6 essentials for effective content marketing

Your strategy must include key ingredients that many campaign managers overlook. Omitting one element can spoil the recipe. Don’t overemphasize the content at the expense of marketing.

Thanks to the popularity of smartphones, the rise of mobile ad blockers and the fall of mobile banners, companies have turned to content to capture consumer attention. That’s smart.

Unfortunately, most organizations have a strategy to use content when what they really need is a content strategy. They focus on quantity, not quality, and on selling, not helping. They ignore the biggest reason people use ad blockers to begin with: to eliminate sales pitches from their digital lives.

People on mobile devices are getting things done. They’re asking for directions, trying to find the perfect restaurant, checking in on their children, downloading recipes, asking friends to recommend a good plumber, etc. People on mobile devices are seeking help. They are not seeking to be sold—whether the sales pitch comes in the form of a banner or bloated content.

Embracing content is only the first step toward connecting with people. The next and even more important step is to embrace content strategy—put a “why” to your “what.”

Here are the six essential components of the most successful content strategies:

Brand strategy

Every interaction that people have with your organization leaves them feeling more positively or negatively disposed toward you. In a sense, each interaction is a “small s” story that adds up to your big-S “Brand Story.”

Many marketers today have, rightfully, embraced storytelling. Some even devote entire sites to storytelling. Unfortunately, too few marketers first take the time to understand their “Brand Stories” before embarking on content marketing programs. Without a firm understanding of their brands and what they stand for, they default to “engagement” as their key success metric. Though engagement is important, enticing people to interact with your brand without also persuading them to love your brand is a miss. How many times have you laughed at a TV spot and then wondered afterward what product was being marketed? Just as every ad you create and every package you design must be on brand, so, too, must your content.

If a brand strategist is not involved in your content marketing efforts, your chances for success will be diminished.

RELATED: Attend our 8/18 webinar, “Content Strategy in 6 Steps.”

Customer insights

If you agree that the best content is helpful and useful, then you’ll also agree that it’s important to understand whom you are helping and what he or she needs. Research reports and data will take you only so far.

Either you or someone you hire has to get to know your audience well enough to know what keeps them awake at night and what gets them out of bed in the morning. Focus groups will do, but actually going out in the real world and striking up conversations with your customers or prospects might tell you more in an hour than you’ll learn in 10 focus groups.

Try to learn the questions your customers have—not questions about your product specifically (although that’s helpful, too), but questions they have in general about your category:

  • What is cloud computing?
  • What is a virtual machine?
  • How do I brew the perfect cup of coffee?
  • How can I host the perfect kid birthday party tomorrow?
  • Which car costs the least to own, including maintenance, insurance and cost per mile to drive?

You get the idea. People need answers to questions before they feel comfortable buying from you. Figure out the questions, and then create content that answers those questions better than anyone else.

Big ideas

Nearly every organization today uses content and storytelling on some level. Unfortunately, too many branding/marketing efforts focus on quantity over quality. In the heat of battle, individual content elements become items to check off a to-do list.

What’s missing from most content marketing efforts today are big ideas that resonate with audiences by meeting their emotional and rational needs. It’s not enough to have a loosely organized network of freelance content creators working for your brand. You need a team of highly creative rock stars dedicated to your brand, focused on generating big ideas and executing those ideas flawlessly.

Content promotion and syndication

One of the biggest problems faced by content marketers today is scale. How do you get your content in front of enough people at a time and place when it will accomplish the most good—for you and your audience? Whether you use content syndicates such as Sharethrough and Nativo, content promotion partners like Outbrain and Taboola, or direct relationships with publishers such as AARP or The New York Times, strong content syndication expertise is essential if you are going to generate economies of scale around your content efforts.

Measurement, analytics, optimization

Quick—what’s the goal of your content marketing efforts? How do you know your goals are right for your organization? How do you know if and when you’ve reached your goals? How do you incorporate the learning from past efforts into future efforts? How do you know whether your content is helpful and useful to your audience?

Even if no one in your organization is asking those questions today, they will. Everyone responsible for content in an organization is eventually asked to prove the value of that content.

A strong analytics expert will help you understand the need to define your metrics of success before you create content, so that all your content is crafted to stimulate behaviors that are both measureable and relevant to the success of your business. Working with your creative teams, your analytics expert can help tweak your content over time, so that if you don’t initially hit your key performance indicators, you eventually will.

Governance

By this we mean one empowered managing editor who oversees creation, aggregation, curation, syndication, measurement, threading, targeting, repurposing and sunsetting of branded content that propels people through the purchasing process.

Shane Snow, founder of Contently, tells us that his company’s most successful clients all have managing editors in place to make sure their content is on brand, aligned with an agreed-upon strategy and tied to all other marketing efforts. Without a managing editor, it’s too easy for things to get derailed.

Content marketing is not just about content; it’s also about marketing.

As we review the list of capabilities above, it strikes us that excellence in content marketing looks an awful lot like excellence in marketing. If you review any Marketing 101 textbook, you’ll find that knowing your customers; understanding their needs; solving their problems; getting the right message to the right person in the right place at the right time; measuring everything; testing, learning and improving; and making sure that it all reinforces your brand values are all fundamental to every marketer’s success.

The difference between content, as we define it, and advertising, as most practice it, is that content helps and advertising sells. Remember, content that helps sells. Content that sells probably doesn’t.

Joe McCambley is senior vice president for content marketing at Pop, a Seattle-based digital agency. A version of this post first appeared on iMediaConnection.

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