Content Marketing 101

(Guest post from Adria Saracino, head of outreach at digital marketing agency Distilled.)

Over the last few years, content marketing has been hot on the lips of every marketer I know. The fact is, most of us know that “content is king” etc. (cue groan reserved only for overused phrases), and yet many continue to use content as a quick ’n’ easy link bait strategy.

That’s unfortunate, because content marketing is hands down one of the best ways for modern companies to earn consumer trust, bring potential customers into the sales funnel, stand out as industry leaders, increase long-term organic traffic, and diversify their marketing plan.

That’s long term thinking, for companies who want to turn passive viewers into actively engaged customers and fans.

So what is content marketing, really, and how can you take advantage of it? First, let’s get a few definitions out of the way.

What is content marketing, anyhow?

Content marketing is marketing that shouldn’t feel like marketing at all. No banner ads, no celebrity endorsements, no salesmen knocking on front doors.

Content marketing provides actionable, meaty, compelling and potentially fun material for online consumers, with the hope they will reward a company by sharing their site, products or services and convert into customers themselves.

A few good examples of content marketing outputs include:

  1. Blog posts: The most commonly-used content form, blog posts can include helpful expertise that answer commonly searched questions, guest posts from industry leaders, how-to guides, top 10 lists and more. They are predominantly text heavy, but are best when made scannable with sub headlines and broken up with photos and videos.
  2. Videos: An increasingly popular option, video content can be adapted from blog-like content and product demos, or it can focus on more image-based storytelling that is inherently shareable. See our section on video below for more details.
  3. Infographics: Sites like Pinterest and Instagram are proving to be powerful forces in making storytelling more visual. Infographics are of the same vein, helping readers wrap their heads around complex data and reflecting both specific and universal truths.
  4. Quizzes, Surveys, Tools and Games: Consumers love to learn something new about themselves–all the better if the experience of doing so is gamified. Give consumers something to play with, and they’re far more likely to engage.
  5. Your Brilliant Idea [Here]: Content marketing is a field with endless output options. Take a look at the tools available to you, learn what your customers are looking for and make bullet #5 into something of your own.

Noticing a theme here?

Did you notice a theme in all of these different content marketing outputs listed above? Every form of content marketing, whether overtly stated or not, relies heavily on the marriage of visuals with text. Blog posts with images are more appealing to the reader. Just think of any piece of content you shared with your followers recently. Chances are, there was a strong visual element, such as found in sharing-friendly content produced by publishers like Buzzfeed or Cracked.

And don’t discount the growing field of video marketing which allows for personable branding and a face-to-face interaction. Videos are again very shareable, and, when done right, make businesses look highly professional. What’s more, videos are considered by search engines to be “rich content,” which helps a page’s ranking.

However, just tossing a video up onto YouTube isn’t going to do the trick. Invest in professional video production, or at the very least purchase a nice camera so you get stellar results. You’ll also want to put time into developing a nice story arc with:

  1. A clear call to action
  2. A complete narrative (including a climax and resolution)

Before you decide on video, make sure your content works well in the video format. This usually includes product demos or promotions, creative or funny content, spins on current news stories, instructional or informational content and coverage of live events.

With the proliferation of smartphones and tablets, consumers are poised to grow increasingly image-hungry. Tapping into any one of these visual strategies will serve most any content well. (See How to Win with Video for Small Business for more on using video as part of a content strategy –Ed.)

But wait! It’s not just creating one output after the other…

Above I mentioned the output of content marketing, but it’s much more than just creating one type of content after the other. Rather, there is a lot of research that goes into it before you even get to the production phase.

I’ll dive more into the “how” to conduct a content strategy in a little bit.

Why should you care?

The fact is, consumers just don’t pay that much attention to traditional advertising anymore. They use their DVRs to fast forward through commercials, and many have a good case of banner blindness. Content marketing respects the intelligence of consumers by providing them with information and media they actually want to consume. That’s what makes content so good for expertise-building and so irresistibly shareable.

And sharing + reputation building = traffic = entry into your sales funnel.

So what’s the secret sauce behind high quality content?

A few examples of companies that have knocked it out of the park.

Simply Business | Email Marketing Guide

Simply Business, which provides small business and landlord insurance, is a great example of a company that knows the questions its customers are asking, and goes out of their way to answer them. That means looking beyond what the company does (insurance) to who their audience actually is.

Simply Business outlines the whats and hows of their strategy in this Content Marketing Institute article, but the basic takeaway is that they realized their customers were stressed by the everyday tasks of a business and were looking for easy solutions to these hardships.

To address those broader needs, Simply Business provides resources like an actionable email marketing guide.

Indeed | Job Trends

content marketing example - Indeed

Indeed knows that its visitors don’t just visit the site to search for jobs, but that they also want to see deeper statistics that reflect the state of their job hunt and the health of their industry.

This jobs trends chart delivers just that, reflecting the number of jobs listed related to a visitor’s search term, and how that number has changed over time. By researching what its customers wanted and delivering relevant information, Indeed is opening up new opportunities to bring new business into its sales funnel.

MetaCDN | Speed Test Tool

content marketing example - MetaCDN

MetaCDN’s speed test tool is super simple and effective, as it prompts users to enter their domain and see how fast their websites run.

And since the company offers a content distributed network that just so happens to speed up sites, this is also a great way to offer a relevant solution while capturing user data and marketing directly to fill a specific need.

Airbnb | Neighborhood Guide

content marketing example - AirBnB

There are plenty of online companies that facilitate lodging bookings. What sets Airbnb apart is that it helps curate a very individualized experience, something the company demonstrates brilliantly with highly-customized destination neighborhood guides. Stuffed with compelling photos and helpful travel information—e.g. the best places to eat in East Austin or the best nightclubs downtown—customers appreciate having so much useful content at their fingertips.

Shoretel | Demo Video

(Can’t see the embedded video? Watch it on Vimeo.)

When the telecommunications company, Shoretel, was looking to rebrand, it went all out with a content campaign, including a steady stream of news articles, a diverse keyword focus, and infographics. It produced demo videos like this one, which helped drive home the new branding message while emphasizing selling points in an accessible and fun manner.

The results of their new content campaign? Five percent lower bounce rates, 15% more organic traffic, and customers that were 10% more likely to purchase. These results wouldn’t have been possible if the company didn’t conduct research to figure out that customers in charge of the telecommunication purchasing task didn’t understand the industry, and that there was little content out there to help them.

How to get going: An introduction

On board yet? Then it’s time to start building a content strategy. There’s a lot to this, so I’m going to stick to the main points and I suggest this article for digging a little more deeply.

Do some introspection and outside research. What is your brand’s key message? How do customers perceive you, and what is the conversation around your brand? If you don’t know…

  • Schedule meetings with people in the company you feel have a deeper grasp of the brand than you, perhaps other members of the marketing or PR team.
  • Conduct demographic and psychographic surveys to determine just whom your target audience consists of.
  • Learn what customers are asking or seeking with keyword research.
  • Create personas.
  • Map your personas to your company’s customer funnel.

Examine company processes. Does your company already have a content production strategy in place, or is it more of a “toss a few blogposts up there and hope people find them” kind of thing? Get to know the content production and marketing processes as they are currently so you can pinpoint areas for improvement. A few questions to ask:

  • How does the company already go about attracting customers?
  • What is the company’s business model?
  • Who are the main deciders on the marketing team and what are their strategies and goals?
  • Who produces content, who approves that content, and who gets that content where it needs to go? How do they work as a team, and on what platforms do they operate?

Get your analytics together. Before you get to a major strategy relaunch, take a hard look at the numbers. Do a content audit to determine just how well previous site content has performed. Keep your eyes peeled for things like bounce rate and time on site as well as searches, buys and awareness.

Set clear goals. Using the research you’ve just conducted, set clear, accomplishable and actionable goals. This could mean things like:

  • An increase in conversions
  • An increase in engagement, measured by blog comments and social shares
  • Increased views and downloads
  • Increased sales

Wherever you can, make these goals as specific as possible, like, “increase conversions by 5 percent.”

Create an editorial calendar. Are you going to stick with blogging, or are you going to expand into videos and beyond? Determine the kinds of content you’d like to embrace, and then plan out what will be produced when using an editorial calendar that also considers big dates within your given industry. One strategy that tends to be successful is scheduling regular theme days, like, “Ask a reader Mondays” for your blog, or “How To Tuesdays” for your video channel.

Set your target distribution channels. No content strategy would be complete without an accompanying social media strategy for distribution. Determine whether you’d like to target niche communities or a more general group, and on what venues you’d like to host your efforts. LinkedIn, for example, might do well for service businesses targeting professionals, while Pinterest would be perfect for distributing content for a lifestyle business.

Establish a new production process. Of course, a new content strategy and editorial calendar requires a new production process to meet new goals. Make this process as clear as possible, with regular due dates, built in time for editing, and set meetings for evaluating and making tweaks to the process itself.

Measure the results. Just as we started with measurement, we’ll end there, too. Whether it’s Google Analytics or a good look at shifts to your revenue stream, analyze the numbers to determine the effectiveness of your strategies.

Take-Away

If this all feels overwhelming, don’t worry. One of the main goals of content marketing is to frontload the work so that you have all of your processes and goals in place and can run like a tightly oiled machine. So start evaluating what you’ve got, get brainstorming, and launch your very own content strategy in order to reap its sales benefits.

Adria SaracinoAdria Saracino is the head of outreach at Distilled, a digital marketing agency with offices in London, Seattle, and NYC. She is responsible for leading a team of outreach warriors and developing both content and outreach strategies for clients. You can follow her on twitter @adriasaracino.