The famous screenwriter William Goldman once said that "the easiest thing to do on earth is not write." Let's borrow that for a moment -- and apply it to content marketing.
By now, no doubt, content marketing has reached a tipping point within the marketer's toolkit. In fact, in a study conducted last year, nine out of 10 marketers are utilizing some kind of content marketing in their overall strategy. And, more than half planned to increase spending for content-related marketing over the next 12 months. It seems "content" is the music that everybody's dancing to these days.
The rise of content marketing was a natural evolution from the explosive use of search by consumers. By some estimates, 90 percent of purchase decisions start with online search -- and are influenced most by consumers' sharing information with their personal social networks. Conferences now regularly feature content-marketing strategies and offer marketers every piece of advice about where and how to fit content into their bag of tricks.
But has content marketing now become too popular? Is it now the over-produced pop song of which marketers have started to butcher the lyrics? Certainly if nine out 10 marketers are doing it, we can assume that our competition now knows this tune. They and our partners and everybody down the line are producing content as well.
And, the value of content at the other end of a search query hasn't been lost on those publishers trying to make a business of it either. Content factories such as Demand Media and Associated Content (now Yahoo) produce tens of thousands of articles and video per day. And some marketers are trying to do the same by hiring SEO companies or Amazon's Mechanical Turk to produce hundreds of pages of "Google food" for pennies per word.
But now, the pendulum seems to be starting to swing the other way -- just as Demand Media goes public and Google changes its search algorithm to deal with content spam and the "quality of web content." As search results are becoming less relevant, prominence in the social graph is becoming more so. It's the classic trend: In a market with increasing competition, prices drop, feature wars start, and differentiating values decline quickly.
In short, as William Goldman might say, the easiest thing for marketers to do is not create. When content marketing is treated like any other media tactic -- with its requisite ROI and measurement requirements -- the price gets driven down and it becomes a more and more of a commodity as it competes for budget with SEO, PPC, and banner advertising.
And, it shouldn't be. Effective content marketing is not just a B2B thing, or a tech thing, or even a search or social media thing. It's not even a "marketing thing." It's a business thing -- and it works across size, brand, industry, and even capability.
So, in order to illustrate that, let's look at three very different organizations that continue to expand their success with content marketing. The common thread among them is not that they all use content to increase sales (although that's often the result). The common thread is that they infuse their entire strategy with content. They use content to engage their audience (both customers and prospects), which creates the opportunity for a discussion -- and the invitation to market to and serve their audience. That's the real differentiator here. To these organizations, content marketing is, in and of itself, not a tactic. It's a new way of thinking about their entire strategy; it's something that gets molded into the DNA of the way they serve customers.
Content is at the core
After speaking with Tom Hoehn, the director of interactive marketing and convergence media at Kodak, I've never wanted to work at a company more. This is a marketing organization that absolutely understands the intrinsic value of content in the business -- and specifically how today's online content is really a conversation.
As Hoehn puts it, "Content is at the core of everything that we do with interactive marketing. We use it in our blogs that have embedded videos, from YouTube, that are linked from tweets, Facebook wall posts, and featured in outbound email messages."
But the key to Kodak's success isn't the quantity of content -- it's that the company has a much larger focus than just using content to drive sales or interest in product. It looks at content as a way to show how people use its product to "tell the stories of their lives." This is critical. The content isn't about Kodak. It's the story of the company's consumers -- brought to you by Kodak.
Just a few examples:
The "A Thousand Words" blog focuses on the stories from the people of Kodak and how they love what they do.
Kodak's Tips & Projects Exchange site is where you can learn about how to use a digital camera or how to do "new wave scrapbooking."
Kodak's "lessons learned" social media guide (PDF) is an incredible publication the company puts out about what Kodak has learned during this entire process. Kodak shares its company social media policies and its "best practices" for how to develop your own social media strategy.
Hoehn summed it up this way: "Our content is integrated and leveraged to maximum effect. But that being said, it's not just copied. It is tailored for the channel for which it is most appropriate. It is not just about your company's website anymore. You need to be in more places, the places where your customers, fans, and advocates are!"
Content is as important as code
HubSpot has become one of the favorite case studies for technology companies utilizing content to drive engagement and sales. But content is also a key part of the company's DNA. As the company even says on its website, its vision is to "provide a (killer) marketing application and provide great advice to small businesses enabling them to... get found."
Notice how the company's vision is both to sell product and produce content. It has not only integrated its own advice into its marketing strategy, but it has also infused it directly into its vision. Quality content and free tools are a big piece of what HubSpot focuses on. The company has written books and provides a blog, podcasts, and email newsletters to offer advice to small businesses on how to use "inbound marketing" (or content) to get found, convert leads, and analyze results.
Maybe most interesting has been the company's focus on providing free tools for small businesses to leverage the HubSpot brand. They offer free online "grader" tools for businesses to use to get more value out of content. Starting with its Website Grader, Blog Grader, and Twitter Grader -- and then moving into a Facebook Grader, Foursquare Grader, and even a Press Release Grader -- the company continues to illustrate that its focus is making you a better marketer.
The company even offers badges that you can use to feature your grade on your blog or website, thus spreading the message even further. As Dharmesh Shah, CTO of HubSpot, responded when I asked about the company's focus, "Even as a software company, we began writing content as soon as we started writing code. HubSpot is a passionate advocate of the importance of remarkable content for one simple reason -- it works. It has been instrumental to both our own success, and the success of thousands of our customers."
Content is now the focus
For more than 50 years, The East Harlem Tutorial Program (EHTP) has been giving kids the opportunities they would have if they were born 20 blocks south of Harlem. The program teaches reading and math, provides one-to-one tutoring, prepares kids for college, helps them get accepted, and builds the social skills they'll need to succeed. It also gets kids through college and ready for the real world. The small nonprofit is a living testament to the fact that you don't have to be big in order to get real value out of content. (Quick disclosure: I worked on this project with EHTP with its web agency, imagistic -- but it was a pro bono effort.)
The main lesson in content for EHTP really came in January 2010, when the organization was named one of the top 100 in the Chase Community Giving program. This contest was a two-round program in which, out of more than 500,000 charities, EHTP earned a top 100 spot. The first round award earned $25,000 for EHTP and qualifying it for Round 2, in which the nonprofit stood to win up to $1 million.
With only two weeks to get votes -- and no national brand recognition, no marketing budget, and an extraordinarily small staff -- the nonprofit had no misconception that it could win what was ostensibly a popularity contest on Facebook. It knew that it would be near impossible for it to win the $1 million. However, the organization decided to use the idea of the contest to generate a content strategy that would build support and a growing community of people to engage. So, instead of focusing on the result of the contest, it focused purely on engaging people around the idea of the contest -- and thus, what EHTP cared about more deeply: its mission.
This turned out to be wonderful strategy for EHTP, as it produced video content, blog content, and social media content (Twitter and Facebook) to share. As expected, the organization didn't win the $1 million prize -- but its efforts paid off in a big way. The nonprofit exponentially increased its online community engagement, leading to thousands of new fans and followers who the organization can now engage for volunteers and donations. The blogging content strategy was such a success that the organization replaced its static website with this new conversation-based platform. And, maybe most importantly, through its grassroots effort, EHTP was recognized by the Chase Advisory Board. And out of the top 100, EHTP was picked as one of 17 organizations to receive additional recognition -- as well as an additional $37,000 for the organization. Content is now the single focus of the organization's online strategy.
As the social graph and sharing of content start to become more important than just SEO, quality over quantity will, no doubt, become a more critical part of the content marketing handbook. It won't be enough to just produce blog post after blog post or article after article; success will be about providing thought-provoking, entertaining, informative, and valuable content that merits sharing.
And, maybe even more importantly, is the recognition that content marketing isn't just a marketing tactic. It's not just another column for the marketer to budget in the same way that a media spend is budgeted. Rather, it's a strategy that lies over the top of our entire business. It involves our marketing and our brand to be sure -- but also our sales, our CRM, and even our product and service development strategies.
In short -- per the lesson learned from William Goldman -- with content marketing, the easiest thing to do is to not write. But as these three brands clearly illustrate, writing can actually be incredibly rewarding.
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