The Simple, No-B.S. Guide to Content Marketing

Published Sep 1 2023 9 minute read Last updated Apr 23 2024
content marketing 101
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The other day, my kid asked, "Dad, what do you do for a living?" 

After some reflection, I replied, "I write and tell stories." 

He gave me a puzzled look and quickly left. I'm unsure if my answer satisfied him, but it's partially true. 

As marketers, our job involves presenting stories. This helps people find their place in the world and creates meaning. Yet, when it comes to creating relevant content for marketing, it involves more than just storytelling; that was just the simple explanation to my ten-year-old.

WTF is content marketing? 🫢

There are many definitions, and here are a few attempts to define it: 

  • Content marketing is answering your customers' questions.
  • Content marketing creates demand for your company's products and services. 
  • Content marketing is about finding the intersection of your customers' wants and needs and what your business offers. 

Okay, I don't think any of the above hits the nail on the head. I guess it's best to explain the process first: 

👉 Your company exists because it satisfies a need or solves a specific problem. 

👉 Often, your customers are unaware they have a specific want, need, or problem. 

👉 Your job is to inform and persuade them that they do – to help them become more aware. 

👉 Some customers may already be aware, but need to help deciding on your solution. Your task is to lay down their options and convince them to choose you. 

This leads to… (drum roll, please) the content marketing definition: 

Content marketing is the strategy of guiding people from initial awareness of your product or service to purchase. 

Now, how does that sound? If it still seems confusing, let's refer to the godfather of content marketing, Joe Pulizzi, who explains it straight from his book “Epic Content Marketing, Second Edition”: 

"Content marketing is the marketing and business process for creating and distributing valuable and compelling content to attract, acquire and engage a clearly defined and understood target audience [to drive] profitable customer action.”

Phew! Now that we've got that covered, what's next? 

A successful content marketing strategy is all about addressing the audience

Like any good storyteller, you need to know your audience. You must immerse yourself in your customers' world to craft resonating stories. If you remain distant, you'll forever be an outsider and disregarded. 

Staying in touch with your audience throughout is key, and there are many ways to do this. For example: 

  • One-to-one conversations with customers 
  • Conducting surveys
  • Listening on social media platforms 
  • Reviewing Google Analytics to identify what visitors are engaging with 
  • Keyword research to identify what people are searching for on search engines
  • Et cetera

Knowing as much as possible about your target group is one of the most essential marketing principles. Keep your ear to the ground, monitor the world around you, and interact with your customers often because that will make you go from mediocre to great. 💪

Buyer journeys are messy within your marketing strategy - that's the truth! 🤷

Remember the process of making your customers go from aware to purchasing? That's referred to in content marketing as the buyer journey, aka marketing funnel, and it's an essential component of your marketing and content strategy here. 

Understanding the types of content marketing funnel is helpful as it allows you to align, for example, your blog post content within it. Many popular frameworks exist, including Hubspot's flywheel, the See-Think-Do-Care, or just the good old marketing funnel

Yet whichever model you choose, you will want to push people from the awareness stage of knowing their problem to the consideration stage of selecting you among competitors to the decision phase of purchasing your product or service. Your various marketing strategies and campaigns will help move people down the funnel, however messy it may be.

Below is an example of what a typical journey might look like for those of us within B2B. 

The B2B marketing funnel

Note that these frameworks exist merely to help you organize your content. The truth is that customers interact with your brand unpredictably. Google refers to this as the messy middle of the marketing funnel. 

Nevertheless, you must follow a marketing funnel strategy even if customers come and go sporadically. The reason is that a content marketer must have a structured and methodical approach to content creation.  

To get an overall picture, you must conduct a content audit to help identify any gaps in your content marketing, particularly for the middle and bottom of the funnel. These two stages are designed to aid your customers in deciding and staying loyal to your brand.  

While doing this exercise, you might find that you have more top-of-the-funnel content. This is normal in most situations because most content marketers focus on meeting search intent and addressing informational needs. (That is why search engine optimization is critical to your content marketing strategy.) 

However, SEO is just one part of the content game.

Once you've pulled in a visitor and got them to return because of your great educational resources, you will (at some stage) want to try to nudge them toward more solution, product, or service-related content, aka more mid-to-bottom Funnel content.  For that to happen, you need to have that content in place.

If you are top-heavy, don't panic; that's totally fine. Knowing what you have and what holes you'll need to fill is good. 

It's equally important to create an editorial calendar so that you can proactively work with content creation. You will need to develop a variety of content formats to appeal to a variety of tastes, from blog posts, videos, infographics, ebooks, social media posts and content, podcasts, white papers, etc. Next, you must find a way to amplify and distribute all this content across social media platforms, on your website, through partners, and any other earned media outreach initiatives. Spending time distributing content is probably even more important than creating it because if nobody sees your content, then what's the point of it all?

Speak with your sales and product marketing teams regularly and identify some common and high-level themes or content pillars you can create content around. All of this will ensure that your content mirrors the company's sales narrative and the conversations your team is having with potential customers. 

Related reading: The formula for a winning full-funnel marketing strategy


Drilling it down in content marketing - from audience segmentation to buyer personas

So, as we've highlighted, most of your customers will be on a journey, even if it's messy. That means you'll have different types of customers at different stages.

Your job here is to bring order to the chaos within your marketing strategy. 

One way to do this is to segment your audience and work towards providing them with the right messaging at the right time. This is called nurturing, and we'll touch on that later. 

First, to know how to craft your messages, you will need to understand their desires, needs, and pains related to your buying process. 

This involves gathering as much information as possible about your target group and creating a buyer persona. 

The buyer persona is a description of your typical buyer(s). It's helpful because it serves as a go-to brief for any content creator in your team. 

While your persona doesn't need to be flawless, it should provide enough detail to ensure your writers understand who they're trying to reach. 

Many buyer persona templates can help you - pick one and start creating your own.

An example of a buyer persona template, courtesy of Miro


Things to consider when developing your buyer personas

Avoid assumptions

A common mistake in creating personas is making assumptions about your buyers.

Usually, marketers interview sales representatives and product experts or conduct online research. However, these sources may not provide accurate information.

For instance, buyers may not be truthful about their purchase decisions, and product experts only interact with specific customers – meaning they may not fully understand the market. Additionally, mining data online may only result in personas that resemble job descriptions with basic pain points.

Focus on the buying process

When considering a person's buying decision, staying focused on the big picture is crucial rather than getting bogged down in irrelevant details such as gender, food preferences, or style choices. Additionally, it's important to remember that in B2B situations, it's often a group decision.

To stay on track, it's helpful to understand a) industry leaders and priority initiatives, b) industry trends and the definition of success, c) perceived barriers to choosing your solution/product, d) the decision-making and buying process. Keeping industry insights in mind during your research can make it more useful.

Develop only a few key personas - less is more here

Differences in job title, industry, company size, etc., will not impact the overall picture. Ultimately, having fewer personas and focusing on shared traits or characteristics will result in more impactful messaging.

Align what your business offers to what your buyers need

Identify the sweet spot where your company's offerings meet the needs of your potential buyers. Buyer persona research can give you valuable insights into what your customers seek. However, ensuring your content marketing aligns with what your business does is equally important. 

The importance of nurturing in digital marketing

Sometimes (often), customers travel through the buyer journey too slowly or don't follow the path you laid out for them.  

The good news is that content and digital marketing can help nurture these nascent leads and propel them to the next phase of the journey. 

For instance, many new visitors to your website will arrive due to Google search results, thanks to your inbound marketing efforts. The copy on the landing pages of your website answers their questions. These new visitors, though, may have little to no knowledge of your brand or offering. However, through a combination of upper-funnel outreach, paid advertising, retargeting, and (of course) effective content marketing yourself, you can shift this dynamic and generate more leads.

Lots of informational content marketing is great at building awareness over time and can position your brand as a thought leader and help develop more online visibility. 

As people come into contact with your various channels, retargeting and other techniques in social media marketing can help foster a relationship between the customer and your brand while keeping consideration for your offering high. Email marketing, SMS, chatbots, and paid ads can also help reach your potential customers and existing onces, and provide relevant value to them at the right time and in the right way.

The key takeaway is don't blast one sales message to all, known in traditional marketing as spray-and-pray tactics. Instead, personalize your message and customize it based on where your customers are on their journey. 

Targeted messaging and creating a more personalized content experience isn't easy in a privacy-centric and cookieless world, that's for sure. However, acquiring first-party data and your user's consent can help you deliver an experience more catered to their needs. 

Best practice examples within personalized experiences

Netflix and Spotify are great examples of companies that tailor the content to the user experience, with recommended video content or playlists based on what they watch or listen to. Similarly, if you can follow your prospect's behavior and feed them relevant and valuable content in a timely and seamless manner, you will deliver a more valuable experience.

Setting clear goals and objectives for your content marketing strategy

As a content marketer, you will have limited resources and need to prioritize to create an effective content marketing strategy.

To ensure success in your program, determine your goals, milestones, and desired outcomes, and consult with C-Level leadership to align your plan with broader company objectives. This will help you gain internal support and ensure everyone understands what you're trying to achieve.

To set practical goals, use the S.M.A.R.T framework to make them specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. Using this framework will make your goals more tangible and you will have set the stage for success.    

Related reading: Smart goals for digital marketing

Measuring the success of your content marketing efforts

After setting your goals, you must monitor progress weekly and monthly. 

Keep track of organic traffic growth, search engine rankings, conversions generated, social media engagement, and audience retention. 

Regular retrospectives of your content will also help you better understand what works and what doesn't in terms of what your audience chooses to engage with. Those insights can also be used to direct future content creation initiatives. 

Discuss in your editorial team meetings what is trending or if there are any new things you have learned about your audience. 

The more you understand what drives customer behavior, the better. 

Analyzing performance with your marketing team

You can gather data from all channels and use a visualization tool to create a dashboard for your team to review regularly. 

While the dashboard won't answer every question, it can highlight where you may be off track. 

For example, if you're not meeting a specific goal, investigate and experiment with different solutions and activities to get back on track. This process is iterative and requires trying various things to determine what works best.

Content marketing success in B2B

To gauge success in B2B content marketing, it's important to track specific key performance indicators (KPIs). These include the number of marketing-qualified leads (MQLs) and sales-qualified leads (SQLs) generated and website traffic from organic or paid sources. 

An MQL is a lead that marketing believes is worth passing on to sales. Typically, an MQL has met specific criteria that marketing considers indicative of a good lead, such as relevant job title, industry, company size, engagement level, or buying signals. 

An SQL is an MQL that a sales representative has researched and deemed worthy of follow-up. While the definitions of these terms may vary slightly from organization to organization, the ultimate goal of content marketing is to help generate leads for the sales team, making these metrics the key ones to track. 

It's equally important to monitor the conversion rates from visitors to MQL to SQL, in line with the standard marketing funnel. Low visitor-to-MQL conversion rates could signify that the traffic you are getting is either not the right type or your messaging is not convincing enough for them to convert. 

While if your MQL to SQL conversion rate is low, it could indicate a problem in your marketing-to-sales process. Perhaps your sales team does not consider them good leads, or they are not following up on all leads you pass over. In such cases, it is essential to investigate and communicate closely with your sales team.

(Note: B2C brands may have a different, shorter sales funnel to consider, which is not covered in this article.) 

Related reading: How we navigate content marketing measurement

Optimization and iteration are needed for creating high-quality content

There's no silver bullet in content marketing. So, adopt a mindset of constantly optimizing and iterating on your work. 

Gone are the days of spending 6-12 months on a project and then having a big release. There are several reasons for this, including the risk of a competitor beating you to the idea, dedicating a lot of time and effort to a release that falls flat, and the importance of creating immediate value for your business.

The best approach is to aim for a minimum viable product or, even better, a minimum likable product. If it meets your quality standards, get it out the door quickly. 

But your job doesn't end there. Once you've released a piece of content, monitor how it performs. If it's not showing up on search engine results pages, do some optimization work and ensure all relevant keywords are covered. Return to it in a few weeks to see if it's performing better, and keep tweaking it until it does. This is all part of the iterative process.

Aiming for content mastery in digital marketing

Developing genuine relationships with your audience should be a top priority; content marketing is a great way to achieve this.  

Remember to develop empathy with your target audience, provide value, and continuously improve the types of content marketing that you share. Doing so can leave a lasting impact on the audience you aim to serve, much like a captivating storyteller who wishes to engross their readers into a world of dreams and opportunities.

Continue telling your unique stories, and remember that executing a successful content strategy and marketing campaign is an ongoing journey of creativity and purpose to win your customer's hearts and minds.

As I tried to explain to my child, we create meaning in this world through the art of storytelling.

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