Way back in 2001, well before the practice of providing content to potential customers had a name, I was fortunate enough to work for a company whose marketing program still stands as one of the finest examples of growing sales with content. What type of cutting edge company arrived so early to the content party? Tractor sales. No, not the big green company, but another tractor manufacturer that owned ag brands reaching back to the turn of the century.
As much of the natural products industry turns toward content for the purpose of reaching new customers and reinforcing relationships with all customers, it’s important to note that regardless of the renewed focus on this age-old tactic, the effectiveness of a content marketing strategy still depends on a few tried and true practices.
The tractor manufacturer’s secret content weapon was a printed 12-page newsletter sent to each of its 1,500 or so independently owned dealerships. Each quarter, the newsletter made its rounds from the manager’s office, through the parts and service department, with many dealerships requesting multiple copies. As the editor, I had the opportunity to write stories about generations of American farmers who stayed loyal to their tractor brand. Our little company newsletter mixed these brand loyalty stories with articles on the latest agriculture parts and accessories to produce a publication that grew an active audience and drove sales while solidifying the brand for a new generation of family farmers.
My favorite day on the job was climbing to the top of a silo to get a photo of more than 30 pieces of farm machinery a 78-year-old farmer had assembled in his field. To experience how important the story was to this lifelong brand customer, and later to the thousands of tractor dealership employees who read it, illuminated the power of using content to connect customers with brands. This experience has stayed with me all these years, and underlies much of the work we do today.
The newsletter we produced worked as an effective content marketing piece, because it connected with our audience in an engaging and useful way that ultimately led to increased sales. Content works the same way today, whether it’s used to sell machinery or to communicate the benefits of the latest breakthrough in natural ingredients. For our industry, it’s also an extremely effective way to answer questions, allay concerns, illustrate transparency, and reinforce customer trust.
Branding vs. Lead Generation
The first step in building a content marketing program that increases sales is to design the program that delivers leads instead of producing content for the sake of producing content. Good ad campaigns build your brand while also delivering sales leads to your organization, and successful content marketing programs are no different. Producing great content that gets read and shared is always the initial goal, but it’s just as important to have a solid strategy in place that ultimately prompts a potential customer to share their contact information with your marketing or sales team. Prompting prospects to give up their contact information is tough, but the right content makes it possible.
Gathering leads from a content marketing program typically takes several visitor interactions. From the point someone first reads a blog post or clicks on a piece of content you shared on Facebook, it may take several interactions before they register for more information or decide to contact your sales reps directly. The content marketing plan you create will define clear paths to converting content consumers to sales leads for your business.
Content that’s meant to initially attract an audience’s interest should first and foremost be genuine. It should address a reader’s interest or need regarding a particular topic that is also related to your business or industry. For example, if you are a chondroitin supplier you might provide a simple PDF checklist to help manufacturers assess chondroitin quality. The content piece should be branded and readers should be invited to your website to learn more, but the checklist content itself should be supplier agnostic so it serves as a genuine tool the manufacturer could use to assess any chondroitin supplier. If the checklist is set up to merely rule out other chondroitin suppliers, it’s not really true content, but rather an underhanded advertisement.
Successful content marketing plans meet a potential customer at his or her point in the buying process. Instead of traditional ad campaigns that run over a period of weeks or months, content programs can have a much longer life, because prospects engage with them individually. If a buyer searches for “Chondroitin Quality” and finds a recent blog post in which you offer the chondroitin quality checklist for download, she is also likely to be interested in a more in-depth report on the current state of chondroitin quality.
A report on chondroitin quality, written as a genuine investigative piece with references and industry expert input, represents the next piece of content in your plan. This report will go into more detail about the measures necessary to ensure pure chondroitin supply and it will detail your company’s process by telling the story of how you source and test to ensure and confirm purity. This type of longer form content piece provides a deeper look into a topic and is more likely to be consumed by someone further along in the purchasing process, where they are more open to hearing about your company’s individual expertise.
Unlike an ad campaign, this process of engaging an individual through a search for Chondroitin Quality can be repeated every time a new prospect begins to look for a chondroitin supplier. Where ad campaigns rely heavily on timing to communicate a message, content marketing campaigns use search engine optimization to connect with a buyer at the moment he or she becomes interested in a product.
What Constitutes a Lead?
Working closely with your sales team to determine at what point in the content consumption process an individual becomes an actionable lead is important. Sending your sales team lists of people who downloaded a simple PDF and expecting them to reach out individually probably won’t be the best use of sales resources. In fact, it’s likely to turn your entire sales team against your marketing strategy. Instead, it’s smart to rely on analytics to help determine when a prospect warrants direct outreach from a sales team member.
The definition of a qualified sales lead can vary widely depending on your industry, the product you sell and the sales resources available. For some, the fact that a prospect downloaded a report and has visited your company website twice in a 14-day period to check out a particular product page is enough to reach out directly. For other companies, it may take a sample request or another more direct communication from a prospect to justify contact.
The best way to determine what level of content consumption qualifies as a sales lead for your organization is to work directly with members of your sales team. Involving sales in the content creation process is important to ensure success. Sales reps usually know the specific content pieces customers will find helpful, because they are asked questions every day by prospects at various points along the purchase path.
Further qualifying a lead before it’s handed off to sales can easily be done through email. Just as potential customers will encounter your content marketing pieces in an individual manner, email can also be used in the same way to reach customers who have shown interest in your brand by engaging with the content you created.
Numerous email services allow you to set up automated campaigns that are triggered by content consumption events on your website. The key to using these services is to not craft awkwardly worded follow-up emails that sound automated. Instead, keep it simple. Good follow-up emails are casual, direct and sent from a specific salesperson’s email. The goal is simply to check in to see if the prospect would like more information or if he or she would be interested in a quick introductory call.
Measuring Success and Evolving
Another great advantage of a good content marketing program compared to more traditional campaigns is that every component is measurable. You’ll easily be able to compare different content pieces you create to determine which pieces were read, which led to more site visits and ultimately, which helped move prospects along the path to becoming a qualified sales lead.
While metrics can be interesting to review, it’s important to take action on the metrics you gather. If a content piece isn’t working, it’s time to refine and adjust to help it reach your audience, or scrap the piece altogether if subsequent iterations prove the target audience just isn’t engaging. Most marketers like to create, but the process of tinkering to make improvements isn’t always as exciting. However, when you consider how much underwhelming content costs, both in terms of hard dollars to get the content distributed or time to create it and get it noticed organically, the importance of improving lackluster content becomes clear.
Does Content Marketing Really Grow Sales?
A content marketing program’s success depends largely on the size and value of the audience it builds for your organization. Every time you create content useful enough that someone is prompted to register his or her email to download it, you’ve grown your audience. Your email list, or audience, is valuable because it’s an audience you own. When you pay to place an ad, you are essentially renting an audience in order to communicate a message. Renting audiences through media purchases is a valuable tactic to reach new prospects, but once they’ve opted-in to your email list you are able to deliver messages repeatedly to them without paying for access.
Whether you launch a content marketing program in-house or hire an agency to help, the ability to convert your audience to qualified sales leads will ultimately depend on the quality of content and the level of effort put forth to connect that content to your target customers’ path-to-purchase.
So to answer the question, yes, content marketing can really grow sales, but just like most other things, the amount of effort you put into your content efforts will determine the success you experience. NIE
The Shelton Group is a boutique public relations and marketing agency working exclusively in the dietary supplements and natural products industry since 1990. Todd Pauli works with clients to develop comprehensive marketing strategies that integrate social media, advertising and content marketing. Prior to joining The Shelton Group, Pauli led marketing communications efforts for several well-known businesses, including NOW Foods, one of the largest supplement manufacturers in the natural channel.