“Content marketing is just solving the same problems that your product solves through media you create and promote.”
This quote by Jay Acunzo of NextView ventures in his post Should Startups Blog? stopped me cold and made me re-think content marketing forever.
Why did it have such an effect on me? Because it stated an obvious point I had directly experienced for the last eight years with content marketing: the most successful content marketers treated content like a product offering, not like a marketing tactic.
Let me tell you the story of how I became acquainted with modern content marketing.
I was laid off from a software sales job during the first week of January of 2009. It was just after all hell broke loose in the stock market – the beginning of the ‘Great Recession.’
So there I was, January 2009, out of a job and with no prospects. What to do? I already had enough of the corporate world, so I decided to launch my own consulting career. But with no money for marketing I concluded the only thing I could do was blog.
But I didn’t know the first thing about how to blog to generate business for myself. I did what anybody in my situation would do: I went to Google.
I stumbled upon Copyblogger. It was only a few years old at that time. I couldn’t believe my luck, because what I found was a treasure trove of free content – content so valuable that I felt guilty consuming it.
The first series of blog posts that grabbed me was their initial “Copywriting 101” series written by Sonia Simone and Brian Clark.
This was truly valuable content. It was chock full of valuable advice, the kind that normally costs hundreds of dollars to get from an online course – yet here were Simone and Clark giving it away for free.
In fact, that’s how Copyblogger built its business: by giving away tons of really valuable content.
Of course, now they are one of the most successful Software-as-a-Service companies with their Rainmaker Platform.
But to me, and to thousands of writers and freelancers out there, their main product is their content. That software stuff is just how they make money.
Copyblogger treated me like a customer. I never felt like they were trying to butter me up to sell me something. However, they did sell me stuff: teaching sells, premium WordPress templates from StudioPress, membership in their Authority membership site. I estimate that I have spent over $1,000 on various “paid for” product they have.
But I became a customer the minute I consumed their free content and subscribed to their newsletter.
Brian Massey, “The Conversion Scientist,” explains it this way in his book The Customer Creation Equation:
“The term ‘customer’ works because we should treat our leads with the same respect that we treat customers who have paid with cash.”
Massey doesn’t like the term “lead,” nor do I. He calls it “sales speak” because it seems to dehumanize the very people we are striving to help.
But why, asks Massey, should we call them customers when they haven’t bought anything? Because on the Internet, no one is going to give you their contact information unless you offer them something in return.
“They’ll fill out a ‘lead’ form if you promise a great report, webinar, or some consulting time on the phone,” continues Massey in his book.
They have bought something with their attention, and with their email address – two very important resources we hold dear in this day and age.
And how do you to treat your customers? You strive to make their experience with your product or service as wonderful as possible. You want them to become loyal customers, you want to eventually upsell them to your higher value products and services. And in the case of “content as product,” you want to upsell them to a paid product.
But first, treat them as a welcome member of your customer family, that exclusive club of preferred customers who have given you their valuable time and attention, and deserve your best.
In his revolutionary book Experiences: The 7th Era of Marketing, Robert Rose of the Content Marketing Institute said you should treat your content not as a campaign, but with a product development mindset.
I wanted to include the following excerpt in its entirety because I think it’s so important:
In a traditional marketing or advertising campaign, we want to understand the campaign goals and tracking, the target audience, the key campaign messages, the offers, the media strategies, and the schedule and campaign integration. Many of these are similar to the construction of a content marketing approach. But there is one critical— and often overlooked— difference. This experience really has no end. It’s not a campaign. It’s a content product. In this regard, the mapping, building, and ultimate management of the content-driven experience looks much more like product development than it does a traditional marketing campaign.
Rose says it’s like planning and building a permanent space station, not a mission to orbit the earth and come home.
The best product development model to follow for the ongoing ideation, creation, production and publication of content is the media company model – for who content is THE product.
But obviously, this looks a little different when you’re a product or service company and living in the 24/7 always on Internet.
Contently produced a very interesting graphic that represents the prerogative for content marketing departments today:
SOURCE: CONTENTLY, “STATE OF CONTENT MARKETING 2016: THE TIPPING POINT”
At the center of this chaotic spaghetti of content that is produced for many channels is the Brand Newsroom – a permanent, well-defined department that serves as the machine that produces, like clockwork, the ongoing content needs of the organization.
If content is one of your products, then you need to approach it with a product development mindset and put into place procedures for ongoing product ideation, creation, production, and publication.
And talking about Contently, Shane Snow, Contently’s founder, wrote SmartCuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success, a fascinating book which interestingly has nothing to do with content marketing. But Snow inadvertently provided one of the most valuable lessons for content-driven organizations: Your mission, especially if it’s a mission to start a movement or change the world, is highly important.
In the book, Snow describes research conducted in the 2000s by executive Jim Stengel, formerly global marketing head of Procter & Gamble and research firm Millward Brown to collect a decade’s worth of data on the market performance of major brands that orient themselves around a noble purpose or ideal.
Snow said the findings were more dramatic than he expected.
“Brands with lofty purposes beyond making profits wildly outperformed the S& P 500. From 2001 to 2011, an investment in the 50 most idealistic brands— the ones opting for the high-hanging purpose and not just low-hanging profits— would have been 400 percent more profitable than shares of an S& P index fund.”
Snow cites content marketing poster child Red Bull, and Whole Foods, as iconoclastic examples of brands who have put their mission apparently above their profit motive – although of course these brands are very very profitable.
In order for your content to be successful, your mission should be to change people’s lives, to lead a movement, to champion a cause – whether your “customers” pay you for the privilege or not.
Copyblogger honestly doesn’t care whether most of their subscribers buy any of their stuff – their mission is to improve the writing skills and marketing savvy of freelancers and creatives everywhere – while making an insane profit in the process.
And that’s the ironic thing about your content as a product: you’re giving away deep value in the form of free and paid products to fulfill your mission to improve lives – and you get paid handsomely for it.
Success in content marketing starts with your mindset for approaching content. If you treat content as a campaign or as a marketing tactic (and I know this is going to sound weird and woo-woo), karmically it comes through. People can smell a marketing pitch a mile away, even though you’re taking a content marketing approach.
As Jay Baer says in Youtility, be useful, be valuable, but not in a “…Trojan-horse, ‘infomercial that pretends to be useful but is actually a sales pitch’ way.”
Approach your content with the mindset that it is a product that represents and fulfills your customer-driven mission. Treat your leads as customers to whom you’re delivering value, and turn them into loyal customers who eventually buy your “paid for” products. Implement a product development process to your content, because content must be an ongoing process, not a campaign. Approach it the way media companies do.
And finally, make it your mission to change your customers’ lives and lead a movement they’d love to belong to. Your mission is expressed by your free products (your content), and your “paid for” products. Your mission transcends your profit motive, but of course you’ll make mint.
As a result of this change in perspective, I’m changing the way I approach my content marketing. I’m approaching it as my initial product offering to my clients, sincerely and without reservation. Not in a cynical quest to implement the power of reciprocity, but because it’s the right thing to do – and it works!