There’s never been more hype around content marketing. And data shows the hype is real. More companies are investing more resources into content strategy and creation than ever before. Most of them are reporting some sort of success too.
But what defines it as an actual marketing discipline? How do you actually plan a strategy and execute it?
These questions stem from one simple source of anxiety: the fear of not doing things the right way. This leads to a lot of marketers doing a lot of things in exactly the same way. We all begin to follow one another instead of finding our own way forward.
So, what’s the problem? Most of the advice you’ll read on the web will come from people whose professional experiences and backgrounds may be wildly different from your own (a challenge all content marketers face). This tweet from Podia’s Len Markidan resonates:
That’s where this guide comes in. We want to show you how to figure out what will work best in your own unique situation, rather than tell you only what’s worked for us. It will include examples from all kinds of different industries, with data from all kinds of different sources, to help you move forward with confidence and succeed at building your business with content marketing.
By the time you’ve completed this guide, you’ll understand all of the following:
- What is (and is not) content marketing. Find the answers you’re looking for in terms that are easy to understand. Plus, learn how to build the case for content within your organization and show its value to your stakeholders.
- How to develop and document an actionable content marketing strategy. Plan your work, then work your plan with clear guidance and a simple template.
- How to measure the results of your work. Connecting content directly to revenue is difficult (and some smart people say impossible). But we’ll show you how to measure the business impact of what you create (so you can keep your job and get more investment).
Put on some coffee, bookmark this page, and let’s get down to work.
Plus, download your free content marketing strategy template now.
What Exactly Is Content Marketing?
Content is everywhere on the Internet. When you think about it, even advertisements technically contain “content.” This makes defining what is and what is not “content marketing,” in a purist sense, more complex than it might seem (and probably more complicated than it should be).
For our purposes, let’s work with the following definition:
Content marketing is the practice of creating and delivering informative and useful content through various editorial and distribution channels to reach consumers. It focuses primarily on providing helpful information that attracts an audience in its own right, rather than disrupting the consumer experience, placing an emphasis on education over direct sales.
This may sound like a simple concept (and it is, at least at a high level).
But the strategy and execution of how content marketing works are much more complex. So is the role that content plays in the lives of modern consumers, and the technological, societal, and economic shifts that are driving its growth.
What Isn’t Content Marketing?
If everything on the Internet is arguably “content,” then what isn’t content marketing? That’s a fair question to ask. Here’s a short list of things that it isn’t:
Sometimes it is easier to think in terms of what something is not rather than what it is. Content marketing is many things, but there are definitely a few things that it is not.
- It Is Not About You. This one flies directly in the face of most advertising theories. Ads are always about the company paying for them. With content marketing, we need to take the opposite approach. The content needs to be about our audience.
- It Is Not About Your Product. It’s not about our company, but surely it’s about our product? Nope, it’s not about that either. Content marketing is 100% about helping your customer succeed (using your content). Again, not your product.
- It Is Not About Instant Sales. Content marketing is a long-term strategy for building customer trust and loyalty to a brand or an idea. It isn’t as concerned with an immediate sale. It knows that sales are earned by building customer trust. After all, you can’t trick anyone into buying anything.
- It Is Not About Creativity. Creativity is king for the advertising world, but not content marketing. Content has a bigger mission.
They Say the Classics Never Go Out of Style
Content marketing has gotten tagged as being the wave of the future. It’s perhaps more accurate to think of it as something old that’s time has come.
History shows us that content marketing can take many forms. In fact, much of what is considered content marketing today is still taking place in print through things like magazines, books, pamphlets, and flyers.
Each year, however, more and more content marketing efforts are shifting online where users create, share, and distribute content very freely. For the company implementing content marketing, this takes on a simple step-by-step formula.
- Create helpful content, whether it’s written, visual, or audio.
- Distribute that content, usually via a blog, RSS, email, social media, or other channels.
- Share the content over social networks, emails, and other channels.
- Grow your audience, and deepen their trust.
It is important to emphasize that this formula is not a one-size-fits-all approach, however, and that content marketing can truly come in many other forms. That said, the formula has been proven to work time and time again and is at the heart of what content marketing is today.
Tracing the History of Content Marketing
The practice of content marketing is older than the name itself, which may prove that the work matters more than what you choose to call it.
John Deere Launches a Revolution With The Furrow
One of the most classic examples of content marketing, and one of the longest-running content marketing plays in history, is John Deere’s publication The Furrow. First published in 1895 as “a Journal for the American Farmer,” it began as a printed newsletter sharing information about agriculture.
Today, it exists as a digital magazine on the John Deere website, and continues to provide all kinds of information that people who might buy John Deere equipment would want.
How has The Furrow managed to remain successful for more than 100 years? There are a few simple principles of content marketing that can account for its enduring appeal:
- It focuses on educating over selling. No one wants to be sold before they’re ready to buy. But everyone wants information that helps them do their work and solve problems more easily. The Furrow focuses on making its audience smarter and more capable through useful and authoritative articles that establish trust.
- It’s written by subject matter experts. Sure, it’s a piece of marketing collateral. But it’s also written by people who know what they’re talking about. If it weren’t, it wouldn’t feel as authentic.
- Education + Expertise = Trust (And Sales). The Furrow wouldn’t continue to earn investment from John Deere unless they knew it helps drive sales. Which it does by building a relationship with their consumers. By creating a publication that readers make a habit of reading, they occupy a place in their lives that a 30-second advertisement never could.
For many modern marketers, these points may feel obvious, especially if you have experience creating content already. This is just how marketing is done these days, right? While other types of marketing remain important (including advertising, outbound sales, and other disruptive forms of marketing), it’s true that content has forever changed how consumers connect with brands.
Content Marketing is All Around You
The Furrow is the one classic example of content marketing that everyone points toward whenever this topic comes up. But there are plenty more timeless examples that we can learn from, as well as tons of current examples all around us (and some that we don’t typically think of as being content marketing at all).
You’ve heard of Michelin Stars right? They’re awarded to restaurants as a measure of quality and they’re highly coveted because of how well they can burnish a dining establishment’s reputation.
They were also created by the Michelin tire company as part of their Michelin Guide, which started as a guide to places to eat for people going on roadtrips. Before smartphones, Yelp, and Google Maps were a part of people’s lives, it was essential for cross-country travel. It still exists today as a website.
It might not make sense for a tire company to create restaurant guides and rating metrics. But when we consider the fact that people traveling needed that information, and people were traveling in their own cars (which would eventually need tires), it makes perfect sense.
Offer value first. The rewards for your brand will come later.
Modernizing Content Marketing
Today, all kinds of brands and companies are creating content and attracting audiences. Whether they’re B2B, B2C, or a mix of both, it’s clearly catching on.
Take a look at Clif Bar & Company. What could an energy bar company want to blog about? All kinds of things related to topics that someone interested in energy bars might also be interested in. That includes healthy recipes, other snack ideas, nutrition tips, and more. It’s on par with most any blog someone interested in those topics might read, whether it’s from a brand or not.
Content Marketing is More Than Just Blogging
There’s a long-standing assumption that content marketing equals written content. That tends to be where people’s minds go when thinking about content. But that’s a limited view and there are plenty of examples that show how content can be much more than just blogging.
Take the hit series Formula 1: Drive to Survive on Netflix. It’s a highly compelling reality show that follows the F1 racing season each year, giving viewers an inside look into how the motorsport operates.
It’s much more than that though: it’s part of a broader digital strategy to raise the profile of the sport. The show is educational, entertaining, and without looking like it, it’s a piece of marketing.
Not every business has the budget to create an entire television series. Fortunately, they don’t need to in order to be successful. Take a look at this video from Johnny’s Seed Company:
The host’s expertise and instruction is top notch, but one could likely shoot a similar video on an iPhone. It’s easy to follow and helpful for its audience.
Now here’s another example from musical instrument retailer Sweetwater. In this example, they’ve set up a simple live stream with a famous musician (in this case, world-renowned bassist Marcus Miller), and then repurposed the recording on YouTube:
Super strategic. Super high-value. Not super-high budget and not at all focused on direct sales at all. It’s something people might choose to watch even if they weren’t actively shopping for musical gear, but when they are ready, they’ll have Sweetwater in mind.
Content Marketing is Growing (and the Numbers Back it Up)
You’ve heard the hype about content marketing. It has been touted as the future of marketing (even though it’s been around for more than a century). Companies are investing heavily in content, the industry is experiencing strong job growth, and overall, the future looks bright.
This isn’t just hot air either. The numbers are in and they show that content marketing is here to stay.
Let’s take a look at search interest in the topic from 2004 to the present using Google Trends:
If search behavior is anything to go by, then we can clearly see interest is more or less continuing to grow. There’s a valley in the graph around 2017, but by and large, there’s movement in a positive direction.
Let’s contrast this with search interest in “advertising” over the same time period:
That looks like a steady decline that is showing no signs of turning around any time soon. Now, let’s check out how “public relations” has fared in Google search:
Again, we can see a similar long-term decline in interest. Does this mean that content marketing has supplanted traditional advertising and PR in terms of growth? Kind of, but not exactly. Let’s now look at all three layered on top of one another to get the full picture:
We can pick out a few things from this image:
- Search interest in “advertising” is in decline but it’s still higher than either content marketing or PR. Advertising still matters. But for how long will it stay on top?
- Interest in content marketing and PR is getting close to being equal. This might be a more significant development. There’s quite a bit of overlap between these two
- Momentum is on content marketing’s side. It’s still a niche, but that niche is growing.
There are a number of caveats to keep in mind with data. Search intent matters with regard to what people are actually looking for when they search for terms related to these topics. But from a directional standpoint, it’s sufficient to help us understand that content marketing is growing, and carving out a place for itself within the marketing mix.
What’s the Deal With All This Growth?
For maximum effect, read that subhead in an extremely Seinfeld-ian voice.
Moving on, there are several factors that are driving interest in content marketing amongst brands. Simple Google Trends data is useful, but we need something more concrete to best understand why it’s mattering more now than ever.
First and foremost, consumers have access to more information when making purchasing decisions than at any other time in history. Product reviews, customer complaints, research reports, video breakdowns, and more are all a click away on our mobile devices.
In this climate, hollow marketing messaging stands little chance of resonating with people.
Second, people want authenticity (or, at the very least, something that looks like authenticity—those product placements in all those Instagram posts aren’t exactly organic, folks). Advertising needs to be better to cut through the noise. Marketing communications need to be purpose-driven and can’t be easily debunked with a quick Google search.
This has created an environment where content—honest, useful, thoughtfully crafted content—has a real opportunity to connect with audiences and build trust in a way that other marketing methods can’t (or at least not with the same effectiveness).
Third, the way that people interact with brands in general has changed dramatically as the Internet has evolved. We can have two-way conversations on social media in public and in real time. Email marketing is more personalized and targeted than ever. Consumers value brands that are more purpose-driven than ever too.
Even when people aren’t looking to purchase products, they expect brands to offer value and create great experiences first and foremost. This isn’t some feel-good nice-to-have stuff anymore. For many businesses in lots of different industries and verticals, it’s table stakes.
Modern Marketing: Investing in Less Push and More Pull
Companies are responding to these changes by shifting their focus toward providing the kind of content that consumers want.
The game has changed in favor of drawing an audience in (and being there when they’re ready to buy) versus interrupting something else they were doing (watching TV, listening to the radio, reading a magazine, what have you) by placing a hard sales pitch in their way.
And they appear to be enjoying the results this approach delivers. According to Marketing Insider Group, an $8,000 per month budget for content marketing can be enough to increase website traffic by 138% year over year. The same article shows that marketing spends overall had been increasing prior to COVID-19, which necessitated unforeseen budget cuts.
Perhaps more interestingly, Gartner’s Annual CMO Spend Research Survey from 2020 shows that CMOs are prioritizing investment in social media and content marketing more than in “traditional” marketing:
Source: Gartner’s Annual CMO Spend Research Survey
Some of that social spend is likely for paid social media advertising. We also see PR and programmatic advertising taking a healthy share of the pie. But content marketing (and other inbound channels) are well represented in the mix. And there’s a reason for that.
It All Comes Down to Results
When it comes to marketing, money talks and the rest walks. And the reason companies are investing in content marketing is because it works. Not just in a vague sense, but in ways that clearly make a measurable impact on business growth.
According to Hubspot, their customers with active blogs generated 68% more leads. Research from DemandMetric also shows 60% of consumers will seek out a product after reading about it.
The majority of marketers believe that their content is successful. According to research from Ascend2, 35% of respondents reported their content marketing was Very Successful, while an additional 46% felt theirs was Somewhat Successful. With only 19% feeling they were coming up short, most marketers doing content marketing feel they’re on the right track, or at least moving in the right direction.
Educating, Then Selling: How Content Marketing Actually Works
While we’ve touched on this a bit, let’s take a closer look at how content marketing actually works to build a loyal audience (and converts that audience into loyal customers). “Driving traffic” is a clear outcome of creating content but it’s not what builds business (not by itself anyway). So, how does this whole thing actually work?
Understanding How the Sales Funnel Works
You’re probably familiar with how the sales funnel functions. They aren’t perfect representations of buyer psychology or customer journeys, but it’s a useful concept for helping us understand how people go from identifying a problem or need, to discovering a brand, to getting their credit card out to make a purchase. Basic stuff, to be sure, but worth touching on here.
Here’s a look at a basic model of a sales funnel:
Here we can see three different levels:
- Top of Funnel: At this stage, consumers are not aware of your brand, and are merely seeking out information.
- Middle of Funnel: At this stage, consumers are considering making a purchase, and are comparing different options.
- Bottom of Funnel: At this stage, consumers are ready to make their decision and purchase.
This is an extremely simple version of how the sales funnel works, but it’s enough to serve as either an introduction or a refresher depending on your prior knowledge.
Since content marketing focuses primarily on educating and helping potential customers, most content focuses on the top of the funnel, attracting an audience and earning its trust. But that’s not where content ends, and it’s important to understand that content marketing has a role to play all the way through the funnel (and even after a purchase has been made).
Aligning Content With the Customer Journey
People go through several steps before making a purchase from the top to the bottom of the funnel (and beyond). Which specific steps they take depends on the business and industry.
Let’s break down an example of someone shopping for car insurance:
- Someone goes to a dealership to buy a new car. (Unaware)
- They decide they need new insurance. So, they go online to compare options. (TOFU)
- They visit a website with an article explaining what to look for when shopping for car insurance. (TOFU)
- They visit a few different providers. One company has an interactive tool on their website that shows how much they can save if the customer buys their insurance. (MOFU)
- The new car buyer settles on the insurance that offered the best experience and built the most trust. (BOFU)
- Their new car insurance provider sends them content that helps them understand how to be a better driver, how to minimize their need to use insurance, and other helpful content that continues to build the relationship and earn loyalty so they’ll keep the policy.
This is a rudimentary example, but it shows one thing: content can play a role the entire way through the customer journey. And that is something traditional marketing and advertising often cannot do.
What Have You Done For Me Lately?
Content marketing leads with value. If someone doesn’t know who you are, and isn’t actively shopping for a product or service, then why would they buy from you the instant they interact with something you’ve created?
It sounds like a silly question to ask. Which is why content marketing focuses on offering value first and laying the foundation for a long-term relationship with buyers before attempting to immediately make a sale.
Think back to the example of The Furrow. While it features John Deere equipment and it’s on John Deere’s website, it’s much more than a collection of thinly-veiled ad placements for their own equipment. Rather, it shares information that John Deere’s audience would be interested in.
It becomes a part of a person’s routine and lifestyle because it’s good enough to earn that kind of attention. It’s good enough that people would pay for it if they had to. And they offer it for free.
If you’ve attracted the right audience, then eventually those folks are going to need to purchase something, and they may as well buy it from you. When content marketing does its job, the awareness and trust it has built at the top of the funnel should keep a brand top of mind once someone reaches this stage.
Convincing people to make a purchase is hard. It’s even harder when people don’t already know and trust your brand. But if you’ve been providing value through the top and middle of the funnel, then your odds of closing the deal at this stage are much higher.
Content Marketing as Customer Experience
Let’s put this all together and look at how content fits into the customer’s buying experience from their perspective. That’s who content is meant to serve, and marketers can’t achieve their goals without putting the customer first.
Trust the Process: How Content Marketing Gets Done
Processes for anything in marketing are hardly one-size-fits-all. But a-few-sizes-fit-most might be good enough to understand loosely how the process works from strategy to execution to measurement.
Start With the Right Mindset and Map Out Your Strategy
Plan your work, then work your plan. This simple saying has long driven the work we do at CoSchedule and the results speak for themselves.
This starts with strategy. At a high level, this entails figuring out the following:
- Who are you trying to reach? These are your potential customers.
- Why are you trying to reach them? You’d like them to buy from you.
- What would you like them to do? Again, you want to land more sales.
This is ultimately what you’re trying to accomplish, but it’s a bit … me-centered. In order to be successful, the focus has got to be put back on the customer. Let’s try rethinking these three bullets another way:
- Who are you trying to help? This is your potential audience.
- Why are you trying to help them? Because your products or services are the best solution to meet their needs and solve their problems.
- What would you like them to achieve? To become better versions of themselves.
This might sound like some feel-good mumbo jumbo, but if you’re actually committed to developing the kinds of long-term relationships that build long-term businesses, this is the way to think about it. If you can nail the second set of bullets, you can achieve the first set of bullets with much less effort. It’s a virtuous circle that stems from what Brett McGrath at The Juice calls having an “abundant mindset”:
[QUOTE FROM BRETT]
- Developing personas: Understand your audience by doing your research and developing basic character descriptions for who you’re attempting to attract.
- Crafting messaging: What core messages about your products or services does your content need to convey?
- Selecting channels: Which are best to reach your target audience?
Get In Touch With Your Inner Nerd and Embrace Research
Content marketing relies on research. All kinds of different research.
- Industry Research: Marketers aren’t always experts on the industries their companies operate in. At least not at first. You’ll need to do your homework.
- Product Research: If you’re not a subject matter expert, you’ll need to learn who is within your organization.
- Competitive Research: Follow your competition (but not too closely).
- Topical Research: Develop an understanding of the topical areas your content needs to cover.
- Keyword Research: Uncover what people are searching for and create content around their interests.
You’re Going to Need a Lot of Ideas
Content marketing is driven by creativity and ideas. In order to maintain a consistent publishing pipeline that provides continuous value for your customers, you’ll need plenty of ideas.
- Content Ideation: You’ll need to create a bank of ideas and learn how to prioritize them.
- Content Mapping: Align content ideas with each stage of the funnel.
- Content Calendar: Plan your publishing schedule on your content calendar.
Team Work, As They Say, Makes the Dream Work
Executing content marketing requires several different roles (not necessarily formal job titles, but specific groups of tasks and responsibilities).
- Strategists: Who determines what you’ll do and why?
- Writers: Who’s going to write all those words that serve your audience?
- Editors: Who will make sure your content is crisp, clear, and clean?
- Designers: Who will make that content look awesome?
- Analysts: Who will determine whether your content is delivering ROI?
- Managers: Who’s got their hand on the wheel to steer the whole content ship?
The work these teams do can be quite varied. Here’s a breakdown of the most in-demand skills for content marketers according to data gathered by Statista in cooperation with SEM Rush:
If You Can’t Measure Results, Then It Didn’t Happen
Content marketing can be challenging to measure, particularly at the top of the funnel, where it’s difficult to connect activity that drives awareness directly to revenue.
But you do need to understand how to measure the impact of your work from the top of the funnel all the way down. This is essential for understanding how content marketing is actually helping to build your business. Without numbers to show progress and prove results, it will be impossible to get the buy-in and investment you need to be successful for the long-term too.
This will entail:
- Setting goals: What are the numbers you need to reach?
- Determining metrics and KPIs: Which numbers will you track to measure progress toward goals?
- Reporting: How will you share with your organization how your content marketing is performing and helping to drive growth?
What You’ll Find in This Guide
By now, you’ve gotten the full 411 on all things content marketing. But what you haven’t gotten is the real practical, get-your-hands-dirty instruction you’ll need to get started and be successful.
That’s what you’ll find in the rest of this guide. It covers what you’ll need to know from start to finish to plan, execute, and measure a successful content marketing strategy. Here’s what you’ll get:
- Know the real benefits of content marketing. And how to communicate those benefits within your organization.
- Understand different types of content. And see some examples of each in the wild.
- Become a strategic mastermind. And learn how to plan a complete content marketing strategy that will keep your efforts on track.
- Tap into your inner creative genius. And learn how to consistently generate awesome content ideas.
- Develop processes and workflows for content creation. And keep your production pipelines consistent for best results.
- Measure and report like a brilliant mathematical mind. And show how your work is contributing to your company’s growth.
There’s certainly more to know about content marketing, but this will cover the core areas you’ll need to launch your content marketing program.
Go Forth and Become a Content Marketing Expert
Everyone starts somewhere. Whether you’re learning the content marketing ropes or reading this guide as a mental refresher, consistent practice and continued skill development will eventually make you an expert. Who knows? Maybe one day someone else will look to you for guidance too.
Best of luck as you navigate your journey. We’ll be here if you need us.