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  1. Business
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Business

What Is Content Marketing?

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If you’re trying to expand your business, chances are you’ve heard the term “content marketing”. You may have been told that it’s a great way to reach new customers and build your business’s profile and profits at the same time.

But what exactly is content marketing?

In this tutorial, I’ll help you get up to speed. We’ll start by looking at a simple definition of content marketing, and then we’ll talk about how it can help your business.

Although content marketing has many benefits, it comes with some downsides too, and I’ll cover those in section 3. Then finally we’ll look at some strategies you can use to be successful in your own content marketing.

Content marketing graphic
Content marketing (graphic)

1. What Is Content Marketing?

Let’s define content marketing first of all.

Here’s the definition of content marketing given in the Random House Dictionary:

Marketing that tries to attract customers by distributing informational content potentially useful to the target audience, rather than by advertising products and services in the traditional way.

So let’s unpick that a little. “Attracting customers” is clear enough, but what’s “informational content”? It could take a variety of forms: maybe a blog post, an article, a video, a set of social media posts, a webinar, a podcast, or something else. What’s important is not the form, but the fact that it’s packed with information that’s “potentially useful to the target audience”.

The idea is that by providing people with free information that’s useful, enlightening, and hey, maybe even fun, you convert them from strangers into fans. If they really like your stuff, they may share it with their friends, giving you even broader reach, and they’ll be more receptive when you finally ask them to become a paying customer.

As the dictionary definition notes, this is quite different from traditional marketing. Here’s a simple example to illustrate that. Let’s say you run a small web design studio and you want to attract new customers. Here’s how the content marketing approach would differ from the traditional approach:

Traditional Marketing

In the traditional marketing approach, you’d create an advertisement and pay to place it in front of potential customers: perhaps in magazines or newspapers, as sponsored search results, or as banner ads on websites.

In that case, your ad might read something like:

Looking for a fresh website design for a great price? Try ABC Design Studio! For a limited time only, get 10% off all design work.

OK, you could probably come up with better ad copy, but you get the idea. Traditional marketing is about getting in front of your potential customers and trying to convince them to choose you. It’s very direct, and if you’re persuasive enough it can lead to immediate sales, but if you don’t grab people’s attention, they’ll just tune you out.

Content Marketing

The content marketing approach is very different. It’s more about playing the long-term game. In this case, you might start posting articles on your website or blog, giving small business owners useful information on things like the elements of good website design, mistakes to avoid when setting up a website, and more. Then you promote those articles to draw readers to your blog, and at the end of each article you try to entice them to stay in contact, perhaps by offering more great information in exchange for their email address.

Once they’ve signed up, you follow up with a series of emails providing more useful, free information, while also trying to entice them to sign up as a paying customer. Even at this stage, the ratio is still something like 80% or 90% free information and 10% or 20% self-promotion.

This is just an example, of course—there are lots of different content marketing strategies out there, using a variety of different media, and we’ll examine some strategies for successful content marketing later on in this tutorial.

The point for now is to show you that content marketing is much less direct than traditional marketing. Instead of asking strangers to part with their money immediately, you’re trying to build trust with them first. It takes longer to go from first contact to money in the bank, but if you do it well, it can be very effective, as we’ll discover shortly.

What’s New?

In the example above, I’ve presented content marketing in sharp contrast to traditional marketing to help clarify the definition, but actually, advertisers have been using some form of what we now call content marketing for decades. Think of the “advertorials” you’d see in newspapers (like the Suburban Home example below), or the brochures that would give useful information about a topic while also subtly nudging you towards using a particular company’s products to solve your problem.

By Atlanta Constitution pre-1923 Fold3com images of Atlanta Constitution pre-1923 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
By Atlanta Constitution pre-1923 (Fold3.com images of Atlanta Constitution pre-1923) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

What’s new is that changes in technology, combined with changes in consumer preferences, have given content marketing some distinct advantages that it didn’t have in the days of print, and as a result, it’s become much more widely used. We’ll look at some of those advantages in the next section.

2. Why Use Content Marketing?

As we’ve seen, content marketing is quite an indirect approach. So why take the time to do it? What can it do for your business? In this section, I’ll answer those questions by covering some of the benefits of content marketing.

People Hate Ads

OK, that might be putting it a little strongly, but more and more people are using ad-blocking software (198 million people, with a 41% annual growth rate). And even of those people who aren’t actively blocking ads, many are simply tuning them out—the average click-through rate of banner ads is just 0.06%, and about half of clicks on mobile ads are accidental, according to this HubSpot roundup.

While these stats are for online ads, don’t think that print or TV are doing much better. People, especially young people, are increasingly tuning out traditional ads. They want useful information, which is exactly what content marketing aims to provide.

Your Fans Become Your Advertisers

If you produce stuff that strikes a chord with your readers or viewers, they’ll share it with their friends, giving you much broader reach for no extra investment. In rare cases, a post or video may “go viral”, reaching huge numbers of people that would cost a fortune to market to via traditional advertising.

But even if only a few people share your posts, it’s still a tremendously effective way to reach new customers. Why? Because when people see your content, they’re seeing that it’s been recommended by someone they trust or respect—perhaps a friend or family member—and that gives you a powerful head-start. Even if the recommendation is just from someone they follow on Twitter but don’t really know, it’s still a connection that gives you an advantage over just being discovered out of the blue.

People Love Free Stuff

Who doesn’t love a freebie?

That’s particularly true online. In the early days of the web, pretty much everything was free—the internet was built to facilitate the free flow of information. These days, people have got used to paying for products, services or information they value, but there’s still a lingering expectation that at least the basics should be free.

By giving away free, useful information, you’re giving people what they want, and that’s a great way to build a relationship with them.

It Doesn’t Cost You Much

You can get started with content marketing for little or even zero up-front investment. A snazzy website certainly helps, but people will still share and value a post written on a free blog or social media platform. (There's a caveat to this, which I'll cover later.)

It’s How People Make Buying Decisions These Days

People don’t tend to make snap buying decisions online. They prefer to use all the information out there to help them compare products and do research. According to a PwC study, 80% of people do online research before making purchases even of small items like books, music and movies. Other studies have found similar results.

So expecting strangers to buy right away is unrealistic, particularly if your brand is not well-known. It’s more effective to engage with them first, to give them information that helps them with their research, and try to build trust so that when they do buy, they buy from you.

You Build Your Profile

Many of the people who read your posts or watch your videos will never buy anything from you. But even so, that effort wasn’t wasted. You’ve built brand awareness, gained credibility, and raised your profile. And if the content is hosted on your own website, you’ve probably improved your search engine rankings too.

Long-Term Sustainability

When you buy an ad, you get a flood of visitors and possibly customers. But then, when people are no longer seeing that ad, the tap gets turned off. You’re back to square one—unless you pay again... and again... and again.

A popular blog post or video, on the other hand, can keep providing you with new customers for years. As long as people can still find the post (i.e. it ranks well in search results or other popular sites have linked to it), you can get thousands of new visitors for a post you wrote five years ago.

The more good content you produce and the more popular you become, the more your traffic increases, both for new posts and old ones. It’s a cumulative effect, unlike paying for leads, which is a one-time deal.

3. Challenges to Overcome

Although content marketing has lots of advantages, it’s not a panacea. There are significant downsides.

Everyone Else Is Doing It

According to the 2015 B2B Content Marketing Benchmarks report, 86% of businesses are using content marketing. While the popularity of content marketing is an argument in favour of using it, that popularity also means that it’s a very crowded field.

Whatever industry you’re in, there are probably already hundreds or even thousands of blogs, podcasts and YouTube channels covering your topic. The sheer volume of it all has led to a frequent complaint of “information overload”. That makes it hard to stand out and gain an audience.

It Takes Time and Effort

I mentioned low cost as one of the advantages of content marketing, but don’t be fooled. Although there’s little cash investment required, you will need to put a lot of hours and a lot of effort into doing it.

Whether you’re composing blog posts, recording podcasts, or indulging in the distraction by a thousand cuts that is involved in maintaining an active social media presence, content marketing sucks away time and energy that you'd otherwise be devoting to other parts of your business. And you may not see a return for a long time.

You could hire someone to do it, of course, but that could be expensive. And you need to be careful who you hire, because authenticity and reliability are key. Dishing out bad or shoddily presented information will damage your reputation just as much as good information will build it.

It’s Hard to Measure Success

How can you tell if you’re doing it right? Increased website traffic? More social media followers? A bigger email list? Or should you measure it only based on actual customers brought in?

What if you’re not seeing much tangible growth, but you’re getting positive comments and engagement and building your profile with potential customers and influential people in the industry? Is that enough?

And given that it takes time to build an audience, how long should you stick at it before deciding that enough is enough?

Some of the benefits of content marketing can be tracked quite closely, but others are intangible, and it can be difficult to tell which one to use. I’ll cover the problem of measuring the success of content marketing in more detail in a future tutorial.

4. Content Marketing Strategies

So we’ve got some clarity on what content marketing is, and we’ve looked at its main pros and cons.

So what strategies can you use to be successful in your content marketing?

Pick Your Channels

As I mentioned earlier, there are many different ways to do content marketing. Here’s a brief, non-exhaustive list of options:

  • Write a blog.
  • Create an audio podcast.
  • Produce videos and publish them on YouTube or elsewhere.
  • Build a following on social media.
  • Create some fun, informative, shareable infographics.
  • Write guest posts or articles for popular publications.
  • Write eBooks or white papers and distribute them on your website and elsewhere.
  • Run a free webinar.

A good content marketing strategy will probably include several of these, but it’s important not to spread yourself too thin. It’s better to pick just one or two channels and show up regularly than to have a half-hearted “presence” everywhere.

So make an honest assessment of your skills, and decide which of those you can do best. Do you have the personality and presentation skills to produce fun, engaging videos? Are you more comfortable with the written word? How are your technical skills in each area? What will fit best in your schedule—dedicating blocks of time to producing long-form content, or producing shorter stuff more frequently? 

When you’re picking channels to use for content marketing, consider also what you’re trying to achieve, what your target audience is looking for, and what the competition looks like. For more on this important topic, see the following tutorials:

Don’t Be Boring

The words “corporate blog” make me want to stab myself with a fork. They bring back painful memories of all the dull, stilted propaganda I’ve seen churned out by corporate PR departments who’ve just heard that all the cool kids are blogging these days so they should do it too, although of course every post has to be approved by five levels of management before it can go out.

Small businesses can make a similar mistake too, by mixing up “sounding credible” with “sounding like an economics textbook”.

If you want your content marketing to be popular, you don’t have to “dumb it down” completely and post only cute cat videos. But you do have to make it personal, engaging, informative, and at least somewhat fun to read or watch. Don’t think about it as “producing content”—try telling stories instead. It’s likely to be more interesting both for you and your audience.

Don’t Be Cheap

Another mistake I’ve seen businesses make is to churn out masses of substandard content in a cynical attempt to drive up search-engine rankings for particular keywords. They don’t want to invest the time and effort in creating truly useful content, so they hire the cheapest possible freelancers to throw something together quickly.

That misses the point of content marketing entirely—it’s about building trust with your customers. What use is a high search-engine ranking if the content people see when they arrive does not inspire confidence? 

Your content is your reputation. Be prepared to make a significant investment either of time or money in doing it right.

Make a Conversion Plan

It’s easy to get caught up in the challenge of creating great content and to forget that this is a marketing strategy. At some point, you will have to convert all those visitors or followers into paying customers.

If you’re posting your content on social media or elsewhere, you’ll need to link back regularly to your own website, providing enticing reasons for people to click through. And your site needs to be set up to receive visitors and encourage them to sign up, perhaps with a dedicated landing page. You can grab a landing page template from our marketplace or learn more about landing pages in this article: 

Then you’ll need to set up an email marketing campaign to convert those signed-up visitors to paying customers—you can find out more about doing that in this email marketing series, or try one of these email templates from Envato Market. Learn more about email marketing: 

And if you’re blogging on your own site, make sure the site is set up to encourage people to do more than just read that one article and leave. There are lots of options for making your site more “sticky”, such as having email signup forms pop up or appear at the bottom of the post, including calls to action within the post, linking to related content, and more. You may also want to offer white papers, short eBooks, or other types of “gated” content that people have to sign up to receive.

Having a professional-looking website helps too—try one of these WordPress themes from Envato Market if you want to give your site a makeover. You can find general corporate themes, or themes aimed at specific types of business, like real estate, technology, or retail. Or browse through our best WordPress themes: 

Next Steps

I hope this tutorial has given you a clear idea of what content marketing is and how it can help your business to attract more customers. We’ve also looked at the pros and cons of content marketing, and some strategies for doing it successfully.

It’s a big topic, so we’ve got more tutorials planned. In the next few weeks, I’ll be looking at how to measure the success of your content marketing and how to start a blog for your business (one that doesn’t make you want to stab yourself with a fork). 

Stay tuned for those—or sign up for our newsletter if you really want to stay in the loop—and, in the meantime, let me know any thoughts and questions in the comments below.

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