You know that old saying, “can’t see the forest for the trees”? As content creators, it is easy to fall victim to this way of approaching our work. There’s no need to be a sucker fish, stuck to the glass watching your content go nowhere. The pressure to create quality content on a regular basis can easily occupy most of our mental real estate, leaving little room to analyze the bigger picture.
In this blog, we’ll take the time to zoom out, and to re-examine what exactly we do as content creators and, more importantly, why we do it. Along the way, we’ll share some guiding principles of content marketing and how you can implement them to best serve your audience.
First of all… What is content marketing?
In order to gain an understanding of this very fundamental concept, it is useful to first consider what content marketing is not.
Content marketing is not advertising, at least not in the traditional sense. The two do share a common goal — making a sale of a product or service — but the paths to arriving at that goal are completely divergent.
The purpose of traditional advertising is to very directly hype up a product, service, or brand as a whole. For example, think back to those used car dealership ads with the huge Sans Serif all caps text that used to come in your daily local newspaper. Most likely, you remember something that had pictures of cars with brief phrases like “Low mileage!” or “Has air conditioning!” or “Heated seats!”. Perhaps at the bottom it featured a bold proclamation like, “For the best service in town, come to Roaming Sapiens Used Cars!”.
Content marketing is just about everything that a used car ad in a local newspaper is not. While the ad is potentially effective in certain settings or for certain people, it thoroughly lacks subtlety.
Unlike these ads, content marketing shifts the focus away from the product or brand itself, and onto a very specific, targeted audience. The general philosophy of content marketing is that your audience cares very little about how great you think your brand or product is, and much more about making informed decisions about the wide array of products available to them. Therefore, the main purpose of content marketing is to anticipate the questions that your ideal customer might have and use content to answer them.
Why do companies create content?
The simplest answer, just like in traditional advertising, is that companies create content to generate sales. But in content marketing, that’s not the whole picture.
The process of converting someone from simply reading your content to actually purchasing your product is not something that happens overnight. For content marketing, especially online content marketing, to be effective, your audience needs time to begin to see you as an authority figure within your industry. They need to gain the sense that you are a reliable, trustworthy brand that has their specific interests and needs in mind. It is only once a potential customer grows an affinity to your brand that they will likely consider purchasing your product.
That sounds hard… how do I do it?
Before creating any piece of content, it’s crucial to ask yourself, who is this for? Choosing an audience will inform not only what you say in your content, but the tone and style with which you say it. Content topics should be relevant primarily to your reader, and secondarily to your brand. Remember, as a content marketer your goal is to serve as a resource for your reader rather than a cheerleader for yourself.
Your audience should also be the main factor in deciding which channels you use to share your content. Software developer Hubspot recently conducted an analysis that showed, perhaps as expected, that millennials are much more likely to consume video content, while older people generally prefer email or research-based articles. Younger people also tend to check a brand’s social media as part of their decision process when purchasing a product, much more so than older people do. Therefore, understanding which channels your audience is most likely to consume content through and posting accordingly is an important and often overlooked step in the content creation process.
What separates good content and great content?
We all see enough content on the internet every day to have some sense of what is good and what is not so good. A more subtle distinction, however, is the difference between good content and great content. It is estimated that we see nearly 3000 marketing messages every day, so how can a single piece of content cut through all the noise?
Despite being released in 2000, long before the age of digital content marketing, journalist Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling work The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference may actually provide an answer to this question. The purpose of Gladwell’s book is to examine what factors lead to social “epidemics” – not just the kind that spread illness, but general trends that lead to fleeting popularity of some idea.
What Gladwell finds is that a key factor in creating something that will drive a reader to action is a quality he calls “stickiness”. The concept is best illustrated with an example.
A study was conducted at Yale University that aimed to analyze the factors that motivate people to act. This study in particular measured the likelihood that members of two different groups would proactively sign up to get a tetanus shot.
Both groups were given a pamphlet with information about tetanus and subsequently asked how likely they were to go to a clinic to get a tetanus shot. The only difference between the two groups was the tone of the pamphlets they were given – one group’s pamphlets were strictly informational, while the other group’s were meant to impart fear.
As one might expect, the group that read the fear-based pamphlets were much more likely to say they would get a tetanus vaccination than the informational group. In the long run, however, the researchers found that regardless of which pamphlet a participant read, their chance of actually going to get the tetanus shot in the coming weeks were abysmally low.
The results of the study changed significantly for both groups, however, when just one small change was made to both pamphlets. The researchers added to both pamphlets a section that gave directions to a local clinic that administered tetanus vaccines along with the hours it was open. In this version of the study, vaccination rates among the entire group shot up from 3% to 23%.
This small change, according to Gladwell, is what gave the content in question its stickiness.
Gladwell believes that the reason the map and opening times tipped the metaphorical scale towards action on the part of the students is that it personalized the information in a way that medical facts or even fear simply do not. By allowing the students to see how hypothetically getting a vaccination could practically fit into their lives, the information suddenly became more relevant to them as individuals.
How do I make my content sticky?
There’s a clear advantage to making sticky content, namely, that it drives readers to action, which is precisely the goal of any content marketing strategy. Achieving stickiness can be subtle, but luckily the easiest way to do so calls back to a concept that we are familiar with by now: knowing your audience.
When creating content, it’s tempting to think that we can cater to the interests and questions of a very large and diverse group of people – reaching more people just means a higher probability of converting some of them to paying customers, right? Taken in the context of the study though, it becomes clear that in trying to reach the maximum number of people, we might be losing the ones we had the best chance of converting in the first place.
This is precisely why defining a clear and specific audience is the key factor to creating effective content. To connect with an audience enough to convince them to spend their money on something, a critical prerequisite is first figuring out who that audience even is. It is only once you know your audience well, and when they feel that they know your brand well, that they can begin to see you as an authority figure, and thus begin their journey towards becoming a paying customer. When your content resonates with your audience and gives them information that adds value to their lives, your mission as a content marketer has been fulfilled.
Once you know what audience you’re speaking to, stickiness comes more naturally. Consider the example of a product recommendation quiz on the website of an e-commerce supplement and wellness brand. The goal of the quiz is to match a potential customer with the product that best fits their lifestyle and needs from the wide range of types of supplements available. The quiz asks questions about your past experience with supplements and the goals you hope to achieve from using them. To properly construct the quiz and provide relevant options for each question, a basic understanding of the potential audience is needed. For example, they may have some specific health goal such as improving sleep quality, or they may be interested in overall wellness, and each of those require different options on the quiz questions.
Once the customer completes the quiz, they are recommended a product that fits their specific needs. The end result is an experience much more personal than, for example, reading product descriptions or customer reviews. Like the map in Yale’s tetanus vaccination study, the product quiz helps a potential buyer see how a product could potentially impact their own life.
Content marketing is a broad (and ever-broadening) industry and just the phrase “content marketing” can mean a lot of different things to different people. At its core, though, is a complete inversion of the way we think about traditional advertising, by shifting the focus away from companies and onto their target audiences. Crucial to the success of any piece of content is the degree to which it resonates with the audience and provides valuable, constructive information.
At Roaming Sapiens, we believe creating content should be an act not of self-service or vanity, but one that makes a genuine positive impression on people’s lives.
By Adriana Ghiozzi
A graduate of UC Berkeley and a current master’s student in particle physics, Adriana Ghiozzi has a long-held passion for science and scientific communication. Her work has appeared on energy.gov, ornl.gov and usiter.org. Adriana believes that science should be accessible to everyone and she works to embody that mantra in every piece she writes.