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What Is Content Marketing? A Definition and Guide

content marketing

Consumers today are inundated with ads. In 2007, marketing researchers estimated that Americans were exposed to about 5,000 ads per day. Our eyes and ears are so oversaturated with ads that we’ve come to generally dislike them.

Marketers seek to solve this problem by engaging with their customers directly and more organically. Content marketing is based on the premise that trust is a more powerful sales tool than the hard sell that is traditional advertising. To earn trust, a brand must provide something of value to a consumer—material that fulfills a need, a desire to learn, or simply a desire to laugh. That material is content and the ways in which brands create and deliver it is called content marketing.

What is content marketing?

Content marketing uses content as a vehicle to market your products or services in implicit ways by providing value in various forms of media. The aim of content marketing is to reach people where they are and offer them something of value, without any hard selling. Whereas ads are transactional, content marketing is a long game of building a relationship with leads and buyers at every stage of their journey. Here’s how it works:

To reach people where they are, a brand might:

  • Distribute content on social media platforms, like Instagram and Facebook.
  • Distribute videos on platforms where people watch videos, like YouTube.
  • Optimize content to be discovered via a search engine and to appear on the first page of search results.

To offer value, a brand might:

  • Create content that educates people about something they want to learn.
  • Create content that delights people.

This differs from traditional marketing, which can feel in your face and overt. Content marketing is about serving the needs of the consumer, with the goal of serving the needs of the business in the long run (e.g., increasing revenue). This can be done through blog posts or articles, videos, podcasts, or other forms of media to answer FAQs and pain points that consumers have.

Content marketing and the buyer’s journey

Like in any relationship, building trust with consumers can take time. A customer’s journey from the moment when they first learn about your brand to the moment they buy can be divided into three stages.

Awareness stage

The beginning of the buyer’s journey starts at the awareness stage, where prospective customers identify their pain points and concerns. The kinds of content that works best at this stage are explainers and how-to articles that address what consumers at this stage are going through.

Let’s say you get recurring headaches and use search engines like Google to ask, “What causes headaches?” As a customer, you’re trying to figure out a solution to a problem but haven’t landed on what exactly that solution might be or if there even is one.

Consideration stage

In the consideration stage, a consumer is considering ways to solve the issue. They’re interested in learning more and looking for remedies to solve the issue. Content in this stage should be informative and also lightly touch on ways your products or services can be the ideal solution, without it being too in the face of your customer.

In this stage, someone might be looking for blog posts or case studies that answer the question, “What are natural ways to treat headaches?” The customer in this stage knows that there is a solution for their problem, they’re just looking for the right one.

Decision stage

In the decision stage, the buyer is ready to decide on what solution will help them with their problem. The consumer may be “comparison shopping” and looking for the best options. Content marketing campaigns at this stage can convert leads to buyers and cover the unique value proposition—what makes your business stand out in a sea of competition.

Given the theoretical example, a company focused on pain relief or supplements that relieve headaches could create blog posts, videos, and testimonials about why their option is superior. The content would be persuasive and informative, and address any fears or objections a consumer may have to overcome before deciding to buy.

What qualifies as content?

The word “content” has become ubiquitous in marketing—but what does it actually mean? As it relates to content marketing, content is anything that shares information via a written, audio, or visual medium. That can include:

  • Blog posts/articles. Using the power of the written word, you can create, using a CMS like a website builder, blogs or articles that answer FAQs relating to a topic. For example, “Ways to prevent a headache.”
  • White papers, reports, and ebooks. If you have proprietary research to share or expert interviews around a topic, white papers, reports, and ebooks are long-form vehicles for showcasing that information. For example, a whitepaper or ebook might explore the results of a focus group or the science behind headache remedies. Brands usually require people to share their contact information in order to access this content, and if the data is compelling enough, other media outlets or businesses may link back to it.
  • Case studies. Case studies are a format for sharing relevant data about how other customers use your product or service, and the impact it had. For example, a case study on how customers used your products to relieve their headaches and how effective they found your products to be. You could pull quotes from these case studies to show on your website in the form of customer testimonials.
  • Interactive materials. You can create interactive landing pages or downloadable materials for consumers to fill out that are useful and relevant to the brand. For example, a headache tracker might monitor food intake, water intake, stress levels, areas of tension, etc. As with white papers, you might require a customer to give their email address in exchange for access to this content.
  • Infographics. Infographics are a visual medium for breaking down complex information. They’re meant to be enlightening and to be shareable. For example, an infographic sharing the top reasons why people get headaches can then be disseminated across different media outlets, further cementing your brand as one people trust for headache-related solutions.
  • Podcast episodes. Some brands make podcasts part of their content strategy in order to reach people who prefer to listen to content, rather than reading or watching it. Podcasts can allow for freeform conversation between leaders in the company or to feature interesting guests who are relevant to the industry.
  • Video content. Video content can take many forms: live or prerecorded, short or long. Video often aims to engage customers with more personality or with a view of your product in the wild.

Content marketing strategies

There are different ways to approach content marketing. Some businesses will focus on one strategy, others will mix several strategies. The right approach depends on who your audience is and what your goals are.

Here are three different content marketing strategies you may consider:

1. Thought leadership

Thought leadership is a type of content provided by leaders within a certain field or space and communicates big ideas or perspectives unique to the brand. The goal with this type of content is to establish expertise and knowledge and be known as a go-to figure within a particular field. This might look like bylined opinion pieces posted on a company blog and shared on LinkedIn or Medium, or it might look like a leadership-driven podcast.

2. Search engine optimization (SEO)

This content marketing strategy focuses on creating keyword-driven articles that answer an existing need for information. What are your customers potentially searching for online? An SEO content strategy aims to provide helpful information that answers those search questions in the form of a blog post, which a customer could discover naturally when they use a search engine.

3. Product marketing

Product marketing is a lot like it sounds—it’s focused on selling your product. This type of content marketing might include customer testimonials or case studies about the impact your product has had on their lives. It might also include comparisons between your product and a competitor’s. Webinars that educate customers on how your product works are forms of content marketing.

Popular content marketing channels

Creating content is the first part of content marketing—but it’s not the only part. Even if you have the best content in the world, you can’t assume customers will find it. That’s where distribution comes into play.

Some channels allow distribution within the platform—such as social media or email marketing—whereas others, like blog posts or podcasts, do not. For those, you’ll have to determine a dedicated strategy to circulate your content to your audiences.

Distribution channels for content include:

  • Social media platforms. These include Tik Tok, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Pinterest. Content can be distributed on social platforms either organically (meaning you don’t pay anything) or via paid advertising.
  • Video platforms. TikTok and Instagram are made for short-form videos, whereas YouTube is great for longer-form videos. All of these platforms also sell advertising to brands who want to pay to circulate their video content.
  • Podcasts. There are many platforms you can use to distribute a podcast, such as Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, and Buzzsprout. Getting it heard by listeners is another thing entirely. You can leverage your other platforms, like social media, to get the word out about your podcast or by advertising on other podcasts that reach the listeners you want.
  • Email newsletters. Email marketing is one of the most direct ways to reach people on the buying journey. To use email effectively, you have to build a subscriber list—which you can do by collecting email addresses at various points on your website.

Distribution isn’t a one-and-done exercise. You can also repurpose your content and share it multiple times to get the most impact for your efforts. So for example, a Tik Tok posting can be put on Instagram Reels, part of your email newsletter or quotes from your podcast can be posted to Twitter, and blog articles can be cross-promoted via email.

How to get started with content marketing

Content marketing efforts can elevate your company’s visibility and reach your target audience. To get started with content marketing:

  • Set goals. As part of your content market strategy, set measurable and specific goals that help you move the business forward, such as: Increasing revenue by a certain dollar amount or percentage, increasing brand awareness by increasing traffic to your website, building your email list with new email signups, and growing your follower base on social media platforms.
  • Figure out your content mix. What kind of content will build trust with your audience? If you’re selling consulting services to executives, thought leadership might be a big part of your mix. If you’re selling workshops or courses, you might want to focus on SEO-optimized educational articles. If you’re selling specialized footwear, product marketing content might help customers understand how your shoes beat the competition.
  • Create content for your audience. Consumers expect content from brands to be high quality. Invest in good writing, beautiful imagery, and great production if you’re doing multimedia content.
  • Distribute that content to your audience. Where does your target audience spend time online? If you’re trying to reach Gen Z, you might find them on TikTok. If you’re trying to reach millennials, you might find them on Instagram. Design a distribution strategy for your specific audience.
  • Review and adjust. Track your progress against the goals you set. If something isn’t working, try to figure out why, and then adjust your content marketing strategies going forward. You can use tools such as Google Analytics, Buffer, Mailchimp, and more to track important analytics and metrics.

Final thoughts

Through content marketing campaigns, you can reach your target audience at each step of the sales journey, so you’re nurturing prospective customers through the buyer’s journey and constantly generating new interest in your brand. Having a solid content strategy can ensure that you’re creating content that’s actually valuable for your audience and that you’re getting it in front of them effectively.

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