When I talk about “content marketing”, the first thing most clients hear and think is “blog”. While that’s true, it’s not the whole truth. Your content is everything you publish or enable others to publish, from a press release to a technical support document to engaging your audience on a discussion forum. Your content is what your audience, however large or small, consumes. When they consume your content, they are learning about and engaging with your brand.
Content marketing is the long – but very powerful – game for building your brand and earning loyal fans. This image from Nike is content marketing. This ad from 1984 was the beginning of the long and lovely content marketing strategy from Apple. Github itself is a form of content marketing.
Content marketing is the strategy of publishing content that reflects your brand, draws people (your ideal customers) to your brand, and engages your audience towards commerce.
Here are four different, current, and successful versions of content marketing from startups and enterprises alike.
The Atlanta-based SaaS company began its current run as little more than a series of blog posts by co-founder Kyle Porter. Kyle is a sales guy, through and through, and he used his blog to engage his target audience of SaaS sales professionals until he could create a solution to a big problem in SaaS sales. It took a long time, as Porter has testified, and several failed products. Eventually, after hundreds and hundreds of blog posts, Porter and his co-founder, Rob Forman, landed on a product that solves a myriad of problems for the modern sales development organization.
Today, Salesloft publishes a constant stream of blog posts, case studies, white papers, and videos aimed at educating and inspiring the modern sales organization to higher levels of performance, efficiency, and actually enjoying their jobs. And by “constant stream”, we mean usually one piece of content published per day. Make no mistake about it: Salesloft is fully invested in content marketing. They have invested in the staff to do it and do it well.
However, very few of these publications directly promote the Salesloft product. Instead, the content produced by the organization serves to build up the Salesloft brand as an educator of sales people. As Gary Vaynerchuk (highlighted later in this article) puts it in this video from November 6, 2018, “It’s the intent behind the content. Are you subtly doing some sort of a commercial wrapped up in content? When I make content, I am literally in wikipedia non-profit mode.” (starting at 9:36’)
Salesloft provides value to its audience long before and after the audience becomes a customer. Even if you never paid Salesloft a dime, the value any salesperson can get from the Salesloft website is extremely high. The end result is that SaaS sales teams trust Salesloft to help them improve, succeed, and become better sales professionals.
Chick-Fil-A sells chicken and related, complementary food products. How do they do it? With cows. Cows. Cows selling chicken. Say that out loud. It’s almost as absurd as Sharknado. And again, someone had to stand in a room with a bunch of executives and say something like “Cows selling chicken.” But the results speak for themselves: the average Chick-Fil-A location generates nearly double the annual revenues in 6 days per week than McDonald’s or Starbucks generates in 7 days per week.
You can argue that these cows are “advertising”, and you would be right; however, compare any Chick-Fil-A billboard to a McDonald’s or Starbucks highway sign. You’ll never see any Chick-Fil-A product mentioned by the cows. Just “chikin”. That’s how content marketing works: provide value (education or entertainment) to your audience to the point that they engage with you without an invitation.
Chick-Fil-A even created its own holiday, though some may argue that “Cow Appreciation Day” was already on the books and the restaurant just hijacked it for their own purposes. But who else produces a Cowlendar? We are entertained by these black and white bovines to the point of dressing up like them in order to earn free food. Sadly, the Cowlendar is being put to rest, despite numerous protests, my own included.
If you’re a fan of exotic cars, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of VINwiki. If you don’t regularly discuss the ins and outs of cars that cost over $100,000, you probably have not heard of this quirky Atlanta startup. Here’s the story.
In 2016, founder Ed Bolian created a mobile app to create a kind of “social version of CARFAX”, because the aforementioned service did not tell the whole story of the used car you’re about to buy. I can attest to this problem, having purchased a car that had been wrecked, but that wreck did not appear on the CARFAX report, much to my $3,800 chagrin. The VINwiki mobile app began getting early user traction, but, as Bolian will attest, he had no idea how he was going to produce revenue from the free mobile app. Ed once jested at a session of Pitch Practice, “We’re on the Instagram revenue model.”
It was in the summer of 2017 that Ed, nearing the very end of his financial startup runway, entered the fray of video content marketing. To his advantage, Ed has a veritable stockpile of stories to tell due to his previous life experience as a driver and salesman of expensive, exotic cars. One of those stories is the 28 hours and 50 minutes that Ed and his two co-conspirators spent driving a modified Mercedes from New York to LA. That’s right, the Cannonball Run. Ed owns the Cannonball Run record. He literally wrote the book. But how would averaging 103 mph across the fruited plains help his free mobile app startup?
In June of 2017, Ed gathered a few friends at the VINwiki HQ in Doraville, and setup a “studio.” He looked into the camera, and told 25 stories from his years of experience selling exotic cars. The word “VINwiki” was not mentioned in any of these 25 stories. On this particular day, VINwiki had generated a total of about 5,000 app users since its launch the previous fall. One of the friends he invited was a video editor, who helped Ed create the VINwiki Youtube Channel. After just 30 days on Youtube, Ed’s videos had earned more than a million views.
That’s when Ed knew he had struck a chord with his target audience of exotic car enthusiasts. Since VINwiki is all about “changing automotive history” by literally enabling any driver to capture their (or anyone else’s) car’s story, telling car stories turned out to be a natural fit. The VINwiki Youtube channel has gone from exactly nothing in June 2017 to more than 525,000 subscribers as of this writing.
Well, so what?!? Yes, it’s totally cool to be a “YouTuber” and have half a million subscribers, right? But what does that mean for a startup whose app generates exactly zero revenue? Well, it means at least two things to be specific. First, Youtube channels with high subscriber numbers and lots of views (several VINwiki videos have surpassed the 2M mark) make pretty good money. Ed guesstimates that it’s about $1,000 per 1M views per month. Startup funded.
Second, the stories Ed tells – and he often brings in guests to tell their own stories – are very entertaining. And, while he has mentioned VINwiki only a handful of times – including this “thanks for half a million” video – users of the VINwiki app have grown from about 5,000 when the Youtube channel started to more than 105,000 today. Yes, that’s more than 20X growth, attributable solely and directly to content marketing. VINwiki has a loyal audience now.
You would have to live under a rock to be anywhere near the marketing world, use any social media at all, and not have heard of Gary Vaynerchuk. Gary Vee, as he’s known on social media, is loud, bombastic, hard hitting, and has a great story. From his Soviet childhood to growing his family’s wine business from $3M to more than $60M annually to his outrageous but very public dream to buy the New York Jets someday, Vaynerchuk has always outperformed expectations.
Vaynerchuk started and owns VaynerMedia, a social media focused agency with over 600 employees and nearly $200M in annual revenue. He just launched his own line of athletic shoes with K-Swiss.
Vaynerchuk’s Youtube channel goes back 11 years, but in the last couple of years, he has gone all in on video as a means to spread his message. However, Vaynerchuk did it a little differently, as is par for the course for the cult of personality that is Gary Vee. Instead of hiring a video firm, setting up a studio, and creating hundreds of scripts and ideas for “what would be great subject matter”, Vaynerchuk basically said, “let’s record and publish everything.” I’m making those words up. I don’t know what exactly his words or thoughts were when he hired a videographer to capture his entire life as an entrepreneur.
But that’s what he did. So, the videos you get are of him in his office in NY, in a car on the way to a speaking gig, at a cocktail party, giving an actual speech, talking to students, talking to young entrepreneurs, talking to potential clients and actual clients, talking to his staff. The list goes on and on, and in every single one of these videos, Vaynerchuk is his own authentic self, jeans, t-shirts, K-Swiss shoes, f-bombs and all.
That’s Gary V. That’s his personal brand. And Gary V is the face of the VaynerMedia brand. If you love the Gary Vee brand, then you are already familiar with the VaynerMedia brand, because they are one and the same, and that’s the goal of his content marketing strategy: attract the people who like his approach to starting, growing, and building a sustainable, profitable enterprise.
Start with Why
In his TED talk from 2009, Simon Sinek said, “The goal is not to do business with everybody who needs what you have. The goal is to do business with people who believe what you believe.” In other words, your content should and will attract those in your audience who think like you, believe what you believe, or are attracted to what you do and how you do it. Just like Gary Vee.
Map the content to the buying cycle of the people who have that problem. This strategy is a way to move the focus away from the marketer and to the person that the marketer is trying to reach. That, after all, is an incredibly important step to take in your own content marketing strategy. If your content doesn’t cater to the right people with the right problem that your product solves, then your content marketing efforts are all for not.
I cannot put enough emphasis on this particular point that Neil makes: “move the focus away from the marketer and to the person that the marketer is trying to reach.” Another way of saying this is, “It’s not about you. It’s about your customer!”
A few more very well known and successful examples of content marketing include:
- G.I. Joe – a comic book story to sell millions of action figures (aka dolls)
- John Deere – a rural farming lifestyle magazine to sell tractors and accessories
- BlendTec – “Will it blend?” – a silly short youtube video series blending iPhones and other gadgets
- Lego – the Lego Movie! Millions of people saw the movie, and Lego sales skyrocketed.
During the 5+ years that I have led Pitch Practice, the weekly meetup for new entrepreneurs, I have learned that so many people approach their messaging completely backwards. They talk about what they (the marketers) do, how their product works, all its features, and how they deliver great service. But nothing about their customer! When you turn that around, and talk only about your customer and the problem that you solve for them, you instantly gain the ear, mindshare, and trust of your target audience!
You Already Have Content
Whether you’re educating professional sales teams, selling chicken with cows, telling car stories, or doling out hard core entrepreneurial advice from the trenches, you have content to share. And because of the internet, you most certainly have the means to share and distribute that content, to tell your story, to attract and build an audience, and engage that audience by giving them value. That’s why – and how – content marketing works.
How can content marketing work for you? Here’s the basics, again from Neil Patel:
“If you produce free and helpful content for your target market, they will engage with you, spread your message, and probably even buy from you.”
It’s at this point that many, far too many, marketers will stop and not continue to pursue content marketing in any meaningful way. They give up because they don’t think they have content to share, but here’s the secret: everyone and every organization has content already. The hard part is capturing that content.
What Content Do We Already Have?
This exercise is what I call “taking a marketing content inventory”, and it means exactly what it says. From this article, there are a lot of questions to be answered to start any marketing campaign, but we’re focusing solely on content for right now. So, let’s ask this question and see if we can get your mind stirring about all the content you already have or are already producing, but may not be capturing (yet). What content do you already have or can you create on a regular, repeatable basis? Here are some examples to get things moving:
- LIVE Speeches
- Customer focus groups
- Blog posts
- Press releases
- Product updates
- Technical support documents
- How To videos or documentation for your products
- Customer onboarding instructions
- Case studies
- Discussion Forums
Do you have any of those? If so, jot down which ones you have and which ones you do on a regular basis. Which types of content are you already capturing / recording? Start recording everything. You don’t have to go all Gary Vee and hire a personal videographer, but you could! The point is that in the daily operation of your organization, you are creating content. You’ve just never looked at it as “content”…until now.
Record every presentation anyone at your organization delivers. Record every webinar and every internal presentation. No, don’t publish the classified stuff, but inspiring speeches from leadership are phenomenal recruiting content! Designate someone the company content guru, and empower them to capture, curate, gather, store, produce, and publish.
Creating content can be just as much a part of your corporate culture as being nice or moving fast or failing forward. Did you know that Google has more than 60 blogs in more than 50 languages? Last time we checked, Google owned many of its categories by a very wide margin.
What Marketing Channels Do You Already Use?
If the answer to this question is “none”, don’t get discouraged. Everyone – even Gary Vee – had to start on some channel with zero followers. When you first created your Twitter or LinkedIn account, guess what? You had exactly zero followers/connections. Now look at you? But that took a while, didn’t it?
Did we mention yet that content marketing is taking the long game? If you want overnight results, you should spend all your money on Facebook and Google Ads. If you want to take the time to become a 10 or 20 year overnight success, there is no more powerful way to build your brand than to consistently produce valuable content for your audience.
But the chances of you having exactly zero followers or connections on any and every channel are pretty slim. I bet you have quite a few, probably more than you think. If you’re the founder, guess what? Your social media followers are your current audience, because you gotta start somewhere. Take a quick count of all the connections and followers you and your business currently have.
Now you have some content and some ability to distribute that content. That’s a great start. What’s next? Some sort of strategy for distributing this content.
Create a Basic Strategy
Unless you or one of your employees/co-workers is already known as a content genius, start simple. For example:
- Strategy: educate our target audience (you should already know who they are) about problem X (which you solve).
- Tactic 1: Use 2 blog posts per week and 2 videos per month to explain the 37 issues commonly identified with problem X
- Tactic 2: Share blog posts and videos on Linkedin, Twitter, and Instagram using appropriate hashtags (trending in your space)
- Tactic 3: Create a Youtube Channel for all current and future videos
- Tactic 4: Measure and report results (engagement, clicks, leads, etc), good and bad, weekly to evaluate and update tactics
It’s a starting point. From this very basic strategy, you will learn and improve. Remember, the goal is to increase sales by growing your fan base and creating loyal customers who love your company. That doesn’t happen overnight. You probably won’t get it just right on your first try, so be prepared to iterate.
It is painstakingly tedious at first, but literally measuring the impact of every blog post, tweet, facebook post, linkedin post, video, and podcast will very quickly demonstrate what resonates and where it resonates with your audience. That’s how you’ll know what to do next. The data doesn’t lie. But where do you even start?
“That which is measured improves. That which is measured and reported improves exponentially.” – Karl Pearson
Start with Google Analytics behind your website. If you didn’t turn this free service on the first day you opened up your website, humbly admit you made a mistake and add it now. Google Analytics is free and incredibly powerful. You will quickly know who is visiting your website, how they got there, how long they stayed, and what pages they stayed on the longest. There is so much more than that, but focus on those four things for now.
Next, look at your social media analytics. While the “shotgun send everything out on every channel” may not be the best strategy, you have to start somewhere. If you’re starting from ground zero, that may be the easiest way to determine which social media channel(s) your audience prefers. Each platform offers some basic analytics for free. Some are better than others, but they all give you the basics of how much engagement (views, clicks, replies, shares, etc.) each post gets. When your audience is engaging with your content, you’re doing something right.
The opposite is also very true: when your audience is not engaging, you’re doing something wrong. Wrong channel? Message? Imagery? Test, test, test.
When you’re grinding it out to determine the best message, media, content, and audience, you’ll repeat the process over and over until you determine the best performing combinations. Once you determine the best performing combinations, you will continue to repeat the process to improve every aspect of it! The Internet never stops, and your audience and competition never stop either.
That is again why many organizations – big and small – give up on content marketing. It’s far more difficult than publishing a few haphazard blog posts and expecting massive engagement. If you’re already famous, perhaps you already have an audience to influence. Most organizations, especially startups, do not have such a luxury.
The best time to start producing content was 10 years ago. The second best time is today. Content marketing is the long term strategy for succeeding in SEO, building an audience, and most importantly, building your brand.