One of the most successful content marketing stories in history originates in France during the turn of the 20th century. Two entrepreneurial brothers who owned a tire company were looking for ways to boost sales, so they printed a guide for the roughly 300 motorists in the country. It included maps, a directory of hotels drivers could stay at during their travels, and instructions on how to repair and change tires. But it also presciently included a list of restaurants. That pamphlet, of course, became the prestigious Michelin Guide. What started out as a straightforward bit of content marketing is now a powerhouse of global restaurant ratings, and today, more than 100 years later, Michelin is the second largest tire company in the world.
The story of the Michelin Guide may seem quaint in our hyper-connected, noisy media landscape, but at its core are truths that are still relevant today—if you know who your audience is and provide them with useful, inspiring, or entertaining content, you will be rewarded with their loyalty.
Breaking through the noise can be a daunting—but not impossible—task. For brands, this means identifying and going deep with a niche audience, instead of trying to talk to everyone and anyone. One of the most effective ways to do so is by focusing on the quality—rather than the quantity—of content. A credible narrative that solves a problem, provides inspiration, or expresses a point of view has a better chance of resonating with a potential (or current) customer than in-your-face sales messaging.
As more brands begin producing content (and every year that number increases), competition for clicks or inadvertently becoming a “content factory” can put quality at risk. It’s a danger that the media industry faced several years ago. Newsrooms began to feel the pressure of increasing traffic goals and responded by filling article pipelines with an abundance of content that was inconsistent and often not up to traditional standards. Publishers today are mostly moving away from the “more content equals more clicks” mentality. They are recognizing that there is more impact with fewer stories, done well.
Content marketers need to be wary of falling into a similar trap. While quarterly imperatives, sales messaging, ROI, social growth, SEO, and more can put stress on your content marketing strategy, the most effective programs take the long view, understanding that building a relationship with an audience takes time.
So how do you lay the foundation for that all-important relationship? To us at Original9 Media, it all starts with an investigative content strategy, which asks revealing questions about your marketing objectives, company values and the industry landscape. The answers guide us to uniquely frame three key content pillars—like the sturdy legs of a stool. Quality content (1) is credible and authentic, (2) reveals a-ha moments, and (3) inserts a human element. When seamlessly combined, these three pillars will enhance your business goals, not usurp them.
If you know who your audience is and provide them with useful, inspiring, or entertaining content, you will be rewarded with their loyalty
Be Credible and Authentic
There was a time when there was deep tension between marketing and journalism. Journalism has always been about giving something to your reader (a story, knowledge, help, inspiration) and marketing traditionally has been about influencing an action (buy this product or service). That tension today is diminishing.
In the Elements of Journalism by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, the authors describe journalism as “storytelling with a purpose” and “a discipline of verification.” Both of these concepts can—and should—describe effective content marketing. Your brand needs to stand for something and have a point of view that can be supported by your company’s products, services, or actions. And your content needs to complement and enhance that POV. In fact, a Content Marketing Institute survey found that 96% of the top-performing content marketers refer to building credibility and trust with their audience as a priority.
Of course content marketing is not the same thing as traditional journalism. It’s not independent and free of bias (not that all journalism is either, but that’s another story!). Its purpose exists to underscore a communications or marketing strategy, and one of the overarching objectives is to build a relationship between the brand and a potential client or consumer. But the endeavors of marketing and journalism don’t have to be at odds—when there is clarity around message (rooted in authenticity and credibility), audience, and intended outcome, it isn’t difficult to apply the elements of good journalism to elevate those objectives.
Reveal A-ha Moments
In today’s fast-paced newscycle, brands—like publications—are clawing to keep up. Remember the Fearless Girl statue that made headlines in 2017? Asset management firm State Street advisors commissioned the statue and had it installed in front of the Wall Street bull. The defiant pose of the girl in the face of the iconic symbol of the financial industry became an instant viral hit. Not long after, creative agencies everywhere began receiving RFPs from clients asking for their own Fearless Girl.
Attempting copycat work is rarely, if ever, a winning strategy. It doesn’t work in the newsroom, where the publication that has the “scoop” gets the credit, and it doesn’t work well for content marketing. In fact, according to Aberdeen, year-over-year growth in unique site traffic is 7.8 times higher for content marketing leaders compared to followers.
Being a follower means you’re taking a “me too” approach, and, as a result, your content will lack imagination and foresight. If one of your objectives is to establish your company or executives as thought leaders in a given field, then a stable of “me too” content won’t get you there. Instead, focus on moving the conversation forward. Want to key into the zeitgeist? Commenting on it, rather than echoing it, is the way to stand out. Put a stake in the ground—it’s what readers crave. Kantar’s Purpose 2020 report confirms this sentiment, finding that two-thirds of millennials prefer brands that have a point of view or stand for something.
Moving the conversation forward does take some work. Steve Jobs famously said, “There’s just a tremendous amount of craftsmanship in between a great idea and a great product.” An idea that is developed into insightful storytelling will keep readers coming back for more, create a better understanding of the company’s expertise, and, perhaps most importantly, move customers down the sales funnel.
Two-thirds of millennials prefer brands that have a point of view or stand for something
Insert a Human Element
Every good story has a hero, and that shouldn’t change just because your subject matter is, say, software. After all, there are people making the software, people using the software, and people who are experts about the software in your industry. Elevating the human connection in a story helps readers see a company as more than a service provider.
When working with client CA Technologies, our team created a content series called Barrier Breakers. The goal was to highlight the software engineers pushing boundaries to make tech more inclusive and more personal. Each Barrier Breaker had a story that transcended the technology they worked with. The technology was a piece of the story’s fabric, but not the entire thing. The personal, human angle made the technology more approachable and helped readers not only connect with the subjects, but also better understand the type of work that CA champions.
A narrative told through the lens of a good protagonist has the added benefit of illustrating the promise, real-world application, or ultimate benefit of a product or service rather than giving a straightforward recitation of what it does (and potentially boring your audience). Add in the requisite ingredients of emotion and problem solving and you have a recipe that is sure to engage and retain readers.
Know Your Audience
In order to foster and deepen the relationship, it’s important to understand who your audience is and appeal to them with characters and experiences they identify with. Audience segmentation is a key component of a good content strategy and will help inform an editorial calendar that speaks clearly to the audience (or audiences) you’re trying to reach wherever they are.
Whatever shape your content takes—from blogs to podcasts, data reports to case studies—this common thread should guide your strategy: placing the needs of your audience front and center. Whether they are a potential customer, a current client, or an influencer in your industry, these are the people you want to inspire and impress. And doing so will result in meaningful results.