We all talk so much about content marketing these days, it’s all too easy to lose focus and forget what we’re trying to do. Sometimes breaking things down to their very basic components is the best way to reaffirm our direction and refocus our efforts. So today we ask the question, ‘what is content marketing?’.

The Content Marketing Institute (and let’s face it, they should know what they’re talking about) defined it thus:

Content marketing is a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly defined audience — and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.

Let’s start by breaking that down.

  • …a strategic marketing approach…

Content marketing should be strategic. Content creation is hard, heavy work, particularly when we’re focussed not on quantity but on quality. Simply throwing that hard work at the nearest social media channel or blog and hoping it sticks is wasteful, irresponsible and stupid. We need to target our efforts to reach the people most interested in our brand and products, if we are to achieve the results we desire.

  • …creating and distributing…

The twin Holy Grails of content marketing: creation of amazing content, and thoughtful distribution of said content. Here, we bring in our creativity and out of the box thinking, but need to align this with our strategic drivers and our quantitative analysis of our target audience.

  • …valuable, relevant and consistent content…

When we’re creating our content, we need to ensure it ticks every one of these three boxes if we want to be sure it is powerful and productive. Valuable content will be unique, different and will offer more to our customers than what is already out there. Relevant content will answer our customers questions, will fulfil a need, or will solve a problem for them. Consistency is key; a weekly newsletter should be sent out on the same day each week, otherwise our customers become nervous and unsettled.

  • …attract and retain a clearly defined audience…

Did you know, it costs five times as much to attract a new customers as it does to keep an existing one? Almost half of businesses put more effort into attracting new customers than they do into retaining the ones they’ve already got, which just doesn’t make sense. When you’re thinking about content marketing, be sure you’re including your existing customers in your strategy, as well as those you haven’t yet met.

  • ….to drive profitable customer action…

We think of profits as sales, but is that the only way you can measure a profitable action? Isn’t getting someone signed up to your email marketing list profitable? Won’t having more people recognise your brand be valuable? Can’t you see yourself capitalising on the number of followers on your social page? Driving profitable customer action doesn’t always have to mean direct sales; sometimes it’s a long and gentle road that you bring your customers down before they are ready to buy from you.

Content marketing is everywhere, and is taking place all the time. Think back to the days of product placement, where you would see MacBooks and Coke cans littering every star-studded movie you watched. Nothing has changed, except now there are more opportunities (and more affordable opportunities) for smaller, niche businesses to get in on the action too.

Is this a new idea?

Content marketing is just about as old as humanity itself, because it has its roots deeply embedded in the talent of skilled storytelling. For as long as man has walked the earth, people have been telling stories; and the better the story, the more beneficial the reward.

Perhaps, many years ago, a hunter-gatherer received a fine chicken in return for telling his story to the village, or was given refuge in another tribe’s shelter in return for relaying his tales of adventure. Maybe, or maybe not. What we do know is that content marketing, in one form or another, goes back a long, long way, even if it wasn’t always documented as such.

One of the earliest recorded incidences of content marketing was when Ben Franklin published his annual book, ‘Poor Richard’s Almanack’, back in 1732. The pamphlet, running to around 10,000 copies, contained poems, sayings, the calendar, weather and the occasional puzzle or exercise. However, the primary purpose of this book was to advertise Franklin’s printing business.

Subsequently, we’ve seen content marketing conducted by all manner of brands and businesses, from the ever popular ‘the Furrow’ magazine, produced by John Deere, to The Edison Electric Lighting Company Bulletin and the iconic Michelin Guide. All of these resources, and many more, came about because brands were looking for new ways to promote their products.

What does modern content marketing look like?

Today’s world of digitally driven consumerism lends itself even more aptly to the nuances of content marketing. Here, on the inter-web, you have a readymade platform from which to tell your story; a soapbox for the savvy, a megaphone for the mouthy and an ever-present audience of eyes and ears who want and need a good story.

When you think of modern content marketing, you almost invariably think of words. Blogs, web pages, email newsletters, tweets… they all spring readily to mind, but aren’t the be-all and end-all of content marketing outlets. Zazzle thinks they’ve found something in the region of 101 content types, all ready for marketing, including but not limited to:

  • Infographics
  • Videos
  • Product reviews
  • Memes
  • Lists
  • Livestreams
  • Q&A’s
  • Webinars
  • Guest posts
  • Photo galleries
  • Live chats
  • Apps
  • Offline events
  • Ebooks
  • Competitions
  • Online games
  • Research papers
  • Offline advertising
  • Maps
  • Music videos
  • Quotes
  • Vines
  • Flyers
  • Wikis

And the list goes on. When you start to think about it, it’s almost terrifying to consider the broad scope of content types all ready to be marketed at the consumer. Next time you’re enjoying a quick blast on Farm Heroes, or are clicking through inspirational birthday cake photos, just stop and ask yourself if you’re being marketed to.

Should you be content marketing?

Yes. As business owners or marketing professionals, we need to jump on board this way of thinking and communicating, if we’re not going to be beaten into submission by the competition. Our job is to create amazing content, and then to market it in an effective, efficient way. Here are some top ideas for getting started with content marketing:

  1. Define why you need it: Figure out what your goals for content marketing will be; the more specific, the better.
  2. Determine your target audience: Know who they are, where they are and what they want from you.
  3. Meet their needs: Use your data and research to find and fulfil needs that your customers have, questions they need answered or information they can use.
  4. Craft your content: Create something different, that hasn’t been done before. Something that ticks your customers boxes, that they can’t get from anywhere else.
  5. Distribute your content: Use your research to make your content available in the format and locations that your target audience are most likely to benefit from.
  6. Review and revise: Track the outcome, make adjustments and go for it again. Did good? Repurpose that powerful content and send it out again. Not so good? Dust yourself off and start over.

It’s been proven over and over again that content marketing is good for business, and that you don’t need to be a talented wordsmith,  artist or creative to benefit from it. Play to your strengths, work with what you have and remember that content marketing is anything that communicates a message to your audience. Anything. You can also check out our newbie tips here.