In the age of social media and the internet, the consumer decision making process has shifted significantly. In today’s world most consumers begin with either an idea of exactly what they want to buy or with a question about what might best meet their needs. Consumers often start with social media or search engines to confirm their purchasing decisions or ask their questions.
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]hey are then confronted with more choices, advice, and educational resources in their quest to make an informed buying decision. In other words, digital access to information and peer advice has empowered the consumer, yet created a new layer between companies and their customers that must be understood and influenced to ensure marketing success.
In this new paradigm there are three arenas that influence consumer behavior:
Social media where people ask their friends and anyone listening for advice on their purchasing decisions;
Search engines where people ask questions and search out third party reviews and educational content in order to make informed buying decisions;
Online media and industry influencers who are seen as experts and who can shine a significant light on the product and services that they choose to cover with positive editorial content.
All three of these communication channels can dissuade the consumer from a particular product or company if the reviews, social feedback, or editorial coverage are negative in nature.
Most businesses see these three arenas as separate marketing initiatives and often fail to recognize the overlapping strategy and implementation necessary to create positive momentum toward successful brand awareness, search engine rankings, social media buzz, and positive media coverage. There is a marketing tactic at the intersection of these divergent goals—content marketing.
Content marketing is the practice of creating useful educational and informative content published through channels that you control, including your own website, social media, email marketing, website embedded video content, and earned guest editorial opportunities on industry websites. When integrated with website tracking, content distribution to ensure maximum use of created content, automation tools to stay in touch with captured leads, and a well refined sales process for converting leads to customers, content marketing can accomplish all of the goals listed above to create an integrated campaign driving search engine marketing, social media, and public relations success. Together, these put your company or product right where consumers are looking for information to make their buying decision.
Benefits of Content Marketing
An integrated content marketing strategy offers many advantages over siloed efforts.
lead development: One of the greatest challenges of online marketing is converting visitors from awareness to purchase. In our busy world we may learn about a product or service long before we actually need it while doing preliminary research. Proper tracking and lead capturing techniques allow businesses to capture leads during the research process and enter them into a long term sales pipeline.
thought leadership: Tactics such as providing free education in the form of community classes, infomercials, books, and articles have long been used as successful options for establishing thought leadership within an industry. These efforts can drive word of mouth marketing and sales over time. Online content marketing expands this strategy to your website by making that website a valuable industry resource for learning about the products and services you provide.
branding and authority building: Social media, including paid advertising to spread your content to a wider audience, along with guest and third party editorial content, can be leveraged to create much greater brand awareness and authority within your industry. This is key to moving consumers from awareness through trust into purchase and eventually referral of your products and services.
reducing the barrier to conversion: Another challenge with online marketing is the tendency to only count and track the end of the buying process when a customer makes a purchase. In today’s fast paced, entertainment driven world, the online buying process often takes several website visits and multiple customer touch points. When properly implemented with complimentary tracking tools, content marketing can be used to capture leads earlier in the process. Tracking visitors who download an educational resource, watch a video, visit a specific page, or fill out a form requesting more information can all be used to better understand which tactics within the content marketing strategy are driving qualified leads and for refining strategies over time to continuously improve results.
Challenges of Content Marketing
The greatest challenges for businesses when it comes to content marketing is creating the content and implementing the technical systems for deployment, distribution, and tracking of results. On the content creation side of the equation, most companies, especially small and mid-sized businesses, struggle with finding the time and content creation talent within their team. Even with someone identified to write the content, it can be difficult to know what to write about and how to best leverage these writing efforts in an effective way.
Creating an editorial calendar can provide the structure and focus needed to create a continuous stream of content. Themes and topics can be brainstormed internally or with a marketing support vendor, and once documented and prioritized, these themes can guide content creation efforts for the quarter or an entire year. Focusing on one theme at a time and rotating through themes can add additional focus and organization to content creation efforts. For example, the content team could create several short blogs, industry expert interviews, list articles, short videos, info-graphics, and client testimonials for the same theme, and share that content on the company’s website, email newsletter, and social media channels. Together they can then be combined into a long white paper, case study, or ebook available for download.
Internal Content Creation vs Outsourcing
The decision on whether to perform content marketing in-house or to use an outsourced vendor is a common marketing staffing and budget question. There are challenges and benefits to both fully in-house and fully outsourced arrangements. The challenge of in-house is focus and prioritization. Typically, content marketing is only part of the marketing strategy. Other more immediate tasks such as generating social media and email marketing content, or scheduling and executing in person, marketing at events, conferences, and sales meetings can end up using up all of the time of the in-house marketing team. It’s easy to procrastinate complex tasks such as writing a series of content articles and implementing them correctly. The skills required are different between writing the content, designing the graphics, producing the videos, implementing the content on the site, and deploying the distribution strategy. The benefit of in-house content creation is access to information and knowledge. Typically, the in-house marketing team has a full understanding of the products, services, and brand, and easy access to internal knowledge resources that can be leveraged for these efforts.
[quote float=”right”] It’s easy to procrastinate complex tasks such as writing a series of content articles and implementing them correctly [/quote]
Outsourcing can provide benefits, including deadlines and clear delivery dates for content creation, comprehensive understanding of the overlapping strategies involved in effective content marketing, and continuous testing across multiple clients to ensure best practices are implemented and kept up with. The main challenge of outsourcing is the level of industry knowledge needed for effective content creation. The outsourced agency must quickly become an expert in your industry, branding language, and marketing goals. It is possible to overcome these challenges if the vendor has a well-developed client on-boarding and discovery process, and if the vendor uses interviews with the internal content experts as a major part of the content research process.
One tactic that has become increasingly popular is a blended approach where an outside agency provides strategy, implementation support, and part of the content development. In these arrangements the agency partner creates the topics and divides the content development tasks between client and agency resources and expert freelance writers. The agency serves as a project manager for deadlines and the client marketing coordinator serves as liaison and scheduler for access to the content experts at the company. This can create a rewarding project experience where the company feels involved and engaged in their own marketing without over leveraging their internal resources. Best practices are maintained, and tracking and milestones can create accountability and budget control.
In the end, it is not nearly as important how a content marketing strategy is staffed and managed but that it is created and implemented. Consumers are increasingly internet savvy, information driven, and social. This combination makes content marketing a must for businesses who wish to position themselves to influence consumer behavior. A coordinated and strategic content marketing strategy can do just that.
Justin Belleme is a Western North Carolina native and the founder of JB Media Group, an online marketing agency based in Asheville.