In just a few short years, content marketing has evolved from a niche practice to the harbinger of a new era in the way we market products and services. The reason is simple: content marketing works.
The practice of publishing custom content to engage audiences is nothing new — the John Deere company has published its own magazine since 1896 — and content marketing’s journey into the mainstream didn’t happen overnight. Many companies, especially those from the “always be selling” school of thought, were slow to come around to the idea of producing journalistic-quality content — for free — and saving the sales pitch for further down the funnel.
Today most marketers are at least familiar with content marketing, and those who haven’t embraced it, probably have a good reason for not doing so (a stubborn CEO, perhaps?). Content marketing hasn’t succeeded because “all the cool kids are doing it.” It has succeeded because it works.
Why Content Marketing, and Why Now?
So you’ve got a catchy tagline. (“Yawn.”) A super-slick banner ad. (“Can’t remember the last time I looked at one.”) An endorsement from a super-hot celebrity. (“Yeah, who doesn’t?”)
Today, the tried-and-true marketing tactics that have served us for so many years just don’t work like they used to. Ever since the Internet leveled the playing field, consumers (both B2C and B2B,) have been confronted with too many brands competing for their attention, and it’s all blending into white noise.
In today’s hyper-competitive marketplace, what makes a marketing powerhouse isn’t uber-clever creative, celebrity star power, or online dog-and-pony shows. It’s influence.
Instead of bombarding our audiences with a barrage of marketing messages, (along with hundreds of other brands), we can become influencers. Instead of telling them what to do (“buy my stuff”), we can become the trusted advisor that helps them decide for themselves. Influence can’t be obtained overnight, but it is achievable, and content marketing is a good place to start.
The Elements of Influence
The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines influence as “the act or power of producing an effect without apparent exertion of force or direct exercise of command.”
It’s the second part of that definition that marks the most significant shift away from traditional, high-pressure, “always be selling” marketing methods. If we can build influence among our target audiences, we can lay the foundation for a relationship that goes beyond a single transaction and creates scores of additional opportunities over the long term.
Companies that have built influence among their target markets are thriving. So what do all these influencers have in common? Three things:
- Influential brands create value;
- Influential brands deliver benefits; and,
- Influential brands are personal.
So, how can we incorporate these three elements of influence in our own practices? A good place to start is with content marketing.
Influence and Content Marketing
Marketers can’t buy influence. We can’t manufacture it. It’s not something we automatically receive when we reach a certain revenue level. We have to earn it. And the best way to do that is with a solid content marketing strategy.
Let’s look at how content marketing supports our three elements of influence:
- Content marketing creates value. By making a commitment to delivering valuable information in an engaging way, you demonstrate a concern for your targets that goes beyond your desire to earn their business. You also establish yourself as a trustworthy expert to whom they can turn for help with their problems — especially problems that your products or services just might be capable of solving.
- Content marketing delivers benefits. Successful content marketers are givers. They give away for free information and insights that many of their followers would gladly pay for. As Robert Cialdini noted in his seminal book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, one of the classic weapons of influence is reciprocity: when you give people something of value, they’re naturally inclined to want to give something back, whether that “something” is a sale, a referral, or merely a shout-out on social media.
- Content marketing gets personal. Successful content marketers know their audience as well as they know themselves. They’ve done their homework and discovered exactly who their targets are, what makes them tick, and how to deliver personalized content that speaks directly to these individuals’ needs, challenges, and aspirations.
5 Key Aspects to Influential Content Marketing
Not all content marketing is influential, but every influencer uses content marketing. To ensure that every piece of content you create contributes to your goal of becoming an influencer, make sure you’re doing the following:
1. Align your content with your targets’ goals. What do your targets want most, right now? What challenges are they facing, and what kinds of solutions are they considering? An intent monitoring platform can help you track your targets’ “online body language” and uncover opportunities to align your personalized content with their wants and needs.
2. Develop a unique voice. Content marketing isn’t just about sharing information; you’re building a relationship that is meant to last. Know what makes your brand unique in your marketplace, and make sure that your brand personality comes through in every piece of content you create.
3. Leverage internal and external experts. Put your knowledge on display, by giving your subject matter experts (SMEs) a strong voice in your content. Encourage them to contribute blog posts, (with marketing team input, of course), lead webinars, and answer questions via live video sessions. And remember that external experts can also help grow your thought leadership. Do your homework and find out which influencers are popular among your target audience, then invite those experts to contribute to your content.
4. Meet your audience where they are. People don’t engage with content so they can be talked down to. They don’t want a bossy substitute-parent wagging a finger at them and making them feel like idiots, failures, or losers. They want a friendly advisor who knows their struggles, and who gently guides them onto the right path. Keep this in mind, as you develop the tone behind your content.
5. Measure, review, and adjust. No one knows better what resonates with your targets than the targets themselves. Review your analytics regularly, to see which approaches worked best, and which ones under-performed, then use that intelligence to develop your own set of best practices. Also, remember that your targets are not static; their situations are constantly changing, which is why it’s important to continuously monitor intent signals, and realign your approach as needed.
In just a few short years, the world of the marketer has turned upside-down. The “always be selling” approach served us well for decades, but today our mantra must be “always be helping.” By delivering valuable content that speaks to our targets’ specific needs and challenges, we can start to build influence. And by building influence, we can go beyond selling products and services, as we begin forming a trusting relationship — one that can result not only in more revenue, but a world of opportunities that can benefit our brand on many levels, and for years to come.