Content marketing can feel (to the uninitiated) like another one of the buzzy phrases that doesn’t mean a lot. In a society that is increasingly information driven, where a lot of products and services are often things that you can’t hold or touch anymore, there needs to be a different way of engaging and, more crucially, retaining the attention of your target audience so that they stay with you, as well as the usual boring stuff such as selling your product and making money. To achieve this, there needs to be something mutually beneficial to the interaction that feels neither forced nor fake. It’s a hard balance to achieve, especially when you’re unfamiliar with the new approach.
Good content marketing is value-added marketing where both parties benefit, and it works by drawing people into the stories and narratives you create. One way of thinking about it is that you may meet the primary need when someone gets or investigates your product, but for them to use it well, there are secondary needs that also need to be met, which is where content marketing can come in. Sometimes this value-added content can purely be something that people enjoy and get some experiential or entertainment satisfaction from, but it could provide things such as knowledge or even confidence if that’s what it’s intended to do. It’s about generating a warm and favorable response to a brand at the same time as encouraging people to buy a product or service.
It’s not just the fact that leading with a content management strategy gives everyone a generally warm and fuzzy feeling – it’s also good for customer retention, and generates cost savings because it doesn’t involve big advertising campaigns. Also, the content you use and produce has its own intrinsic worth, and, of course, it boosts sales. One thing is clear: it’s something that anyone can get better at, and, with time, they can develop that deft and subtle creative approach to brand development that will generate dividends.
This is all very well, but how can you use this genre of marketing effectively, and how can you be good at it? First of all, we need to look at content as a concept.
What is content?
What is content in the context of content management, and why is it so important?
Famously, Bill Gates stated in an essay published on the Microsoft website in January 1996 that “Content is King”. The closing statement is particularly prescient as it sets out the starting point for effective content marketing and correctly points in the direction of how the discipline of using content effectively has developed in the 26 years that have elapsed since this quote was originally written.
“Those who succeed will propel the Internet forward as a marketplace of ideas, experiences, and products – a marketplace of content.” (‘Content is King’ – essay by Bill Gates, Heath Evans, Medium, January 30, 2017, Medium.com.)
Content marketing is a concept that has been constantly evolving. When Gates wrote his original essay, no one was entirely sure what form that content would take or knew what its essential qualities would be as the possibilities were endless.
Now, we’re awash with content, and although some formats have risen and then sank without trace, the amount of decent-quality, self-generated and traditional-ish content that is out there is increasing all the time. Also, companies are now often working on marketing strategies that have a more holistic appeal and feel than a more direct campaign. Like a lot of skills in life, this gets easier the more you do it, but a company often doesn’t have the time or the finances to allow for organic growth and upskilling by doing. Yes, some marketers may have a natural flair for it, but they had to start somewhere.
The great challenge now is knowing how to use it best to create and maintain that link to your customers and service users and provide them with that little something extra that helps to ensnare hearts and minds.
Examples of content for content marketing
The thing that sets apart the type of content that is fantastic for use in content marketing is the ability to become immersed in the story and the experience. Strong stories and positive experiences are what win you customers and enable you to keep them. Using media that naturally lends itself to storytelling is a good first step.
The ease with which people can produce good-looking, captivating and relatable video content is quite breath-taking and has led to a scramble by more traditional social media platforms to not be outdone by the incredible popularity of TikTok by enabling short video in the form of Reels (Facebook and Instagram), for example. With a little judicious editing (the removal of logos and changing the layout to suit the platform), brief and punchy mini movies of dancing, jokes, recipes, hot takes, makeup application techniques, and internet challenges, to name but a few, can be shared across multiple platforms.
A variety of experiences are being offered for instructional and entertainment purposes. There is also a wider informal bit of marketing going on in that everything featured in the video (even if it’s not the purpose of the video) becomes a potential object of desire and a powerful vehicle for indirect product placement. This is demonstrated by the proliferation of comments that are essentially: “Thanks for the informative talk about top tips for painting furniture, but where did you get your t-shirt from?” There can be a variety of explicit and subtle layers that can be added to a video that can be used to market something without really marketing it at all.
Most people have been bitten by the eternal problem of ordering something and then not being able to use it or assemble it. This is where the instructional video comes into its own. Offering your end user added value by making it easy to help when they need it means that they don’t get frustrated, which means that they keep the product. This positive experience works very well to prevent bad reviews, reimbursements and product returns.
Likewise, getting online influencers to shoot videos where they unbox and demo products for their followers can be a less direct way of giving people the opportunity to see and get a feel for a product without having to make the commitment of buying the product right there and then. It isn’t always clear what you get for your money, and there may be some vital component that is an additional purchase that isn’t 100% clear when ordering blind. Not only has this proven to be a good strategy for companies to offer this kind of hands-off experience, but it has also been highly lucrative for the influencers, sometimes even leading them into the making and marketing of their own brand of products. (Ryan’s World is a good example of this in action.)
Webinars and online workshops
On a more business-oriented note, holding webinars and online workshops is a good, scalable way to provide soft benefits to customers as they can be repeated and offered to various sizes of audience. They are commonly used by software companies, as well as healthcare and educational institutions, but act as teaser content for much smaller businesses such as professional career coaches. Webinars are an excellent way to touch base with customers as well as making people who haven’t yet decided to take up your services aware of your offering.
A webinar can provide a structured insight into what you do, discuss an area of key functionality of a piece of software, or provide educational and upskilling opportunities, as well as providing a forum for discussion and inquiry. By providing these sessions, companies and organizations can give customers the feeling of being supported by recognizing key areas of need and providing a webinar allows that need to be fulfilled. It can also be an effective way of highlighting a specific area of interest that demonstrates what you have to offer, without it being a direct sales pitch. In other words, it still has a positive impact regarding increasing knowledge or creating insight.
People still want to read books about topics they are interested in, and being the author of something can also lend the supplier/writer an air of authority about the topic they’re talking about. Many people engaged in internet-based business have a varied biography, and producing ebooks can be a good way of adding value and cross marketing.
The humble blog was pretty much one of the first ‘bits’ of user-generated content for the internet that was accessible to non-techies, and it is still holding its own nearly 30 years later. Not only are blogs an opportunity to write on your specialized subject, but they can also be used very effectively to subtly proliferate links to relevant content, adding to the overall discussion around a service or product by providing better answers from a personal angle regarding integrating it into your business processes or into your way of life. At the same time, they can signpost people to your business by helping to identify needs and problems they didn’t even know they had.
Like the blog, podcasts have been around for a while, but the benefits from integrating this medium into your content marketing strategy are well proved. Besides, who hasn’t fallen down the compelling podcast rabbit hole? A little like binge watching something on Netflix, a well-presented and compelling narrative combined with grade-A subject matter is the perfect vehicle for drawing people in, without beating them over the head with the advertising stick.
You can engage with a potential market by not only creating your own content but also distributing related content that supports your organization’s aims and objectives. This does have some potential pitfalls – for example, if your company is engaged in environmental monitoring and protection, it’s best to make sure that anything you share from another organization embodies the same values and clearly operates to your own company’s stringent standards. It also helps you increase the number of possible interactions with users you have, because there is only so much original content that can be provided. Also, your timeline helps your users get to other content they will enjoy, which at the same time is being curated and provided by you.
Traditional marketing versus content marketing
The conversation that traditional marketing has with its potential customers goes something like this: “Look at this lovely product we are showing to you – it is very good, please buy it.” This hopefully results in a simple transaction: the customer purchases the goods or service, the company receives the money, and hopefully the customer comes back for more. Everyone’s a winner. It is presented to the potential customer in much the same way as a cat bringing a mouse to its owner as a gift that they hope they will accept.
The issue is that there’s an element of hope and wishful thinking attached to the traditional approach as you may have sold them something they want, but you haven’t hooked them into possibly choosing you first or maybe recommending you if they or someone they know needs something similar in the future.
Content marketing takes this a step further and provides the hook. It achieves this by adding types of content that enhance the value of the transaction – so, not only do you sell someone a product, but you also provide them with something that adds benefit and depth to their experience. This value-added interaction is the element that keeps people coming back, as well as deepening the relationship between the customer and the supplier. Providing solutions alongside the simple delivery of a product automatically becomes more valuable.
This can be achieved through the production of content using a variety of media and platforms. A recent powerful example of this is Fenty Beauty on TikTok, which teams up Rhianna’s incredibly successful cosmetics brand with the equally incredibly successful video-based social media platform. In a rather subtle and inspired twist, Fenty Beauty was one of the first to establish a ‘Collab House’ where five social media influencers cohabited to create brand-related TikTok content. Even the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t stop them when it meant that they could no longer live together, as they were still able to interact and create remotely.
The clever aspect of this approach is that it primarily relies on the popularity of the influencers themselves – these are people who will be watched anyway whether they are working under the Fenty Beauty umbrella or not. This contrasts with the ‘product first’, traditional setup. The influencers are shown doing makeup demos; previewing new products; and generating subtle, fun, useful and entertaining content that people can enjoy and engage with without being cudgeled into a purchase. In effect, the additional content can, and is, enjoyed for its own sake, while simultaneously naturally placing the Fenty Beauty brand to the front of people’s minds. It’s more of a nudge than a shove.
But how do I do it?
This is the million-dollar question. The example above suggests that there is an element of ‘lightning in a bottle’, but that isn’t really true. What is true is that there is an element of developing the correct creative and strategic mindset to see ideas and inspiration everywhere you look, as well as being able to use them effectively. For someone who is perhaps stepping out of their comfort zone, it’s understandable that it could be perceived as something of a dark art.
However, there is expert help available if you want to take this further. Content marketing is something that can be learned or even studied if that’s the direction you choose to go in. Often, balancing work and study is a challenge, which is why the graduate online content marketing degree offered by St Bonaventure University is exactly the type of course that gets into the nitty-gritty of the best ways to approach content marketing as a creative enterprise, as well as providing a comprehensive appreciation all of the current and emerging digital technologies at your disposal, while also fitting around your schedule. The insights provided by the course are designed to make strategizing and planning convincing holistic and lucrative campaigns much simpler, taking the guesswork out of what could be a bafflingly broad subject. Learning in depth about a technique in marketing that benefits everyone – from a 30-second giggle and a customer who comes back, up to decent profits and a high brand profile – is certainly worth the effort.