It’s 2020 and people are still talking about blogs. Some small business owners out there might wonder, “Isn’t there any way I can market my company in the 21st century without being Mark Twain?” It seems unfair to think that there could be perfectly good businesses out there who fold because they couldn’t get a blog game together.
It is possible to market your business without resorting to blogging (pretend we’ve also lumped in multimedia content with blogging). You can buy ads on other websites, invest in in-person events, post to social media, partner with influencers or other brands, or advertise on any media platform you want to.
The thing is, blogging is the cheapest, most reliable way to reach an audience of potential customers. This is because the Internet is the single most wide-reaching and instantly accessible medium in history. It is possible to get an online content marketing campaign together without breaking the bank. The easiest way is to tap into in-house resources and task your team with writing blog posts. If you don’t have internal resources, you can hire writers to help you create blog content. It will also cost some time, of course, but it would also take some time to produce a 30-second TV commercial, and then you have to fork over $5 million to get it on during the Superbowl.
Let’s look at content marketing in a broader sense…
The Wide World of Content Marketing in Media
Content marketing was around long before the Internet.
Starting from the 1930s, radio dramas and later early TV shows had not just sponsors but a single-source sponsor. For example, the TV show about a talking horse, Mr. Ed (1961-1966), was sponsored by the Studebaker and Ford motor companies, consecutively, with product placement for their respective vehicles within the show.
This practice continued well into the 1960s, with “soap operas” being a prominent example. Procter & Gamble sponsored Guiding Light, The Edge of Night, and As the World Turns, notably. Then the television market switched over to multiple sponsors per show, through networks, and eventually, we ended up with video ads playing throughout your binge-watching session of Black Mirror on Netflix.
Outside of television, content marketing has been everywhere, but we never thought to label it that. The Guinness Book of World Records (published by the beer company) and the earliest Jell-O cookbooks (distributed for free by Jell-O) are both great examples of content marketing without the Internet. For one more example, have you ever looked at the back of a cereal box?
See, every other one has a maze or a game or a mask to cut out. This isn’t just bald copy marketing because you’re providing something with entertainment value as a stand-alone feature.
So, for those of you who might grumble about having to run a blog to market your business: count your blessings! You could be stuck drawing mazes all day. Or dealing with a talking horse. Can you imagine working at a Studebaker lot in the 1960s and having to smile through all the customers neighing at you all day?
Some of these examples are perfect analogies for content marketing on the Internet. In fact, here is the modern-day Jello recipe blog—nothing has changed since the early 1900s, except the medium. Recipe blogs for food and beverage products are an example of a cornerstone content marketing method. These blogs give their customers new and creative ways to enjoy their product, which ensures they continue buying it. It’s the “added value” strategy.
Here are more ideas in the added value vein:
- WD-40 has a DIY blog
- Squeeze, a fruit juice company, has a healthy living blog called “Squeeze Magazine“
- BarkBox, an online pet product retailer, has a dog blog
- Sole Bicycles publishes a blog that includes a travel guide series titled “Cruising USA“
- Cisco, the router and telecommunications company, has a networking and tech blog
- The Kodak camera company has several blogs about visual media
There are a few inspirational examples to show you how to position your topics. The main difference between these examples and a small business is that you don’t have the advantage of an internationally recognized brand that’s been running for decades. Your blog will have a dual purpose: to help customers find you.
Before we dive in, we will reassure you that if you doubt your blogging skills or your company staff doesn’t have similar resources, most firms outsource content marketing duties. Just as Studebaker executives did not have to personally train the horse, you can hire your own keyboard warrior at places like UpWork, Fiverr, ProBlogger, or by networking through LinkedIn.
The Content Marketing Process
So, we have the Internet. People use it to find things. They mostly do this by typing keywords into Google. Since Google is text-driven (or voice-driven if you’re talking about personal assistants like Alexa), you need to have text on your website for those potential customers to stumble upon your business.
Our battle plan so far:
- Determine our potential customer base
- Develop buyer personas
- Identify what potential customers will search for and how
- Create content that attracts those searches
- Post it in a search-attractive format
- Use the traffic to funnel visitors into conversions
Those “conversions” can vary depending on your business model: signing people up for your service, subscribing to your blog, purchasing widgets, generating revenue from ad impressions and affiliate links, promoting your brand, etc.
Develop Buyer Personas
The first step in developing an effective digital content marketing strategy is creating buyer personas. This is a profile of the ideal buyers that you want to reach. Your buyer persona should include details such as:
- age range
- geographic location
- income level
- media influences
- triggers or motivating purchase behaviors
- potential barriers to purchase
- goals and success factors
- decision-making unit
You can see buyer personas at work all around us. There’s a marked difference between the TV commercials that play during the daytime office-hour block and the evening prime time block. Products and services targeted towards seniors tend to play on the former, while those targeted at a younger or family audience play on the latter.
Creating useful buyer personas take some research while being careful to avoid biases and stereotypes. Your product might appeal to housewives, but be careful not to exclude the non-traditional households that could still be part of your base. Your product might have more appeal to progressives, but don’t assume that you won’t have the occasional moderate client. You might be selling to the coveted 14-22 age demographic, but don’t forget the young-at-heart too.
The best way to develop buyer personas is to talk to your existing customers. They already decided to purchase from you, so ask them how they made their decision. What factors did they consider? What was the trigger that prompted them to seek a solution? How did they decide between your product or service and your competitor? Where did the start their search for a solution? Was it the Internet or did they ask a friend for a recommendation? Engage them in an open, non-scripted conversation and you’ll be sure to extract nuggets of insight.
Once you get feedback from several customers, you’ll be able to analyze their responses, compile insights, and identify trends. Use these insights, combined with demographic information from past purchases, to develop rich buyer personas. When you can visualize your ideal buyer and target audience, it becomes much easier to develop blog content for them.
Identify How Your Ideal Customers Search
This is the trickiest question to answer, and one where you can use all the high-tech tools you can get. We have a full guide to researching competitive keywords, and one on using keyword analysis tools. Briefly, your choices for keyword analysis tools include:
- Ahrefs keyword explorer
- SEMRush’s keyword tools suite
- Google Search Console search analytics
- Ubersuggest keyword analysis section
- KeywordTool.io’s autocomplete
- Google Trends’ popular current terms
- Keyword Sheeter’s free autocomplete
That is plenty to get started! By the way, for tools that let you enter a URL, you can also enter a competitor’s website as well as your own. SEMRush and some other suites let you enter several domains and analyze and compare all of them. Your buyer personas can also help you identify keywords. Pay attention to what words customers use when they talk about your product or how they describe the problem they were facing. Make a collection of specific phrases and words they use. You can then develop content that answers their questions using their own words; it’ll even help your SEO strategy.
Keyword hunting is as much art as it is science. Set aside a convenient time for this. It’s even a little fun because you get a glimpse into the public’s mind and learn more about how they perceive topics and issues. You will learn something new every time you dive into the keyword rabbit hole.
Create Content People Want to Read
We have a whole list of ideas for creating attractive content. It doesn’t always require you to be Shakespeare; the web audience is actually more concerned with being helped than with pretty prose. Some typical blog post formats that work best are:
- Educational and informative articles: (Researchers find cookies are linked to happier childhoods)
- Tutorials and HOWTOs, instructional content: (How to bake great cookies)
- Reviews and opinions: (Our favorite oven mitts for cookie bakers)
- The top-X list, AKA “listicle”: (The top five cookie recipes you must try)
- The case study or success story: (How the chocolate chip became America’s favorite cookie)
- Snackable trivial lists: (These five facts about oatmeal raisin cookies will blow your mind)
- The “Mythbusters” post: (Common misconceptions about cookies)
- The jargon definition or glossary: (A glossary of cookie baking terms)
Generally, most blog posts will remind you of magazine or newspaper articles. Note our title examples; you see hundreds of blog posts on the Internet using titles in similar wording. If your market is a bit edgier, your industry fringe, or you’re looking to be more entertaining, you can be a bit more opaque in the title. By and large, clear headlines that promise content of a certain type are what most people look for. No one wants to read a confusing headline and wonder what the article is about. Make it easy for readers to know what you’re writing about. It can help drive traffic to your site and help with your conversion rate.
You will need to remember to write around not just keywords, but related and stemmed keywords from your main topic. Google Webmaster Guidelines lays out very clearly that you should not allow keyword usage to warp your content so that it sounds unnatural. Talk about your topic exactly as you would teach a lecture or write up an essay for school; Google’s algorithms will recognize natural quality writing and send the traffic to you.
In this article, we’ve mostly focused on blogging, but content can come in many forms. Peruse the Internet and you’ll find eBooks, digital courses, downloadable checklists, webinars, infographics, white papers, and more. The blog post examples I shared above can easily take other forms. For example, the “Glossary of Cookie Baking Terms” could be a downloadable PDF that you include with every cookie-cutter purchase. Or you can compile blog posts together into the “Ultimate Cookie Baker Guide” and offer it as a free download on your website.
Adhere to Technical SEO Best Practices
There are two sides to the SEO coin. Great, solid copy wins only half the day. The other half is posting it on a website that is accessible and friendly to both human users and Google search crawlers alike.
We go into a lot of this territory in our guide to SEO factors that boost ranking. Here’s a short checklist for your website that covers the basics:
- Use a standard content management system (WordPress is usually the answer)
- Be sure your website loads fast
- Make sure your website is mobile-friendly
- Have clear navigation so users (and crawlers) can access every last page
- Format your content into organized sections, using H1, H2, H3, etc. headlines
- Add images and include alt text
- Add internal links to relevant service and product pages
- Keep building more content
The larger your site and the more content you have, the generally higher Google ranks your authority and usefulness. As for all those site metrics, most of that is the job of your web developer. A standard hosted website with a WordPress install will check all the boxes.
Turn Those Clicks into Sales
While it’s great to have a rapt audience, you need more than loyal fans. Content marketing can be an effective way to grow your business when you remember to align your content with your business goals. What products are you trying to promote? Are you trying to boost enrollment in a new program? Are you launching a new service? Whatever your goal is, make sure that you’re creating content that supports it.
You can turn blog readers into leads by ensuring that there are clearly defined paths to purchase that they can follow. Call-to-actions (CTAs) can take many forms, but their essential purpose is to direct readers to take a specific action. This might be to subscribe to an email marketing list, buy a product, or to leave a review.
Here are some ideas:
- Embed a product image and overview into a related blog article
- Link to internal service or product pages
- Include a “Related Posts” section at the bottom of each blog article so readers can explore and satisfy all their queries
- Add pop-up CTAs for relevant eBooks or white papers
Interested readers should be able to easily learn more about your company, products, and services. Don’t make them hunt for information. If you do, they’ll quickly abandon your website. Your contact and request for quote form should be easily accessible and closely monitored.
By now, the rest of this process is going to vary depending on your business model. The beauty of digital content marketing is that it is so inexpensive to implement, that it will support the humblest business goal. It is entirely possible to have this system set up to support a drop-shipping business, a manufacturing company, a mom-and-pop storefront, an Etsy store selling folk crafts, a restaurant, or just about anything.
The Fine Art of Blogging
Finally, we’re going a little out of our way this time. Normally we focus on the technical stuff here and leave the creative inspiration to the artsy people. But our line of work taps into all kinds of creative, talented people. This time, we polled around the table to ask, “What works in blogging?” How do you stand out as not just a serviceable blog, but a GREAT blog?
Here you go, some of our general tips in closing:
“Conversational” Beats “Business Formal”
Yes, sure, we’re all professional and we want to put forth an image to the public that we’re ivory tower executives with global influence. But on the blog, let’s relax a bit! Take your shoes off, so to speak. Allow for some personality to peek through. Ham it up a little. Entertain guests like they were dropping by your cubicle for friendly office chat.
Respond to Your Audience
Some of the best ideas you will find for content is in your feedback. So, when you see a new rumor going around your industry, bring it up. When a search comes in that was obviously from somebody struggling with a problem, post a solution for the next lost soul. Ask your customer service team if they’re receiving any interesting suggestions. When you encounter an interesting aspect of your industry that pings your customers’ passion, share that passion with an amplified signal.
Go for That Long Tail
Long-tail content means writing for a small niche. Small niches, by definition, won’t attract huge waves of traffic right away, but they will fasten a hard lock on a niche without much competition. Indulge that niche crowd looking for one specific thing. All niches grow bigger on the Internet, which is why it’s a haven for geeks exploring their fringe hobbies.
Let Somebody Else Have the Spotlight Sometimes
Interview a staff member, honor a distinguished colleague, give credit to a source of inspiration for your business, or talk about your heroes. Your blog sounds better when it isn’t about you and your business all the time.
Sincerity and Authenticity are in Style
The youngest demographic, Gen Z, treasures authenticity most of all. This is because they’re the most media-saturated of every generation, and they tend to see through all the usual P.R. tricks. It’s OK to be a business; they understand you’re in it for the money. But when you express a value, act on it. When you need to say something important, add a human voice to it. The modern Internet audience would rather you just be yourself, instead of pretending to be something you aren’t.
Tap into Social Media
That’s where your audience is talking. If you’re already an Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter junkie, keep at it, because knowing what’s on the market’s mind and what its turn-ons and turn-offs are, gives you a competitive edge. Most importantly, chase down questions within your industry on sites like Reddit or Quora. Use those concerns and queries as writing prompts and address them on your blog.
Have Fun and Your Audience Will Too
Notice back over this article, about a dry topic like content marketing, we managed to work in references to talking horses, Jello recipes, and cookies? Fun things to think about, as well as handy examples to illustrate our points. Go for the fun stuff wherever you can. Your audience likes the same things you do.
Be the Guru
No matter who you are, the chances are good that you have specific, insightful knowledge about a topic that no one else knows. Share your expertise whenever you can. The Internet audience has a never-ending hunger to learn, even when they don’t happen to be spending money this second. Share your insight, wisdom, and hard-won experience. Your audience will love you for it.