What is content marketing? Defining marketing’s present and future

Content marketing is – you guessed it – a type of marketing strategy.

But what differentiates it from the other marketing types you may be familiar with?

For one thing, think of it as the polar opposite of traditional marketing methods, such as advertising.

What is content marketing?

Content marketing is the process of planning, creating, and distributing relevant, valuable content (like blogs, videos, podcast episodes, ebooks, guides, and more) with the intent of attracting and engaging a specific audience.

  • Brands and marketers research to figure out their ideal customers’ pain points, questions, and information needs about their industry, products, or services.
  • Then they create content to alleviate those pains, answer those questions, and provide that information.
  • Over time, as the prospective customer engages with the brand, reads its content, and interacts with it, their trust and affinity with the brand will grow.
  • Eventually, this loyalty will result in the ultimate goal of any content marketing strategy: a sale or other profitable action in the brand’s favor.

Content marketing vs. traditional marketing

We briefly mentioned traditional marketing in contrast to content marketing.

What’s the difference?

In terms of return on investment, content marketing costs less than traditional marketing to maintain, but pulls in three times as many leads.

Also of note: Ad blocking on desktop computers has reached an all-time high, which means more people than ever are using ad-blocking software to remove traditional ads from their internet experience.

And 70% of consumers in a Demand Gen report said they consume at least three pieces of content as part of the purchase process.

Content marketing is the present and future of marketing. It exists in stark contrast to traditional marketing.

Traditional marketing

Traditional marketing uses outbound methods to push the brand’s message and products/services out to consumers. 

This is the kind of marketing you see every day of your life. Brands are pitching themselves constantly, so much so that most of us have learned to tune it out.

Outbound methods include:

  • TV ads.
  • Billboards.
  • Print ads (in magazines and newspapers, for instance).
  • Display ads (think banner ads or pop-ups on websites).
  • Cold calling.
  • Trade shows.
  • Door-to-door sales.
An example of a display ad on the Forbes website.
An example of a display ad on the Forbes website.

Content marketing

Conversely, content marketing is an inbound method, which means brands create and publish content with the hopes that it will draw in prospects to them organically through curiosity, interest, and engagement.

Mailchimp’s Marketing Library.
Mailchimp’s Marketing Library is a great example of content marketing.

Content marketing is all about exposing audiences to the right content at the right time.

It gently nurtures them to build their awareness of the brand, increase their engagement, and pull them deeper into the brand’s marketing funnel and toward profitable action (like making a purchase).

Marketing funnel
Source: Fractl

Why use content marketing?

You may be convinced to use content marketing already. Regardless of where you stand right now, the benefits of investing in content speak for themselves.

1. It brings in more (and better) leads

Content marketing doesn’t just bring in three times as many leads as traditional marketing.

On top of that, leads from content are often more qualified (i.e., they’re more likely to buy eventually) because of the nature of content. 

Consistent, good content that educates, informs, or inspires helps audiences grow a connection with a brand over time. That connection fosters trust in the brand’s expertise and creates brand recall

The first time a lead encounters a brand through content is powerful – especially if that content is relevant to their pains, useful, and high-quality. Just one great experience can make them come back for more… and more and more.

Eventually, when they’re ready to buy, who will they turn to? The brand they trust, that nurtured them all along with great content.

2. It’s more cost-effective and sustainable

Traditional marketing is often about paying for visibility. It’s about pushing a message or name out to the masses. And ad space costs money no matter where you’re advertising. 

The second you pull those ads and stop paying, that visibility ends, too.

Content marketing couldn’t be more different. 

The cost is mostly upfront: If you can’t create it yourself, you’ll need to pay someone to do that for you. You might need to pay a writer/editor, a graphic designer, a video editor, or even an animator depending on the content.

Once the content is created and published, the possibilities are endless. 

  • If the topic is evergreen and the piece is optimized with SEO, it could bring in passive traffic on auto-pilot for years. That equates to passive leads coming in without the brand having to work for them or pay more money.
  • That content can be reused and repurposed endlessly, which keeps costs down on new content creation. 
  • One piece can be kept relevant for the long term with strategic, low-cost updates like minor rewrites.

Now, imagine a whole site filled with evergreen content pieces, optimized for long-tail keywords that bring in targeted prospects most likely to convert. That site will be a lead generation machine with the right structure, strategy, and content.

And it will still cost 62% less than traditional marketing methods.

3. It’s what consumers prefer

Let’s be real. Overwhelmingly, consumers actively avoid traditional marketing (like ads) whenever possible – when they aren’t ignoring them. Just some of the strategies people use to block them out include:

  • Ad blockers.
  • Changing their media habits to see fewer ads.
  • Paying for subscriptions that promise zero ads.
Strategies used by Internet users worldwide to avoid ads - eMarketer

What do consumers prefer?

Content marketing, of course.

70% say they would prefer to get to know a company through content versus traditional ads. They want to see relevant content from the brands they like, and they actively seek it out as they move through the sales cycle, from awareness to consideration to decision. 

Finally, since consumers are wiser than ever about sales tactics, meeting them where they stand with content is simply a smart play.


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How to start implementing content marketing

Ready to get started with content marketing? 

Never jump in blindly. You need a strategy to make sure you get the results you’re craving.

Here are the first steps to take to implement a content marketing and SEO strategy.

Step 1: Define your goals

First, define what you hope to get out of content marketing. Choose one or two specific goals and decide how you'll track and measure them.

For established brands, to truly create goals that will advance your business (or your client's business), you might need to do a website and content audit to determine where you stand and what you need to do to make both perform optimally.

For new brands, remember that content marketing takes time and consistency to pay off. Setting goals means considering what's achievable with the resources you have.

Here are some common content marketing goals and their associated content types:

  • More traffic: Combine content marketing and SEO with keyword-optimized blogs to drive more relevant traffic from Google.
  • More leads: Take advantage of the existing traffic on your site by nurturing visitors with consistent content creation on relevant topics (targeted blogs, videos, podcast episodes, guides, reports).
  • More sales: Create content aimed at proving your business’s worth (testimonials, case studies, white papers) for prospects in the decision stage.

Step 2: Define your audience

Next, ensure you know exactly who you're creating content for. 

You'll need to understand their interests, preferences, challenges, and pain points to truly create content that nurtures them. The only way to gather all that information? Research.

Particularly, persona research will help you determine who is visiting your site, who has an interest in what you/your client sells, and what makes them tick.

Also, helpful: 1:1 interviews with ideal clients will add a deeper layer of insight into their specific challenges related to the brand's industry. 

Step 3: Choose your content platform and formats

Don't move to this next step until you understand where your audience congregates online and what content formats they prefer. Plan your content marketing accordingly.

For example, will you produce blogs? A podcast? Videos? Where will you publish? What platform will be your main focus?

Remember: You don't have to have a presence on every platform to be successful. Pick a few where you can concentrate your efforts, and the results will be much better than if you try to show up everywhere. 

I recommend focusing heavily on your own real estate – your website and blogging – with one or two supporting social media channels.

Step 4: Plan content topics mapped to keywords

One of the golden rules of content marketing: 

Don't guess what to create. Follow the data.

For this reason, plan out your content topics and validate them with research (or research first and ideate second). Find out what your audience actually wants to read, watch, or listen to… and then create it.

With this in mind, some of the best content topics will come straight from your audience research. Use these topics to create compelling content that directly answers their questions and solves their quandaries.

Finally, map your content topics to relevant keywords you can win in search engines.

Use SEO tactics to optimize your content for those keywords, and you'll bring people with the problems and questions you're addressing straight to the content that answers them (yours).

Step 5: Decide who will write/create

For content to work, you need the highest quality you can get. That means your content satisfies your audience and upholds your reputation while building your authority.

It's a tall order, and you'll probably need help doing it (in fact, I recommend never writing your own content!).

At this point, brands may need to hire a creator (or two or three, depending on the scale) to do the brunt of the creation. Decide what tasks need outsourcing (writing? Editing? Video editing? Graphic design?) and plan out how content creation as a whole will be delegated.

Step 6: Plan your content publishing schedule

The last thing to plan is your content publishing schedule. However, a common mistake is to overestimate how much content you can reliably put out on a regular basis.

Remember: Consistency and quality matter just as much as quantity. If the former suffers because you're doing too much, that's going to hurt your strategy and results.

The key is to find a good balance where you’re producing high-quality content every single week (or every other week, or every month).

While having more content on your site is correlated with more traffic, if that content is poor quality, it won’t do its job of engaging, nurturing, and converting.

Content marketing is a smart way to grow

Content marketing is smart marketing, plain and simple.

It's about planning, creating, and distributing great content that attracts an audience, engages their interest, nurtures their trust, and ultimately, gives them a reason to buy.

In comparison to traditional marketing, it's more cost-effective, brings in more qualified leads, and is easier to maintain. It's also what consumers prefer to see from the brands they like and engage with.

It's also not hard to get started with content marketing – as long as you have a game plan and stick to a strategy. Content marketing should never be done via the "fly by the seat of our pants" method. Careful planning is essential to meet goals, see success, and earn ROI.

With the right ingredients, your content marketing efforts will pay off with better leads coming in that stay longer on the site and, over time, convert into customers.

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