Content marketing tips

Like any other emerging field, content marketing has its share of detractors, and they often have a point. Let’s walk through some of the w...

Like any other emerging field, content marketing has its share of detractors, and they often have a point. Let’s walk through some of the wrong ways to approach content marketing so that you can avoid these mistakes in your own marketing and understand why is content marketing important?

Content Marketing Is Not About Volume

Mark Schaefer recently coined the phrase content shock to describe the impending cliff of despair facing content marketers. The theory says content marketers produce so much stuff that the practice will eventually collapse under its own weight, as audiences tune out the crushing volume of content. Technically, the theory is based on the simple economics of supply and demand. As supply grows, the price for goods goes down. But because content marketers give their stuff away for free, content marketing is not sustainable. The content will eventually reach a negative value, causing more harm than good.

The main myth we want to bust relative to content shock is that content is free. Content is never free. The audience might not pay for it in money, but they pay for it with time and attention. It has to have at least enough value to be worth the time and attention of the audience. Because audience time and attention become more precious with each passing day, high-quality content will continue to gain in relative value against its lower-quality competition. High-quality content differentiates companies from their competitors.

Content quality is a hallmark of content marketing. You can’t build trust with your audience unless you build quality content. Of course, this is easier said than done. But here again we can use data to measure how well our content performs for our target audiences and make adjustments as we go. It might not be perfect when it is published, but using big data can improve the content over time and make it a competitive advantage. Another aspect of content shock is that audiences are drowning in content. Whether or not you believe Schaefer’s theory about the economics of content marketing and what is content marketing, the practice tends to overwhelm the audience if it is not done right. But this also is nothing new. Information on the web has grown exponentially since the web’s debut in 1994, and it continues to grow at a rapid clip even 20 years after its inception, as shown in Figure 2-1.

content marketing tips

Users have adapted to the crushing volume of content on the web by being more proactive about the information they consume. Primarily, users search for what they’re looking for rather than passively consume information from just a few trusted sources. And this search behavior is much more interactive than with other media, in part because much of what people find on the web is marginally relevant to their searches. Because Google and other search engines do a great job of finding the right content for searchers, delivering appropriate content for your audience is much more important than delivering high volumes of content.

Other algorithms complement search as a means of filtering the enormous volume of content on the web. Building content with these algorithms in mind is a key differentiator. For example, you can use tools to discover which of your pages rank in Google or other search engines for the keywords your target audience queries. If you rank, it is a good indicator that your content is doing the job. Rather than publish more stuff that competes with ranking pages, find areas or topics where you don’t rank and build or optimize that content.

If you fill all the gaps in Google’s search engine results with useful content and avoid needless duplication, you can minimize content shock. In this way, algorithms can help you publish only the content you need to publish and continually optimize the content you have already published.

Content Marketing Is Not a Cheaper Form of Print

Besides the economic argument, content shock is based on a premise that need not be true—that all content marketers publish way too much content for their audiences to consume.

It is true that many companies publish entirely too much content. A common practice is to find an audience need and publish the content that meets that need prior to seeing if something similar has already been published on your site. Especially in big companies, communication and collaboration about published content can be scarce. The result is a lot of apparently duplicate content competing for the time and attention of the target audience. Companies that find themselves in that predicament do run afoul of their audience’s content shock.

But it need not be so. The growing content strategy field has built many handy tools to audit existing content and see to what extent it meets the needs of the target audience. Companies can either republish or optimize the content, collaborating with the original publishers to serve their mutual audiences. We call this practice content governance. The best content governance focuses on meeting the needs of clients and prospects rather than the needs of the marketer. If you meet client needs, results will follow. If you don’t meet client needs, the reverse happens.

Along with SEO, content strategy and content governance are antidotes to content shock. But they, too, are not in traditional marketers’ comfort zones. Content audits can be complex documents, laced with metrics and unstructured data to help companies determine which content to retire, which content to update or optimize, and which content to create and publish.

Just as marketers can employ data scientists to help make sense of the effectiveness of their content marketing, marketers can use content strategists to digest all the audits. And they should do so, enabling traditional marketers to focus on learning their audience and serving audience needs.

Content Marketing Is Not Merely Social Media Marketing

Another common aspect of content marketing is its inherently social nature. Content marketers are known for promoting blogging as a form of customer engagement. Blogs are inherently social, focusing on authors and the connections they have with their friends, followers, and colleagues. This means building author influence by growing their reach within social networks such as Twitter and LinkedIn. It can be a very successful way of engaging with customers, in part because social media is a key way users find content on the bloated web. Users search for content in areas in which they are not experts. But for their areas of expertise, they tend to use their social connections to grow their expertise. Enabling your internal experts to build this content helps clients and prospects deeply engage with your brand.

For some, the success of social media marketing leads to the conclusion that it should replace the content on websites. We were recently in a room full of executives discussing how to transform the marketing practices of a large enterprise, when an executive said, “Websites are dead; we should create all our content in social networks, where our clients can connect with our experts.” We cautioned that the distinction between content on the corporate website and content in social settings is a bit artificial. They are both social in nature. They both should feature experts and expertise. But the website, not social networks, is where clients convert. Social networks have their place as neutral meeting and sharing grounds. But they cannot replace corporate websites.

Even if somehow you become convinced that a particular social site is a good replacement for your website, you still shouldn’t switch. Why? It’s just too risky. If you think that Tumblr should be your ultimate destination and Tumblr someday closes, you’re screwed. (Even if it doesn’t close, try getting a Tumblr site to rank well in Google. Google doesn’t index Tumblr content.) If you promote Facebook as your ultimate destination and Facebook later changes the rules, you might find that you no longer can use Facebook the way you expected.

Your marketing website is the destination to which you attract and convert clients. Social sites are important, and we will discuss them at greater length later. But unless you learn to optimize your site to convert your prospects into loyal clients, who come to it from social channels, social media will serve only as a branding tool. The two must work together as a cohesive whole to maximize the value of your social efforts. These efforts are among the most difficult things to do as you attempt to transform your marketing organizations. Your website can be a proving ground for what works and what doesn’t in social media. Without a strong web presence, social media is a waste of your most precious resources—your experts.

Content Marketing Is Not Merely Online Publishing

One of the first things we tell clients when we advise them to adopt content marketing is to accept the fact that they are publishers. Effectively managing their publishing process is a key differentiator for content marketers. Initially, many of our clients think that all they need to do is to build the project plans for their campaigns to push out content.

By all means, editorial calendars are useful things, but they should not be seen as the be-all and end-all of content marketing management. The trouble with paying too much attention to an internal editorial calendar is in the word push you probably noticed in the previous paragraph. Pushy content marketing is not particularly effective, and it is very expensive.

In our experience, the messaging at the center of push marketing changes rapidly, and the marketers who are eager to push the message out will publish reams of content. Unless the basis of the message offers new value—such as a new product launch—in the eyes of the audience, the message is not that different from the previous pushy thing published. Besides wasting the time of the folks who create and manage the content, this flavor of content marketing wastes the most precious commodity to marketers—the time and attention of their audience—possibly encouraging the audience to tune out future messages. Then, like the boy who cried “wolf,” push marketers don’t get the attention they deserve when they publish something truly compelling.

Many of our clients start publishing the messages they want the market to hear rather than publishing the answers the market wants to know. Outside-in marketing focuses on publishing the content that clients and prospects need so that they will pay attention to the messages you need to publish.

If you think about it, focusing on the needs of your clients and prospects will help focus your development teams, your support teams, and other areas of your company around those needs. So, even though outside-in marketing starts with the needs of the customers, it ultimately results in published content that also meets the needs of the marketer.

Content Marketing Is Not Just for Market Capture

Traditional marketers speak often of making markets, establishing brands, and growing market share. Historically, this has been done by building compelling messages and pushing them into the markets. This practice remains both prevalent and effective, as a quick study of Apple’s marketing strategy demonstrates.

What you might not know is that Apple constantly studies the needs of their audience before building the products that suit those needs. They design products that are so elegant and useful that they practically market themselves. But your company probably does not have the benefit of Apple’s laser focus on client needs, so push marketing might not work as well for you.

For most companies, content marketing itself needs to be a differentiator. If you provide excellent experiences by giving your clients valuable information and access to your experts, you have a chance to develop a relationship with them based on trust. In the comfort of this trust, clients and prospects will give you their precious time and attention to learn your points of view and your unique value propositions. As we said, you can’t do this with a push approach, at least not in digital.

You might ask, “If content marketing is primarily geared toward serving audience needs, how can you make markets with it?” Not only can you make markets, content marketing is perhaps the most effective way to make markets. As we said, a loyal audience is more receptive to your point of view (POV). As long as you provide compelling evidence and well-crafted stories, clients and prospects will more readily accept your POV after you have developed a relationship with them, built on trust. But they are less likely to accept your POV if they don’t yet trust you.

Perhaps an example will help. James consulted internally with thousands of marketers in IBM, trying to help them make markets with outside-in content marketing. In 2013, one of those clients was IBM Research, which was attempting to make the market for cognitive computing, a new model of computing best exemplified by Watson, the computer that beat the top Jeopardy! champions. When he started working with IBM Research, they wanted to push the message of this new kind of computing to the marketplace but were struggling to convince skeptical researchers, primarily in academia, that this new model was as revolutionary as they claimed.

As is typical, James built a seed list of keywords from the existing marketing messages and then performed keyword research. What he found was that what IBM called “cognitive computing” was being searched for by academic audiences with keywords such as artificial intelligence, natural language processing, and machine learning. His team built a periodic table of cognitive computing that included all of these popular words, with some annotations about how they related. He then advised the team to build content around each of the squares in the periodic table and build an experience that linked the content together in a coherent way.

The content they created helped people who searched for artificial intelligence and related words to understand the similarities and differences between these popular practices and cognitive computing. Once the site helped the audience understand these things, it conditioned the conversation toward the view that cognitive computing is not the same as traditional artificial intelligence but that it is much more sophisticated. It also told compelling stories about how cognitive computing systems are helping doctors, scientists, and others do amazing things they could never do without cognitive computing.

This content helped IBM Research make the market for cognitive computing. Prior to the content being published, there were five monthly U.S. searches containing the words cognitive computing, according to Google. Six months after publishing, there were 1,400 U.S. monthly searches containing that same phrase. By using the audience’s language, peppered with IBM’s POV, IBM Research made the market for cognitive computing. IBM Research did not buy one ad to drive traffic to the content it created. It made the market for cognitive computing by capturing the market for related words.

Content Marketing Is Not a Replacement for Public Relations

Content marketing is a particularly effective kind of digital marketing, but it is not the only way to provide answers to your clients and prospects. Advertising still plays a role. And you still need to engage in traditional public relations (PR). Rather than view content marketing as a replacement for traditional PR, as some have recommended, we believe both must work together.

According to a recent study by Nielsen, PR is 88% more effective than content marketing alone. Though the poll respondents frequently used expert advice from companies, journalistic content from third-party publishers is still the most effective consumer influencer.

Convincing reputable publishers to review your products or to mention your brand in favorable ways is an art that we will leave to media relations books. Just as with data scientists and content strategists, traditional marketers should delegate this art to those who specialize in PR. But that doesn’t mean you don’t work with them to craft a united front between your internal and external experts.

In particular, marketers must inform PR professionals about related content marketing tips and activities so that PR people can build them into their press releases and other media relations assets. What the Nielsen study did not test is whether media relations assets are more effective in getting favorable mentions if they include good links to credible content marketing assets by your experts. The study pitted the two practices against each other rather than considering the two practices in concert.

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