it works at every level, from top to bottom.

Awareness/Discovery

Goals: Educating people, generating interest, indirect customer acquisition.

[thrive_lead_lock id=’15037′]Hidden Content[/thrive_lead_lock]

At this stage, content marketing is about understanding what customers are interested in and want to know, and delivering that information in a manner that delights them or piques their curiosity. It’s less about you (and your brand) and more about them. Educational content, viral content, shareable content—big wins at this stage of content marketing.

Content tactics:

  • blog posts
  • quizzes, games, tools, calculators
  • infographics
  • videos
  • newsletters
  • how-tos and in-depth guides
  • podcasts and webinars
  • ebooks

Real-world example:

A pet supply shop specializing in premium organic pet foods and supplements publishes a quiz about common ingredients in commercial pet food on its blog and promotes it on its Facebook page, posts photos and a recipe for homemade dog treats on Pinterest, and records an interview with a local vet about optimal nutrition for older dogs for its monthly podcast.

Consideration/Acquisition

Goals: Building trust, offering solutions, direct customer acquisition.

At this point, you are highlighting problems your prospects and customers might have and offer your products and services as trustworthy solutions. At this stage, you want to offer information that helps differentiate you from your competitors and answers questions about how you can solve their problems. You’re not really selling at this point, but you are positioning your brand.

Content tactics:

  • case studies
  • product descriptions and data sheets
  • how-to guides featuring your product or service
  • product demos and videos
  • white papers
  • ROI calculators

Real-world example:

A residential heating and air conditioning company creates an in-depth guide showing homeowners how to save money on energy costs. One section details the importance of having air ducts professionally sealed, a service the company offers. They offer the guide on their company website and promote it in their newsletter, blog, and on social media.

Conversion/Transaction

Goals: Communicating your unique value proposition, getting prospects/customers to take a desired action.

Leads at this point in the funnel are ready to pull the trigger, they just need a little nudge—something that justifies and rationalizes the decision in their mind. Now is the time to pull out the stops in your sales pitch with clear copy that emphasizes your USP.

Content tactics:

  • testimonials
  • product reviews
  • product comparisons
  • estimates/quotes
  • ROI calculators
  • detailed product descriptions

Real-world example:

A software company creates a matrix comparing the features of competing products in its particular market niche. It also produces a series of video testimonials from companies of varying sizes currently using their product. Finally, it designs a pricing calculator that gives clear, straightforward information about initial and ongoing monthly costs.

Relationship/Retention

Goals: Building customer loyalty, creating brand ambassadors, increasing customer lifetime value.

All marketers know it’s cheaper to keep existing customers than to find new ones, and this stage of the funnel is all about relationship-building and retention. It’s about creating loyal customers who tell others about your brand.

Content tactics:

  • onboarding emails
  • troubleshooting tips
  • customer help and support materials
  • loyalty programs
  • special offers
  • insider tips and how-tos

Real-world example:

An online cosmetics retailer invites customers to join their loyalty program in their purchase confirmation emails. It sends customers an email when their orders ship and sends delivery confirmation notifications via SMS text or mobile app. They use marketing automation to email customers a special birthday discount or free gift, and to alert customers when a favorite product goes on sale.

Creating the Right Content

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Image via Flickr by joethegoatfarmer.com

There are three main elements in formulating a good content marketing strategy:

  1. Ideation—coming up with right ideas for compelling content.
  2. Format—matching your ideas to the appropriate channels.
  3. Creative—identifying actual content creators.

These three pieces are the same whether you’re a small business owner handling marketing on your own or a large company with a 10-person marketing team—it’s just a matter of scale.

Ideation

The first step is coming up with topics that your target customer is interested in and wants to read about. In some cases, identifying good topics is as simple as brainstorming with a co-worker or a friend or reading questions and comments from your customers to see what’s on their mind; some niches are much easier than others. For other businesses, however, a little market research is in order.

  • What topics are your competitors writing about?
  • What content is getting buzz on social media? There are free tools like Sumo to help you identify popular content.
  • What’s trending in your industry right now?

The “good idea” checklist—

√ Relevant – search engines will recognize content on-topic

√ Helpful – answers a question or need for your audience

√ Valuable – content that isn’t readily available elsewhere

√ Fascinating or unique – something readers want to share

Creating the Right Content

There are three main elements in formulating a good content marketing strategy:

  1. Ideation—coming up with right ideas for compelling content.
  2. Format—matching your ideas to the appropriate channels.
  3. Creative—identifying actual content creators.

These four pieces are the same whether you’re a small business owner handling marketing on your own or a large company with a 10-person marketing team, it’s just a matter of scale.

Ideation

15531955577_fc2e6f15f2_c

Image via Flickr by Luigi Mengato

The first step is coming up with topics that your target customer is interested in and wants to read about. In some cases, identifying good topics is as simple as brainstorming with a co-worker or a friend or reading questions and comments from your customers to see what’s on their mind; some niches are much easier than others. For other businesses, however, a little market research is in order.

  • What topics are your competitors writing about?
  • What content is getting buzz on social media? There are free tools like Sumo to help you identify popular content.
  • What’s trending in your industry right now?

Keep this checklist in mind as you consider topics for content creation:

Format

The best content ideas can be repurposed and cross-promoted across multiple marketing channels, but it’s still important to match your content ideas to the unique characteristics of each platform. Want to write about gluten-free baking alternatives to wheat flour? A long-form article is great for a newsletter or blog post, a recipe for gluten-free hazelnut torte is a natural for Pinterest, and an infographic is an eye-catching option to tempt your Facebook and Twitter followers.

Don’t forget that some consumers prefer visual content; Google+ hangouts, Slideshare presentations, screencasting are all interesting alternatives to written pieces.

Creative

Identifying who will be responsible for actually creating your content can be one of the most challenging decisions you’ll make as a content marketer. In many cases, you have the talent in-house to create interesting content—think of an interview with your resident tech geek or an in-depth look at pending legislation by your internal subject matter expert, for example.

Most marketers will have to outsource at least some of their creative work at some point or other, however. Outsourcing offers you an opportunity to tap deeper expertise and, in the case of many guest authors, a broad social following that amplifies the impact of your posts. In the next section, we’ll look at budgeting and asset allocation for content development and when outsourcing makes sense.

Check back soon for Part 2, where we’ll look at the nuts and bolts of content marketing: budget allocation, editorial calendars, content automation tools, going viral, KPIs, measuring ROI, and useful tips and tools.

Ian Blair

BuildFire Co-Founder. I'm a digital marketer by trade and an entrepreneur at heart. I'm here to help businesses go mobile and build apps more efficiently than before.

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