As recently as five or six years ago, it was still common practice for companies -- especially those in the professional services sector -- to keep their expertise locked behind closed doors. And who could blame them? After all, knowledge is their bread and butter; it's not something they just put out into the world for prospects and -- gasp -- competition to read freely. Lately, however, companies have begun significantly ramping up their content marketing and thought leadership efforts.
While there are still companies that haven't adopted content marketing tactics, those that have are able to rise to the top of consumer and prospect awareness by using once-proprietary knowledge to establish themselves as thought leaders in their field. They don't give away the house, but they share enough valuable insights to pique audiences' interest and prove they're worth their salt. This really isn't much different than what car companies have been doing for decades: throwing customers the keys, letting them drive around the block to get a taste of what life would be like, and then swooping in for the sale.
Whether B2B or consumer, companies with expensive offerings or complex sales cycles are at a disadvantage if they're not giving prospects a test drive before asking them to commit. Content not only gives them a glimpse into how you would approach their problem, but it can also speed up the sales cycle and keep you top of mind, among other things.
It is commonly accepted that one of the major goals of content marketing can be to establish your company or brand as a "thought leader" in your chosen area of expertise. This helps establish the affinity, authenticity, and trust marketers desire for their brands' relationship with customers, but your audience won't react with your content if it isn't compelling. Content needs to be fluid and sharable across every conceivable platform and channel. And the conversation with customers should be interactive, acknowledging that they may become your best advocates, and a source of thought leadership in their own rite.
Here's a look at how five very different companies -- in both the B2B and B2C arenas -- are using content to appeal to customers and prospects.
Vanguard (financial services)
The financial services company created this blog so it could talk about what is happening in the industry, the economy, and to provide a platform to interact directly with investors. This is a well-designed and engaging showcase of its internal thought leaders. The articles are clearly labeled and segmented by customers' key areas of interest, i.e., "college," "taxes," "retirement," and so forth, which makes the content easily digestible for users.
Vanguard additionally solicits comments from clients and leverages those as user-generated content to add more content to the site and hear what is on the minds of customers. The content is smartly distributed via Twitter and other social networks to amplify the reach.
Whole Foods calls itself "America's healthiest grocery store" and has created an entire content platform to back up that claim. Whole Foods has established itself as more than a place to get food; it is officially an important part of customers' lifestyles and a part of their image. It has done this, in part, by introducing an entire educational platform where it offers custom content on topics such as sustainability, animal welfare, and GMOs in food. This positioning is in sync with its packaging (shopping bags, for example), in-store signage, and other communications. It also has a popular blog where the CEO contributes posts.
What is especially notable is its aggressive use of all social media platforms as an engagement and distribution tool for its content and its deep understanding of the visual web that permeates its digital assets via beautiful photography, graphics, and design.
The automaker is already a leader in social media, and it aggregates its efforts across its many brands with a fun and interactive site. Recently, Ford has launched a comprehensive effort to get customers to think about it as more than just a carmaker. It produces thought leadership content around sustainability, safety, and innovation. Customers are also encouraged to interact by posting their own stories and ideas. To date, more than 1,000 people have submitted stories and it shows no signs of slowing down.
The example above is an excellent use of the power and emotional connection that can be delivered with storytelling by tapping into the way our brains are wired to learn and delivering a favorable impression of the brand through various mediums.
The tech giant has created an effort around "The Internet of Everything" to "bring together people, process, data, and things to make networked connections more relevant and valuable than ever before." Cisco's "The Internet of Everything" is an impressive initiative to claim a thought leadership position for Cisco in the area of innovation and how the concept of interconnectivity drives economic growth and freedom. The campaign includes a CEO and leaders blog, videos, white papers, slide shares, interactive research, and a strong Twitter campaign with dedicated hashtags. "The Internet of Everything" is a great example of using the individual strength of each media channel to tell a cohesive and compelling story.
SAP: The Business of Innovation (tech)
SAP is a business software powerhouse that wants to show how your business can leverage the latest innovative technologies to solve problems. The site is a prime outlet for SAP to associate itself with innovation and products that provide real business solutions. As with many of the examples noted above, the content provided by SAP is about leading and helping, not selling. SAP is thinking of its brand as a media outlet producing content that is relevant to its target audience in a way that is not yelling, "Buy this!" Rather, it establishes the company as a bright mind that can help your business solve problems. It also provides a great showcase for its internal leaders to position themselves as experts in their field.
Many of these leaders are active on Twitter, where they engage customers and prospects in conversation about innovation and business solutions. Many thought leaders, such as Michael Brenner, use these platforms to brand themselves as thought leaders in the industry, which only furthers the goals of the company at large.
So what can we learn from all the companies doing content marketing and engagement right?
Lesson 1: Establish an engaging content hub and venue for your thought leaders to publish regular content while maintaining a tone and voice consistent with your brand's personality and your customer's personas.
Lesson 2: Design matters for today's visual web interface. User experience is a critical component as is presenting content in many forms. The days of long blocks of text are over. Use pictures, video, infographics, and multiple entry points to make your content more shareable and interactive.
Lesson 3: Broadcast your content. It does you no good if no one reads it. Make aggressive use of relevant social networks to engage customers and leverage PR for earned media opportunities and paid media to drive prospects to your content hub.
Lesson 4: Leverage user-generated content. Consumers want to be part of the conversation and have their voices heard. Give them a forum to make comments or post their own stories. Engage on social media by following those who follow you on Twitter, respond to comments on Facebook, and share pins on Pinterest. Remember: Brands are shared online, so you must ensure you are part of the conversation.
Lesson 5: Build trust. According to the recently released "Trust in Advertising" study from Nielsen, branded content websites are the second most trusted source of information after recommendations from friends and family -- a 9 percent increase in a year and up from fourth place in 2007. Today's consumers trust quality original content from brands more than almost any source.
There are many different paths to being a thought leader for your industry and your customers. The time is right to make sure you have the right strategy for your brand before your competitors take the mantle as the go-to industry resource.
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