Content marketing works. That simple premise is why more and more marketers are making content marketing a core part of their lead generation strategies.
One of the reasons that they work is that providing high-quality content helps build trust and rapport with prospects and customers, making it easier for them to make an eventual purchasing or renewal decision. It’s not a new idea. Early in my career, I worked at Shell Oil Company in Houston, where the “Come to Shell for Answers” booklets were a primary part of our marketing communications budget.
Luckily, the days are long gone when you needed to be a multi-billion dollar corporation to be able to afford to produce, print and distribute helpful content that builds brand awareness and loyalty. Now, all you need is a knowledgeable subject matter expert, an Internet connection, and the ability to produce some form of digital content.
What kind of content works? It can be anything. Here’s a partial list; you’ll find more in a great post from Publicity Hound Joan Stewart, who provided 17 samples of fabulous content that generated thought leadership and leads for companies.
- Case studies
- White papers
- Widgets or apps
- Reference guides
- Buyer’s guides
- Comparison tables / charts
- Photographs, infographics, or cartoons
The best content answers a business question, or offers a way to solve a business problem. How do you know what kinds of questions or problems your prospects and customers have? Start by asking your customer service staff and your sales staff. If you can answer the questions that are reaching them, you’re probably tapping into an area where your target market wants more information.
Know the Rules
As with anything else, it’s important for content marketers to understand the accepted rules, and when to break those rules. So I’ll start with a list of the five most widely accepted content marketing rules, which say that in order to be effective, content should be:
- Relevant to the reader
- Relevant to your company
- Well-written and SEO optimized
- Proves a point that supports your value proposition
Pretty basic rules, right? Yes, but there are times when most of us will struggle with the need to balance “the rules” with corporate mandates, deadlines, or directives. The one I hear marketers talk about most often is, of course, the first one. “My boss wants me to put product screen shots on every page of every white paper,” lamented one friend recently.
Another said, “I’m supposed to fill a blog twice a week with nothing but sales copy – and they wonder why people don’t read it.” A third said, “I am having trouble getting my boss to see the value in writing ‘best practices’ or ‘how to’ content. He says that we should be selling that advice through our professional services team instead of giving it away.”
So how do you persuade management to follow the content marketing rules? By building a business case for content marketing the way your customers build a case to purchase your more expensive products or services. Start with the pain point you’re trying to solve.
For instance, a blog was the first content marketing initiative at my last job. The blog’s purpose was to provide best-practices content that helped customers, prospects, and anyone else understand the environment into which the company’s products were sold and used.
Secondarily, the blog was a great source of traffic for the company’s website — which had been getting about a thousand hits a month before the blog, climbing to over 100,000 over time as the blog’s readership expanded and we improved SEO — and also provided thought leadership positioning for executives, and ideas for content that could be published as white papers, PDF’s and videos on the corporate website.
We started our content marketing strategy for three reasons. First, I had a background where I knew how to do it, and the writing skill to do it quickly and at low cost. Second, we had a small marketing staff – two full-time, one part-time people – and a lot of work to do to meet our key performance indicators (KPIs). Third, it was a relatively small company in an arena dominated by larger, older companies. I knew that we couldn’t outspend our competition – so we had to out think them in order to gain share of mind in our target market.
When to Break the Rules
Normally, when I am working on my content marketing plan, I follow the rules pretty closely. And I have one more rule I follow: if it doesn’t relate to something I can sell, I don’t write about it. That’s the rule I break most often, however.
Why? Because there are times when a topic is so compelling to my audience that I need to write about it in order to demonstrate thought leadership, or position the company in a space we are planning to enter. One of my earlier jobs was working for a genius named Philippe Kahn who pioneered many technological breakthroughs – not the least of which was the camera phone, and the TrueSync technology that makes wireless multi-media transmission possible. Often in that job, I was “writing ahead”, positioning a category that didn’t exist yet, or shaping the dialog about a product that we hadn’t announced yet. Most marketers find themselves in that position, and it’s still a valid part of content marketing.
The other breakable rule is the very first one. Sometimes, it simply isn’t possible to get budget approval for content that doesn’t include a direct product pitch. And sometimes, there’s the opportunity for a direct product pitch as a “wrapper” or embedded part of the non-promotional copy. For example, a customer case study can be very non-promotional, but if yours is the only product on the market that solves the customer’s problem, be sure to say so. Adding a product pitch or company pitch to the end of a white paper or eBook is common, and doesn’t break the rule about not being promotional, because the reader is free to ignore it, and can still get the information they wanted without reading it if they choose.
Don’t break the other rules, however. Because if it isn’t relevant, well written and SEO optimized, or doesn’t support your value proposition, it isn’t worth publishing because it won’t help your thought leadership and positioning efforts – and might hurt much more than it helps.