19 Lessons From THE Leaders in Content Marketing

The typewriter, pioneer of content creation

Content marketing authority HubSpot has slated this as the “year of self-doubt” for marketers. As strategies change and the marketer’s responsibilities expand and evolve, strategists, teams, and content creators find themselves stretched thin, wondering if all of this investment is worth it.

But while marketers waffle over their next move, three thought leaders maintain that content marketing is not only strong, but getting stronger, forging new partnerships, relationships, and dynamics between customers and businesses.

In this time of struggle and self-doubt, a little guidance goes a long way. Brian Clark, Brian Halligan, and Joe Pulizzi have each experienced these moments, and soldiered through them to pioneer the movement that’s changing how we do business every day.

From interviews and articles written by the men themselves, the picture is clear: content marketing isn’t about incremental gains and individual sentences. It’s about building a consistent, well-executed culture that focuses on your audience and drives value to meaningful and significant ends.

Brian Clark, CEO of Copyblogger

1. Being authentic means being in touch with your audience

At it’s core, content marketing works because it allows your business and your customers to develop a more engaging relationship. The pivotal fact about this capacity is that it depends on your team’s ability to foster conversation by giving your audience what they want. When bolstered by a clear expression of your company’s personality, through tone, language, and human interaction, articles and infographics become opportunities to start a dialogue. One of Clark’s biggest complaints about many content marketing efforts is that companies focus too much on expressing themselves, and not enough on their audience.

Being “human” and “authentic” is not as simple as saying whatever is on your mind, and taking the practice to the extreme can compromise your ability to meet your audience’s needs. Yes, customers are looking for human interaction, and they want that interaction to be predicated on honest conversation. However, content is fundamentally about delivering value, and if your jokes, honesty, and diction compromise that value, then it’s time to remember who matters most: the customer.

2. It is better to “dumb it down” than go over your audience’s heads

Your businesses possesses a great deal of specialized knowledge. In fact, this knowledge is so unique that your team probably doesn’t even realize how esoteric it is. When you work with this information on a daily basis, it can be difficult to separate the “obvious” from the obvious, and the operationally relevant from that which is relevant to the reader’s life.

If Clark and Copyblogger have one critical rule, it is that it is better to dumb your content down than it is to go over your audiences’ heads. With eight out of 10 online readers only skimming headlines, its safe to say that an opaque first impression is more likely to drive away your audience than foster a conversation.

Don’t grumble that you’re best explanations aren’t landing with your audience; step into their shoes and determine what they know, what they don’t, and what really matters to them. Make sure that valuable knowledge is shared effectively by keeping the reader first and maintaining value as your top priority.

3. Media channels are marketing channels

One extremely common theme between all current thought leaders on content marketing is that customers should get what they want. With the controversial suggestion that you’re more likely to survive a plane crash than click on a banner ad finding traction on the Internet, it’s pretty clear that what customers do not want is more of the same thing.

What Clark recommends is that businesses adopt media channels as marketing tools. To begin with, media channels, by their very nature, give customers what they want. The content generated through blogs, YouTube, and Instagram meet customers on their channels and in formats that they enjoy and recognize. Furthermore, these media channels are, essentially, marketing channels. By disseminating media that corresponds with your company’s culture, addressing your customer’s needs and offering solutions, media channels have become the new generation of meaningful, signal-over-noise marketing.

4. It’s not enough to just have great information

Clark is an all about audience. Copyblogger is, more than anything, a resource for writers and businesses looking to understand their audience and give them what they’re after. On another level, Clark’s company is about turning your knowledge into a resource that enriches customer lives, forges connections, and leads to profitable conversion.

Therein lies an important lesson: it’s not enough to simply possess great information. How you present that information and what it means to your audience are equal, if not greater considerations.

Headlines, images, subheadings, and paragraphs should all be optimized to best express the information presented, but, more importantly, the information presented should be valuable and relevant. Just remember, your audience is “where the rubber meets the road”, and no company blog is going to find traction if the content doesn’t stick.

5. Know yourself, know your audience, and the rest will come

It’s easy to become fixated on the details of content creation. Keyword density, frequency of social promotion, and a myriad of analytics can all monopolize your attention while the big picture goes overlooked. From Clark’s perspective, this is a recipe for disjointed content and unfulfilled potential.

The Copyblogger CEO is adamant that great content and genuine interaction come from a combination of self-knowledge and audience knowledge. Self-knowledge helps fuel the understanding of your organizational assets, highlighting value and defining the culture behind your media. Audience knowledge defines presentation and guides ideation. The combination of these two fills in the blanks in all other arenas, including considerations like focus keyword, distribution, and campaign goals.

6. Subtlety matters, even if no one notices

The human brain is a fascinating thing. According to research by Cambridge University, it literally does not matter in what order the letters of words are presented, only that the first and last letters are consistent. In layman’s terms, this means that the words “marketing” and “mraktenig” are processed the same way.

This kind of discrete processing has a lot to do with why Internet readers are skimmers. Our brains quickly observe and dissect information, prompting the obvious question: do the details even matter?

According to Clark, they absolutely do.

Allow your over-arching marketing goals to inform your efforts, and then reinforce those efforts with strong, subtle details. Use language that your audience can understand, throw in a story or some statistics for powerful reinforcement, and keep examples relevant to prove the validity of your point. The reader may not explicitly acknowledge these devices as effective, but their “sbucoionsucs” certainly will.

Brian Halligan, co-founder of HubSpot

7. Wherever inspiration is found, go there

Writing, filming, designing, and other creative techniques can be challenging, especially if your background doesn’t include any experience or education in these capacities. However, these tools serve little purpose without a great idea to make them shine.

And therein lies the rub. Even if you do possess creative skills, generating fresh, grabby ideas on a regular basis is perhaps the most challenging part of the process.

Halligan’s advice for frustrated content creators: follow your muse. The co-founder of HubSpot has gone so far as to embrace naps as part of his workplace routine  since his best ideas come to him when he’s about to take a nap. The approach is unconventional, but it demonstrates one important fact: wherever you find your inspiration, go there. After all, no one drills a well where the soil is dry.

8. Workplace culture is an asset

Brian Clark’s MO is audience focus, but Brian Halligan maintains that a strong internal culture leads to external success.

In the context of content marketing, internal culture becomes a source of unique value. With bloggers creating 2.73 million blog posts per day, businesses can no longer afford to be a part of the crowd, lest their most valuable contributions drown in a sea of information. By maintaining a strong internal culture, your day-to-day interactions and personality can inform your writing, presenting popular ideas in unique ways that enhance the reader’s experience and make your blog more stand out from the crowd.

In addition, strong internal culture can help foster the content creation process itself. If your workplace is all about pushing boundaries and exploring new avenues, then your creative teams can benefit from the ingrained belief that the ordinary is boring, and the unique and bizarre is what is valuable.

9. Be a hub, not a megaphone

The word engagement is frequently tied to content marketing, and for good reason. What old methods, such as advertising and direct mail, fail to capture is the response to marketing messages. Certainly, these materials encourage awareness, but according to Halligan they act more as “megaphones”.

In this context, he’s referring to the picture of the circus barker model of marketing. Needless to say, when your engagement model consists of standing outside your storefront, trumpeting your name and products to even the unwilling passers-by, conversion is a lofty goal at best.

Instead, he emphasizes the importance of turning your business blog or other media channels into a hub, leaving the megaphone model behind. Create articles where readers can comment and discuss the ideas presented. Create videos that encourage video responses and further conversation. Use these marketing channels as a place to spur dialogue and use them to gauge the needs of your customers and mine future ideas, but above all, make something meaningful and enriching for your devoted following.

10. Marketing is a relationship

Another problem with the megaphone model is that it sees the marketing relationship as a one way street. “We have products, they need them, and we’re going to tell them that they need them,” is a poor way to run a business in an era where an attentive ear is both appreciated and useful. Instead, Halligan emphasizes the relationship between customer and business as a necessity and a resource, investing time into an endeavor that makes customers feel appreciated and developers confident.

11. Never expect customers to come to you

There was a time when one or two media channels dominated the marketing landscape. In this bygone era, businesses could publish an advertisement during the Super Bowl and expect millions of people to see it and take note.

Halligan argues that those days are over. The modern consumer, he says, has become extremely adept at avoiding distracting media, and creating their own media ecosystem that fits their needs.

In this era, savvy businesses are forced to meet customers on their terms. If your particular audience thrives on Quora, go to Quora. If heavily filtered Instagram photos are their thing, go there. Wherever the buyers are, businesses must meet them and create content that interests them, enriches them, and makes them want more.

12. The old tactics don’t work anymore

Just like Clark, Halligan believes firmly and simply that the “old” tactics just don’t work anymore. With the capacity for engagement and discussion opening new avenues for businesses, methods that don’t facilitate this kind of activity simply don’t fit the bill any longer. Seth Godin, marketing legend, was once quoted as saying that “content marketing is the only marketing left.” At least by Halligan’s reckoning, he’s right.

Joe Pulizzi, founder of the Content Marketing Institute

13. Curation may be just as valuable as creation (though not a substitute)

Authority comes in many forms. It’s a fact that many content marketers fail to recognize. For some companies, it’s the creation of unique and valuable content, for others its the ability to recognize what great content is. For truly savvy companies, it’s both.

Content marketing in its purest form is about delivering value to your customers, whether this value comes from your business or another. The idea truly isn’t so crazy; consider the frequency with which your team cites external sources for statistics, and it’s easy to understand that no one team can do it all themselves.

For this reason, Pulizzi believes that content curation is just as important as content creation. By collecting articles and information from other sources and presenting them to your audience, you accomplish two tasks in particular. First, you build a relationship between your site and the source of information through a show of respect. Second, you build association between your brand and valuable information. The combination is a potent combination of humility, taste, and customer-first focus that builds authority, regardless of the original author.

14. Success lies where your knowledge and your audience’s interests meet

The formula for content marketing success takes many forms, depending on who you ask. To Pulizzi, there is only one formula for successful ideas.

The founder of the Content Marketing Institute notes that information falls into two distinct categories: what you know and what your audience wants to know. Success, he maintains, falls at the intersection of the two.

The concept is not rocket science either. Your authority and knowledge extends to a limited sphere of information, and your audience only cares about some of it. By finding out where that intersection lies, you simultaneously meet your audience’s needs, and capitalize on your specialized knowledge. That synergy is what creates value, and separates your company from the masses.

15. Stop soliciting, start providing

According to Pulizzi, marketing relationships and human relationships are virtually one and the same. In this way, he holds, the two abide by one common rule: great relationships are predicated on giving and sharing, not asking and taking.

With this in mind, he implores modern businesses to stop soliciting and start providing value for their customers. Marketing is no longer about asking what customers can do for you, it’s about what you can do for your customers that will then motivate reciprocation. It’s a simple lesson with powerful implications that no company can afford to ignore any longer as customers grow more discerning, and competitors grow smarter.

16. Great content inspires action

If there’s one task that most of us hate, it’s defining the undefinable. Mission statements and management meetings implore us to consider “what makes a company great?” “What are our indiscernible assets that separate us subconsciously from our competitors?” With all these platitudes flying around, concrete answers are in short supply.

Fortunately, Pulizzi offers one concrete answer regarding content. “Great content,” he says, “makes people take action.”

This action can come in many forms, but the key barometer of “great” content is whether or not it inspires readers to do something. This can include sharing on social media, making a purchase, improving their life, or joining your social following. Whatever it may be, if your analytics don’t indicate a discernible change in customer action as a result of your ideas and media, then that content simply isn’t great.

17. Great content is irreplaceable

Working further to define great action, Pulizzi does offer one lofty goal for content creators: make your content irreplaceable.

Consider the buyer’s journey. As individuals with a problem look to solve it through a product or service, they must ultimately choose whichever option is the one that they cannot live without. By its nature, this option is “irreplaceable”; it offers something to their life or experience that other choices cannot match.

This is what makes content great. If you Google, “how do I set up my router,” and over 1 million hits offer the same information, then that content is not irreplaceable.

If one of those options offers a step-by-step guide with specific instructions for each model and home configuration based on user input, then that one resource becomes irreplaceable, standing out from the crowd and giving readers what no other piece does. Striving for anything less than this standard, according to Pulizzi, is a waste of time.

18. Consistency is not just important, it’s an absolute necessity

When tackling any task, the most difficult aspects command your attention. When you’re in the idea business, ideas are often the hardest part to nail down. According to Pulizzi, however, consistency should take the front-seat for content creators.

Why is this? Because consistency builds trust. Consistency builds an air of reliability and accountability. Even if your latest and greatest idea for a blog post comes at the eleventh hour, as long as it is published on time, audiences see your publication as a consistent, authoritative resource for quality information. Simply put, the comfort and reassurance that comes from knowing that a new post will go live every couple of days is what turns blogs with good ideas into blogs with faithful followings.

19. Content marketing is part of a larger marketing plan

Ever the pragmatist, Pulizzi rounds out our list with a little bit of perspective. Content marketing is an ambitious endeavor for most, and even when the pieces fall into place, it can still be difficult to churn out great ideas at a consistent pace. But while this may lead many business owners and marketers to mistake the tool for the task, so to speak, he maintains that it is important to recognize that content marketing is just a part of a larger marketing effort.

That isn’t to say that successfully managing your content marketing from top to bottom isn’t a priority. Successful content marketing efforts require all hands on deck, a well-concevied plan, attention to detail, patience, and creative savvy. Ignoring any of these moving parts can dampen the potency of your efforts, and turn time well-intended into time wasted.

However, despite the effort involved, content marketing is a means to an end. Brand awareness, customer engagement, and sales conversion are all top priorities enabled by the content creation process. More importantly, this big-picture focus helps inform the details of your process, as Halligan also indicates.

What Halligan, Clark, and Pulizzi each suggest in their own way is that content marketing success requires a change in how we do business. Instead of focusing on the payout, focus on the audience and what they need. Build conversation around disruptive ideas and use your business as a conduit for meaningful innovation and creativity.

Finally, remember that everything from the words on the page to the philosophy of your company is inextricably tied together, working synergistically to build relationships that foster better products, better service, and a better environment for your employees, your customers, and your ambitions.

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