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  • Writer's pictureLane Anderson

What Is Content Marketing?

Updated: Feb 29

Content marketing has been around for more than a century with early examples including John Deere launching a magazine called The Furrow in 1895, Michelin publishing the annual Michelin Guide for the first time in 1900 (which gave us today’s Michelin-starred restaurants), and Jell-O releasing a recipe book in 1904.

These companies practised content marketing before the term was ever invented.

They offered valuable information and advice to their customers to build a lasting relationship that paid off with brand loyalty.

In the early days of content marketing, big budgets were required to roll out magazines and books or produce film and audio. But with today’s ubiquitous digital technology, the barrier to entry has been practically eliminated and even the smallest company can create a popular blog or podcast that can grow their customer base.

Content marketing is an approach that focuses on providing valuable content to attract a specific audience.

The purpose is to connect and engage with existing and potential customers — to communicate without overtly selling — which builds a lasting relationship between business and consumer.

How Content Marketing Differs From Conventional Advertising

Advertising Likes the Quickie; Content Marketing Builds a Relationship

When you come home from work and find your mailbox overflowing with flyers, the offer of 40 percent off the price of turkeys the day after Thanksgiving hopes to get you in their store the next time you go grocery shopping. Advertising seeks the quick sale but, like the turkey, it has a short shelf life.

Content marketing builds a relationship with the customer before, during, and after the sale. The grocery store’s blog post titled 10 Ways to Use Leftover Turkey gets shared to social media and friends are tagged and the post is bookmarked for reference at Christmas too. The customer follows the grocery store’s Facebook page so they don’t miss other tips and now the store has found its way into the customer’s timeline alongside posts from their friends.

Relationships between business and customer affect brand loyalty and advocacy. When the relationship is strongest, the business doesn’t just have customers, they have fans.

Advertising Tells the Customer; Content Marketing Shows the Customer

You’ve seen companies claim to be the best in their market with billboards saying things like “#1 Job Agency in the Province”. But who declared them the best (answer: themselves) and why should you take their word for it?

A content marketer would suggest the job agency show their customers that they’re the best rather than tell them — give them something of value that proves the statement to be true. If the job agency were to offer a free resume-writing workshop or offer interview preparation, their potential clients would have all the evidence they need to trust that they’re great at what they do rather than being asked to just believe them.

Instead of telling customers what to think of your company, offer them something useful or interesting that will affect how they think of the company.

Advertising Has to Generalize; Content Marketing Can Personalize

The traditional marketing channels like radio, TV, and newspaper ads, bus stop signs, and billboards all have huge audiences. This can be a great advantage, but it requires the advertisement to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. This generalized approach works for some businesses, but a lot of the reach is wasted on an audience that has no interest in the product or service being offered. Think of the infamously expensive Super Bowl ad spots. Only companies that have an incredibly broad consumer base (beer, cars, insurance) can see a justifiable return. It’s not effective for most businesses, like a luthier offering guitar repairs.

Content marketing often reaches a much smaller audience (although not always), but it is always specifically targeted at the people who are most likely to be interested in what the company is selling. The luthier would do better by hiring a content marketer to produce an artistic, high-quality video showing him transform an old, weathered, valuable guitar into like-new condition. It wouldn’t be an advertisement; it’d be a beautiful, short film that guitar lovers would enjoy watching.

Advertising is often described as throwing a fistful of spaghetti at the wall and hoping one or two pieces stick. Content marketing wastes a lot less spaghetti. Only the people most interested in the business are reached by the message.

Advertising is Stationary; Content Marketing is Shareable

There’s no disguising it; advertising is pure self-promotion for the business. TV viewers are often changing channels or using a PVR to skip the commercials because they aren’t interested in listening to businesses trying to sell them something. And when they do see an advertisement, the explicit self-promotion causes the audience to put up their defences.

The opposite is true in content marketing. When it’s done well, people want the content because it’s valuable to them. Not only do they want it, but they’ll share it. When it’s done extremely well, people are even willing to pay to see the content.

Look at The Lego Movie for evidence. That film is a 200-minute piece of content marketing that made more than $400 million at the box office, but many millions more when people bought Lego blocks to play with after watching the movie.

A lot of content marketing is web-based and on an interactive forum like social media so it’s much easier to share. And it’s shareable because it’s funny or informative or inspiring, not just self-promoting.

Advertising is Skimmed; Content Marketing is Engaged With

Today’s internet users now have decades of experience and have subconsciously developed methods of web browsing that allows them to completely ignore banner ads. The same is true for all kinds of print media and display advertising. It’s so prevalent everywhere we look that we stop paying it any attention. We skim.

According to a study by HubSpot, a website viewer is more likely to summit Everest, survive a plane crash, or birth twins than click a banner ad (that study is in itself content marketing for a company that creates marketing software). And almost half of all banner clicks are accidental.

Content marketing breaks past that habit because it doesn’t try to insert the marketing beside the content or interrupt the content with a marketing message. The content is the marketing. Readers visit a blog or open a magazine for the content, not the advertising. By making the content the marketing, readers engage with the message rather than skimming over it.

Advertising is a Monologue; Content Marketing is a Dialogue

Traditional marketing is one-sided. The whole campaign is designed around a message that is asserted on the consumer. This is great for communicating a new offer or sharing the brand’s image, but it doesn’t build a relationship or a dialogue with the audience.

Most forms of content marketing allow the consumer to also communicate back to the business. A dialogue is started and consumers build trust with the brand. The business also benefits from having direct feedback from its existing or potential customers. The marketing impact is greater when the consumer interacts with the company.

Strong Marketing Strategy Blends Advertising and Content Marketing

By no means does content marketing supersede or replace traditional marketing and advertising. The established ways of doing things still have strengths. But content marketing complements a company’s strategy by offering engaging, targeted, shareable marketing that penetrates the market and builds lasting relationships with consumers.

Year over year, businesses are increasingly adding more content marketing to their overall marketing plans. The return on investment is high and more companies are recognizing the need to have specialized content marketers working for their brand.

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