What is content marketing? And what's the big business benefit?
What is content marketing?
Content marketing is based on the idea that today’s consumers don’t just walk around a store or look in the Yellow Pages and choose a product or service to buy. (Did we ever really do that? We at least asked friends and neighbours for recommendations, if possible.) Now, pretty much everyone does some online research first, especially for big ticket items. But we do so even for lower priced products like anti-dandruff shampoo or plant fertilizer.
That online research might start very general, before your potential customer even knows what their problem is. (They don’t know whether their tomato plants need more water or if they need fertilizer.)
Once they’ve identified the problem, they might start investigating different general solutions. (A 10-10-10 fertilizer or a 10-10-5 fertilizer?)
After that, they’ll likely start considering specific products or services that might help them. (Miracle Gro or Garden Safe brand?)
Finally, they might start comparison shopping. (How does the price at your garden centre compare to Amazon’s?)
Of course, for low price products, people put in less effort, and might not do any research at all. For expensive items or services, potential customers might research for months or even years. It took my in-laws a few years to renovate their kitchen from initial wish/idea through to execution. That’s because a kitchen reno is a truckload of money and two truckloads of upheaval, so you want to do your best to get it right.
Content marketing is where you answer those customer questions — in blog posts or videos or podcasts or whatever.
What does customers’ online research mean for you?
If you answer your potential customers’ questions when they’re in the research stage, they can come to see you as a trusted resource.
When potential customers reach the decision stage, you’re more likely to be top of mind because they’ve seen your content before. (Ideally, many times before.) And you’ve established trust by showing that you’re an expert in your field. That’s huge. That is why content marketing is a big deal.
Think about it. What makes us hesitant to hire a contractor, even if we can afford it and we’re ready for the upheaval? Often it’s because we’re afraid of being ripped off by someone who is either dishonest, or doesn’t have the necessary expertise, or both.
What makes us hesitant about buying a used car, even if we know we need a replacement, and we can afford one? Often it’s because we’re afraid of being ripped off by someone who is either dishonest, or doesn’t have the necessary expertise, or both.
What makes us hesitant to hire a business coach or a graphic designer or, dare I say it, a freelance writer? Often it’s because we’re afraid of being ripped off by someone who is either dishonest, or doesn’t have the necessary expertise, or both.
I’ll stop flogging the unfortunate horse. I’m sure you get the point.
Content marketing is where you can reduce those customer fears — in blog posts or videos or podcasts, or whatever.
Content marketing builds trust based on your expertise and your helpfulness. If you build that trust through content marketing, you’re ahead of your competitors who haven’t.
What content marketing is not
So, content marketing is where you answer your potential customers’ questions and reduce their fears. You build a relationship with them, and earn their trust.
Content can be written, such as blog posts, articles in industry magazines, white papers, or email newsletters.
It can be videos, podcasts, photo tutorials, or infographics. (I’ll talk about repurposing your content in a later post. That’s how you can get more mileage out of everything you create.)
Content marketing is NOT sales talk.
This can be hard for some people to get their heads around. I recently signed up to a famous professional copywriter’s email list, expecting to receive helpful copywriting tips. That would have built trust and a relationship with me. He simply emailed me repeated sales pitches for his pricey advanced copywriting course. To use a well worn analogy, he was asking me to marry him before even having a cup of tea together. I unsubscribed.
If he had been a bit more patient and given me valuable content, I may have eventually bought his course (or mentioned it to my writer friends). Instead, he’s for sure LOST a customer.
Don’t be like that guy.
Your content needs to be genuinely helpful to your customers. Yes, you are giving away value FOR FREE. Crucially, though, your goal is to share that value with as many people as possible. (Content marketing is, after all, marketing.)
This is very different from giving away something for free to an individual customer. You’re not giving away for free whatever it is that you earn money doing.
So, if you own a plumbing and heating business, you can put video tutorials on your website to help your customers do simple fix-it jobs themselves. That’s quite different from you or your team doing plumbing work for free! You’re sharing your knowledge — not your labour (or your team’s labour). You need to get paid for that. Generally speaking, here’s the crucial contrast:
Content marketing is: Giving away knowledge for free to many people.
Content marketing is not: Giving away whatever you get paid for in your business to individual people.
As a freelance writer, I’m giving away my knowledge in this blog to as broad an audience as possible. But I’m not going to write a blog post for you for free.* If you wanted a blog post for your website, you’d need to pay for it — because that’s one of the ways my business makes money.
*If you happen to be a Forbes editor, though, I’ll definitely make an exception. ;) Writing a free post for someone else’s blog can be worth it if the blog has a decent size readership. Guest blogging is a topic for another post though.
What type of content marketing should you do?
Content marketing isn’t just blogging. There are other formats for content marketing. How can you decide what type to do? Here’s a very short list of crucial things to consider when choosing the type of content marketing to do:
What your customers would find helpful.
What you like to do.
To take the plumbing example above, a photo tutorial would be slightly more useful to your audience than a blog post with a bunch of text explaining how to fix a tap. But of course a video would be much better! If you’re comfortable in front of a camera (or doing a voiceover), but you hate writing, then making videos for your plumbing and heating business would be an ideal fit.
The videos don’t have to be super-fancy to be helpful. (You’ll get better!) But they do need to clearly show what you’re doing without too much shakiness, and the sound quality needs to be good.
Here’s Neil Patel’s guide to getting started with video: How to Get Started with Video Marketing
And one from HubSpot: The Ultimate Guide to Video Marketing
You can also use software to make animated explainer videos. Here are a couple of reviews of some of the available software to get you started:
As well as recorded videos, there are also live streams, webinars, podcasts, infographics, before and after photos, and photo tutorials. (And probably more I haven’t thought of!)
I don’t know anything about creating podcasts, but this looks like a good place to start looking into it:
If you don’t have a design background, Canva is a great place to make infographics. I use it all the time for social media graphics.
So, if writing a blog post gives you nightmares about school exams, don’t write blog posts! You have other options.
So long as it’s valuable to your potential customers, any kind of content marketing can also be valuable for your business. We’ll go into detail in another post about how to decide what content topics and formats are likely to be valuable for your audience. (Videos showing how to do simple fix-it jobs around the house are an obvious example for a plumbing and heating business. But for other businesses, it can be far from obvious what to do.)
Consistency and planning
You don’t need to do everything (blog posts and videos and podcasts and…) and you can’t do everything. At least not yet. Maybe one day you’ll hire someone to make videos, while you focus on blog posts, say.
When you’re just starting with content marketing, it’s more realistic to pick one type of content marketing to do exceptionally well. That’s much better than doing a half-arsed job of more than one.
And once you’ve decided what type of content you’re going to focus on, it’s important to plan and be consistent. (And publish fairly frequently.) Don’t do what Jay Baer refers to as “random acts of content” — a blog post here and there, or an occasional video when you feel like it, or a podcast every few months when you get around to it.
If you wing it, you’ll probably end up scratching your head every week wondering what you should talk/write/video about. The risk is you’ll eventually end up doing nothing. (Have you seen how many abandoned blogs are out there?) In addition, you’re not building that trust with your audience if you create content only sporadically.
So, when you’re ready to start content marketing, it’s important to create a content calendar. Come up with topics in advance and plan when you’re going to produce and publish the content. For advice on coming up with a content calendar and how to get that content done, I recommend Amy Porterfield’s podcast, episode #250. That’s the process I use for this blog and for the Blog Battle Plans I create for my clients.
Finally, keep in mind that whatever content marketing you do, you’ll learn more and get better as you go along.
Remember the big benefit of content marketing for your business
If you search online about content marketing, you’ll soon come across pressure to bust your butt to get your business on the first page of Google. But is that really possible? And if it’s not possible, is there any point doing content marketing? I mean, if your business comes up on the fourth page of Google in response to a potential customer’s search query, pretty much nobody will see it. In which case, you may as well not bother, right?
Nope. Not right.
Sure, it would be lovely to come up towards the top of relevant search results. But, as I talk about in more detail here, your chances are slim UNLESS at least one of these is true:
Your business is BIG.
So you have enough moolah to spend on hiring people to create a megaton of content so you rank on the first page of Google.
Your business is LOCAL.
You have a brick and mortar site or you travel to serve clients in your local area, like the garden centre and plumbing examples I’ve been using. Being local restricts the amount of page 1 competition you have.
You business is UNIQUE (or close to it) in a way that’s relevant to Google.
Nice as it sounds, just being ‘you’ isn’t enough. Because Google doesn’t give a flap that you’re special. Even though I’m sure you totally are.
If any of those three things is true for you, you should definitely aim to get on the first page for some relevant searches. That would be awesome. (My husband and I own a second business, which is small and non-local — but it’s unique in Canada. So it comes up on the first page of Google for a bunch of relevant search terms without us doing anything.)
But what if none of those are true for you? (Certainly none of them is true for my freelance writing business!) Should you bother with content marketing?
I think, yes, you should still bother — because you can create your own audience, even if your business never ranks at the top of Google. And you can develop relationships with those people.
You have current customers. You have followers, friends, and connections on social media, and some of them are potential customers. Even if that’s only a handful of people, start there and ask them if they’d like to subscribe to your new blog. (Keep asking them every now and then.) They don’t need to find you on Google. Because they’ve already found you.
You can provide value to those people with your content marketing and gradually grow your audience. Here are some suggestions for how to do that:
Encourage current subscribers to share your content with others who might be interested.
Add a link to your blog (or YouTube channel or whatever) in your email signature.
Add your blog (or whatever) address to your business cards, invoices etc.
If you have a brick and mortar site, promote your content there.
Encourage everyone on your team to promote it too.
Partner with a business that’s complementary to yours and promote one another’s content.
Find influencers (or micro influencers) in your area of expertise and ask them for an interview or a quote you can use. Don’t be shy — they’re only human and the worst they can do is ignore you. Ask them to share your content that mentions them.
Publish guest posts on relevant sites with decent size audiences.
Be a guest on someone else’s podcast.
Ask to be interviewed for someone else’s video.
So long as your audience overlaps with the audience you’re guesting for, that will help you gain more subscribers. Of course, you may need to start with small fry. You may have little chance of being interviewed by Gary Vee right off the bat. But you never know. It doesn’t hurt to ask. I’m dead chuffed that author and content marketing expert, Ann Handley, responded to my email asking for a quote for this blog post. :)
I asked her if business owners and entrepreneurs who have no chance of ranking well on Google should bother with content marketing. She replied:
“One goal of content marketing is search results. But it's not the only goal. (And it's not even the first goal. But that's a comment for another blog post.)
Another goal is to build trust with your audience. So the question becomes: Does your content tell your story in a way that's compelling and builds trust with your audience? Once your customers find you... do they like you? Do they want to do business with you?”
I agree with this view. Gradually building relationships is the big business benefit of content marketing. You will build trust with your audience over time. It’ll be slow, but if you’re providing value, your audience will grow. And some of your audience will eventually become customers.
It’s not essential to be on the front page of Google to grow your business. Just like it’s not essential to have a Super Bowl ad to grow your business.
We don’t think, “Super Bowl or don’t bother with advertising”. And we shouldn’t think, “Front page of Google or don’t bother with content marketing” either.
You’ll be able to speak to your people in your content marketing and give them what they value. And over time, there will be more people who are your people.
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