How Does Content Marketing Work?


Posted By on May 22, 2017 in Business, Marketing Strategies

Ah content marketing. Content marketing has been the darling of the digital marketing world for the last 5 years, once SEO became much more complicated and difficult (you can’t just throw a bunch of links at a page and expect it to rank long term anymore) and PPC started to get more expensive.

A lot of people, myself included, started beating the content marketing drum with the implicit promise that content would solve all your business’s problems.

“Content is king!” they would cry. “No it’s queen, X is king!” the naysayers would yell back.

It was exhausting and annoying, if I’m totally honest.

But at its heart, the message was right.

Businesses across the decades, both offline and on, have used content and storytelling to build businesses that their customers love, that attract as many customers as they could ever need, and at the end of the day did help them build their business in order to meet their vision for why the business was started.


Video via Kindra Hall

To be clear, there are other ways to build a business as well. I have friends who have built successful businesses using only paid channels, or promoting products on Pinterest, or a myriad of other ways. Those ways absolutely work for the right businesses. I’ve been guilty of looking down on these “because they could do it cheaper organically”, but over the years I’ve realized their value.

At the end of the day, I still believe that content works. But you have to look at it the right way with the right expectations.

What Is Content Marketing?

Content marketing is the process of creating something of value that meets your customer’s needs, attracts them to your business, and aids them in experiencing your brand in a positive way that turns them into a customer ($$) and encourages them to send other potential customers to your business.

Content is not blog posts. It’s not surveys. It’s not videos. It’s not infographics. Those are mediums.

Content is the message. It’s the story and the why. It’s the idea you are communicating, and it can be communicated in a myriad of ways. Some potential ways are going to work better than others to spread that message, but the point is that you have a variety of mediums through which to communicate it and then a variety of ways to promote it.

Now, there are two parts to this equation.

Content and Marketing

First there is the content side. You have to have a story or message or something to communicate at its heart. You put that information together and then you settle on the medium to use to communicate it. The medium I’ve chosen for this idea I am currently communicating to you is a blog post so that I can explain it well, plus it would make a pretty boring and long video. The medium is important.

Then comes the marketing side, which is the part missed by most people who are investing in “content marketing”. You’re probably coming to this post because of the marketing I’ve done to promote it, whether that’s through the search engines, an email list, an ad, or some other way.

Content without marketing is not content marketing.

Expectations for Content Marketing

Now, let’s talk about setting your expectations for how content marketing works and when you’ll see it growing your business.

The answer is complicated, but let’s start with this – content marketing is an investment and not a transaction. If you look at it as a transaction (I put in X dollars and I get out Y) then you’ll be disappointed and probably come back three months later complaining that “content marketing didn’t work for me”.

Content marketing works, for everyone.

How it works differs depending on your business and your goals, and so you can’t just take one person’s process or strategy and apply it 100% to your business and expect it to just work in a way that doesn’t require you to think about it.

Secondly, most people who come back to me and say that content marketing “didn’t work for them” don’t even know how they should have been measuring it, which is a completely different conversation that maybe we should have some time. But they started doing it without knowing what “success” would mean for them, and because they don’t know this then they don’t know how to measure it.

Just like SEO, content marketing takes time. You really can’t separate the two, as content marketing can absolutely drive more SEO success as well (via ranking for terms, earning or building links back to your site, etc) which is part of what makes content marketing so challenging.

But it takes time. Check out these graphs where they invested in content and over time they saw success:

We’re going to talk next about a content marketing process that you can use to get yourself started.

How content marketing works for your business

Content marketing is active. Just like anything else, it goes through stages including:

  1. Strategy
  2. Creation of content
  3. Promotion
  4. Measurement
  5. Realignment of strategy
  6. Creation
  7. Promotion
  8. Measurement
  9. Go back to step 5

Producing industry-leading content that grows your business involves:

  1. Identifying the topics that people are interested in, or stories that you think people will find interesting (research)
  2. Gathering the information and telling the story
  3. Deciding on the medium through which to communicate that information
  4. Finding your list of people that you think might be interested in it and devising a plan for gauging their interest and also what you want them to do once you’ve produced it
  5. Creating the actual piece of content
  6. Promoting it

That is a lot of work.

Let’s talk about each area.

Defining your strategy

Businesses live and die by the effectiveness of their strategy and the research that went into it ahead of time. Some of my toughest lessons in business have come during the times that I did not do the requisite research to learn what I needed to know before starting off. Sometimes I think a lot of businesses succeed, or at least survive, in spite of themselves.

But it all starts with strategy. You’re looking at:

  1. Who are your potential customers and what do they need from your marketing?
  2. Who are your competitors and what are they doing to try to reach the same customers as you?
  3. What stories or ideas are not being communicated by your competitors that you can communicate?
  4. Continuing on from the above, what experiences are they not providing that can set your business apart?

Maybe you’re in a B2B space and your competitors look very…B2B. They’re boring. They’re serious. They’re stoic. They have no personality.

That’s your in right there.

You can build a brand that is accessible and produce content that people love and want to spread.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. How do you put together that strategy?

Start with the research and look at things like:

  1. What terms are your competitors ranking for in the search engines, how profitable do you think these are, and how have they ranked for them? From this, how would you rank for them? (use tools like AHREFS or SEMrush for this)
  2. What does their content process seem to be, how often are they putting it out, and how are they promoting it? (use some trickery like downloading their content from RSS, and then use tools like SEMrush and SimilarWeb to figure out their promotion)
  3. What are the new ideas that your competitors are not doing? Maybe it’s a medium (video). Maybe their design is boring and you have a fantastic designer, which will set you apart.

Once you’ve identified what your competitors are doing and therefore what your own competitive advantage could be, you now know where to start with your hypotheses.

Side note: read this post from Brian Balfour about the growth process, which I think applies nicely to content marketing. Research > hypothesis > build and ship > measure > repeat.

Creation

Your creation process is heavily dependent on your team and the resources (money) you have at your disposal. If you have a part time content person and no designer, you can’t produce industry-leading content at a massive scale.

I counsel businesses and clients to pick a cadence that they can commit to for the next two months. Two months is long enough to know if it is sustainable and also to see signs of initial traction, but it’s not so long that you can’t change gears or adjust your strategy as you see the need.

The creation process will look something like:

  1. Planning. How often do you want to publish something new and also have time to promote it properly?
  2. Ideation. This is a combination of creativity and data-driven research, and the reality is that the most effective content is a combination of the two.
  3. Project execution of gathering the data, creating the first draft, getting feedback and edits, creating the second draft, and finally taking it to completion.

You’ll learn over time how long different pieces of content take to create, often depending on their medium. You will also learn what content will get you the most bang for your money and time buck.

For example, here at Credo we do a combination of types of content for marketing purposes:

  1. Epic blog posts like this. This post took me 4 hours to create, mostly on one plane flight.
  2. Videos. I know that I can produce a decent video in a total of 30 minutes, including shooting it (in one take) and editing in iMovie. These are a shorter time investment, but usually have a shorter lifespan than an epic blog post.
  3. Podcasts episodes we produce and that I am a guest on. I know these take usually 30 minutes, sometimes 60, and then a bit to edit. This content is evergreen in a sense in that it sticks around in podcast archives and people can listen to it a year from now just as easily as today, but there are not great tools available yet to know how many people it has reached and therefore if it’s worthwhile to continue investing in.
  4. Speaking and the subsequent slide decks created for these presentations. A 30 minute presentation can take me 8-10 hours plus the time to deliver it and do followup, plus time to travel and the distracted mindset before a talk that keeps me from other work. Speaking/slide decks can be quite effective in B2B niches, but this one is very high input.

Your first few months should be to learn what kind of content seems to resonate with your own audience and how long it takes to produce and promote. Then you can adjust your schedule and process.

Promotion

We’ve already mentioned promotion a bit, but promotion is the area where most people fall down when it comes to content marketing. This is the marketing side of content marketing, thus it’s frustrating that most people miss it. If I’m honest, I fall short on this one a lot of the time.

Let’s get this out of the way first:

Promotion is not hit publish, auto tweet and share on Facebook, and then onto the next piece.

Content promotion is hard because you have to:

  1. Have an idea that others get excited about and want to help spread
  2. Produce that content in a way that people continue to live it and are proud to tell others about it (bad design can kill this, by the way)
  3. Connect with those people and know specifically what your ask is (share with your friends, share on Twitter, subscribe to an email list, etc)
  4. Continue to promote it in other marketing opportunities (podcasts etc) over time to keep the buzz going and continue to make them valuable to audience sections who have not heard about it yet

There’s a lot that has been written on content promotion, and I think most don’t do it much because it’s hard and scary. You’re going to face rejection and you’re going to feel like a shameless self-promoter sometimes.

But there are some ways to alleviate this.

First, your committed audience (as this famous post talks about, your 1,000 true fans) want to hear from you and see the content you’re producing. If they’re commenting on your posts, emailing you to ask more questions, and signing up to your email list then you shouldn’t feel bad promoting new things to them, and if you do then you need to ask yourself why you feel that way. Are you not confident in the content, or are you just nervous of the promotion itself?

Second, trust your research and your strategy. If there are 100 people asking the question, then you can reasonably assume that they want to hear that you’ve produced something to answer that question. And if there are 100 people asking the question directly, there are likely much higher numbers of people asking very similar questions that your content can reach. Trust that they are going to be interested if they are actively asking the question.

Third, communicate what’s in it for them. This is where most promotion falls down. Let me give an example.

In the SEO world, one popular link acquisition tactic is called “broken link building”. Basically, during your backlink research into competitors or sites in your (or your client’s) niche you come across sites that have broken links within a blog post. This is natural – the internet is a shifting being and so pages come and go, sites rebrand, redirects fall off, and more. Totally natural.

What a lot of SEOs will do is then reach out and think they are “adding value” by telling the person about this broken link. Then they make an ask to have a link to their own content added to the post as well (this works best when it’s a roundup post).

But there are two ways this goes wrong.

  1. They get aggressive and start asking the person to remove the link going to their competitor and instead link to theirs. But the person making the ask fails to realize that the content creator likely linked to that original source for a reason, and the outreacher does not explain why theirs is either better or adds additional value to the content creator’s audience.
  2. They don’t pay attention to the details of when the post was published, who wrote it, and more. Many sites now have years of content archives, and going back to ask someone to update a post from 2012 does two things – first you risk that the content itself is updated and the person doesn’t have time or desire to update it, and second if you’re doing it for SEO purposes that link may not count (search engines can tell when a link was added or removed of course) and likely will not drive you any traffic.

Instead, doing your research ahead of time and only focusing on the relevant, recent, and high value opportunities can make the campaign successful and set you up for the future.

Measurement

Finally, measurement. As I mentioned above, many businesses start doing “content marketing” without knowing why. They’re doing it because their competitors are or someone told them they should, but there’s no business strategy behind it.

First you have to figure out your why behind content. Increase traffic? Increase links? Increase direct sales? Increase indirect sales?

Once you know this, you can set up the correct tracking and reporting to know how successful your content is in achieving them.

This will involve some combination of these things:

  1. Setting up correct tracking parameters on links that you are promoting via paid channels;
  2. Annotating your Google Analytics (or whatever analytics tool you use) when different pieces of content go live;
  3. Setting up your conversion funnels so you can monitor and adjust as you go;
  4. Setting up events and goals within Analytics so you can get that 5,000 foot view on how things are performing.
  5. Setting up Custom Reports and dashboards so you can easily report to those who matter (or to yourself if you are the business owner).

Measurement goes much deeper than this of course, but this is where you start. Some other resources for learning more about analytics and measurement are:

  1. Annielytics
  2. The GAIQ certification course
  3. Jeffalytics

There you go. My diatribe on content marketing. We’d love to hear how you’re using content in your business, how it’s affected your business in positive ways, and what challenges you are currently facing.