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. Back then, we called it thought leadership marketing, and it was an expensive, time-consuming process.
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 marketing works? Be creative — there’s no single definition of what constitutes “content marketing”. Great content comes in many forms — not all of them involving text or words. Here’s a partial list; you’ll find more in a great post from guest blogger Joan Stewart, who provided 17 samples of fabulous content that from great thought leadership marketing campaigns.
- Case studies
- Podcasts/video casts
- 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 to understand content marketing rules — and when to break them. For content to be effective in generating thought leadership, building a brand or corporate image, and turning readers into followers and content consumers, who can be converted into customers, your 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 twice a week blog 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, when I started my job as director of marketing at Distribion, a SaaS software company, about a year and a half ago, this blog was our first major content marketing initiative. Didn’t realize that this blog was published by a software company? That’s the point.
The purpose of this blog is to provide best-practices content that will help our customers, prospects, and anyone else who’s interested understand the environment in which our products are sold and used. Secondarily, it’s a great source of traffic for our website, thought leadership positioning for our executives, and ideas for content we might publish on our website in other forms.
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, we’re a relatively small company in an arena dominated by larger, older companies. We can’t possibly outspend our competition – so we have to out think them in order to gain share of mind in our target market.
I try to focus on providing something practical, useful, and immediate. I’ve heard this called “closing the information gap”. To me, closing an information gap doesn’t mean that the information has to be brand new, original research. It just means that it has to be presented in a way that it’s useful, thoughtful, error-free, and answers a specific question or problem that my audience has right now.
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 our 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.