What Is Content Marketing?
How To Understand It And Use It Profitably
By Lawrimore Inc. – Lawrimore.com
Content Marketing is the new way to get higher search rankings and increased sales by creating useful, informative content that is appealing both to your target markets and also to Google and other search engines. Content can be in the form of web pages, blog posts, long articles, white papers, videos, social media posts and tweets, public relations – almost any form of media that can be “read” by people and search engines.
The new emphasis on Content Marketing is largely a result of recent changes in how Google ranks websites – so important because a top rank in Google, Bing and other search engines can be worth thousands or millions of dollars in increased revenue for a company or organization. How do you best take advantage of these changes in the ever-swirling world of online marketing and social media so that your company comes out on top with increased sales and an improved brand reputation?
The answer is not to focus entirely on Content Marketing on the Internet but to integrate all forms of marketing with your corporate goals and strategies in a step-by-step process we call the 12-Step Content Marketing Pyramid (a larger version will be shown below). But don’t worry – the process we explain here is so simple any business, large or small, can follow it.
By following these steps, you can drive your business from its vision and positioning at the top, to meeting with new customers and closing sales at the base of the pyramid. In between are 10 key steps to take advantage of all that Content Marketing and other marketing strategies and tactics have to offer. One might argue about the sequence of the steps, perhaps, but the series we have outlined is logical, easy to understand, and actionable. Most importantly it includes all the latest strategies and techniques to win solid rankings with the search engines as well as sales in the business marketplace.
But first let’s take a brief look at how things got here. If you’re impatient, you can skip the next page and a half and come back to it later.
How Marketing Has Changed In the 21st Century
More and more companies of all sizes in the early 21st Century realized that attracting and acquiring new customers through the Internet and a well-designed website is one of the smartest investments they could make.
In the first decade of the Century, many companies and organizations learned to practice, or hire someone to provide, Search Engine Optimization (SEO). This all began innocently enough, with Google itself providing a Beginner’s Guide to SEO. Practitioners learned from multiple sources and experiments how to use targeted keywords (search terms) in the page title, headline, subheads, metatags, and other page components so that search engines would have no trouble understanding what each page was all about, and higher rankings would often result.
Google also revealed that one primary way in which it gave higher rankings to some websites than others was by counting the number of links to the site from other websites – especially those with related content. For example a plumber might have a link from a hot water heater manufacturer, and vice versa. The more prominent the site providing the link, the more valuable it was to the recipient site.
Unfortunately many people and companies worldwide decided to “game the system” and trick Google and other search engines into giving higher rankings for their websites or clients’ websites. After all a page 1, top 3 listing on Google, especially for some lucrative term like life insurance or real estate, could be worth thousands if not millions of dollars in increased income for the high-ranking company.
For a while the search engines were susceptible to devious methods for both on-page manipulated content and off-page links from other sites. With the right words in the right places on the page and a high number of links from other sites, some of which were nothing but directories of links, it was possible to get a website ranked on page 1 of Google as reliably as hitting a nail with a hammer, whether in fact that site or company was really any good at what they did, or was honest, or provided superior products or services.
Now the people who run Google are no dummies. They knew what was going on, and all they needed to do was improve the software (algorithm) which they used to automatically rank websites, and all those “cheaters” would get their just desserts. In 2013 Google did just that. It employed two major updates, known by the code names Panda and Penguin, which devastated many thousands if not millions of websites worldwide. Unfortunately these updates were blunt instruments. In the process of knocking “cheaters” either onto pages far, far back from page 1, or off Google altogether, a lot of innocent websites were hurt. In particular legitimate sites with a number of links (“backlinks” as they are called) from other questionable sites or directories, which often they had gotten with the help of SEO firms, were often treated just as harshly as illegitimate sites which were created solely to deceive search engines.
In essence Google said, “Quit trying to deceive the search engines. Provide good valuable information and content – that is what people who use search engines are looking for anyway.” In response, in the second half of 2013, a growing number of individuals and companies who had competed for top search rankings with on-page optimization and off-page link-building, shifted their emphasis to providing more valuable content, or as it is most widely known today, Content Marketing. It’s not a case of either-or but both-and, as SEO is still quite worthwhile done the way the search engines want.
One mark of good, valuable content is that it gets shared and talked about online in a mostly informal but highly visible way as far as Google is concerned. And oh by the way – Google really loves it when people share links to valuable content using Google Plus, which is Google’s own brand of social media. So for best results social media need to be a part of the package – not just good content but good socially shared content.
So that’s the way the game is being played in the fourth quarter of 2013. Perhaps this is how the game is going to be played for a long time – no one except a few insiders know when Google is going to upturn the apple cart once more and roll out some new method of ranking some sites higher than others. But right now, the rules of the game can be summed up in two words: Quality Wins.
In all the rush to get online marketing and search engine rankings right, more traditional “offline” media like brochures and print advertising have somewhat gotten shunted aside. But they can be just as valuable in terms of generating new business when used in the right ways. So to make sense of the online-offline marketing landscape in late 2013, we at Lawrimore Inc. have developed a visual aid that is sort of like a 12-step program in the form of a pyramid. We call it the 12-Step Content Marketing Pyramid, and we’d like to present it to you now, then explain what it means and how to use it.
Building Your Marketing Pyramid Step By Step
1. Vision – Mission – Positioning – This is a concise statement of how you want your company to be perceived (positioned) in the marketplace. Typically a vision statement is a word picture of how you want your company to look and feel in the future, but it should be realistic and achievable. A mission statement is what you must do to achieve that vision. And positioning involves your place (first, second or third) in the business category or industry segment that you want to dominate – again being realistic but allowing a few years for progress.
2. Company Goals – Some companies have explicit goals and strategic plans, while many others have informal goals such as increasing sales and gaining more customers. When it comes to marketing, and especially content marketing, having defined goals is very helpful because it helps focus and direct the efforts to create certain content for certain target markets for best results. These goals of course should be directly related to and driven by vision, mission and positioning. All goals should be SMART – specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and timed – to avoid vague fuzzy aspirations that cannot be measured.
3. Marketing Goals may be included in company goals, but again because this is often informal, it is now especially important to set clear marketing goals. Marketing goals define sales targets, using measurable terms such as sales volume per quarter, and include if possible perception or positioning goals, such as being perceived as the No. 1 company in a defined market segment.
4. Target Markets and Needs – The more your team understands target markets in terms of demographics, psychographics and other variables, including the markets’ needs as expressed in their own words, the better it can satisfy those needs and enjoy increased sales and market share as outcomes. Often the company’s salesforce “think” they know what customers want, but there is no substitute for objective market research. This does not have to be very expensive – interviews of even a dozen customers or prospects by a skilled market researcher can uncover very valuable insights into market needs and how people express them in words.
5. Marketing Strategies – We could write a book about marketing strategies, because it is so important and valuable to have the right strategy for each marketing goal and target market. After years of study and practice, we have come to believe that the essence of all effective strategy is: Concentrate your resources on your greatest opportunities, especially where opponents are weak. So without getting into a great deal of detail (that comes later in the pyramid or process), we deliberately focus most of our marketing dollars and efforts on the greatest opportunities in the marketplace, aligned with company goals and marketing goals. For an auto parts supplier, an effective marketing strategy might be (depending on goals): To consolidate our varied parts supplier business units under one brand, to position that brand as the market leader in the Eastern U.S. auto parts market, to promote that brand through online media and TV advertising, and to ally with a major NASCAR race team both on and off the track. Although marketing strategies typically do not get into media plans (which TV stations to advertise on, what times, how often), it is helpful for them to include the channels of communication or media which will be used for each strategy.
6. Online Strategies And Media – Now we get more detailed in terms of which online media and activities we will engage in to accomplish our goals. For consumer-oriented companies, being active on Facebook is a must. For professional business companies, LinkedIn is a more valuable tool. Being active on Google Plus pays even higher dividends in terms of search engine rankings, although it does not have a fraction of the consumer activity that Facebook has. This step in the marketing pyramid also needs to realistically incorporate this challenge: is there someone in the company, preferably at the C-level, who can be responsible for identifying and generating information and ideas for online communications? Many small businesses have a CEO who has that capability, but is so busy traveling around the country and meeting with prospects that he or she really does not have the time for this. And no one else on staff really knows what is going on at a high level. So there’s not much point in undertaking an intense social media campaign without such involvement. It just won’t be authentic. Again a retail business can farm out its social media interaction, because talking about clothes or ice cream is not too complicated. But if the company makes medical monitoring equipment or HVAC control systems, it’s going to take an outside firm a loooong time to understand the technology well enough to engage people through social media in chatting about the company’s products and services. There is an effective way to use social media for any company in any industry, which we will explain in other steps below.
7. Keywords for SEO and PPC – In the physical world, you compete for geographic dominance – city, state, region, country – while in the online world you compete for keyword dominance. Keywords are the search terms which potential customers enter into search engines to find what they are looking for, like “emergency room patient monitors” or “replacement auto air filters” or “ice cream stores in south Charlotte.” Of course virtually anyone reading this understands what search terms are because they use them often, whether they call them “keywords” or not. To gain high rankings for Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and to have effective pay-per-click (PPC) advertisements, identifying, testing and refining the right keywords is vital to success. In the “old days” of SEO, you had to use third-party tools such as Wordtracker to identify the best keywords. While those tools have evolved and are still valuable, today Google’s free keyword tool, or as it is currently called “keyword planner,” provides an abundance of information about how many people are searching for any keyword phrase across the Internet each month. Enter a few keywords that you guess are relevant for potential customers, and Google will give you hundreds more – both separately and neatly clustered into “adgroups” which Google would like you to buy for your PPC program. Your task, and often your boss or client must be involved, is to identify 10 to 20 primary keywords that you want to compete for using SEO, as well as dozens or hundreds of others that you are willing to pay a few dollars for using pay-per-click ads on Google or other media. Your prioritized primary keyword list is going to be a vital part of your battle plan as you “concentrate your resources on your greatest opportunities” to get new customers via the Internet and your website.
8. Content Marketing Program (including SEO, PPC, PR and online media) – As we stated at the start of this article, Content Marketing is the “new” way to get high search engine rankings and new customer website traffic using methods which Google approves of and appreciates. Of course search engines have always appreciated good content, and websites that have had it all along like Wikipedia and national trade associations rank high today as they did in the past. This can make it even more difficult for a small business to compete for first page rankings. So here’s the key: build good content around the keywords which you want to rank high for, keywords that are authentic for your business and your prospects, but not so competitive that you don’t have a chance of getting first-page rankings. If your main keyword for example is “replacement auto parts in Boston,” you and those you hire will write about this topic A LOT. You will have lots of information, probably on multiple pages, about this topic on your website using all legitimate SEO tactics. You will write about it more topically and informally on a blog attached to your website. You will post brief items or links on social media. You will write in-depth whitepapers about the topic and make them available to anyone interested. You will produce press releases around this topic and send them out to all relevant media as well as online press release distribution sites. In the process you will position yourself and your company as an industry expert, easily found online through a variety of channels, and reaping increased sales as a result.
You can approach Content Marketing at multiple levels:
Phase 1 – Write about anything you can think of. Just do some creative thinking about content that might be interesting to potential customers or clients, and write about it. Be careful not to duplicate what is on your website already, but don’t get so far removed that it’s like oil and water. Ideally the content is posted on your blog, at least once a week, more often if possible. A good way to drum up topics is to answer questions which potential or actual customers have asked you in the past. This helps make your content even more relevant.
Phase 2 – Write about keywords. Choose a good set of keywords as we explained above, select 10 to 20 top keywords you want to rank high for, and write blog posts and other content that are about those keywords so your expertise is apparent. This will help your website rank higher for those keywords as people search for information and providers.
Phase 3 – Strategically plan your content to create a unified whole. Go beyond the keywords, which may only be loosely connected, and map out or outline in advance a strategic overview of your content area or expertise. This is closely related to knowledge management and business process management. In other words, think about all that you do to provide value for customers, arrange that in an outline, modify it to include your keywords in an authentic manner, and then deliberately write one part of the outline with each post, until all the parts are written and – voila! – you will have a not just a series of valuable content marketing posts, but something you can combine into an ebook or printed book to use as a more impressive marketing tool. It is really easy to publish a book using online resources like Lulu.com, and then sell it online through Amazon’s Kindle Desktop Publishing and Google Play. All at little or no cost to you except for your time! Once you have written and published a book, your expertise is enhanced and your content marketing strategy has reached a new pinnacle!
9. Web Page and Blog Content Optimization – Now you need to look at your website as a whole, and your blog as a whole, and consider how a search engine might evaluate all you have published in each location. In addition to creating more content around the keywords which you have planned for your Content Marketing program, you might also consider removing some of the older content because it is unrelated. Returning to our example of “replacement auto parts in Boston,” if you’ve written content on the Boston harbor or your favorite restaurant in Boston, this tends to dilute the keyword focus of your overall site and should probably best be removed. The real question is, Is it related? Google expects to see related content, such as “how to install a replacement auto air filter,” and increasingly Google’s site analysis tools are in fact looking for related content as a sign that the site is trustworthy and the authors are experts. So don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater – instead think like a visitor to your site and consider if you stumbled across the related content, would it be helpful or wildly irrelevant. Be sure also to use SEO tools so that your keywords are in your page titles, headlines, descriptions, metatags, alt-image titles and so on.
10. Social Media and Market Interaction Online – Some people are naturally extraverted and truly enjoy social media interactions. Others are more introverted and just do not take to it naturally. While the other marketing steps outlined above can be done “quietly” without conversation, social media by nature is a conversation, as surely as attending a networking event in your community. If your business sells to consumers, Facebook is a natural fit, so use it often. If you sell to other businesses, LinkedIn will probably be more effective. According to a recent study by Pew Internet, “The percentage of internet users who are on Twitter has doubled since November 2010, currently standing at 16%. Those under 50, and especially those 18-29, are the most likely to use Twitter.” The same study found that 15% are using Pinterest (again more consumer than b-to-b oriented), two-thirds are using Facebook, 20% use LinkedIn, and 13% use Instagram to share pictures. About 50% have a Google Plus account, partly because that is automatically provided when you sign up for Gmail, and it is growing in usage and value to search engine rankings.
One handy way to automate posting to various social media is to use a plugin like Jetpack with a WordPress blog. Jetpack will automatically condense and send a link to your blog post via all the main social media. But still this is not true interaction. Many marketers and business people find it worthwhile to take about 30 minutes a day to send and receive messages with others (ideally customers or prospects) through social media, while also identifying and making new contacts. If you just don’t have the time or inclination for that, consider hiring someone to do it for you.
11. Offline Marketing Tools – Brochures, Events, Presentations and More – All contain some kind of content which should be integrated with your online efforts. An integrated marketing program allows you to position yourself and your company as an expert in your chosen field, while providing more in-depth or more tangible communications than the Internet typically provides. A brochure is a great leave-behind tool to summarize your core message and expertise – and amazingly does not require electricity to work! In fact you can often take content from your website and adapt it for a brochure fairly easily, although pictures must be high-resolution for print versus low-resolution for the web. Events like trade shows or networking can be effective ways to meet potential customers, particular if you have a well-designed booth to attract prospects and show off your products or services. If your business is large enough you can also afford to advertise in print media. As a general rule the market leaders advertise the most, and those who advertise the most become the market leaders – hard to know which is cause and which is effect.
12. Customer/Prospect Personal Selling – If you do your content marketing right, both online and off, new customers will come to you and you will never have to cold call again. Often they are predisposed to buy because of what they have read on your website or blog. But when you meet with them, a whole process of converting prospects to paying customers needs to be carefully orchestrated. Focus on understanding their needs, and don’t just talk at them with a prerehearsed sales spiel. Repeat back to them what you have heard about their needs, and if possible get them to say in their own words, “I need a …” or “we need ….” – that is a powerful sign that the prospect is ready to buy. If you can’t close the deal on the spot, make an appointment to return with a customized proposal aimed directly at meeting their expressed needs. For more details on this process, we highly recommend the book on SPIN Selling. Add them to your LinkedIn, Google Plus or other social media circles if possible to help further nurture the relationship. In other words, continue using Content Marketing for customer retention and further building your brand.