Content marketing is fast becoming an essential part of the overall marketing strategy of businesses. In a recent study from BtoB magazine, two-thirds of respondents said they expect to be heavily involved in content marketing in 2013. Examples of content marketing include social media, online articles, blogs, online videos, and case studies. Myths and misconceptions about the proper application and use of content marketing tools abound. To shed light on these sometimes hard to grasp ideas, business writer Robert Lerose recently spoke with Joe Pulizzi, founder of the Ohio-based Content Marketing Institute, and a leading evangelist of content marketing in the business community. Pulizzi is also the host and driving force behind Content Marketing World, a conference that brings together experts on and practitioners of content marketing, every September.
RL: Content marketing has been referred to in a variety of ways: custom publishing, branded content, customer media. How do you define it?
JP: It's thinking more like a publisher and less like a small business. If I think like a publisher, I'm going to create lots of valuable, relevant, compelling content. I'm going to build a relationship with my customers and prospects over a long period of time. By doing that, they're going to have an emotional connection with me. So when they're ready to buy, they're going to buy from me.
RL: Direct mail or email campaigns are designed for an immediate response. But content marketing takes time to build a relationship, doesn't it?
JP: If you're looking for business right away, content marketing is not for you. But if you're interested in the long haul, there's nothing better to grow relationships with your customers than to give them amazing information.
JP: If I have a small business, I couldn't just say that I'm going to start a content marketing program and expect anything to happen in the first month or two months or three months. To build credibility using content takes time. If I'm creating a custom print magazine—a small business would be more likely to use a custom print newsletter—my goal could be retention and loyalty. I'm sending this to my best customers, so they keep us top of mind. Or the goal could be lead generation, where I create daily blog posts to get my prospects to sign up for them at some point.
RL: So what's the first step a small business should take with their content marketing?
JP: You want to make sure you have some kind of strategy before you think of the marketing channel. The key portion of your strategy for content creation does not revolve around talking about your products or services or pitching. For a small business, a lot of it is ‘ask and answer.’ If your customer asks a question, you want to answer that through multiple vehicles. It is really valuable information that is focused on the pain points of your customer.
JP: [Yes.] The tactics could be white papers, research reports, blog posts, ongoing video series, podcasts, in-person events, as well as through print. Most small businesses fall into the trap of thinking about the channel first, [instead] of asking why they [need to be] in the channel.
RL: Tips for coming up with a strategy?
JP: First, have a very clear understanding of who you're talking to—who your target audience is—and then figure out what their pain points are. Then, come up with what I call a content marketing statement. For a small business, the content marketing statement should state who their audience is, what they are going to deliver to that audience, and what their audience's goals are: to live better lives, get jobs, whatever it is.
JP: Then, what is your content project going to be about: Retention? Search engine optimization? Lead generation? Whatever the goal is, you have to put metrics to that. At the end of the day, you have to say, "OK, we're successful because…." This is where most small businesses don't do that. As an example, the success metric for the blog on our site is [the number of] subscriptions.
RL: The number of paid subscriptions you get?
JP: No, free subscriptions. We're trying to get people into the top of the funnel to sign up, so we can start building relationships with them. Most small businesses start their online attention efforts with blog activity. The blog becomes the magnet for everything a small business does when it comes to content marketing. You can publish easily, the content is easily shareable, and search engines love blogs. From there, you can reimagine that content into other things, like white papers, newsletters, or webinar programs.
RL: We're flooded with information. How do small business owners turn that information into relevant content?
JP: Most small businesses go wrong because they're creating content that's just okay—and okay content doesn't cut through the clutter. What cuts through the clutter? Content that people want to do something with, that they want to make a behavior toward. This is not easy. It's difficult to tell stories that cut through the clutter.
RL: Tips for success?
JP: First, quality content is consistent. When it comes to content marketing, the biggest failure of small business is that they stop doing it or they do it at different times. If you want to create great epic content marketing, you have to commit to it. Two, a lot of small businesses are not good storytellers. [Fortunately,] there are so many resources out there to help you tell your story more effectively. Launch a pilot program for at least six months and put metrics to it. Then learn from it and figure out where you need to go from there.
RL: Example of a small business that does content marketing well?
JP: OpenView Venture Partners, a small venture capital company in Boston. We did the content marketing mission statement. Then they hired a content marketing manager who worked with their employees to get the types of stories they felt were incredibly helpful and useful to their core audience. They created a blog out of it that evolved into an online platform with over 1,000 pieces of content that solves literally every possible question their customers were asking.
RL: And the results?
JP: Nothing much happened the first six months. Now, almost two years later, they have over 16,000 people signed up for their weekly newsletter—so that's a really good confirmation that they have good content. The customers reach out to OpenView now. Their sales cycle has been cut in half because they don't have that qualification period. Customers come to OpenView because they want to work with them. OpenView gets the deals done, and that's all been through content marketing.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.