If you talk to five different people about Content Marketing, you‘re likely to get ten different definitions of what Content Marketing is. And that‘s a good thing! Content Marketing is about finding that one, tailor-made, best path to greater reach. But, we should also define what Content Marketing is NOT.
Sometimes, definitions are "wiser" the more imprecise they are. That's why I really like the Wikipedia entry for "Content Marketing":
"Content Marketing is a form of marketing focused on creating, publishing and distributing content for a targeted audience online. It is often used by businesses in order to attract attention and generate leads, expand their customer base, generate or increase online sales, increase brand awareness or credibility, and engage an online community of users."
I don't want to give you a textbook definition here. But let us take a moment to enjoy the imprecise statement: "is A form of marketing." Yes, despite the obsession with producing advisory, informative, and entertaining content, Content Marketing is just ONE form of marketing among many. Sometimes a business needs to optimize conversions, increase usability, SEO, or maybe they just need a decent website. And, if that is the case, you don't need to pretend you're working on Content Marketing by using "storytelling to neuro-linguistically pump up shopping cart conversions." Or some other nonsense.
So: Content Marketing is - generally - used when you have the opportunity, the budget, and the nerves not to sell your product directly, but to increase awareness or strengthen business-consumer ties among your target audience with good or extremely good content.
The path to accomplish this is always unique. So, we will distance ourselves from the many, potentially dubious, and often desperate attempts to label everything and anything "Content Marketing."
Figure 1: Content Marketing and not "only" SEO: Barilla offers advice and entertainment with good content
When the employees of a former link-building agency now write "quality texts" instead of selling links (as it still stands in their contracts), this is definitely NOT Content Marketing. It's also not Content Marketing when newspapers buy article directories for "native ads" or when Outbrain ads appear under Focus Online articles. These things may be worth doing; we have even recommended them to customers before. But they do not qualify as Online Marketing.
Maybe the opposite is even more correct: if you discuss SEO with someone, Content Marketing will most likely not be an outcome of the conversation, because SEO is directed toward the crawler, not toward people. But I don't want to make a hard and fast rule out of it - there are many online marketers who can do both and still label themselves as "SEO." However, even the clever Rand Fishkin recently asked, rather dumbfounded, whether or not "Search Task Accomplishment" could be an important ranking factor. This left me astonished. How long do you have to have been focused on link-building to realize, in the year 2017, that Google's goal is to offer the user the best answer to their search query?
Figure 2: Is "Searcher Task Accomplishment" a ranking factor? Of course!
Many others are shocked that a text that costs $1,000 instead of $300 is not necessarily more effective, better optimized, or in any other way qualified as "Content Marketing." Note: price is not always the determining factor. Content is only good when it delivers what the target audience needs or wants. And it doesn't make any sense at all to buy expensive texts and then to hide them at the bottom of the page, something that we see our customers do again and again. To summarize: good content is only effective when it reaches the target audience. They need to see it, like it, and want more of it. Now we're talking about "Content Marketing" - but this doesn't have anything to do with price.
And another thing: Content Marketing is much more than just text. Other media should also be included, but shouldn't be added just before publishing. The process begins much earlier ("What content do we want and is it the right match for us?"), has to do with the possibilities to present it (on a website, Facebook profile, or other platform), and must always be accompanied with some sort of "online PR," so that people can be exposed to it. I don't think very highly of the increasing number of Content Marketing process articles. But they do make at least one good point: you need more than just good content for it to be effective.
Labor-intensive work and a complex process are the reasons why Content Marketing almost always fails - if you just "give it a try." Meaning, you "try" a campaign and base your decision to continue on the results of that attempt. I think that you should plan on investing enough patience and money to try it for twelve months. Only after a year can you decide if it has worked or not.
When a company makes its first appearances with informative or entertaining content, it's probably not going to work perfectly at first. Everyone involved must adapt to their new roles, have enough time to invest, and be ready to learn from their mistakes. And it can take a little time for the newly-baked content makers and their target audience to find each other. And you have to be ready to endure this process.
It will certainly not run smoothly if you are transferring a lot of money to an expensive agency, so that THEY can take care of everything. Because they can't. Every professional businessperson - and of course their employees - knows more about his/her business, target audience, and themes than the best (read: "most expensive") agency in the world. That is why I always recommend a collaboration between client and agency that benefits them both: the client knows his business and the agency shows how Content Marketing works. And together (!) they can reach their goal. If your agency has a different idea, find a different agency...
However, you need to inform yourself first! Because you can't escape one role: anyone who posts content on his/her website is a "publisher." And it would be good for you to understand what that means. What content works? What legal issues does this entail? And who organizes the workflow for the constant necessary updates?
Of course, a lot of the people involved will bring in good ideas and effective Content Marketing campaigns as examples. Whether from Ikea, BMW, or some small wallet-maker in the USA, there are a lot of great examples and success stories. BUT, unless you are Ikea, BMW, or some small wallet-maker in the USA, you have to develop your own campaign. Don't think that you can simply copy a good campaign! It's not even definite that a one-time success can be replicated. What did Heraclitus say? "No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man."
Figure 3: High praise: Bellroy's Slim Wallet campaign received high praise. So let yourself be inspired - but don't copy!
If the guy who's trying to sell you Content Marketing insists that "storytelling" has to play an integral role, show him the door. Storytelling is a technique that can, in some situations, effectively and consistently activate and inform people. But if you are developing an advice page, you should rely on checklists and infographics rather than on storytelling. Use the right tool for the job.
Another square on the online marketing bullshit bingo card: everything digital is ruled by Big Data. And yes, Amazon has shown us how to turn a profit using customer data. And yes, dynamic websites with perfectly-matched content for all target groups, channels, or desires would be great. But we don't always have all of our customer's data and we don't always have millions of products. Sometimes it's enough to show your customers or other target groups (such as influencers) how much you love your product, how competent you are, or how engaged you are. When they can sense how on fire you are for your product, this can be worth more than a personalized sales pitch. Not always. But in a world of misdirected re-targeting, it will be worth more and more.
So you just have to be constantly creative and innovative? Honestly: NO. Content Marketing is NOT when you re-design your page to be especially chic and modern, single-column, with nav-burgers, and a "holistic" parallax background. That will win you a design prize for your agency, at most. Because if your target group is middle-of-the-road and rather traditional, you should rather bank on fool-proof navigation for your campaign instead of trendy menus.
Anyone selling retirement insurance, mid-class cars, or tools should probably choose a more classical layout. You can learn more about "Sinus Milieus" at the Sinus Institute. And if your bearded hipster graphic designer wrinkles his nose because he doesn't like the title "carefree hedonist," chase him away. Because sometimes, Content Marketing is just straight-forward, hard work.
Figure 4: You sell insurance. Who is your target audience? What website trends are they able to handle?
Happily, the news has spread that selling products is NOT a legitimate KPI for successful Content Marketing. At least not the most important. But it is irritating how it is still worked into evaluations: "Of course, sales aren't important... but in all honesty, has this campaign been profitable or not?" So, let's say it all together: Content Marketing is NOT a sales channel.
As I wrote at the beginning: Content Marketing is A marketing technique. And it isn't the first technique a company that's still just getting used to this internet world (and that's probably still the majority of businesses) should reach for. Effective Content Marketing requires at least two things: first, you need a working, flexible website to be able to suitably present your content. Second, you need to have the freedom within your business to publish content. This sounds trite - until your boss takes a look at the Facebook postings or the new advice columns on the website. Then you will need other marketing techniques.
Maybe these questions will help you decide if you need content marketing or maybe are already doing it:
Well, now you probably know if this is THE marketing tool to help you reach your goals.
Practice makes perfect!
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Published on 08/08/2017 by Eric Kubitz.
... aka “Contentman” is founder and head of CONTENTmanufaktur. He also lectures in SEO at two colleges, offers various SEO and copywriter workshops, and is a frequent speaker at conferences (for example SEOkomm, SMX, SEO-Day). The experienced journalist writes mostly for contentman.de, and has compiled his knowledge in a training video for SEO beginners.