The Prologue to Content Marketing

Content marketing isn’t new, and countless articles have covered the subject at length in the past few years. Some cover advanced strategies that require large budgets, while others focus narrowly on just one aspect of content marketing, while others take a holistic, converged approach. For someone just getting their feet wet, it can be an intimidating landscape for learning to happen.

If you’re new to content marketing or, perhaps even more likely, feeling stuck in your content marketing strategy and not sure what to do next – keep reading. This article is for you.

What the heck is content marketing?

The Content Marketing Institute defines content marketing as:

“… a marketing technique of creating and distributing valuable, relevant and consistent content to attract and acquire a clearly defined audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action.”

So basically, creating content to sell things. Yet, if it were that simple, you wouldn’t be reading this article. In fact, content marketing is pretty darn complex and works in many different ways. Hopefully, this article will give you a better understanding of where content marketing started, how it has evolved over time and how you can utilize content to build awareness, trust and – in the end – engage your audience to make a buying decision.

Content marketing isn’t new


Though the term “content marketing” is relatively new (it was coined in 1996) and the idea of using content to sell products has been around for over a century. The Furrow is a magazine started in 1895. It was distributed mainly to farmers who were settling the heartland of the United States but soon grew a large national audience.

What drew so many inquiring eyes? The Furrow provided expert advice on farming techniques that were being developed at the turn of the century. Understanding crop rotations, soil types, irrigation and the transition from live animals doing the work on farms to machines were becoming essential to the American farmer.

The technique of utilizing motorized farming equipment was an ever-present theme in The Furrow because it was owned and published by John Deere. Within its own publication, John Deere was able to not only give helpful advice – therefore building trust, credibility, and a large subscriber base – but also owned the entire editorial content, which included a bias toward using machines to do work instead of livestock. Because John Deere owned it, The Furrow was one of the original pieces of owned media content.

Fast forward to the 1930’s. Soap operas began airing on radio stations around the country. Between each melodramatic vignette, a commercial almost always played that revolved around cleaning supplies. Why? The first soap operas were owned and produced by Proctor & Gamble. They created the entire content of the shows, knowing that their audience was women who were at home during the day. By producing entertainment that would first get their audiences attention, they were then able to get their product messaging in front of the same audience.

One of my favorite examples of current content marketing that utilizes entertainment is Will it Blend?

Will it Blend? is produced by BlendTec, a high-end blender company. They provide entertainment by destroying anything and everything in their blenders. While it’s fun to watch, it’s also proving a point: If this blender can turn an iPhone into dust, it can handle your margaritas.

Not everyone who watches Will it Blend? is in the market for blenders, but if you were to find yourself throwing a lot of parties and decided you needed to upgrade your blender…after having seen these videos, wouldn’t you want a BlendTec blender?

Provide real value to your audience

In the examples above, you can see that each provided value to their audience. These weren’t just advertisements. The Furrow gave essential advice to farmers. Soap operas provided entertainment that was otherwise unavailable within a household. BlendTec gives us viral entertainment without a sales pitch.

Content marketing expert Jay Baer sums it up best:

Sell something and you make a customer today. Help someone and you create a customer for life. – Jay Baer

It’s tempting to start creating content that is self-serving. In fact, a lot of content marketing we encounter is just that. It’s created for the sole purpose of selling instead of helping or entertaining people. That’s because a lot of content marketing is created by people who have been crafting marketing messaging for advertising. And that ad mentality is what gets people in trouble.

Marketing your content

It’s easy to see why people with an ad mentality think it will work with content marketing. After creating your content, you need to market it – and yes, part of that marketing looks a lot like advertising.

As you approach the idea of promoting content, you will hear some common terms thrown around. It’s important for us to understand these terms and their definitions.

  • Sponsored content – Creating “advertorials” that appear as articles in publications other than those that the brand owns. These are written either by the brand or by a journalist with the brand’s input.
  • Brand journalism – Branded content that is created to entertain or inform an audience. These are mainly hosted on owned channels and are then pitched to media sites to get further exposure. Great examples of brand journalism are Red Bull’s Stratos project and Chipotle’s “The Scarecrow”. Both of these examples entertain and educate an audience without being overly promotional.
  • Native advertising – Typically less intrusive than traditional advertising, native advertising attempts to gain attention by providing valuable content in the context of the user’s experience. Examples include paid promotions on Twitter and Facebook, and Google Adwords. They also include advertisements for suggested content that appear alongside or under native stories in major media outlets.
  • Influencer marketing – Finding influencers that have sway over the target audience and marketing content to those influencers. If they find it helpful, they will share it with their engaged audience.

Why content marketing fails

Rand Fishkin, a foremost expert on SEO and marketing, addressed head on why content marketing fails. Go to that link and read all 86 slides. It’s well worth the time.


The first reason content marketing fails is because marketers are tricked into thinking that a content piece should drive immediate revenue. Driving revenue is the goal in the long run, but it won’t come instantly. People won’t read your content and say, “Wow, this was really helpful. I want to buy whatever these guys are selling!” And yet content marketing is so often measured by asking, “How much direct revenue did I get for these content pieces?” With this frame of mind, content marketing will almost always fail.

Second, it is often assumed that content marketing will result in something going viral. Do not base your strategy on content going viral. That’s like making a business strategy purely focused on buying lottery tickets. Instead, you need to focus on your audience and give them something that inspires or helps them.

Third, marketers don’t truly market their content. They just create it and watch it sit there. Go to the section above and really think about those means of marketing content again. And don’t forget organic social promotion.

Fourth, SEO if often overlooked. Don’t worry; we’ll get to this two sections down.

Finally, people give up too easily. We’ll show you how to keep the content marketing engine humming three sections down.

How does it really work?

When people find your content, they consume it and most likely move on. That’s fine; you made an impression on them. If you continue creating great, helpful content, your audience will probably find you again. This process builds awareness around your brand and products, but rarely does it result in someone buying a product then and there.

And unlike The Furrow or soap operas in the 30’s, it’s hard to get a captive audience who will only listen to what you have to say. While building an engaged audience will happen when you create great content, don’t put all your eggs in the “If we create it, they will come – and stay, and keep coming back” basket.

For a while, this was the mindset many content marketers had, and it left many of them wondering what they did wrong because readers wouldn’t keep coming back to any and every content piece they wrote. You don’t need people to come back and read your content every day or every week. You just need to make a great impression with the content they do see.

Content marketing is PR that directly helps people. You’re building credibility by helping your audience. Where PR utilizes third parties to gain credibility, content marketing goes straight to the consumer and says, “Hey, I’m going to show you that I’m a valuable resource by helping you right now.”

And that builds trust. It builds authority. It builds an audience.

And then, when that audience comes to the point of needing a similar product or service that you offer, what will they do? Most likely, if they know you offer the product or service they’re after, they will search for you directly by name. If they can’t remember your brand name or don’t know that you offer it, they may search for the unique spin your product or service had (i.e. “blender that blends iphone”).

Content marketing and SEO

As marketing your content builds trust with your audience, it also builds trust with search engines. Search engines use over 200 different factors to rank content in results, but some of the biggest factors include:

  • How many people link to your content
  • How often your content is shared via social channels
  • How credible your website domain is
  • Use of keywords in your content

By driving larger audiences to your site, you are increasing the likelihood that your content will get shares and links back to it. In turn, this increases the credibility of your website domain in search engines. Increased credibility means higher page rankings, which then drives more traffic. This cycle repeats.

Within the content you create, use keywords and phrases that your audience will search for. Check out this Moz article that goes into more depth on how to select keywords that will resonate with your audience and search engines.

Keeping the engine humming

The content marketing process doesn’t stop after a few content pieces are created. You must constantly push new content or repurpose old content in new ways for two big reasons:

  1. Social media has created an overwhelming amount of content noise that you have to work hard to be heard through.
  2. Search engines love fresh content, and each piece you publish helps build your website’s domain authority.

A great way to stretch content is to create one large content marketing initiative – an in-depth white paper, ebook, application, etc. – and then supplement it with smaller content pieces that are related.

For example, an ebook could easily be repurposed into multiple tip sheets, a couple of videos, webinars, and many blog posts. Each of these content pieces acts as a pole in the water to find your potential audience. Once you hook them with content, keep feeding it to them as they need it. And when they’re ready, they will return the favor by providing you with their business.

TL;DR (too long; didn’t read)

Here are the main points to remember:

  • Content marketing isn’t new; it’s been around for over a century.
  • Build great content pieces that help or entertain your audience, which will, in turn, build trust and authority with them.
  • Promote content through many different means; your content is worthless without an audience to consume it.
  • Content marketing is not a quick win and it’s not about going viral.
  • Understand the impact SEO can have on your content being discovered and leverage it as you strategize and create content.
  • Repurpose content in many different formats and mediums to broaden your reach.

Content marketing, at face value, sounds great. But in practice, it’s not always so cut and dry where you should be focusing efforts and where to go next. As with most methodologies in business, it’s wise to track your baselines and measure them against new efforts to see if things get better or worse. Use that data, along with the concepts and strategies discussed in this article, to keep progressing in your content marketing endeavors.

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