h1 People don't read ads. People read what interests them – sometimes it's an ad.
Howard Gossage, advertising innovator
Unlike other Internet fads that have been hyped to death only to go gently into that good night, content marketing has been around for more than 100 years. It's the mass adoption of the Internet that has brought this effective, though formally obscure, persuasive art to the forefront of online sales and marketing. Access to vast amounts of information via search engines and online social interaction has placed the leverage squarely in the realm of the prospective buyer and has redefined what the sales process looks like for most companies.
People want valuable information when making buying decisions, not advertising and hollow pitches. It's hard to imagine that sentiment reversing.
Which leads to the money question: How does a brand satisfy the demand for free information and advice and still convert prospects into customers or clients? What kind of content works as effective marketing, as opposed to simply filling space on an unseen Web page?
In my view, there are "5 Cs" of effective content marketing. Ultimately, you need to create three main types of content over time to perform effective content marketing - cornerstone, connection and conversion. These three content categories encapsulate smart content marketing. Traditional copywriting follows, because you've earned the right to make an offer to your audience. Instead of leading with an offer, as in advertising, you instead lead with advice that organically opens the door to the offer.
First, however, you need to provide the initial, crucial "C" - context. Without it, none of the content types will be effective in meeting your business objectives.
1. Context The critical first step of any successful content marketing strategy is the context within which content is developed and delivered to the intended audience. Mess this up, and you're going to waste a lot of time and effort for not much, if any, return. When someone has a problem or desire, what he or she is really contemplating is a journey of transformation, whether large or small in scope. The job of the content marketer is to mentor - or coach - the prospect through this journey, and at some point, your product or service becomes a necessary and desirable way to complete the journey.
2. Cornerstone Cornerstone content is the foundational topic(s) of your website, as well as your overall content marketing strategy. A cornerstone is something that is basic, essential, indispensable and the chief foundation upon which something is constructed or developed. These topics are what people need to know to make use of your website and do business with you. Once developed, these beginner or 101-level tutorials can be cross-referenced from your other content, which provides exceptional usability for your site visitors and new subscribers. You also want to rank well in search engines for these topics. When approached in a strategic fashion, this content can do very well with Google and other search engines.
The key is to create compelling content that's worth linking to and sharing and then find a way to get the word out. It also means aggregating lots of high-value content on one page that is both compelling to people and easily understood by Google. For McDonald's Canada, cornerstone content naturally centers on the food it serves. In keeping with the theme of "What do people need to know to do business with you?" the fast food chain's Our Food, Your Questions program has taken 10,000 questions from consumers about McDonald's fare and answered them all on the website. This kind of foundational content is golden for site visitors and search engines.
3. Connection Connection content is all about sharing aspects of your cornerstone topics in a highly engaging way. Instructional design experts will tell you that the key to higher comprehension and retention is engagement by the learner, and with content marketing, we're educating people so that they're able to do business with us. What makes for engaging content? Think of connection content as a combination of meaning and fascination.
Meaning. This is the informational aspect of your content that your regular readers, listeners or viewers look to you for. This information also matters to the prospective audience you're trying to reach through social media sharing.
Fascination. The fascinating element of your content is where your creativity shines. It's the fun, shocking or entertaining aspect of your content that makes people pay attention and share with their friends and colleagues. You can spot the mix from the following smart headlines, which specifically use musical, cinematic and philosophical references, but there are many other approaches (meaning in italics, fascination in bold):
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Many marketers have trouble with connection content because they fear indifference from a part of the audience that won't "get" or appreciate the angle. The result is content intended to appeal to everyone, which is turn appeals to no one.
4. Conversion When it comes to conversion content, we're not talking conversion in the traditional sales or lead-generation context. Rather, it's more like in the evangelical sense. What do people need to believe to do business with you? You're not trying to alter people's larger worldview here - that shouldn't be necessary if you identified context correctly from the beginning. What you're doing is framing the problems and desires of your audience so they match up with your products and services.
One scenario is your direct competition in the marketplace. Most consumers report an inability to differentiate between various offerings and immediately resort to price comparisons. Conversion content allows you to differentiate on philosophy, worldview and belief in a way that product or service features and benefits cannot. Whole Foods sets forth the Four Pillars of Healthy Eating on its blog as an example of conversion content. The article leads with "At Whole Foods Market, we believe..." which indicates that you also need to believe in the four pillars of 1) Whole Food, 2) Plant-strong, 3) Healthy Fats and 4) Nutrient Dense or you're more likely headed to Safeway.
You can satisfy desires and solve problems with your content day in and out. But if your audience doesn't believe what's necessary to do business with you, it's not really filled with prospects after all.
5. Copy In the traditional advertising and direct marketing worlds, copywriting is what powers the entire message. In other words, the old way was an attempt to "push" products and services - sort of like proposing marriage before the first date. Content marketing, on the other hand, is more of a seduction. A strategy that courts and coaches prospects in a way that's agreeable to them, which is much more like how dating actually works.
With content marketing, you're accomplishing the bulk of the sales process without overtly "selling" - getting people to know, like and trust you, as well as educating them so they can do business with you. By accomplishing that, you've effectively earned the right to "pop the question," by making an offer.
At this point, traditional copywriting techniques are alive and well. You've got to craft an irresistible offer, communicate benefits, creatively overcome lingering objections, reverse risk and use other tried-and-true copywriting techniques.
Ultimately You're Telling a Story
The beautiful thing about online content marketing is that if your content hits the mark, it will be spread freely through the ease of social media. It's the most potent form of word-of-mouth marketing devised to date, as long as you focus on the desired context of your intended audience. Make your audience members heroes. Take them on the journey of transformation with your content, and get them across the finish line with your product or service.
In the process, your brand becomes a hero as well. As long as you remember Marketing 101 - it's about them, not you.
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