In the early days of marketing and advertising, the way to sell a product or service was to explain its benefits. This is the best, we’re the experts, and so on. Everything remained very focused on the actual product itself.
But as competition grew, and the marketplace became more crowded, different manufacturers and service providers needed to find new ways to differentiate their product. Through the name, tagline, logo, colours schemes and positioning, a company would position its product in a certain way, targeting a certain market or encouraging certain associations.
However, this communication is still largely one way – the brand effectively telling consumers what the product was about, just slightly less overtly. Eventually, the marketplace becomes too crowded once again, and consumers begin to question the perceptions that brands encourage about themselves.
The answer is something a little more organic – a two-way conversation between brands and consumers that allows people to build their own associations. This is essentially what content marketing is – creating, publishing and distributing content that starts a conversation with customers that helps them realise the brand in question has a solution for their needs.
The best content marketing doesn’t talk specifically about a brand’s products or services – that would be too salesy. Rather than drawing a potential customer into the brand’s space, it places a brand in spaces that customers already occupy, and positions them as a voice worth listening to. Content marketing is essentially the main component of inbound marketing – drawing customers in through worthwhile content rather than going out and getting their attention with traditional advertising.
Content strategist and writer James O’Brien sums up the principle of content marketing quite nicely:
“The idea central to content marketing is that a brand must give something valuable to get something valuable in return. Instead of the commercial, be the show. Instead of the banner ad, be the feature story. The value returned is often that people associate good things with — and return to engage with — the brand.”
How content marketing works
The inbound marketing methodology follows four stages. Attracting strangers to visit your brand, converting those visitors into leads, closing the deal to turn those leads into customers, and delighting those customers so they keep coming back, and become brand advocates.
Content marketing mostly takes place in that first ‘attract’ stage. Blogs, social posts, white papers, infographics, videos, games – just about anything that can pull people in. But, as mentioned, the content created isn’t solely about the products or services an organisation is offering. Instead, content serves to position a brand in a certain space.
Aligning brands with a certain demographic, to create content relevant to their lifestyle is a key part of content marketing. Red Bull are a commonly cited example because they do this really well – from the big stuff like Felix Baumgartner’s space jump to the small stuff, like the everyday extreme sports and travel content they post on their site.
If you go to Redbull.com, you’d be hard pushed to even find information on the drink – you already know what it is, anyway. The purpose of their online content is to position themselves as being part of a certain culture. As James O’Brien puts it once again, they’re a publishing empire that just happen to sell an energy drink.
Plenty of brands do this, from the big to the small, and everywhere in between. Clothing brand Farah put a lot of effort into working with creatives, whether in music, film, food or fashion, purely to position themselves closer to a stylish, alternative culture than their roots as a workwear company would. American restaurant chain Denny’s, with their notoriously weird tumblr blog, appeal to, and communicate well with, a young meme-loving audience.
This is why you’ll see clothing brands writing about video games, tech brands writing about fashion, furniture brands writing about art, just about every kind of brand imaginable dying to get involved with music in some way, shape or form. Taking something everyday and functional, and positioning it in a mediascape with exciting cultural touchstones means that people will think about your brand in a similar way to how they think about the things they love.
The alternative is to stick to what you know, and aim to be a thought leader in a particular industry or niche. Again, rather than focusing directly on products and services, being a thought leader entails talking about the wider industry in very broad terms – where it’s going and what the future holds, what people think about it, and so on.
This often manifests in the form of brands surveying people for their views – it’s why you’ll get so many “40% of people experience road rage” articles in newspapers from car insurance firms, or “80% of people are unhappy with their looks” from cosmetic surgeons. This sort of thing does have a bit of a bad reputation – but it can provide worthwhile content when it’s done well, providing it’s not too alarmist or clearly just designed to earn clicks.
A more positive way to be a thought leader is to create content that addresses problems that readers may have, or to provide commentary on the organisation’s industry. This is why you might see a lot of payday lenders creating content about dealing with debt properly or saving money – it positions them as being more ethical.
Other examples might include a company that provides bathroom furniture creating advisory content around reducing waste water, or organisations in the automotive industry creating speculative content around the future of transportation. While not talking specifically about their products or services, it’s showing that they’re experts in their fields.
Written content, such as blogs, are a relatively quick and cost-effective way to do this – but creative content on a larger scale, such as video content, is more likely to spread or go viral. The best methods will depend on the brand, and their budgets.
The importance of user-generated content
Content marketing is also a big part of the inbound strategy later on in the customer journey – the final ‘delight’ stage is all about providing customer aftercare that inspires people to become advocates for a brand, creating their own user-generated content about it.
This could be as simple as retweeting or sharing content that brands have created, talking about how good a brand is, or the all-important customer review.
User-generated content is often seen as more trustworthy – it’s a vote of confidence from a satisfied customer, rather than another sales pitch. It’s also free!
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