Irish author Roddy Doyle fills his Facebook page with brief, humorous and sometimes profane exchanges between two unnamed men in a pub. Their chats are often topical, and they resonate — his post on Ireland’s same-sex marriage referendum was shared more than 16,000 times. These posts are like little gifts to his fans. And I hope he wouldn’t find it too crass for me to suggest that they’re also a form of content marketing.
The challenge and opportunity of content marketing is that you’re free to define what qualifies. Generally speaking, if it informs or entertains (or both), then it’s content; every other detail is open for discussion. In fact the more unique your content is, the more likely it will be heard above the endless noise of the Internet.
To be effective, your content needs to be:
In my first meeting with one of my clients, an IT company serving small to mid-size businesses, the owner talked about his business. IT is complex work, and he will put his staff’s expertise against anyone’s. But at the most fundamental level, he explained, “We sell convenience. You turn your computer on and it works, every time. That’s what people care about.” His ability to explain his business philosophy in clear, jargon-free terms set the tone for everything I’ve written for them. Their content reflects their brand.
Another of my clients is a business innovation firm that partners with other companies to bring new consumer products to market. They have a long history and an excellent reputation, so they’re well suited to produce “thought leadership” pieces. I’ve worked with them on blog posts and white papers on hiring and management practices; how office spaces and corporate culture can promote or hinder innovation; and even the emerging science on creativity itself.
What do you do? How and why do you do it? When you can answer these questions clearly and confidently, you’re in a much better position to create content that will differentiate you from your competitors. If like most companies you haven’t spent a lot of time defining your mission and values in specific, personal terms, you’re not out of the game, but you have some catching up to do. One way to do that is to work with a content provider with experience interviewing and finding angles.
Be yourself. Speak from the heart. Provide for others the same quality of content that you would have them provide for you.
Under no circumstances should you use free or paid syndicated content. Google really doesn’t like this: “Your site’s content should be unique, specific and high quality. It should not be mass-produced or outsourced on a large number of other sites.” If you’re relying on an SEO firm to provide content, ask exactly where it’s coming from. Like anything else, you get what you pay for.
Who do you want to reach, and why? If your answer is something like, “People, so we can sell them stuff,” you’re going to need to put some more thought into this. As Seth Godin, “the godfather of modern marketing,” explains: “Real content marketing isn’t repurposed advertising, it is making something worth talking about.”
Good content serves the people you’re trying to reach. Some even refer to it as “brand journalism.” As a former real journalist I’m ambivalent about that term (it’s easily abused), but what it gets rights is the selflessness, the sense of higher purpose, that good marketing content should have. No matter what your business, when you do this right, you become a publisher as well, and if you can’t think like one, you’d better hire someone who can. Yes, your goal is to sell more of your product or service, and a reliable content provider’s goal is to help you. But when you view content as advertising, that’s how readers will view it.
Content marketing should be a soft sell, a pitch so subtle that it mostly goes unnoticed. It provides expertise, advice, analysis, maybe even a good laugh, but asks nothing in return — immediately, anyway. There is a leap of faith involved; you’re trusting that when they’re ready to make a purchase, they’ll choose you. But you can’t just say that you respect consumers, you have to show it. They have options, and increasingly, they want to spend their money with businesses that impress them and share at least some of their values. This is what engagement really means, offering something of value as a way to begin or maintain a relationship.
In 2011, TED Talks hosted a presentation called “Google Consciousness.” The speakers made an interesting (if speculative) case that the world’s largest search engine thinks, in a manner of speaking, and could achieve a kind of consciousness in the future. I’m not remotely qualified to comment on that, but by all accounts Google’s various algorithm changes have vastly improved its search engine’s ability to distinguish good content from bad.
The writing on your site should be clear, concise and compelling. Grammar, punctuation and spelling count. (And don’t expect spellcheck to bail you out; it’s worthless when you use the wrong word.) Above all, write for the people the search engine serves, not the search engine itself.
Be wary of formulas and simplistic advice. Some will tell you that blog posts must always be short; they’re wrong. Blog posts must always be engaging, and posts that are engaging and long keep visitors on your site longer and enhance your image as an authority. Humor is great — if it suits your brand (and you’re good at it). Headlines should entice, but should never try to sell something that the copy doesn’t deliver.
Quality content is the foundation of your online presence. Treat it accordingly.