When you’re a B2B marketer who’s spent years generating demand and filling your leads pipeline through content marketing, it’s surreal to come across marketing bloggers and pundits who claim there’s no such thing as a content marketing strategy. In the last 18 months, I’ve been asked to write several columns for marketing publications (for B2B Marketing, The Drum and Marketing Week) debating people with this point of view. I wanted to start the New Year by trying to set the issue straight.
I can see the point that some of these critics of content marketing are trying to make: that the term marketing strategy gets used too loosely these days. However, by attacking the validity of content marketing strategies they are definitely wide of the mark. Content marketing doesn’t always involve marketing strategy, but it certainly can and it certainly should. And that’s an important point to clear up for any marketer looking to derive value from content in the year ahead.
The argument against content marketing strategy
When people claim “there is no such thing as content marketing strategy”, they’re usually aiming to prove their superior knowledge of marketing theory. The line of attack goes something like this: there can be no such thing as a content marketing strategy, because content marketing is just a tactic. Your marketing strategy, on the other hand, is a high-level formula for how your business is going to compete and create value. It can’t be built around one single, tactical approach. Anyone claiming to have a content marketing strategy, the argument goes, doesn’t understand marketing.
You’ll often find a line like this in a post that claims content marketers are obsessed with stealing budget from advertising, that we’re not interested in ROI, or that we’re snake-oil sales folk claiming to offer miraculous organic reach without the need for paid-for media. The people making the argument think they’re demonstrating that content marketers don’t understand marketing; what they’re really demonstrating is that they themselves don’t understand content.
The real definition of content marketing strategy
A genuine content marketing strategy revolves around the carefully considered exchange of valuable content for valuable engagement, with a commitment to identifying and measuring that value. As such, it is closely integrated with the proposition of your business and how you communicate that to your potential customers. It can and should influence your marketing strategy as a whole, not just the tactics that you use to execute that strategy.
Here’s what I mean – a very quick summary of what’s involved in moving beyond content marketing tactics and building a genuine content marketing strategy:
Don’t kid yourself that content is an alternative to paid-for media
People who think of content marketing as a tactic or channel often assume that it’s differentiated from other tactics and channels mainly by the promise of organic reach. They jump to the conclusion that content is an alternative to paid-for media, and that it’s all about virality. In fact, that’s quite the wrong starting point for a content marketing strategy.
Consistently putting relevant content in front of the right people is an essential component in content marketing – and you’ll need to deploy paid media in a range of different ways in order to do it. Sometimes you’ll be looking to build awareness and engagement at scale, sometimes you’ll be looking to deliver a carefully crafted sequence of content to specific people, potentially as part of an Account Based Marketing (ABM) approach.
Since virality is, almost by definition, impossible to predict or control, it can’t be part of a strategic approach to content. If your goal in producing content is to gain cheap reach and hope for some general upswelling in awareness then you are going to struggle to connect this to business outcomes and business strategy in any meaningful way. A strategy focused on producing viral hits isn’t a content marketing strategy.
Don’t settle for ‘random acts of content’
The other assumption that content-is-a-tactic marketers tend to make is this: content can be picked up and put down as and when immediate marketing objectives demand it. Just as a brand might run a TV ad campaign for a sales boost in the run up to Christmas and then disappear from screens for the rest of the year, plenty of businesses suddenly discover an appetite for content marketing when their agency pitches a one-off idea that sounds pretty cool – or when they’ve got a new product that they need to promote.
The nature of content marketing means that these ‘random acts of content’ have the effectiveness odds stacked against them. There’s no existing relationship with your brand as a content producer that predisposes the audience to pay attention. When you arrive in someone’s social media feed out of the blue, offering ‘useful’ content that really means recommending people use your products, there’s no sense of authenticity. When you have a great idea that seems entertaining but has no obvious connection to your brand or business strategy, then you’re not really engaging in marketing at all.
Embrace the challenge of the attention economy
The reason for a content marketing strategy isn’t to score cheap reach or to do something fun and funky as an alternative to advertising. It’s a response to the changing nature of what happens when you pay to reach an audience with any marketing communications. As writers like Seth Godin and Ron Tite have argued for years, you can no longer rely on buying that audience’s attention just by paying to interrupt what they’re doing.
On the screens that people spend most of their day looking at (smartphones mainly, but also laptops, tablets and desktops), they only pay attention to what their judgment and experience tells them is worth paying attention to. Paying for the opportunity to reach them is just the start. If you want their attention, you need to deliver something of value in exchange for it: entertaining, inspiring or informative. You have to matter.
Engaging an audience is now a form of transaction in itself. As a marketer you need to decide how someone giving you their attention is going to add up for them – otherwise, you’ll simply prime them not to pay attention to you in the future.
Start with your brand’s value proposition
A content marketing strategy therefore starts with a value proposition: How can you deliver fair value in exchange for your audience’s engagement, whilst ensuring that their engagement is delivering fair value to your business?
Just as with the value proposition for your business as a whole, there are many different elements at play when it comes to working this out: from your audiences’ needs to the competitive content landscape, the relative value of what you have to offer compared to what else is out there, and the need to differentiate your content from the rest. Most importantly, there’s the question of what someone engaging with your content is worth to your business. How will it move your business forward? Coming up with the right answers requires clarity about the different types of content assets that your business has or can create, and the different roles that they can play in your business model.
What forms of content value can you afford to trade?
I remember one of our account teams at LinkedIn working with McGraw Hill Financial, a business that sells specialist financial market data in the form of newsletter subscriptions. Understandably, McGraw Hill Financial’s marketing team had carefully guarded this value. They limited themselves to driving trials and generating leads by offering free trials of their subscriptions. Their activity was all promotion-led. The trouble was, it wasn’t generating anything like the number of leads that they needed.
The McGraw Hill Financial marketing team overcame this through a content marketing strategy. That strategy started by differentiating the types of content that the business owned, and the different types of value that they could deliver. They distinguished between the types of information they were happy to share freely in the LinkedIn feed to build awareness, more in-depth studies that they would only share in exchange for contact details, and the full content experience which was only available on a trial subscription. They sequenced their value proposition and related it to different points in their prospects’ consideration journey. They updated their business model in a way that recognised the need to exchange value in order to engage. The results were really spectacular: a big increase in the number of leads, and a stronger flow through from trial subscriptions to paying subscriptions.
McGraw Hill Financial isn’t alone in this. Crisp Thinking, which landed the LinkedIn Marketing Award for Small Business Lead Generation this year, is a social media risk analysis company that also deals in data. It developed a model for translating this data into easily digestible, sector-specific insights that could be shared to drive engagement and leads. Its quarterly reports delivered 258% of its lead generation target whilst almost halving cost per lead (CPL).
These are the types of strategic choices that turn businesses into content marketing businesses. They aren’t simply a case of choosing to add some content marketing to the media schedule. They involve strategic thinking about how the business model can stretch to include sharing valuable content in exchange for engagement.
What is attention worth?
Content marketing strategies are only complete if they come with a clear idea of how content-led engagement will flow through into revenue; how the value that you’re exchanging for people’s attention will go on to create value for your business.
LinkedIn and Edelman recently conducted research into the impact of thought leadership content on business buying decisions, which clearly highlights the potential value that’s out there. In our study, 52% of business decision-makers said that they use thought-leadership content to vet an organisation before deciding to work with it, 37% said they had added a company to an RFP as a result of such content, and 45% said that it had led them directly to award a supplier a piece of business.
That’s a powerful argument for the strategic value of thought leadership content – and its direct impact on the bottom line. But it’s not enough for a content marketing strategy to know such value exists. It has to know that the value is flowing through in the way that it should. Strategies have metrics and measures that are directly related to the business bottom line – and content marketing strategies should be no exception. That’s why LinkedIn has emphasised developing tools like Conversion Tracking, which connect exposure to content with eventual business outcomes.
Why content marketing strategy matters
Tracking impact and effectiveness matters because of another key finding in the Edelman research: that poor thought-leadership content can quickly damage a business’s prospects. In fact, 30% of decision-makers had removed companies from consideration because of content that disappointed them. Just over half of decision-makers and C-suites said they were disappointed with the overall quality of thought leadership they consumed from other brands. It was okay – but it wasn’t great.
The businesses that tend to deliver content that connects, impresses and creates value are the businesses that have done the hard yards in thinking about how content fits into their overall business model. They create value for their audience because they’ve considered carefully what that audience needs – and they’ve thought through how their business can provide it while enhancing its own prospects. They aren’t using content simply as an ad-hoc marketing tactic – they’re using it as a business asset and a revenue driver that they expect to track through to the bottom line.
How to spot a content marketing strategy
This kind of content marketing strategy translates readily into a content marketing tactical plan, a clear sense of who you’re paying to distribute content to and why, and a value-creating role for content at different points of the funnel. You can spot the businesses with such a strategy not just by the fact that their content is worth consuming – but by the fact that they are distributing it regularly. After all, they’ve identified a role for content as a business driver – so why would they only use that driver intermittently?
I’m not saying that single pieces of tactical content can’t be effective. The natural advantages of content formats often mean that they are. A well-executed piece of content in the feed will often engage more effectively than a display ad next to it, even without a complete content marketing strategy behind it. A compelling piece of video storytelling often engages far better than a 30-second ad. These are examples of effective content being used as an alternative to other marketing tactics, but they are not always evidence of a content marketing strategy. A true content marketing strategy translates such one-off successes into a sustainable driver of growth because it has identified how creating value for your audience can create value for your business.
Content marketing isn’t the only type of marketing strategy out there – but it’s the marketing strategy that’s best suited to the attention economy we now inhabit. That’s why it matters. And that’s why I’ll be defending the value of a content marketing strategy throughout the year ahead.