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Climb Off the Digital Slush Pile: Content Marketing That Works

Literary agents have a name for the thousands of manuscripts that come through their door each day from hopeful authors. It’s called the “slush pile”. The agent's job is to read through that slush pile and pick out the few that are worth taking to market. Thus, when we read a book, we trust there has been some quality control. Similarly, when a reputable newspaper prints an article, we trust the editor has checked facts and news sources; furthermore, he has curated the information by giving prominence to the article based on his assessment of its newsworthiness. On the Internet, anyone can blog, tweet, and YouTube. As a result, the content out there is the digital equivalent of a huge slush pile, all of it competing for attention from your target audience. What can you do to increase the success of your content marketing efforts?

Why Bother with Content Marketing?

If you want to be successful with content marketing, you have to believe that it will work. More to the point, you need to believe that it is necessary to your overall marketing strategy. Whenever consumers have the choice, they shut out traditional marketing. They ignore magazine ads, use PVRs to skip TV commercials, and mentally edit out banner ads on web pages. They don’t want to be pitched in an intrusive way, but they do want information that helps them make good decisions. Content marketing delivers intelligent, useful information in a digestible, consistent, and free format. In return, we hope our audience rewards us with their trust and their business. Consider this. According to a study from the Custom Publishing Council and Roper Public Affairs:

  • 80% of business decision makers prefer to get company information in a series of articles versus an advertisement.
  • 70% say content marketing makes them feel closer to the sponsoring company.
  • 60% say that company content helps them make better product decisions.

Not only that, but in a January 2012 survey of more than 1,000 marketing professionals, the Content Marketing Institute found that on average, 60% of participants had plans to increase their content marketing budgets in 2012. What’s striking about the results is that they represented a fairly even distribution of company sizes:

  • 25% - micro (fewer than 10 employees)
  • 29% - small (10-99 employees)
  • 21% - mid-size (100-999 employees)
  • 25% - large (1000+ employees)

Is Content Marketing Just Blogs and Social Media?

Nope. Done right, content marketing is something that permeates every communication with your target audience. Businesses are incorporating content marketing into:

  • Articles
  • Blogs
  • Case studies
  • Digital magazines
  • eBooks
  • eNewsletters
  • Microsites
  • Mobile content
  • Podcasts
  • Print magazines
  • Print newsletters
  • Social media (other than blogs)
  • Trade shows/exhibitions
  • Videos
  • Webinars/webcasts
  • White papers
  • Product packaging
  • ... and more

If you are thinking “wow, this would change how we do marketing”, you’re right. To get successful results from content marketing, you really do have to think differently. You need to think like the editor of an omni-media company, with a variety of “channels” as listed above. The good news is that there’s so much bad content marketing out there, if you are able to deliver and promote consistently high quality content, you can be more successful than your competitors at this game. Content marketing is about relationship-building, and relationships require trust. You don’t need a huge budget. Creativity, quality, and professionalism can take you a long way—that, and understanding what interests your customer outside of your specific product or service.

  • What underlying problems are we trying to solve for the customer?
  • How can we complement this information?
  • Do they have, or aspire to, a certain lifestyle?
  • Is their industry or technology sector in flux?

If you run an organic food delivery service, you may want to write about issues with genetically modified foods, provide recipes, sustainable fishing practices, or how you support urban gardens in poor inner-city neighbourhoods. If you sell financial services, provide links to government web pages about RRSPs and TFSAs and write up some case studies about financial makeovers.

Think Like a Managing Editor

How can you support your business goals through content marketing? The scope of your content marketing efforts depends on your business, communications channels, budget, target audience, and dozens of other parameters that you understand better than I do. At the same time, there are some tasks common to any marketing team who wants to integrate content marketing into the company’s campaigns.

Develop the messages

A managing editor is responsible for articulating the messages to communicate and drive business goals. The goal(s) could be: brand awareness, lead generation/customer acquisition, thought leadership, or increased website traffic. The messages you develop go to the top of every creative brief you hand out to writers and your social media community manager.

Develop the plan

You also need to determine when, where, and how to disseminate these messages through the various “channels”.  An editorial calendar, which lists the content you will feature on each channel, each week or month, is a great way to organize a plan. Try and schedule out a year’s worth of content. Good writing takes time and research, so give your team enough lead time. Remember to insert internal and external events such as trade shows or product launches so that you can schedule content to support them. An editorial calendar is flexible, so feel free to tweak it in response to customer or company needs, so long as you maintain a consistent schedule. Think of how you always turn to your favourite newspaper column—you want your audience to do the same. Each piece of content requires a purpose as well as a message.  Develop more detailed briefs for your content developers. Quality content requires time and research, and in the online world, you also need compelling graphics to convey information. You also need to promote the content once it goes out the door.  Work with your team to determine what each piece will need in terms of:

  • Content. What is the key message? What information need does it fulfill for the customer? How does it support our business goals? What is the call to action (if any)?
  • Design. What images or infographics should accompany the piece? How should it be laid out?
  • Promotion. How do we let the world know? How do we alert bloggers and industry analysts?
  • Network. Can we use this piece to collect comments, friends, followers, or emails? How can we monitor response?

Hire Professional Content Developers

The same survey from the Content Marketing Institute found that the biggest challenge for marketing departments is “producing the kind of content that engages prospects and customers”. When you make a commitment to content marketing, you need to commit time, budget, and resources. Your content development needs to be handled by trained writers, graphics designers, and videographers, under the direction of Marketing. Each piece needs review, editing, and proofreading. Poor logic, bad sentence structure, and spelling mistakes will not advance your goal of being the experts that customers should come to for products and services.

Measure Results

One of the calls-to-action you should almost always include in your offline content is a way to link to your website. The reason is simple: you need to measure results over time, and one of the easiest metrics to capture is web traffic.

  • Take baseline measurements of traffic. You can look at before/after statistics and also see how was traffic referred to your site.

  • Create landing pages. Where appropriate, specific landing pages that support the referring content piece can increase conversion.

  • Set up conversion funnels using analytics. You can track which pages visitors click on and help you determine the effectiveness of your web presence.

If you have social media channels, you can also collect online metrics. Traditional surveys are also useful for measuring engagement effectiveness. For example, between customers who receive your eNewsletter and those who do not, what is the awareness level of your newest product? “Over time” is the key word because building relationships take time. So start now! Once you establish yourself as a source of helpful information, your target audience will also think of you as a trusted source for products and services.