Telling stories to build long-term relationships with customers isn’t really a new idea. Successful business owners have been using compelling narratives to describe the value of their products or services, and sharing information that would make their customer’s lives easier, for many years. The buzzword of “Content Marketing” may be a relatively new marketing concept and discipline, but it’s really as simple as using stories to educate, inform, and build relationships with people interested in products or services like yours to help them discover that they want to do business with you and your business.

first content marketing efforts

Effectively using content marketing isn’t using any particular technique; it’s adopting the idea of storytelling and freely sharing information and expertise into your company’s business model. What do I mean by that? Joe Pulizzi, who many people consider the godfather of content marketing (I put him in that category too) and author of the book, Content, Inc., describes content marketing in a conversation I had with him not long after the book was published:

“The real successful companies in the book decided to integrate a content marketing approach into their business model. The idea of sharing information that would be beneficial to potential customers has become part of the way they do business. They focus on the things that meet their audience’s needs and become de facto experts within the marketplace. Because they have this type of relationship and dialog with their customers, their customers actually tell them what works.”

I was fortunate to meet Joe early in my content marketing journey, coming from a background in direct marketing. In fact, many of the successful content strategies I’ve been a part of since then have been heavily influenced by conversations I had with him, by the books he’s written, and other opportunities I’ve had to speak with him.

What is Content Marketing?

At its core, content marketing is really pretty simple to understand. Early in my journey as a content marketing professional, I called it the secret sauce, but it’s really something I ripped off from Joe. If you understand the idea of a T-account with debits and credits on your balance sheet, this is a simple way to understand how content marketing really works; Joe described it as the content marketing T-account:

Debits

People have an information need regarding your products, your industry, or best practices and they are looking for answers and expertise

Credits

You have the information they need—and, if you’re willing to freely share your expertise with them, they will ultimately become your customers

 

When sharing these stories, it really doesn’t matter if it’s via video, an article, an audio podcast, or other medium. Use the medium you feel most comfortable with. The idea is to provide value to your customers, build trust, and become an ally—whether or not they do business with you today, because they eventually will. Joe asks:

“Is your content trying to solve a customer’s pain? That’s really the way to build trust. Content designed to do well on social media is superficial. Think in terms of substantive content that will look more like a 1200-word article instead of a 350-word post designed for social media. Consistency is the most important thing. Viral happens after 10,000 pieces of content. Writing the book I found a lot of people who were doing the same things we were—they seemed to use the same model to build quality, relevant, content that spoke to their customer’s needs.”

Authenticity is the Key                              

It doesn’t really matter if you’re a skilled videographer or an exceptional writer; an authentic approach to helping customers and potential customers is what matters most. People can tell if you’re holding back or not really interested in offering value to them. There’s an old Russian saying that goes something like this, “The first pancake always fails.” In other words, don’t be afraid to stumble or struggle a little as you get started, you’ll get better as you devote regular time to it.

When I asked Joe about it, he not only agreed, he also suggested, “All the entrepreneurs we talk about in the book come from different backgrounds and different experiences. The important thing is to be authentic, listen to your customers, and tell the truth. It takes practice to get good at it—most people just aren’t willing to put in the work.”

Content Marketing is All About the Content

That probably goes without saying, but if you don’t create content your customers and potential customers would consider valuable or helpful, your content marketing efforts won’t go very far. And worse, you won’t give people a good enough reason to visit your site to see what you have to say. In other words, it’s important to be regular and consistent in your content creation efforts, but you don’t just want any content. You want content that will be helpful, informative, and valuable—content that is engaging and honest. With that in mind, follow these three best practices:

  1. Focus on Quality: A focus on quality is really a focus on value. People aren’t looking for content that says, “Buy from me!” They’re looking for content that helps them solve a problem—in other words, meets their information need. If you can successfully do that, they will buy from you. Focus on topics that will help you establish yourself as the expert they go to when they need information about what you do. That way, when they do need to make a purchase, they know where they’ll go and who they’ll turn to.
  2. Consistency is Critical: Most people are creatures of their habits. As a content marketer you can take advantage of that by being consistent in how often you publish. If it’s impractical for you to publish two or three times a week, shoot for once a week or once a month—but make sure you do it every week or every month. Over time you’ll build a regular audience that will anticipate your publishing schedule and will be anxious to see what you have to say this Because it takes time to create content, don’t rush and don’t worry. Be consistent, producing great content on a regular schedule so your customers can anticipate and depend on it
  3. Don’t Try to Boil the Ocean: There are lots of content types and approaches you can take, but you don’t need to do all of them all at once. Start with one approach, get good at it, and then move on to another. If you start out writing blogs and would like to add some video, your blog could be a great place to share those videos—as well as YouTube. If you don’t have video skills yourself, you might have an employee who has some expertise, or you might be able to hire a freelance videographer. That said, it’s not always the slick and polished videos that garner the most attention.

You may not know them as Stephen Volz and Fritz Grobe, but you have probably heard of the Coke and Mentos guys. I spoke with them after they published their book, The Viral Video Manifesto, and they suggested polished videos with high production values seldom go viral. Most people are somewhat skeptical of the Hollywood production values that are often part of the videos produced by most marketing departments. They want to see real people having real experiences they can relate to. In other words, you don’t necessarily need to fret over your lack of a film degree.

Remember, the key to successful content marketing is a willingness to share content that is relevant, informative, and focused on helping your customers be successful at their businesses. Invite your customers to be part of the conversation by sharing their ideas about what they’d like to know more about. The more consistently you can engage with your customers with helpful content that feels authentic, the better your content marketing efforts will work for you—whether you’re just getting started or have been at it for a while.

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