What’s So Special about Content Marketing?

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These days, it seems like you can’t even open an article online without hearing the importance of content marketing being mentioned.  Hell, I’ll even admit that I’m guilty tossing this particular piece of marketing terminology around all too frequently, as I’ve mentioned it recently on my own site, for articles on my company blog, and in the posts I write for various industry websites.

But what is content marketing really, and why can’t anyone online seem to shut up about how important this new strategy is for digital marketers?

In fact, there are a number of different definitions out there that attempt to explain what content marketing is. According to Wikipedia, we hear that:

Content marketing is an umbrella term encompassing all marketing formats that involve the creation or sharing of content for the purpose of engaging current and potential consumer bases. Content marketing subscribes to the notion that delivering high-quality, relevant, and valuable information to prospects and customers drives profitable consumer action.”

Next up, Jason Falls of Social Media Examiner offers the following definition, which provides more detail on the various concrete elements involved in content marketing (in contrast to the business jargon thrown out by Wikipedia):

Content marketing is using any type of content (newsletters, blog posts, white papers, videos, Tweets, podcasts, wall posts) to attract an audience you wish to market to. Capturing their attention through great content gives you the opportunity to present calls-to-action to them to purchase or try your product or service.”

And finally, Sam Decker of Mass Relevance provides the following description of this now-prominent digital marketing technique:

“Content Marketing is creating or curating non-product content—be it informational, educational, entertaining, etc.—and publishing it to contact points with customers to get their attention, to focus on the topic around your solution, and pull them closer to learning more about you.”

From these definitions, we can infer that content marketing involves two primary objectives:

  1. Publishing high-quality, non-product content, and
  2. Using this content to build relationships with your customer base.

Let’s look at each of these two elements in more detail…

Without this “high-quality, non-product content,” content marketing couldn’t exist (obviously). Because content marketing is based on the idea that people will be more likely to share good content pieces and form a good opinion of the companies that release these marketing materials, it’s easy to see why mediocre content simply won’t cut it.

If you distribute sub-par or average level content, who’s going to take the time to pass these materials on to their friends and family members? Certainly, you’ve read plenty of “bare bones” articles that provide only surface-level knowledge on the subject at hand.  How often did you go out of your way to share these content pieces with others?

At the same time, content marketing materials must be published free of charge (as in, not released as part of a paid product) in order for the viral nature of content marketing to function effectively. While you can use your content marketing pieces to introduce readers to a sales funnel, releasing them in paid product form creates a significant barrier to person-to-person online sharing.

Considering these qualifications, it’s easy to see why practitioners of content marketing tend to stick to a few standard formats when releasing new marketing materials. The most common types of content marketing pieces you’ll see include:

  • Downloadable ebooks, guides, or “manifestos”
  • Case studies and white papers
  • Infographics and instructographics
  • Youtube videos
  • Extensive (2,000+ word), high-value blog posts

As mentioned above, the distribution of these content pieces helps you to build relationships with your customer base. When you go to the trouble of releasing high-value information products for free, you both expand the reach of your brand’s name (as a result of the viral sharing that often occurs with free, high-value pieces) and improve your customers’ perception of you as a leader within your industry.

As such, content marketing is a type of “inbound marketing,” a phrase that’s often used to distinguish new authority-based marketing tactics from their old-school, “outbound marketing” counterparts.

Outbound marketing techniques involve (as their name suggests) reaching out to new customers in order to interest them in your brand. In the past, companies utilizing outbound marketing strategies might have called targeted leads, sent direct mail pieces to carefully curated mailing lists, or purchased TV advertising spots during the hours that were most likely to reach their target demographics.

And while these methods were and still are, to some extent, successful in forming new customer relationships, inbound marketing techniques like content marketing can bring about the same results for substantially less time and effort.

To see just how successful content marketing can be, take a look at any of the case studies out there. In particular, take a look at Mint, a personal finance tool that utilized the distribution of infographics and other content marketing pieces to grow large enough to garner a $170 million buyout offer from Intuit. Or check out the example of Coca Cola, which aims to double its business by the year 2020 through the use of content marketing promotions.

But although these examples are exciting, there’s something about all the recent fervor over content marketing that always leaves me cold. After all, if content marketing is all about building exceptional value in order to connect with customers, what makes it so different than, say, the way you should be running a website anyways?

In fact, content marketing isn’t new. The principles that make this technique so successful are the same things that have made websites, and, indeed, businesses in general—successful from the earliest days of the Web. It’s not exactly a new market innovation to say that delivering good content will help you to form stronger connections with potential customers. That’s pretty much what every white-hat Web expert has been saying since the dawn of the Internet.

But what is new is that content marketing is increasingly becoming one of the only strategies to produce consistently good results in the face of widespread search engine algorithm changes.

In the past, it was widely acknowledged that content marketing works, but at the same time, similar results could be achieved and sustained using link schemes and other grey hat techniques. And so, for many webmasters, the question became, “Why invest time and money into producing high-value content pieces when I can get the same amount of traffic from a few forum links or link wheels?”

Sure. Not everyone took these shortcuts. But enough webmasters chose to cut these corners that the search engines have found it necessary to reign in rampant SERPs manipulation with algorithm updates like the recent Panda and Penguin changes.

As I doubt we’ve seen the last of these low-quality crackdowns, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that content marketing isn’t just the latest technique to gain favor amongst SEOs. It’s one of the few strategies left that offers both good business results and protection from future search engine changes.

If you’re ready to start taking advantage of the power of content marketing, there are plenty of tutorials out there that will give you step-by-step processes to follow in order to launch these campaigns. However, keep in mind that content marketing isn’t some dense, inaccessible piece of marketing mumbo jumbo. Focus on providing your customers with the types of high-value, free content pieces that meet their stated needs, and then test and tweak your results as you go. The benefits you see will be more than worth your efforts!

Image Credit: Shutterstock / Nenov Brothers Photography

Sujan Patel
Sujan Patel has over 12 years of digital marketing experience and has helped hundreds of clients increase web traffic, boost user acquisition, and grow their... Read Full Bio
Sujan Patel
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  • Nick Stamoulis

    ““Why invest time and money into producing high-value content pieces when I can get the same amount of traffic from a few forum links or link wheels?””

    I think site owners that had this thought were focusing more on links than traffic. That’s the kind of attitude that gets a lot of link profiles in trouble. You should always think how getting a link is going to drive real, targeted visitors to your site, not just make your link portfolio that much bigger.

  • Alison Wren

    I agree with much of what you’ve said Sujan, but, particularly for small businesses, I’d suggest that high value content doesn’t have to be extensive or complicated. I can see a few of my clients going pale at the thought of producing 2,000 word blog posts on a regular basis! But very simple content such as document templates can be highly valuable and attract those all important links.

  • Umair Maqsood

    That pretty much sums up the content Marketing area. I’d like to add up to this a bit, Content Marketing is unarguably the future. I see companies in my part of the world still relying on the traditional Marketing and not emphasizing enough on Content Marketing. Some black hat techniques appear every now and then to halt it a bit but it doesn’t seem to stop.

    My question for Sujan is: What’s the most important tool in Content Marketing if you have a Quality Content.?” How do you get the attention of people. I know all the fairy tales about proper SMM, SMO and all. I would want to know something new.

    Great read btw.

  • Kostas Kostalampros

    More interestingly, I could refer to content marketing as a medium relied on the Web roots and Web’s reason of existence. “Information” is the right word according to me. People particularly look for valuable content that educates them and indirectly promotes commodities or just make them aware of a brand. I would like to use the term “people” and not users, as this term sounds really dehumanising to me. That’s the way that brands should treat content and make use of it.

  • Jeff McElyea

    Nice post!

    As many of us know, there are many, many ways to drive traffic to a website. In today’s world, however, it’s not just about traffic anymore – it’s about interaction, engagement, and credibility. Content marketing does these things. Marketers must find ways to not only make people come to their site, but to also find methods that make them want to come back (the online version of a repeat customer) and for them to share information (i.e. – talk about the brand) with the people they know (the online version of word-of-mouth marketing).

    Links in forums and other SEO/SEM techniques are useful and relevant – they are just not enough to make your online marketing have a sustainable impact in 2012! A content strategy – even if minimal – is needed.

  • Deborah Anderson

    Very comprehensive discussion of what content marketing is and is not. Great article. Building relationships and engagement is so important, especially in areas of community building. Thanks.

  • Anindita Debnath

    Great post!

    Post the Penguin update, diversifying link sources has become a critical part in SEO. As Nick said, a lot of site owners concentrate on acquiring links from spammy sources without fully understanding the impact that such links can have on the campaign over time. Additionally, the focus should change to the traffic coming in from these links over time, to fully understand and comprehend the value that these links provide. Content Marketing is a great means by which we can not only acquire links from really good sources, but also acquire traffic and potential leads, which is the objective of any marketing campaign!

    That’s just my two cents! 🙂


  • Amar Trivedi

    Excellent post, Sujan, Well-written and masterfully explained. Thanks! Top quality content creates genuine engagement and attracted intelligent comments here. Your article above is itself a fine example of good CM.
    I agree with you entirely in that “CM is not new.” The marketing principles and business objectives are still the same. Just the tools have changed. The game is the same. Just some rules and the way we play has changed.
    Much inspired, in the hope it adds value, I’d like to share my piece on Content Marketing: http://goo.gl/lEuvk

  • Ryan

    Nick said it all. Anytime that you are working on a link, you should look into everything that it is going to provide you in the long run. Using great content is a way to not only ensure that you are going to get a link, but that it will be a valuable link that will drive in potential clients and customers that are looking for your service now or in the future.

  • Mike

    Inforgraphics are so crazy big these days. People love their random little factoids of information. The thing about content marketing is, though, that many people don’t seem to understand that its all about high quality stuff. They always seem to forget that part.