Content Marketing has never been more integral to the success of your brand than it is today. That’s especially true for smaller players who don’t have access giant advertising budgets. Content marketing both increases the efficiency of any paid advertising you do and brings in new, more qualified customers on its own. Because Search Engines and Social Media Sites account for the majority of internet traffic, content has become the currency of the web. Content is food for search engines. Content is the default unit of exchange on social media; a surrogate for ideas and values that spreads organically from person to person. Simultaneously, as the web becomes increasingly saturated with display advertising, users have become adept at filtering it out of their conscious awareness. Clickthrough rates for online ads continue to fall, and are now sitting somewhere below 0.1%. More recently, ad blocking software is beginning to gain popularity, which further cements the case for opt-in permission marketing.
But developing a content marketing practice from scratch is no easy task. It can be resource intensive. It’s important that the content you’re developing is fulfilling your business goals. You need a strategy. That’s where a lot of the clients we work with struggle. They don’t know where to begin, and they don’t know how to focus their efforts.
This post aims to demystify content marketing, by laying out some simple principles that will help you understand where content marketing fits in your overall strategy and what qualities successful content needs to have.
Content Marketing In Just 11 Letters: Three ‘C’s, Three ‘A’s and Five ‘E’s
I’ve grouped these principles into 3 categories:
1. The Customer Journey: The Three ‘C’s:
2. Your Strategic Objectives: The Three ‘A’s:
3. Making Good Creative: The Five ‘E’s:
And for more visual types, here’s a graphic that looks like the hats worn in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.
We’ve been here before. I know… More than once, in fact. The reason we keep coming back here is that for all the talk we hear about customer-centric campaigns, we’re still seeing many brands put their budgets behind tactics that don’t put the customer first. Remember the purchase funnel? Remember how I said search and social media have turned it on its side, and broken it apart? Remember that graphic from Think with Google?
That’s all true, but the problem is, without the conceptual framework of a customer journey that the purchase funnel provides, many brands struggle to market to customers who might be at different stages of consideration.
Here’s the thing, you can publish fantastic content or run perfectly targeted advertising to get people to your site, but then what? People seldom jump from discovery to purchase in one quick step. Even though search and social allow users to jump into the funnel at any stage, there will always be some consideration.
And you need to factor that consideration into your content strategy, and your larger marketing strategy. You need to think about how you’ll maintain contact with and nurture someone who’s made that first connection with your brand.
With that in mind, I want to propose a really really simple variant of the customer journey as it is today (it also looks like a hat, apparently):
Yep. It’s that simple. When you’re building your strategies, just keep in mind that any customer, for any purchase decision, always goes through the Connection, Consideration and Conversion phases.
Yes, there’s a lot to unpack inside consideration, but too many brands get bogged down in planning for those details. And you know the saying about best laid plans… Once you’re in market, getting real-time customer data, then you can starting optimizing for the finer details. But this gives you something simple to start with. Understanding this simplified customer journey gives you something to hang your tactics on.
Connection occurs when a prospect encounters your brand. There are a number of ways this happens. Maybe they searched for something related to your offering and you came up? Maybe a friend of theirs shared something of yours on social media? Maybe they saw one of your ads somewhere.
Consideration is what happens once your brand has entered your prospect’s brain. Maybe they didn’t need your offering at the time they first encountered you, but now they do. Then they move into classical consideration phases like opinion, comparison and preference, where they contemplate your value proposition, costs, and benefits against those of competitors. In addition to classical consideration phases, there’s a new phase I call Conversation, where prospects can validate your value proposition with peers on social media.
Conversion is what they ultimately decide to do, once they’ve considered what you’re offering. But here’s the important thing; conversion doesn’t always mean sale. Yes, a purchase is a conversion, but not all conversions are purchases. For example, following you on Facebook is a type of conversion; so is signing up for your newsletter; so is downloading a whitepaper. All those conversions will route them back into the consideration phase, ultimately laddering up to that most important of all conversions, a sale. There are post-sale conversions too, like sharing their positive customer experience on social media. The point is, a conversion is anything you want your prospects or customers to do, so long as you can measure it. Some examples of conversions include:
- Web visits
- Content Shares on social media
- Engagement on social media
- Follows on social media
- Endorsements from customers
- Customer reviews on 3rd party sites
- Lead captures
- And of course, Purchases
2. Your Strategic Objectives: Awareness, Advocacy & Adoption
Let’s back up a bit and talk about business objectives, shall we? No matter what your business, whether you sell shoes or magazines or fundraise for cancer research, you’ve got sales objectives. You need to move product, sell subscriptions or generate donations. If you’re thinking about marketing, it’s because you want to (or need to) bring in more revenue. Sure, there are other business objectives, like increasing efficiency or lowering costs, but sales is the one measurable business objective that marketing can support. Some people might argue that we should include lead-generation in your business objectives. But really, when you think about it, lead-generation is just a step (conversion) towards sales.
You want to increase sales. You need to invest in marketing. For the vast majority of clients we’ve worked with, the communications strategy that drives those sales rests on three fundamental objectives. You need to increase:
- Awareness = get your brand into the brains of prospective customers
- Advocacy = build a community that amplifies your awareness and improves your adoption rate
- Adoption = turn those prospects into leads and customers
Depending on what stage of growth your business is in, and what industry you’re in, you may put different emphasis on each of those objectives, but all told, if you want to grow, you’re going to have to touch all three.
Another way to look at those three pillars is to put them against the customer journey described above.
|Customer Journey Phase||Strategic Objectives|
|Consideration||Advocacy, Some Adoption|
Awareness is where it all begins, quite simply because it’s impossible for a customer to buy anything from you if they don’t know you exist, right? Awareness is how you establish Connection.
Awareness is about touching & priming prospects, so when they are ready to make a purchase, you’re top of mind. Back in the old days, awareness was achieved by buying airtime on mass-media. You were charged by the eyeball (or ear), and because you were inadvertently reaching millions of ears and eyeballs that weren’t ever going to be interested in your product, mass could be an expensive gamble.
How Does Content Marketing Support Awareness?
These days, people increasingly discover brands via search and social media. Search represents a form of active awareness where social media nurtures a more passive form of awareness.
- Search: a prospect is actively looking for something related to your industry or offering
- Social Media: a prospect observes one of their peers interact with you on social media
The cool thing is, unlike mass-advertising, people who become aware of your brand on search and social come (somewhat) pre-qualified. If they’ve searched for something related to your offering, then they’ve expressed intent. If they’re seeing something of yours because one of their pals engaged with you on social media, it’s likely that they share a lot of the same characteristics as their friend, who has already interacted with you (for the simple reason that people are friends with people who are kind of like them).
In order to perform well on search and social media, you need excellent content that anticipates the needs of your prospects, and differentiates you from your competitors. You’ve got to get your value proposition out to there, in a way that audiences are receptive to. Sometimes there’s a lot more to your value proposition than what can be conveyed in a single ad, and that’s why content marketing can be so powerful. It lets you tell the story of your brand, one helpful piece of content at a time.
Your awareness content needs to strike the right balance between general and specific. It needs to be general enough so that audiences coming across it passively will be able to see themselves in it, and specific enough so that people inputting particular questions into their search engines recognize that you’ve got the answers they’re looking for. It should position you as an expert in your area, as approachable, and offer audiences genuine value up front. It shouldn’t be a heavy sales pitch for your offering. By giving users real value, you’ve done better than any sales pitch can. More on what makes quality content a little later.
And of course, there’s still a huge role for advertising to play in building awareness, but if you’re a smaller player in a niche market, you can manage on the strength of exceptional content alone. That’s all you need to connect with prospects and start warming them up.
Nuffield Health is a private healthcare network in the UK. Outisde of government and select NGOs, they have some of the best, most comprehensive consumer focused healthcare content I’ve seen. It allows them to connect with people concerned about a variety of health conditions, because their articles are rich with important key terminology, like those associated with symptoms and medications.
Here’s their blog, which runs the gamut from healthy meal planning to dealing with chronic disease to explaining health diagnostics. What is so impressive here is that they publish very regularly, and manage to cover a really wide array of topics, ensuring they will appeal to a diverse audience.
Another interesting example is Torontoism, owned by Sotheby’s real-estate. Here’s a real-estate company, specializing in higher-end housing, which is, even in this red-hot housing market, a high-consideration purchase. Their blog mixes content for the industry with lots of fun and interesting consumer content simply celebrating (selling) Toronto itself. They’ve got impressively rich categories related to food & dining, lifestyle, people and my personal favourite, Toronto photo essays.
In both examples above, you’ll notice that the content meets basic journalistic standards, is informative first and only lightly pushes the brand.
Conversions normally associated with Awareness:
- Web Visits
- Content Shares
- Direct Inquiries
- And in some outlying cases, if the user’s need is urgent and your purchase isn’t high-consideration, straight to purchase!
Advocacy is about building a community around your brand, which will:
- Help you Connect with new prospects
- Help nurture existing prospects in various stages of Consideration
Put simply, advocacy amplifies your awareness activities and sharpens your adoption activities. In the old days, advocacy mainly happened through earned media and events. Today, advocacy occurs mostly online, on social media.
How Does Content Marketing Support Advocacy?
Advocacy is dependant on developing a thriving social media community, and as mentioned earlier, content is the currency of social media. Content is food for your community, and so it’s important that you you maintain regular activity, otherwise your community will starve. A healthy mix of curated, user-generated and original content will help you sustain your practice. A content calendar is an essential tool to help you organize your activities.
An important thing to note here; advocacy is not just about getting your customers to talk about you, it’s equally important that you advocate on behalf of your customers. It’s about identifying the things they need, the things they care about and the the things they have questions about, and then creating (and curating) a space where they can discuss those things, freely.
It’s a place where you share best-practices from your industry, and a place where you engage with customers who’ve got questions or criticisms (constructive or otherwise), a place where you celebrate customer achievements and a place where you try your best to give back to the communities you’re operating in.
If you do all that, your customers will advocate for you, and that increases your brand’s reach (awareness) and highlights your brand’s values, which helps with adoption.
Conversions normally associated with Advocacy:
- Social Media Follows
- Content Shares on Social Media
- Engagement on Social Media
- Positive Reviews
- Endorsements on Social Media
At some point in their recent history, Red Bull decided to make their brand the voice of the extreme sports community worldwide. They jumped in head-first, literally throwing a human being at the earth from space. They’ve now got a whole web channel of their own that features new content about sports, arts or music every day. Obviously, they’ve got an enormous budget to put behind their content marketing, and in many ways it dovetails with old-school stunt/event-marketing and PR, but still, at its core, Red Bull has built a community around their brand, consisting of their key target market: young males with leisure time. They’ve got nearly 45,000,000 million followers on Facebook (that’s 10,000,000 more people than the population of Canada). An interesting note, on their Facebook page they position themselves as Media/News/Publishing, rather than as an Energy Drink.
The ALS Association’s famous Ice-Bucket Challenge is another good example of advocacy content, particularly notable because the content is crowd-sourced (or user-generated), meaning the community itself becomes the promotional vehicle. The challenge successfully drove both awareness of ALS and the ALS society (with a reported 2.4 million videos circulating on Facebook alone) and adoption in the form of donations exceeding $115 million USD.
Closer to home, one of Fractal’s own clients, Karelia Kitchen, a Toronto smokehouse and cafe specializing in Scandinavian cuisine, frequently uses their blog to support the neighbourhood they operate in. We’ve observed that this content tends to garner quick traction on social media, rapidly being shared by other members of community and the resulting goodwill results in more foot traffic from new and returning patrons.
Adoption is about taking those prospects and turning them into customers. They’ve already Connected with your brand, and have already gone through several phases of Consideration. Maybe they’ve even made a few micro-conversions along the way. All you’ve got to do now is nudge them over into purchasing.
How Does Content Marketing Support Adoption?
The truth is, content marketing doesn’t play a huge direct role in supporting adoption. Adoption is the payoff, after you’ve established presence and goodwill in your awareness and advocacy content marketing activities. Adoption is typically driven by need, impulse and financial reality. What you need to do is make sure that when your customers are ready to buy, you’re ready to sell. That means your core content, your product pages and your sales pages need to be clear, concise and conversion focused. It’s all about usability here. Make it easy.
Advertising, and specifically retargeting can play a huge role in driving adoption. All those web visits and social follows you established in your awareness and advocacy activities become soft-leads, that you advertise to later. Retargeting opens up incredible possibilities when combined with content marketing. You can float specific messages to prospects, based on the content they previously interacted with. That means you can fine-tune your value proposition to fit with a variety of different niche audiences, then drive them right to conversion-optimized product pages.
Content Gating for Lead-Generation:
Content gating is the practice of putting a high-value piece of content (like a whitepaper) behind a wall, forcing visitors to register before seeing the content piece. Content-gating is often mandated by sales teams, especially in the B2B space. We’ve got mixed feelings about it.
- You inevitably lose users (anywhere from 95%-50% according to some) when you ask them to fill out a form containing their personal information. That’s tons of site visitors who won’t see that valuable content piece you invested so much time and effort in.
- The content better be really, really good and live up to the expectations you set for it in your teaser if you’re going to gate it, otherwise, you could lose trust with prospects.
- That said, some organizations like Hubspot do it really, really well and that keeps us coming back.
Here’s the thing, even if the user only reads 1/8 of your research piece, they still will have spent a couple of minutes with your brand. And because they spent all that time on your site, looking at a specific page about a specific topic, you can retarget them later, with advertising that you know will be relevant to them. Bottom line, if you’re going to gate your content, make sure your content is top-notch.
Conversions normally associated with Adoption:
- Lead Capture
3. Making Good Creative: The Five ‘E’s
So far, we’ve looked at a simplified model to help us understand the customer journey. We’ve also learned how a mix of Awareness, Advocacy and Adoption tactics can establish connections with customers and nudge them through their Consideration phases and towards Conversions.
Now we need to take a look at the content itself. What qualities does successful content have? Which of those qualities should be prioritized for which objectives?
- Educational: will users learn something they need to know (or something they didn’t know they needed to know)?
- Entertaining: will it make them laugh, cry, scream or feel something?
- Edifying: will they be able to see themselves and/or their values in it?
- Engaging: will it give them something to talk about, share or interact with?
- (Bonus Points for Self-Promotional Pieces) Easy: is it user-friendly?
Content Marketing vs. Self Promotion
If the piece is neither Educational, Entertaining, Edifying or Engaging, then it is probably not a content marketing piece. It’s probably a self-promotion piece. Self-promotion is about highlighting the features and benefits of your offering. It’s totally fine (and necessary) to self-promote, but just be aware, that self-promotion primarily supports the adoption objective, and won’t do much for improving your awareness or advocacy.
That said, if you do find yourself developing a self-promotional piece, then you’ve got to pay really close attention to the last one on the list, Easy. It’s essential that your core content and sales pages be easy to scan, read, find, navigate and use.
Different Strategic Objectives = Different Qualities in Content
Each of the five criteria listed above are best suited for different strategic objectives. That’s simply because some content is better for supporting SEO, while other content is great for getting shares and likes, while other stuff is better suited for getting people talking. Here’s a handy table:
|Strategic Objective||Creative Criteria|
|Advocacy||Edifying, Engaging, Some Entertaining|
Awareness: If you want more people to find you, develop content that will anticipate their questions (search queries) and answer them. Or, make something fun and interesting that people who already follow you will share.
Advocacy: If you want to build a community around your brand, make content that supports the community. Or ask the community to make content for you! Ask questions. Accept questions. Be human. Interact. And also give them fun stuff to share.
Adoption: Once you’ve warmed up your customers and engendered trust and goodwill towards your brand, just make it easy for them to seal the deal. Make your conversion pages easy to find, don’t bloat the process with upsells. Make sure your pricing is clear up front. Minimize clicks. Make sure your site is responsive and accessible.
What I’m trying to hammer home here is that content for content marketing purposes needs have intrinsic value. It needs to demonstrate your brand’s expertise and values, rather than promote your brand.
Let’s put it all together:
In a nutshell:
- Search and Social media are going to be your primary Awareness drivers, by Connecting customers with your brand. Depending on budgets, paid advertising can also be layered in to build awareness, but is only recommended after you’ve got a solid content marketing foundation.
- Educational content will support your search-based Awareness objectives.
- Entertaining content will support your social media based Awareness objectives.
- Social media will help you maintain Connection with users by bringing them into your Community, and then using content to guide them through various stages of Consideration.
- Edifying and Engaging content will be effective in keeping your community active.
- Once users have interacted with a few of your content pieces and warmed-up, Retargeting and more direct calls-to-action relating to the features, benefits and key differentiators of your offering can be used to drive Adoption.
- Any conversion-focused destinations need to be Easy to use.
- Measure user-behaviour and paths to determine which content pieces drive which conversions, and then refine your content strategy accordingly.