What is content marketing and how do you do it?

On a practical level, content marketing is about exchanging knowledge for contact details. Beyond that, it’s about gaining trust. It’s not a quick win and it takes time. Put off? You shouldn’t be as, done properly, the benefits are massive.

In today's world, where content is consumed on-demand, content marketing may be one of the very few meaningful and effective ways to increase brand visibility and reach your target audience.

If you’ve sat anywhere near a marketing department recently – or sometime in the last few years or so, you’re likely to have heard the term ‘content marketing’ (or inbound marketing) bandied about. It’s often accompanied by words like ‘funnel’, ‘lead generation’ and ‘marketing qualified lead’.

With 87% of UK companies now using content marketing1, you’d think the majority of companies have it nailed; realising a great return from their efforts, right? Well, not exactly. According to the same research:

  • only 40% say they’re extremely or very effective at it
  • only 46% are clear on what successful content marketing looks like
  • only 40% have a documented content marketing strategy

So, what’s going wrong? And how can you make sure your company isn’t one of those wasting their time and effort? Here’s what we have to say about it all. Apologies in advance for any ranting - it’s only because we want to help you do it right.

1. Content Marketing Institute (CMI), “Content Marketing in the UK 2017: Benchmarks, Budgets and Trends”.

Table of contents

Content marketing definition

Okay, so first things first. What exactly is content marketing? Here’s the Content Marketing Institute’s (CMI’s) definition:

Content marketing is a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly-defined audience — and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.

If we were being picky, we’d change it slightly to:

“Content marketing is a long-term marketing approach focused on the sustainable creation and distribution of valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly-defined audience — and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.”

This isn’t a dig at the CMI; they clearly know a thing or two about content marketing*. The reason we’d change it is to avoid any confusion over the word ‘strategic’. This really shouldn’t be necessary, but in a world where “strategic” is not always seen as the long-term-plan type action that it should be (yes, we’re looking at you, people who use it to mean the same thing as tactics or a campaign! You really need to stop that!) it helps make sure there’s no misunderstanding.

And ‘sustainable’ because there’s little use producing a surge of content for a month or so and then giving up. Then we’re back to the word ‘campaign’ as opposed to true content marketing which is a long-term process, that requires focus and dedication.

*We dream of being as awesome as the CMI. They and their founder, Joe Pulizzi, are an excellent source of spot-on information about content marketing. Any company that changes its name from Junta42 to CMI way ahead of the curve clearly knows a thing or two.

What is content marketing?

Simply, content marketing is about creating content that your prospects want to read; that they find useful. It’s about building a long-term relationship built on trust so that, when they’re ready to buy, they’re likely to consider you first and hopefully buy from you.

And in more detail…

Where traditional ‘push’ or ‘outbound’ marketing is today’s equivalent of a cold call (shudder); content marketing (or inbound marketing as it’s also called) is its open, honest, sociable and frankly more astute cousin. We’re not arguing that outbound has a place – it most definitely does. Done well, it takes the essence of content marketing and provides the consumer with something valuable – a thought, feeling or idea for example. Think about the John Lewis Christmas TV ad. It’s all about creating a memorable feel, a warm glow – they are not trying to sell trampolines specifically. There needs to be a mix. 80:20 to be precise. Spend 80% of time talking to prospects about topics that are relevant (and interesting) to them and 20% talking about your products and services.

Content marketing ultimately gives you the opportunity to do both, but on the prospective customer’s terms and that’s important for today’s businesses for so many reasons: online reviews, brand, reputation, engagement, trust, retention, the list goes on. In a world where peer reviews are considered by consumers as the most valuable source of information, creating advocates becomes increasingly important.

It’s not news that businesses and consumers have the internet to help them:

  • solve their problems
  • find content that’s relevant and interesting to them
  • compare products
  • review companies
  • decide whether they value a company and their products enough to buy from them

They simply don’t need (and in most cases, don’t want) companies cold calling them or sending them emails or direct mail about how great their products and services are.

Smart marketers know this. They know that from sources as broad as organic search, social media, email campaigns, PPC, press releases, advertorials and more, people self-select content and, if they like what they see, slowly build a relationship with that company based on a value exchange and trust, until they’re ready to make a purchase. Then who do you think they’re more likely to buy from: someone they’ve never heard about, or you? (clue: it’s you!)

If you’re thinking of content marketing:

  • as a campaign, you’re going to fail. Campaigns, by their nature, have an end-date.
  • as something you think you can decide to do overnight, stick at for 3 months and expect to see results, you’re going to fail. What you’ve described is advertising.

If you think of content marketing as a long-term commitment to achieve a long-term relationship with your customers, you won’t go far wrong. When we say long-term, we mean it will probably be about a year before you start to see definite results. The longer you continue, the stronger your programme will become and the better the results will be.

What is inbound marketing?

Inbound marketing is what the cool kids call content marketing – yes Hubspot, that’s you and we salute you! To us, inbound marketing is the better term as it sets the visual scene of what content marketing is all about – using fantastic, relevant, engaging content to get prospective customers to come (in) to you. It also provides a better focus for what you should produce. It’s not just about creating materials, that materials should have a purpose, be useful and relevant.

What is outbound marketing?

Outbound marketing is the opposite of inbound/content marketing. Gold star if you got that – and they say people scan-read online ;-)

Outbound is all about telling people about your company: its products and services, CSR activities, award-wins, etc. So what’s wrong with that? ‘Absolutely nothing’ is the answer, in fact it’s a large part of PR which also overlaps into content marketing, SEO and other great things linked with good content marketing. And, it’s absolutely essential otherwise companies would never sell anything! But, the key to outbound marketing is to use it as a small but perfectly formed part of your marketing programme.

But what some companies seem to miss here is the ‘part of’ part. Outbound is part of a wider programme. What we so often see are companies using outbound as 80% of their marketing programme: “hello anyone who’ll listen, and even those who aren’t interested, we’re talking about our products and services. That’s it, that’s all we’re talking about today. In fact, that’s all we’re ever going to talk about on your social media feeds, in blog posts, in emails, in ads. Our products and services are great. You should be interested in our products and services”. Hey, why have you unsubscribed?

Sadly, outbound marketing is often best friends with some of our favourite marketing words to hate: “blasting” “push” “scattergun”. Wake up, people! The whole ‘blast it out and see what sticks’ marketing approach (should have) died in the 80s along with leg warmers. In today’s largely digital world, this approach simply won’t work (best case) and will earn you a reputation that’s pretty hard to shake in a world where disgruntled people take to social media to very publicly air their distaste.

What is content?

Great question! Content can be anything from blog posts to infographics, to case studies to videos to podcasts, research papers, webinars, presentations, and everything in between. Clever companies like Sweaty Betty and Crew (see our examples) are also using exercise classes and free photographs as a form of content marketing.

Different content is generally more useful at different stages in the customer lifecycle. For example, prospects may find your company via a Google search that takes them to one of your blog posts or infographics. As they then start to engage with your company more, read more articles or take a look around your website, an ebook (to gather contact information) or webinar to help them understand how your product/service can help them may be relevant. Scoot down to the content marketing matrix section for more detailed info on this.

What is a content marketing strategy?

If you’ve made the decision to use content marketing within your business, good call! And if you’re super-keen to get started writing stuff, that’s great too. But getting started without a plan (one that’s written down, not just in your head!) is what a lot of companies do – a whopping 60% according to the CMI’s 2017 report - and it just ends up with a lot of wasted effort, a team that’s really fed up and frustrated, and a boss who thinks content marketing doesn’t monetise, so pulls the plug.

If you’re serious about setting up content marketing, a content marketing strategy (or content marketing plan, as we prefer to call it*) is a must-have. It brings everything together, gives it a structure and makes decision-making easier. It ensures that at each step – from day one to year two - you’re always clear about:

  • what your aim is (important otherwise how will you know if you’ve achieved it?)
  • who you’re targeting (prospects) including what they’re interested in and where they hang out (aka personas)
  • how you’re going to stand out from everyone else (this one’s important or you’re just adding to the noise that’s already out there)
  • how you’re going to execute your plan: who’s creating the content and when; how are you going to promote it?
  • how you’re going to measure results (success - links back to your aim)

By putting in this effort up-front, you should avoid being one of the:

  • 75% who describe their content marketing as moderately, minimally or not at all successful
  • 60% who describe their content marketing as moderately, minimally or not at all effective
  • 54% who aren’t clear on what successful or effective content marketing looks like

This Buffer App blog post has a really great (in depth) content marketing plan that you can download.

Or sign up for this CMI ebook that walks you through the 36 questions you need to answer to develop a great content marketing plan

*Integrated marketing is the name of the game, which is why we’re not keen on the term ‘content marketing strategy’ as it suggests it’s the (only) marketing activity happening in your company, which hopefully it’s not! Ideally, you’ll have lots of marketing activity going on: maybe PPC for some short-term wins, advertising campaigns, affiliate marketing, channel development, etc.; all of which you’ll have chosen based on your overall marketing strategy. You get the idea.

Content marketing matrix

Trying to work out exactly what type of content you need and at what stage of the prospective customer’s journey can seem like a nightmare – and often it is! Until you take a look at a content marketing matrix – we like Eloqua’s (below) - and then, like most things after you’ve seen the answer, they suddenly seem quite straight forward.

The Content Grid v2 Eloqua JESS3

Those who did any kind of marketing qualification (and even a lot of people who didn’t) will remember AIDA:

  • Awareness
  • Information
  • Desire
  • Action

Where traditional marketing may have used different marketing disciplines to address the different stages:

  • PR for Awareness
  • digital for Information
  • advertising for Desire
  • direct mail for Action

Content marketing uses different content formats – blog posts, ebooks, webinars, podcasts, case studies, etc - to satisfy the four stages. It mirrors our behaviour as humans:

  • we become aware of something
  • we find out more about it
  • if we like it and it gives us something back, we develop a relationship with it, we feel part of it.

It’s common sense as much as it is marketing.

And that’s all it is, taking a bit of time to work out what type of content will work best for your (target) audience at various stages when they interact with you. It really is all about knowing your audience (oh, and knowing what existing content you have, and any gaps that will need to be plugged – a content audit as it’s often called. That’s the time-consuming bit!).

How do you do content marketing?

So, this is the million dollar question! Just Googling this is enough to send most people either into a panic or back to bed. There’s so much information out there about content marketing and how to do it, it can seem overwhelming.

And, sure, content marketing can be super-complicated, but in the early days and even in the latter days, it doesn’t need to be.

Obviously, it depends what you’re ultimately trying to achieve: brand awareness, education, engagement, retention, lead generation? For the most part, companies that we see are looking to use content marketing as a way to drive leads to their sales team, aka lead generation. So here, in basic terms, is how we’d say you do it:

  1. Decide who your audience is
  2. Identify their problems/interests
  3. Identify keywords they use to search on Google to find solutions to their problems
  4. Create useful content around these keywords (blog posts, e-books, infographics, videos, etc)
  5. Promote and test content online on multiple channels (blog, social media, relevant 3rd party websites)
  6. Based on data, develop more content including high-value downloadable content that only can be accessed via sign-up
  7. “Nurture” subscribers by send them more content until they can be identified as qualified leads
  8. Understand that this is not a quick fix or a campaign. This is a long-term commitment to providing consistent and sustainable value to your audience
  9. Make sure you’re set up as an organisation to do this properly – there needs to be a process in place to handle leads efficiently and effectively
  10. Don’t be scared of making a few mistakes – that’s how we all learn, and content marketing’s no different.

While a lot of companies would like you to think that content marketing is the hardest thing since…I just googled ‘what is the hardest thing’ for a clever answer and I got ‘parenting’ and ‘forgiveness’. You decide! The truth is that it’s actually a pretty straightforward process.

It’s no secret that there are hundreds of detailed guides around on how to do content marketing. But, like with most things, knowing the theory is the easy part. The difficult part is making it work in real life, for your target audience.

How long does it take before you start seeing results?

The up-front and very honest answer here is it’ll take anything from 12 months to two years until you start to reap the rewards (sales) from your effort. Wow, that was brutal. Still reading? As we’ve said (a lot!) it’s a long-term commitment.

It’s a bit like making a new friend: while the initial meeting can happen pretty quickly, it takes time to develop a deeper friendship, to work out how much you actually like and have in common with them, if you can trust them, and how much time you want to spend with them.

It’s this long-term commitment that’s the potential ‘problem’ as many companies see it. It’s understandable: they hear about content marketing and they like the sound of it; they especially like that it’s not going to cost them a tonne of money, so they start to do it. They try it for three months, see absolutely no return from it and decide it’s a complete waste of time and move on.

We completely get this, after all, why would a company continue to spend time and money on something for a long period without seeing any kind of return? And this is when you need to ask two questions:

  1. Are you doing it right?
  2. Are you looking for the small signals that are the starting indication that it’s working?

Taking each point in turn:

Are you doing it right?

If you’re not sure who you’re targeting, or why; if you’re only promoting your awesome blog post with your existing 10 followers on Twitter; or if you’re not using keywords in your content, it’s not going to work. Question whether you’ve got the basics sorted. If you’re struggling, take a look at Moz’s beginner’s guide to content marketing.

Are these the beginnings of success?

Okay, so you’ve not managed to monetise anything yet (assuming that’s your goal), but have you started to see more traffic coming to your website, even if it’s only a slight upturn? Have you seen more interaction (comments, likes or shares) with your content? Have any of the keywords you’re tracking (brand, product or higher funnel terms) started to creep their way up the results pages in Google? Have people started to download your ebooks? Do your sales team find the content useful as a conversation opener with prospective clients?

If you answered yes to one or more of these, don’t give up! Like a small green shoot on an otherwise dead plant, they are signs of life. Don’t ignore them. You’re starting to see what content marketers often refer to as the “halo effect” of content marketing, and it’s a sign that your content marketing is starting to work. Keep going! What you’re seeing is engagement, and that x effort x nurturing x time = monetisation. And once you’ve got that, it’s simply a case of turning on the taps at the top of the funnel to see more money coming out.

Why companies suck at content marketing

There are so many reasons why companies get content marketing wrong. Some of the most common ones we see are:

  • They are often simply not set-up to do it well, or effectively. This could be anything from the number of people involved to the structure of the team(s)
  • They start well, but dive into “sell/outbound” mode too quickly
  • They stalk customers, yes, we mean pick up a phone as soon as someone gives them any contact details. Yikes!
  • They scare* customers – as above, but using their IP address to find a phone number after they look at anything on their website.*may not be the right word, but we’re too polite to swear!
  • They don’t actually know what they’re trying to achieve: brand awareness, engagement, lead generation…
  • They start producing content without a plan: who are they targeting and why, what topics will appeal to these people (and ultimately relate back to your product/service), where do you find these people, etc.
  • They don’t measure the results, so don’t know what’s working and what’s not – creating 10 blog posts a week is great, but which ones are helping you turn visitors into subscribers; which ones are your audience most interested in, which ones are giving you the most links? Which ones have the highest dwell time? If you don’t know the answers to these questions, you’ll struggle to develop your content marketing any further.
  • Their content is not distinct or useful. The best content should be different from the competition, include information that is helpful to your target audience and say something new or look at an issue from a different angle. This way it will stand out and get noticed by the people you want to reach.

Content marketing examples

Content marketing blog

If you’ve taken the time to read our article. Thank you. I hope it’s helped you understand content marketing a bit more clearly. If want to read more, you won’t go far wrong if you take a look at what these gurus have to say about the subject:

OOTM team

We’re a team with expertise in different areas of marketing who work ridiculously well together, challenging and bouncing ideas off each other.


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