Original, highly valuable content, personalized for your readers, crafted to attract, engage, and build a sustaining relationship: It sounds so good because, well, it is. It is the lifeblood of the web. It conveys the essence of what you do as a business and helps you acquire and retain customers because they know why they want to work with you.
We’ve actually never met a marketing leader who did not grasp the attraction and power of authentic content. Most CMOs we work with are highly aware of what’s working in the wild, and most want it now.
So we begin with a proposed plan, taking into account our client’s team, capacity, resources, budget, and, most importantly, its business goals in the marketplace.
And then comes the inevitable question: “When will I see results?”
It’s an important question. The top content marketing objectives are lead generation and sales, brand awareness, and consumer engagement/retention. There would be no point to any of it if it did not somehow benefit the business.
But the problem with focusing on results without focusing on the value you’re providing to consumers first is that a narrow outcomes-only drive tends to short-shrift the very fabric of relationship-building with your consumers. It may not be something CMOs or their CEOs want to hear, given quarterly reporting expectations, pressures, and our “need-it-now” culture, but content marketing is a long game.
Done well, content marketing has potential to foster ongoing leads and relationships like nothing else you invest in. Unlike ad campaigns, for example, it doesn’t stop when a specific campaign ends. Your valuable content remains published and continues drawing audiences over time.
That is not to say content alone outplays campaigns. We understand the importance of integrated targeted advertising, especially early on in content marketing campaigns to accelerate growth. But the content piece takes radical patience and perseverance.
Here are a half-dozen points you’ll need to consider to reap the benefits content marketing tactics afford to those who persevere.
• You need to really know your audience. And really know your “brand”: If you’re going to create content that truly touches minds and hearts and sparks action, you need to know your audience on a human-to-human level. Whether obtained by interviews, focus groups, personas, workshops, or the countless other methods, you must take time to gather, process, and articulate an understanding of your consumers that can be easily socialized across your team.
Before you begin to formulate a strategy, you also need to envision your aspirational brand, beyond your pillars, mission, vision, and slogans. Who would your brand be if it were a human being walking around, greeting people on the street? CMOs must understand their brands well enough to personify them in this manner.
• You need time to build the team: You need the right team, whether you produce the strategy and content in-house or work with a qualified partner (i.e., digital or integrated agency). This means you will likely be forced to slightly reorganize around your content goals, which can require uncomfortable changes.
Some of the biggest mistakes we see CMOs make involve assuming people who have semi-related skills—developers, graphic designers, search engine analysts, newsletter writers—can be great content creators or social media leads. This doesn’t mean certain multitalented individuals can’t be great content marketers in addition to their core skill sets, but you should not assume they have the chops.
We also encounter the common misperception that new grads who’ve grown up with social media should run social media at your business. Sure, it’s possible, but probably not in most cases. Yes, they can work the tool, but are they experienced enough to tell the stories?
When evaluating and selecting your team members, prioritize the ability to deeply understand, speak to, craft, and distribute content to your audiences. Learning social media tools isn’t the hard part. It’s learning to authentically connect with others while strategically selecting the best and most efficient tools.
• Create a clear content and editorial strategy: Successful content marketers document their plans. The most recent numbers from the Content Marketing Institute tell us that 80% of all content marketers have a plan, and 53% of the most successful content marketers have documented that plan. What’s more, 56% of those with documented plans have a targeted editorial mission statement.
Having a well-documented plan forces you to be thorough, thoughtful, and resourceful in considering the ways content marketing tactics will best serve your business goals. It will also help you communicate to others in the organization what you’re doing and why. By plans, we don’t mean long documents that are difficult to digest, let alone implement. We recommend concise, three- to 10-page plans that teams can easily refer to.
As to the substance of the plan, leading with a vision will help you make the right tactical choices. When a CMO says to us, “We need a blog,” we always ask, “What problem are you trying to solve?” The ensuing conversation typically uncovers a completely different approach.
And sometimes starting a blog isn’t the answer. Sometimes, an e-newsletter strategy is better, or a redefined content strategy for the website as a whole.
Your plan should include the distribution channels that will work best, where you will start conversations, how often you will publish, how you will respond to conversations and external feedback, what in-person events and educational opportunities with you participate in, and so forth.
And on the subject of conversations, remember that what you do can sometimes feel one-sided, but that’s OK. Just because people aren’t talking back doesn’t mean they aren’t listening. You can have an impact without any traditional social dialogue happening.
• Understand what success actually looks like: A content marketing strategy begins with your business goals, but your content marketing KPIs will need to be more nuanced. You need to get comfortable with something that takes time to grow and starts to sprout here and there, but might not lead to hard ROI immediately. This also can mean forgoing the easy metrics, such as volume-based traffic, which can suggest you are doing the right things but won’t tell you why and how.
One of the great benefits of digital marketing is it’s a behavior-driven medium, so if you’re willing to dig and segment and understand the data, you can better grasp the ways your content performs and tweak your methods over time. Learn to set short-term checkpoints and long-term goals, and celebrate the small wins instead of focusing on hard ROI only.
Effective content isn’t always about immediate action. Sometimes we have to trust that social media follows, shares, and repeated engagement will eventually lead to conversions. When you have their attention, it means you have more and more opportunity to build trust over time. It might seem anti-“results,” but your goal should be to create a content force and learn from your own content how to better serve people who may (or may not yet) be your customers.
• It takes time to create really good content: In spite of the fast-paced, hyperconnected world we live in, success still comes down to whether your team can create great content that people care about and makes them feel valued and cared for. Yet the creation of effective and engaging content remains the content marketer’s greatest challenge
Content performs better for you when it either tells an effective story or presents research of great authority and depth. Storytelling and depth take time and talent, including the time it takes to meet and learn from stakeholders and to research engaging topics. You can’t create distinctive content to your organization by having a content producer google the answers. That content already exists in the world and is not unique to you.
• Patience, perseverance, and persistence are your friends: As a CMO—just like your CEO—you didn’t grow your career overnight. And your company didn’t sprout up overnight. Things that matter take time to cultivate.
Content marketing works, and the brands that have invested in it show great, ongoing gains, more deeply woven into their marketplace than any short-term campaign can accomplish on its own. While the pressures to produce immediate results are undeniable, with content marketing—and a healthy dose of active patience—you have an opportunity to champion and cultivate a new approach to consumer relationships than can shape the next phase of your organization.