In this post, I explore why content marketing should be a key part of your marketing mix, but also how it can lead you down the road to mediocrity and under-performance if you aren’t careful. Then I discuss what you can do to manage this danger zone.
So, what do I mean by content marketing?
For readers not already familiar with the concept (others can skip to the next section), content marketing is the practice of creating and freely sharing valuable content – in the form of documents, blog posts, videos, Webinars, and other formats – as a way of attracting, engaging, and converting your target audience. It can also involve “curating” content produced by others, providing value by facilitating access to the best, most relevant content for your audience.
Content-driven approaches to marketing have been around as long as people have been selling things to one another. Think, for example, of the simple practice of offering free samples in order to help a prospect understand the quality and value of a product. What’s changed in recent years is that the flood of information across the Internet and mobile devices has made it extremely difficult to get the attention of even your existing members and customers, much less prospects.
If you can’t get their attention, you won’t get their business.
By providing practical advice and how-to’s, expert insights, or maybe even just something that makes people laugh, you can break through the attention barrier. Better yet, you can arm you customers, members, and prospects with material they will want to share with others. You can establish yourself as a trusted thought leader and authority, a go-to source in your niche.
Sounds pretty attractive as part of your marketing mix, doesn’t it?
So what’s the problem?
The most obvious issue with content marketing is simply that you have to produce, and in most cases, you have to do it with at least some regularity if you expect to have any impact. (By analogy, think of the traditional world of advertising, where running a single ad once hardly ever has any impact. You have to run a well-designed campaign.) For many individuals and organizations, the need to create new content continually can become a grind.
Add to that the typical advice that the content needs to be “remarkable” – it needs to stand out from the pack and deliver exceptional value – and the burden can feel overwhelming. Those who stick with it often end up churning out mediocre content simply for the sake of churning out content. Organizations may assign entire teams of people to the task, but like anything else involving creativity, the “soul” of the effort tends to suffer when a factory mentality is applied.
Curation, unfortunately, is no silver bullet. While it sounds simple to pull together content produced by others, good curators have to really spend time immersing themselves in the flow of content within their market to determine what the cream of the crop really is. And you have to consistently find high quality content that really aligns with your own strategic objectives.
Finally, there is the issue that I mentioned at the beginning of the post: content marketing is going mainstream. That means everyone is doing it or soon will be. It’s becoming a “best practice,” and as I have argued elsewhere, best practices are not a source of strategic differentiation. In an increasing number of markets content marketing is becoming a price of entry, a necessary method for competing, but not necessarily the clear path to market leadership that it once was. Throw valuable time and resources at it blindly and you may well end up on on a path to under-performing in your market.
What to do?
First, let me stress that nothing above means that content marketing is no longer important. For most types of businesses, it will be increasingly difficult to establish or maintain themselves in a market without some sort of strategic approach to content. The key is that it truly must be strategic. Here are four tips based on how I am currently thinking about and approaching content to ensure I am being as strategic as possible:
Determine your “minimum effective dose”
One of the newsletters I am most likely to read every week is just a few sentences long in plain text. It makes one solid, thought-provoking point, and that’s it. One of the people I read every time he posts, though he does not do it frequently, is Avinash Kaushik on Occam’s Razor. I know when he posts he is going to have something of value to say, and he speaks up just often enough to keep my attention.
One of the most important things you can do with your content marketing is determine your own “minimum effective dose” (borrowed from Tim Ferriss). You will have to experiment for a while to do this – longer content, shorter content, greater frequency, less frequency – and pay attention to your e-mail stats, Google Analytics, and other data – but eventually you should be able to get reasonable visibility into what works for your audience. Bottom line: don’t work any harder at content marketing than you really have to!
Make it about you as much as your market
As anyone who has been blogging for a while knows, you learn a tremendous amount by writing consistently over time. Make your own personal development and/or the development of your organization a specific aim of your content marketing efforts. Push yourself to go deep on topics you care about and that your market is likely to care about. Push yourself into new topic areas. Try out and master a variety of formats – from blogging, to video, to (one of my favorites) podcasting, to maximizing the possibilities of social networks. You can learn a tremendous amount simply by having to express yourself in different media.
Use it as a testing and innovation engine
Every time you put content out there you have an opportunity to see how people react to it. So, don’t just publish and move on. Think of your content production efforts as a sort of laboratory. What theories do you want to test about the future direction of your business? What content would help you gauge demand? Use tools like Google Analytics, social sharing plugins (e.g., Socialize, AddThis), and link shortening/tracking services (e.g., Bitly, Buffer) to determine how much traction you get with content you are testing. Run A/B split tests using Content > Experiments in Google Analytics. Consider using AdWords as testing tool. In short, take advantage of all of the great insights that putting a piece of content on the Internet can offer!
Go after noncustomers
This last tip builds on the tip above and borrows a page from Blue Ocean Strategy – an approach to strategy that moves you out of highly competitive, shark-infested “red ocean” waters and into territory where there are no real competitors to be found. A key idea in Blue Ocean Strategy is to try to connect with people who may not even be aware of you but who share key commonalities with your current customer base.
In my own world, for example, I work primarily with trade and professional associations, but a current group of noncustomers that has a lot in common with this group when it comes to producing and selling educational content is solo experts – e.g., speakers, trainers, consultants. Publishing content targeted at this group in places that this group frequents (e.g., particular blogs, magazines, forums) is a relatively low cost, low risk way to explore a potentially large new market opportunity.
So there you have it. There is absolutely no doubt that content marketing is an essential part of an effective marketing mix these days, but it is very easy to get caught in the grind of producing simply for the sake of producing. The tips above should help clarify your efforts and keep you out of the content marketing danger zone. What other tips would you add? Please comment and share your experiences with content marketing.
P.S. – Want some great tools and tips to power your content marketing mix? Grab a free copy of The Learning Revolutionary’s Toolbox!