When I was working on an annual public relations report for a client recently, I had a realization – almost half the year’s productive activities came from traditional PR. A little more than half was content marketing. I’ve offered it as a service for a while now, but hadn’t realized how thoroughly it affected my workload, and the results for my clients.
Content marketing can include virtually anything – video, images, podcasts, social media, webinars, infographics – a company or organization produces to convey information about its products and services to the outside world. It’s been around in one form or another for years. (A Content Marketing Institute infographic traces it all the way back to cave paintings.) But it’s come into its own in a big way in just the past few years. A recent report by the Aberdeen Group says that 95 percent of the marketers it surveyed either use, or plan to use, content marketing. That’s up from 78 percent – still a pretty high number – in 2013.
From my experience, it started in earnest just before the Great Recession.
As ad revenues dropped, news staffs were cut. There was just as much news as before, but many beats, and the surviving publications, were often understaffed. There was little to no room in traditional media for non-essential information, but consumers still wanted “news-you-can-use” to make their lives – and businesses – better. At the same time, social media offered a fire hose of free information which people could get on their smartphones and other mobile devices, which became more popular all the time.
Who, What, When Where, Why And How
Savvy PR and marketing people saw social media as a way to reach and engage with their audiences. This evolved into content marketing. Some media outlets that would never consider accepting outside content, aside from letters to the editor, had space to fill and asked business people to contribute columns – as long as they were informational, and not too promotional. TV newsrooms regularly searched and aired YouTube video – as long as the source of the content was clear and could be verified.
Professional services firms that wanted to reach other businesses (the business to business, or B2B market) already had a pretty good head start. Accounting and business law firms don’t necessarily need to reach the general public, and Bar Association rules limit law firm marketing and advertising. Many firms would host conferences and write white papers (sort of a cross between an article and a term paper) to engage and inform their clients – and hopefully attract leads for prospective clients.
Content marketing presented new options. For example, a firm may now use its blog, a webinar or an in-person event to tell clients about new regulations or court decisions critical to one industry sector, but that would never interest the traditional media. The firm may promote it through social media and email, then let people download a PowerPoint or Keynote presentation afterward.
By the same token:
- Pet food companies post adorable kitten and puppy videos.
- Restaurants and chefs put food pictures on Instagram or Pinterest.
- Healthcare groups can create apps, infographics or e-books about preventing or treating common illnesses.
- A financial services firm may reach its target market – small businesses or high-wealth individuals, for example – through a guest post on an industry association blog.
- Nonprofits can use iPhone videos or podcasts to demonstrate the good they are doing, and thank volunteers or donors.
And sometimes it may have nothing to do with marketing at all – many companies share photos or videos from team-building projects to show their appreciation and build goodwill.
The News Niche
Not all content is created equal. Just because somebody shoots a video doesn’t mean the people they care about will notice it, much less watch it. Good content has to resonate with a company’s audience without being self-serving. And it has to be easy to find.
Maribeth Ross, Chief Content Officer of Aberdeen Group, says people are so attuned to the online lifestyle that they get frustrated when they can’t locate what they’re looking for. If what they find isn’t understandable, that’s a problem too.
“It’s forced marketers to change – to become better at knowing what their buyers need and when they need it,” she said in a phone interview. She also emphasizes that good content must be engaging, use terms familiar to the target audience, and demonstrate credibility.
Justin Rubner, content and promotions manager for NCR, a large consumer transaction technology company, expresses a similar sentiment. “People … appreciate real brand stories versus aggressive sales pitches,” he said via email. “So you have to create meaningful, high quality and honest content AND have a smart strategy on distribution. Because no one comes anymore if you just build it.”
Rubner, who I knew several years as a business reporter, says content is a good fit for former journalists, who are trained as creative storytellers.
“I still interview people, tell real stories and don’t always have to focus on selling,” he says. “If you’re looking at hiring a content marketing strategist and are overlooking journalism backgrounds, you’re doing yourself a major disservice.”
Measure Twice, Content Once
One of the big differences in his old job and his new one, he says, is the focus on using data to demonstrate results. With traditional media coverage, you could find how many people read, watch or listen to a media outlet, but you may never exactly know how many people saw a specific story. Since content marketing is digital, businesses can now measure exactly how many people visit a website or landing page, watch a video, share social media posts, etc. Since businesses want to be sure they are getting their money’s worth, that sort of data can be critical.
“Metrics need to be a part of your weekly routine,” Rubner says. “Not only for directors and vice presidents who ask for it, but also to know — with concrete data — what’s working and what’s not, so you can make informed decisions every day.”
Aberdeen Group itself is going deep into this area. Founded as a research firm, it began licensing its research as content for marketers several years ago. A recent ownership change and a merger pushed it deeper into predictive analytics – using information gathered from content campaigns and other sources to help businesses predict how buyers will behave, as well as how and when to approach them.
Ross said the firm’s background in gathering information from market leaders about trends, pressures, competitive capabilities and new technology put it in a unique position.
“When the decision was made to make that pivot, it was around the uniqueness of the research that we do,” she said. “There seems to be a real tidal wave of these best-in-class companies going after information to better personalize marketing – not just putting “Dear Sally” at the beginning of an email, but rather (to have) an ability to be everywhere your buyer goes for information, and message appropriately accordingly to what that buyer’s situation is.”
Aberdeen’s report “The Future of Content Marketing: The Age of Content Science,” released last month, showed that the top 20 percent of marketers (judged by effectiveness) saw a clear correlation between content marketing and a measurable rise in revenue.
Making a Match
Leticia Martin, Director of Marketing at Flagler College in Saint Augustine, Florida (where my son is a freshman) has been in marketing for decades, including many years creating content for Prudential Financial. She agrees that monitoring is an important part of measuring the effectiveness of content creation.
“We monitor everything we do,” she said in a phone interview. “With advertising, you’re not really sure if people saw the ad. With digital, you do have excellent measurement ability,” she explains.
The school uses Google Analytics, social media tools and other options to track what is and isn’t working. If something doesn’t resonate with people – if the numbers are low – they drop it and go for something that generates a better response.
For example, they get great reactions to videos and magazine pieces about interesting people, whether it’s graduates who became entrepreneurs, or a surfer double-majoring in psychology and business.
As I wrote in 2013, my son found Flagler through its YouTube channel. As our recycle bin piled up with pounds of thick glossy catalogs and brochures from other schools, it remained his top choice. He worked hard, applied early, and got in.
That, to me, is the best kind of content marketing – saving time and money for everybody involved and helping match an organization with someone who just may be the prospect.
Terri Thornton launched her own successful business, Thornton Communications, after a 20-year news career. She provides PR, communications, content marketing and social media to businesses in sectors including law, real estate, accounting and clean energy. She is also a freelance editor for Strategic Finance and Management Accounting Quarterly, and is a long-time contributor to PBS MediaShift.