Weiss 120by Amy Weiss, The Imaging Channel

Marketing, like any dynamic component of the business world, evolves with the times. In a definition adopted in 2013, the American Marketing Association says it is “… the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.”

Like marketing itself, the AMA’s definition of marketing has seen a number of changes over the years. The first definition was adopted in 1937, defining marketing as “business activities involved in the flow of goods and services from production to consumption.” A notable difference between that old definition and the current one? The word “exchange,” which was first added in 1985. Marketing’s evolution has included moving away from marketing “to” customers and toward “exchanging offerings.”

The idea of marketing being an exchange rather than a one-way street brings us to the concept of content marketing. It’s a term we hear a lot lately, but what is it exactly? According to the Content Marketing Institute, “Content marketing is a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly-defined audience — and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.”

If that’s a bit long-winded and clumsy (as definitions can be), here’s a simpler explanation from CMI: “Basically, content marketing is the art of communicating with your customers and prospects without selling.” Makes more sense — but how does it work? Well, let’s get back to that definition. “Valuable, relevant and consistent content” is something people want to consume. It’s content that educates rather than sells; that provides value rather than a product; that offers useful, viable and potentially actionable information. The word “actionable” is key here, as the end goal is the sale of your product or service. It’s a fair and equitable trade — you provide insight, education and other valuable information to your target audience, and they buy from you.

Of course it’s not quite that simple. There are many types of content marketing and depending on your industry, product and audience, some may work better than others. Usually a combination is the best approach, and a good content marketing campaign will offer the right mix. Here are a few of the more common types:

Blogs

One of the oldest and most basic methods of content marketing, blogs also continue to be one of the most widely used and effective — when done correctly. When you hear the word “blog” you may instantly think of the personal journal-type websites that gained popularity about 10 years ago, when anyone with access to a computer started pouring out stream-of-consciousness thoughts for the Internet in general to read (I admit to being one of these). However, like so many platforms, consumerization took over the blogosphere as well and businesses began to adopt the concept of the blog as a form of customer outreach and education. In its 2016 Benchmarks, Budgets, and Trends study, CMI found 81 percent of B2B marketers using blogs in their content marketing programs, although only 59 percent found them to be effective — getting back to the “done correctly” disclaimer above. Blog posts should be short, concise, on-topic, informative, well-written and frequently updated, to name just a few criteria. The last item, in particular, can be tricky — companies like Cisco, for example, that have an extensive blog section on their website, can utilize a large employee base for contributions, but for others, outsourcing might be a solution. Look to your customers for input as well; they may be happy to be featured on your page. Just don’t lose focus on quality and neutrality; while some light promotion might be acceptable, for the most part blogs should be neutral, informative and educational. Do it right and the sales will come later.

Articles

What’s the difference between a blog and an article? About 1,000 words. Well, sort of. Length is one of the differentiators between articles and blogs, but articles also tend to be a bit more formal, encompassing in-depth research, interviews and other sources. As articles written primarily for web become more common, however, there is a bit of a blur between the two. Blogs sometimes stretch to 1,000 words and include interviews; articles, conversely, may be a little more informal and conversational. A longer article will have the benefit of keeping visitors on your page for a longer period of time — assuming the reader stays engaged with the article. Knowing who your target audience is and focusing specifically on them in the content creation process will significantly increase the likelihood of readers staying engaged in a long article until the end. As an added benefit, longer content tends to rank higher in Google’s search results. 

E-books

Want even longer-form content? Try an e-book. In content marketing terms an e-book isn’t just the digital form of a novel you download on your Kindle. The ever-helpful CMI defines it this way: “Think of it as a white paper on steroids (the sexy white paper): a report, generally 12-40 or more pages in length, that presents complex information in a visually attractive, reader-friendly format. The content is both informative and entertaining; the tone, collegial; the format, ‘chunky’ rather than linear, to facilitate skimming and scanning.” 

One of the great things about an e-book is that, as a more valuable asset, it can also be used for lead generation by asking users to fill out a form in order to download it, and can be promoted through more traditional marketing efforts. An example is an e-book titled “Myths About Moving to the Cloud” from Microsoft, the ad for which caught my eye on a couple of different tech sites I frequent. In exchange for some basic information about me and my company I got a 13-page PDF e-book. The overhead for an e-book is greater than either of the previous examples, as both writing and design are required, but the return should be proportionately larger as well.

Podcasts

One of the newer and more popular forms of content marketing is the podcast. Like blogs, podcasts themselves are not necessarily new, but have been adapted by the B2B industry as a great form of marketing. Podcasts are audio files created for an on-demand, mobile audience who can listen to your message in their cars, on their computers, or anywhere in between. Podcast links easily fit in with other content marketing pieces on a business’s website and can cross link, as a podcast from SunTrust bank I listened to recently did, leading the audience to a variety of related multimedia resources like blogs and infographics, all based on a similar topic. A series of podcasts can be created with a specific audience in mind, and that audience can be encouraged to download the series or subscribe, so they get notifications when a new episode is released. Like e-books there is a higher barrier to entry with podcasts than with blogs or articles, but the rewards are likewise proportionally greater. The keys to a successful podcast are not that different from written content — good promotion will get the listeners there and lively, dynamic content will keep them coming back.

Content marketing: A win-win proposition

These are just a few of the potential content marketing opportunities available to the B2B market today; others include infographics, white papers, case studies, newsletters, and many more. All of these are great ways for attracting potential customers as well as building your brand. Content marketing pieces — in particular articles and blogs — go a long way toward building a website that ranks high in the ratings. In its Webmaster Tools, Google states, “The key to creating a great website is to create the best possible experience for your audience with original and high quality content.” Sound like something good content marketing can bring to your site? It’s a win-win. When content marketing is done well, it can then increase your search engine rankings, bringing in a larger, targeted and engaged audience.

Content marketing is king when it comes to making marketing a two-way street. It adds the “exchange” into the marketing dynamic and enables you to be perceived as not only a valuable resource for products but for information as well. More than a provider, you have become a thought leader, putting you head and shoulders above the competition. So if you haven’t started thinking about content marketing, there is no better time than the present. 

This article originally appeared in the April 2016 issue of The Imaging Channel.