There are all kinds of things wrong with the title of this article. First, while the content marketing strategy you may be considering for your business doesn’t involve buying media from outside sources, it’s not really free. It’s some of the most labor-intensive, yet worthwhile, work you’ll do to promote your business. Second, the title itself, with its cheap attention getter, is everything content marketing is not. A good content marketing strategy that is carried out correctly builds a genuine connection with customers over the long term; something all of us in this industry can especially appreciate. Content marketing is the polar opposite of catchy tag lines, cheesy advertising and so many things that might have worked before consumers had the ability to skip television commercials or enable ad blocker.
A lot of attention has been paid to the nuts and bolts of content marketing and this column is no exception. In past issues we’ve covered aspects of content marketing like email campaigns and effectively using video and infographics, but stepping back to evaluate why content marketing makes sense and how to approach it successfully will ultimately help your company run better campaigns that attract a loyal customer base.
What is Content Marketing?
Before we move into brass tacks of how content marketing works, let’s cover a few definitions. You’ve probably heard the terms “content marketing” and “inbound marketing,” but since they are often thrown around as marketing buzzwords it’s important to understand what they are and how they differ from traditional adverting.
Content marketing means creating valuable content that engages potential customers in a way that eventually leads them to purchase your product. The key terms here are “valuable” and “eventually.” The value of the content is measured in the eyes of your customer. Blatant product pitches rarely fit that aspect of content marketing. Also, content marketing is a long-term strategy. It takes time and persistence to build a real relationship with customers by creating content. Digital audiences are flooded with content, making it tough for your company’s efforts to stand out. Publishing on a regular schedule and offering readers something they truly find valuable is key to being successful.
Outbound vs. Inbound Marketing
Broadly speaking, marketing strategies can be categorized as either inbound or outbound. Inbound refers to using content you produce to gain a customer’s attention and move them through different steps in the sales cycle. Outbound is the name for more traditional tactics you use to grab attention, like advertising or event sponsorships. With inbound marketing, you’re not hoping to interrupt your target audience and get their attention with an ad or a direct mail piece. Instead you align your content with the topics your potential customers are actively searching for so your brand is integrated into the customer’s search for information as part of the purchasing process. A potential customer might see a blog post you wrote, because a connection shared it on LinkedIn. She clicks the headline, finds the article helpful and she opts-in to receive emails alerts for future blog posts. She continues to read your content and when she is eventually in the market for a product or service like yours, she already knows your brand, views you as a thought leader when it comes to the product she is considering and she reaches out to you for an initial sales call.
With a successful content marketing strategy, the customer’s trust in your brand often comes before she even meets someone from your sales team. Building that customer relationship digitally is valuable, since the vast majority of buyers begin their B2B product search online and often rule out most companies before they even speak to a sale representative. This is a crucial process to understand, because no matter how charming and well informed your sales people are, if the information and materials that are searchable online aren’t solid, you lose a huge number of potential customers that you’ll never even know about.
Melding Traditional Marketing & Content Marketing
Both outbound and inbound strategies are an important part of your overall marketing mix. Outbound tactics, such as running digital and print ads with trade magazines and participating in trade shows, are great ways to access a larger, targeted audience you couldn’t reach on your own. A good content marketing program furthers those efforts by engaging the audience for the long term.
At the center of a great content marketing strategy is the email list. If you produce content worthy enough to prompt a prospect to opt in for further communication from your brand, you have earned the right to reach out to that customer in the future for free. Outbound tactics, like ads and tradeshows, are perfect for initially engaging new prospects. Inbound tactics, like engaging email campaigns, sustain the relationship with a prospect and move her through the sales pipeline.
Consider two possible digital ads—one that integrates your content marketing strategy and one that doesn’t. The first ad consists of a more traditional call to action: “We offer the best Product X, click here to buy Product X.” This ad is highly effective if the person who sees it happens to be looking for Product X at that exact moment. The second ad leverages your content marketing strategy. The headline reads more like an article and less like a product pitch: “Learn Three Best Practices for Evaluating Bulk Nutrition Ingredients.” This content appeals to a buyer no matter whether or not she is looking for your ingredient at the moment. The ad links to a blog post on your site, and if the content is truly engaging and carries a strong call to action to sign-up for future posts, you’ve converted that prospect to a contact you can reach out to on a regular basis at no additional cost. The idea is using your traditional outbound methods to “rent” an audience initially and using your marketing content strategy to convert that rented prospect into an “owned” contact.
The Dividends of Honest Content
What I love about content marketing is that it only succeeds in building customer trust if you use it in a trustworthy, genuine manner. The strategy is dependent upon serving up truly helpful, authentic content to prospects, instead of a veiled advertising bait and switch. Take the previous example involving the web banner ad with the headline: “Learn Three Methods for Evaluating Bulk Nutrition Ingredients.” For this ad to be successful in growing your owned audience of prospects, it actually has to deliver on its promise. Making the third method for evaluating ingredients be “Buy Product X From Us” is disingenuous and those people who spent the time to click your ad and read the content are smart enough to know when they’ve stumbled upon a product pitch. Deception is never a good idea when your goal is to build trust in a brand. There’s nothing wrong with product pitches as part of a content program, but they should come at the right time in the sales cycle and never be disguised as something other than a pitch.
Companies are often tempted to push products too heavily as part of the content strategy, because in a traditional outbound strategy the goal is to tell prospects you have something to sell and keep telling them until they pay attention. The problem is more and more people are tuning those ads out so you have to make them more effective. Content marketing is a longer-term play. Brands who do content marketing right establish themselves as thought leaders and industry experts. This has wide-ranging benefits for your brand beyond individual sales to the customers you reach. From an industry perspective, establishing your brand as a subject matter expert complements your PR efforts that are demonstrating your expertise and can possibly open up opportunities for editorial exposure and industry speaking engagements. Like anything else, if you approach content marketing from a standpoint of wanting to genuinely help customers and the industry we are in, more people in the industry are likely to trust you and help your brand as well.
Arm Your Sales Team With Content
Your company’s efforts to create helpful content for emails, a blog or your website also fit well into your field sales strategy. The idea of building content around a specific theme or aspect of your business and then disseminating it in several formats to reach different aspects of your target audience is central to content marketing. A great white paper contains all of the content needed to make good blog posts and social media posts and email newsletters. Of course, you’ll adjust the voice, length and look of this content to fit each channel, but that’s the easy part once you have a good foundation to work with.
One often-overlooked content channel is your sales team. Good content makes great training materials for your reps (think new proprietary ingredient extraction process boiled down to a quick infographic a sales rep can reference before a key meeting, and even utilize to illustrate the process to the customer). This same training material can also be shared with finished goods partners, buyers, and even retailers. Sharing content through your sales channel empowers your sales team to establish themselves as thought leaders among their customers and provides the tools for a more effective consultative sales approach. One thing to keep in mind is that not all buyers have high levels of technical understanding, so having a less complicated version of your technical material will prove useful in ways you may not have anticipated.
Good content marketing has the power to build successful, long-term customer relationships. The strategy is rooted in being genuine with customers and sharing more than slick campaigns and tag lines, making it a natural fit within our industry. As good companies strive to produce quality products in a transparent way, extending that same approach to their marketing strategies makes perfect sense. 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. Contact him at Todd@sheltongrouppr.com.