Content marketing is one of the top strategies for driving awareness, traffic, and sales. But not everyone is able to make it work.
If that’s you, you’re not alone. Half of content marketers admit it’s getting harder to get results. And only 29% of content marketers feel they’re successful, according to the 2022 B2B Content Marketing Study.
So let’s get back to the basics. In this article, we’ll discuss what is content marketing, how it works, and how to get the most from it today.
Content Marketing Definition
Content marketing is the strategic use of articles, guides, books, videos, graphics, presentations, and other content to gain exposure, generate demand or leads, educate customers, and drive conversions.
Content marketing supports every stage of the customer journey, from first touch to the final sale and beyond. It’s used in funnels, on social media, on your website, and in live events.
And yes, content marketing is harder than it was a decade ago. But it can still work — if you do it right.
The Early Days of Content
Content marketing isn’t as new as you might think. The term was introduced by John F. Oppedahl in 1996 at the American Society for Newspapers, soon after the first blog was created by Justin Hall of Swarthmore College. Nearly two decades later, in 2011, it was popularized by Content Marketing Instititute.
But these folks were simply putting a name on something businesses have been doing for centuries:
- In 1732, Benjamin Franklin created Poor Richard’s Almanack to promote his printing business.
- In 1895, John Deere launched a quarterly magazine, The Furrow (still in print today), to attract and engage farmers.
- In 1939, the Chicago Montgomery Ward asked one of its admen to write a story for the holidays. The result: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
We tend to think of content marketing as a new strategy, usually digital. But it includes any format that engages your audience, generates interest, and supports sales. Books, magazines, newspaper columns, radio and television spots — they’re content marketing too.
And regardless of the format, it works. Because offering value in advance, giving away free information and making people happy, helps them know, like, and trust you.
How Does Content Marketing Work?
Content marketing works by putting your message in front of your target audience, so you can gain their attention, push them to your website, and keep them engaged until they’re ready to buy.
A good content marketing strategy involves three steps:
Step 1: Create content your audience craves at each stage of the buying journey.
Step 2: Distribute it to the channels where your audience hangs out and are likely to see it.
Step 3: Create mechanisms for your audience to respond: join your list, sign up for a demo, or make an online purchase.
Or is it?
Content marketing was promoted as an easy way to build an audience without an ad budget. But that’s before every business in your industry began their own content marketing program. And before social media platforms implemented a pay-to-play algorithm.
With everyone creating content, it’s hard to stand out. Which is why content marketers are becoming strategic about the content they create and how they leverage it.
Content Marketing Goals
Content marketing is primarily about getting your product and message in front of your best customers. For most businesses, the goal is one or more of these outcomes:
- Organic traffic
- List building
- Sales-qualified leads
- Sales enablement
- Product awareness
- Thought leadership
The challenge is the time investment that content marketing requires. You can’t publish a blog post or social media post and expect instant results.
Content marketing is a long game. The work you put in now can and will drive results for years to come. But only if you’re strategic about it.
Content Marketing Tactics
Content creation is a balancing act. Every piece of content you create need to serve a business goal while also serving your target audience. To achieve that balance, content marketers typically use a mix of content marketing tactics, including SEO, thought leadership, print publications, and more.
But no one tactic will get you the results you need. A good content strategy includes a healthy mix of publication channels, formats, and distribution channels. Let’s take a look.
You can publish content anywhere. But the one channel you own is your blog.
That’s why, even if you get better engagement off-site, you should publish content on your own blog. Not only does this create a single source for your best content, it gives you full control over it.
On your blog, you can create evergreen pages that attract traffic. You can keep them fresh with regular updates, so they draw traffic for years to come. And you can repurpose it for other channels.
But your blog isn’t the only channel you should focus on. People don’t browse business blogs for the fun of it, so you need to publish content off-site as well.
Social media is a good place to start. 58.4% of people around the world (4.62 billion) use social media, averaging two hours and 27 minutes a day.
And a significant percentage of people prefer listening to content. 109 million Americans (38%) of Americans listen to podcasts monthly, according to Edison Research’s The Infinite Dial 2022. Of those, 74 million listen weekly.
Here are some common channels for publishing your content:
- Your blog
- Social media
- Podcast platforms
- Digital and live events
- Magazines and newspapers
Different people like to consume content in different ways. So it pays to create your content in a variety of formats:
When choosing your primary format, think about two things. First, which format is easiest for you to create. And second, which format does your audience tend to prefer.
Hopefully, what’s easiest to create is also your audience’s first choice, but that’s not always the case. If not, create content in your preferred format first. Then reformat it to suit your audience.
After you’ve gone to the trouble of creating content, you need to get as many eyes on it as possible. How do you do that? Any way that works!
That’s why you need to think about your distribution strategy before creating your content.
For example, if you’re writing an article to rank in search engines, you’ll need to focus on search engine optimization (SEO). That means you’ll need to create a text article or a YouTube video. Because those are the formats Google ranks. You’ll also need to do some link building and promotion on other platforms so the algorithm recognizes your page as an authority.
Here are a few ways to distribute your content for maximum exposure:
- Social media
- Email marketing
- Personal outreach
- Backlinks from other blogs
How to Succeed at Content Marketing Today
Content marketing is a strategy, not an event. To succeed at content marketing today, you must avoid content for content’s sake.
Your audience is drowning in content — most of it low quality and full of fluff.
So you need to avoid a high-quantity, low-quality strategy. Instead, develop a message that will resonate with your audience and showcase your products. Then create the highest quality you can.
Nail your message
Your brand needs to stand for something. You need a perspective that rallies your ideal audience and turns away anyone who isn’t a good prospect.
If you’re a watch reseller, for instance, you might take this bold stance:
- Used watches are better than new.
- Vintage time pieces make you look like a connoisseur.
- A good watch is a smart investment.
This is basic positioning, and it helps you make people stop and think. Hopefully they’re agree strongly. But it’s okay for them to disagree, because you want people to choose sides.
Once you’ve developed a strong message that resonates with your audience…
Create content that showcases your products and offers
But here’s where things get dicey. Content should never feel overtly salesy. It should educate and entertain, answering questions and helping your audience solve a problem or become a smart consumer.
To showcase your products, you don’t have to sell people on them. You can mention them (or not). You can talk about related issues or address objections.
For instance, Delino, a contract review software, uses AI to quickly and accurately review contracts for small businesses. But as they talked with their target audience, they discovered AI wasn’t a selling feature. Quite the opposite. Small business owners were suspicious of AI.
So Delino created an article that talks about the value of AI, how it’s developed, and how it works. The article doesn’t promote the software. Instead, it uses their product as an example.
How else can you promote without being promotional?
- Talk about issues your customers face.
- Deconstruct a challenge and what’s needed to overcome it.
- Create a how-to piece that tells them how to do something themselves.
This approach establishes you as an expert, so when people are ready to buy, you’re top of mind.
This is the key to content marketing today: Be a resource. Rather than focusing solely on revenue, focus on helping your target audience. That builds trust, which makes them more receptive to your offers when you make them.
Your content marketing plan of action
- Get very clear about who your audience is and what they need.
- Create a list of questions they’re asking and keywords they’re searching for.
- Then create content that gives them the information they’re looking for.
- Focus on quality, not quantity. If you only publish one piece a month, that’s okay, as long as it’s worth consuming.
- When you publish content, let the world know. Share it everywhere your audience is active.
- Produce your content in a variety of formats.
- Repurpose it for different channels.
What Is Content Marketing?
Bottom line, content marketing is marketing. No matter what you’re trying to achieve — list building, product awareness, sales enablement, demand generation, or thought leadership — content is your vehicle.
The key is to keep your vehicle on the road. And that takes consistent, strategic effort.
To get results from content marketing today, you don’t need loads of content, but you do need to keep your brand and products top of mind.
So get creative. How can you make your message stand out? That’s the content you need to create.