If you approached me a year ago, and asked me how you could become great at content marketing, the resources and tips I’d have given you then – would be completely different than what we’ll discuss today.
In other words, content marketing has evolved.
There is a greater emphasis on user and search intent, user experience, “10x content,” content optimization, idea and data-driven research, the need for original concepts, and going above and beyond to provide real value.
Not to mention, its counterpart, SEO, has evolved, as well.
But as the ancient saying goes: it be like that sometimes.
Now, to cover all these changes and solidify what (good) content marketing is in 2021, we’ll combine different goals, methodologies, and intentions, and then break them down into six rules.
By the time you finish this article, you’ll have a complete understanding of what it means to be an effective content marketer moving forward.
Let’s check it all out.
Table of Contents
- What is Content Marketing – Really?
- Don’t market your services, market a solution.
- Power ideas with data and build around clearly defined goals
- Prioritize design, value, and user experience
- Utilize the power of social proof
- Optimize for search engines, create for humans
- Properly promote your content
Content marketing is the creation and promotion of insightful and impactful content that prioritizes the experience and intent of a targeted audience, in order to generate inbound traffic and establish a scalable online presence.
Yeah, okay, but – what is it really?
via Smart Insights
Content marketing is more than a field of digital marketing.
It is more of a strategic marketing approach – a structure or a form of communication.
In other words, it is all about establishing your brand as a trusted, authoritative source in your industry by providing consistent value, actionable advice, insights, and a few other things we’ll dive into.
It’s more than simply publishing the “right” content, in the “right” places, and using the “right” tools to measure how it all performed.
Content marketing is an approach consisting of creative ideas, applied to different forms of research-driven content, in order to accomplish marketing objectives and organizational goals.
It’s a plan that accounts for everything from your brand persona to your level of competition, from the optimization of your website to your social media marketing efforts. And due to its cost-efficiency, targeted approach, and the likelihood of favorable results, content marketing is replacing traditional marketing in the minds of modern marketers.
To Put It (Very) Simply
A content marketing strategy can be broken down into four simple phases:
- Understand the wants, needs, problems, and preferences of your target audience
- Create, publish, and promote exceptional and high-level content focused on those factors
- Interact and build positive relationships with those that engage with your content
- Assist any potential leads with finding the absolute best solution to their problem
Naturally, this process allows you to solidify yourself (or your brand) as a source of expertise in a given field, industry, or subject matter.
For example, if you’re a fitness trainer and consistently put in the effort to create high-level content assets on the info your prospects are searching for, over time, who do you think will be one of the first experts that come to mind when someone asks for a trainer who knows her/his stuff?
Exactly. It’s mind-blowing, fam.
But, let’s be real: Despite this being (almost) common knowledge, we’re all still constantly exposed to a large chunk of irrelevant and basic online content.
And since your success largely depends on whether or not your content marketing efforts allow you to engage and interact with your target audience, this brings us to:
Let’s make one thing clear – those spamming days are over. Just stop. Don’t do it.
Rather, create relevant content centered on the idea of educating your users and allowing them to leave with fresh perspectives.
This concept, or notion, however, needs to be implemented across the board – from a brand’s overall approach to the creation of an individual piece of content.
On A Smaller Scale
Instead of publishing 5 blog posts per week that provide the same information that can be found on the first few pages of Google search results ten times over, try publishing one or two, that are:
- Long-form pieces of content, as in, they explore all relevant aspects of a topic in a detailed, concise, and presentable manner.
- Crafted around user intent, as in, built around all the questions a reader may have on the subject.
- Properly optimized for search engines (can we stop saying ‘SEO optimized’?).
- Filled with an abundance of relevant information, statistics, and ideas your readers can actually act on.
- Enhanced with graphics, illustrations, images, and other forms of media – depending on the platform you’re publishing on.
- Packed with unique takes or perspectives on a subject, while following up concepts with real examples and benefits.
Kinda like this post you’re reading now.
But educating or engaging your users through content isn’t limited to just blogging – right?
There are a ton of different forms of content you could be producing to maximize your efforts and potential outreach.
via Core dna
However, do keep in mind that the types of content marketing you invest in (i.e. video content, podcasts, or white papers, etc.) should reflect the interests, behaviors, and preferred mediums or formats of your targeted audience.
On A Larger Scale
Now, here are a few ways you can implement this rule on an overall scale, as in, the way you approach your content efforts altogether:
- Try communicating what your product or service does for a user, or the pain-points it solves – rather than simply listing a feature.
- Build a funnel that educates and nurtures leads and establishes trust, rather than focusing on hitting a quota or locking real value behind gated content.
- Train or encourage anyone in contact with clients, leads, or potential customers to prioritize finding the best solution for that person or company, rather than closing a sale.
- Focus on a specific audience and center your approach around solving their problems.
Using this understanding as a foundation, we can continue to build our framework.
Dividing your goals into categories, i.e. short term and long term goals, can help you further refine your approach.
Kicking things off by making a refined list of your business goals and marketing objectives can help you:
- determine your methods of promotion
- craft an effective list of keywords
- shape a buyer’s journey
- optimize your sales funnel
For example, take a look at the following chart to get an idea of how business goals can help you formulate a content marketing plan.
via Lyfe Marketing
Business goals can help generate ideas, but the execution of an idea can make or break it.
So, we power ideas with numbers, trends, and statistics. Not the other way around.
As in, marketing should not be “data-driven.”
Amazing ideas are what help you stand out, build successful content marketing campaigns, create positive changes, and stand out in a competitive market – so our efforts should be driven by ideas and backed up by data to ensure their execution.
A Process for Idea-Driven Content
For an in-depth understanding of idea-driven content, I highly recommend reading my post on how to create a content strategy. It dives deep into what makes great content great and breaks down “good” content into 3 levels. From there, I talk about how we can use that understanding to create content strategies that consist of only brilliant content.
Therefore, just so we don’t stray too far off the main subject here, we’ll briefly cover this concept and move on:
- The first stage of good content is an asset that consists of insightful substance.
- The second stage of good content is presenting insightful substance in an interesting content format.
- The third stage of good content is insightful substance, presented in an interesting format, and executed in an entertaining manner.
This is what it means to create an experience.
To solidify this understanding, consider the following process:
- Grab a marketing objective or business goal (i.e. increased awareness)
- Determine the type of content you could create to move closer to that goal (i.e. blog posts, video marketing, webinars, social media activity)
- Get a complete picture of the message you want to deliver through these different content formats, and the action you want your viewers/readers/visitors to take (i.e. you want to make a video to show people how great your service is and hopefully have them get in touch).
- Think of the absolute BEST way you can execute this. How do you make it about your audience and not about your service? Construct it in a manner that is both insightful and enjoyable? How do you turn this brand asset into an experience for your ideal prospect?
Idea-Driven Content in Action
To help paint a clearer picture, have a look at this video by Ryan Reynolds promoting Aviation Gin:
Here are some things we notice:
- It captures your attention – The first thing you see is a figure you recognize, who immediately draws you in by making you laugh.
- It’s beautifully shot – This immerses the viewer, using scenery, cinematography, and vibrant color palettes to create specific atmospheres throughout the video.
- It’s hilarious – He does an awesome job of narrating the video, using wit, sarcasm, and humor to resonate with his audience. It also takes any “salesy” feel out of the content.
- The viewer is given importance – The video takes you through an exaggerated process to portray their focus on user satisfaction.
Ultimately, this video is a great example of how to turn a brand asset into an experience for your audience.
It has over 3 million views on YouTube and a great like-to-dislike ratio of 97,000 to 1,100. It also landed him a spot as a finalist for the 2019 B2C Content Marketer of the Year award.
Again, if you want to learn more about consistently creating good content assets, check out my post on idea-driven content (linked above). For now, let’s continue this journey.
The old ways of pitching your product and services out loud, or through in-your-face CTA’s, won’t work anymore.
Essentially, you’re now required to foster engagement with your target audience by creating an overall experience that adds value to their lives.
Here are some more ways you can accomplish this:
Create a compelling website
- Focus on what you can do for the user, rather than what you do.
- Create effective and visually appealing landing pages with concise and clear web copy, well-executed explainer videos, and well-placed CTAs to clearly present what makes your brand a better option.
- Create a well-designed blog that provides an interlinking network of high-quality articles, eBooks, and infographics containing actionable, insightful, and intriguing information.
- Ensure an easily-navigable journey from page to page, fast loading speed, and other search engine optimization necessities.
- Properly optimize for desktop, mobile, and tablets to ensure high-level consistency across any device.
via Interaction Design Foundation
Create an engaging social experience
- Employ a branded theme across all social media platforms (e.g. consistent theme colors, same or similar banner images, the same style of profile pictures for employees on LinkedIn, etc.)
- Use each platform to its strengths (i.e. publish the content types most relevant to a platform, post strategically rather than randomly, create for a certain audience, etc.)
- Interact with your followers (i.e. publish and share insightful posts, respond to comments on your posts, post community polls, re-tweet or interact with mentions, etc.)
- Leverage different social networks for positioning (i.e., network with industry leaders, build a community of ideal prospects, conduct interviews with experts, etc.)
- Keep all visual content, such as imagery, illustrations, graphics, and videos consistent and well-designed throughout the content you publish.
Create an intelligent and confident marketing team (for agencies)
- Establish a culture that focuses on transparency, continuous learning, teamwork, organization, and autonomy.
- Provide the team high-level resources with in-depth knowledge in all areas relevant to their field.
- Solidify a process that is repeatable at scale while still maintaining efficiency.
- Use just the right amount of tools to help organize and streamline the process – don’t overdo it with too many platforms or software.
- Create a work ethic/culture centered on Flow, a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe a state of consciousness resulting from optimal experiences. The flow mental state, or commonly known as being ‘in the zone,’ is when an individual is immersed in a situation that is just the right amount of challenge – not being too high as to cause anxiety, and not being too low as to result in boredom.
Create a content creation process centered on user intent and unique insights
- Analyze content that ranks to understand what high-performing and high-quality content assets have in common.
- Approach subjects from new angles and perspectives that have not been covered.
- Use tools like AnswerThePublic, SEMRush Topic Research, Exploding Topics, etc. to determine the direction of your content.
- Create in-depth outlines, consisting of common questions, pain-points, and important points to cover.
- Use the AIDA model and S.U.C.C.E.S.S. method to develop content that truly resonates with your audience.
- Turn successful content assets into structures or templates to help produce more content assets that perform well.
- Moz turned their Whiteboard Friday’s into a series since they consistently performed so well.
- Brian Dean publishes well-illustrated ‘ultimate guides’ since his “SEO in 2019” guide found massive success.
Ultimately, prioritizing design, value, and user experience is how you build an amazing experience.
Back in the day, when consumers didn’t have many options, a new product itself was good enough to excite them.
Now, the market is flooded with similar products and services, and since prospects have unlimited access to information – it’s not so simple for businesses anymore.
Therefore, before you can expect a lead to become a customer, you need a good online reputation.
One way to establish a good reputation is through social proof.
By utilizing case studies, alongside testimonials, reviews, certifications, and many other forms of social proof, you are more likely to:
- Build trust with your visitor
- Roughly 73% of consumers will trust a local business that has positive reviews.
- Ensure that you are a qualified expert
- About 92% of B2B buyers are more likely to convert if they read a testimonial.
- Establish confidence in your brand
- It is likely for 50% of potential consumers to visit your website after reading a positive review about you.
- Back your claims up with hard proof
- How do you doubt something that is backed up by real data?
Additionally, you need to ensure that you’re getting enough testimonials in the first place.
Therefore, every time you successfully complete a project or campaign, help a company accomplish their marketing goals, or produce outstanding results for a client – ask them to write, or better yet, record a testimonial.
Using Social Proof to Create Customer Case Studies
Social proof can be used to create many different forms of content, such as user reviews, video testimonials, and landing page copy.
It can also be used to compile an impactful case study:
- Find a campaign or project worth detailing: Shortlist two or three clients you/your company produced stellar results for.
- Get permission from the client: Ask the client for permission to create a case study out of that journey.
- Gather all info and data: Write down who the customer was, the challenge they faced, what they tried on their own to overcome the challenge, how they found you, what solution you proposed, how you executed your content strategy, and finally, the results you generated.
- Compile all info into story format: Compile everything into a compelling story backed by data, flowing from beginning to end – rather than a technical document filled with numbers.
You can also take it to the next level by leveraging your copywriting and designing skills to deliver your message in a simple, yet impactful way:
via Siege Media
Social proof and customer case studies are effective ways of establishing yourself as a proven expert, boosting the credibility of the content you produce.
One of the most common mistakes marketers make is getting too caught up in optimizing for search engines.
Search engines are constantly evolving to better understand and accommodate users. On the other hand, marketers are constantly trying to better understand search engines.
We consume too much information in hopes of understanding, instead of turning our attention to the common denominator between the purpose of search engines, and the purpose of the content we produce: value for users.
But – What is value?
By now, you’ve probably heard it thousands of times.
“Provide value, you have to provide value, content needs to have value.” I’ve probably mentioned it a dozen times in this post alone.
It’s slowly becoming one of those cliché, meaningless quotes like ‘content is king.’
Or worse, a buzz word.
And due to a lack of depth on the concept, its significance is being overshadowed by the repetitive calls for its presence.
But value IS the soul of great content.
It’s whatever real substance, insights, or actionable information you are providing to your reader or audience. The real tips, advice, methods, or approaches they can instantly implement or begin planning upon concluding your content. Not only that, but it’s also about taking that abundance of valuable information and presenting it in a manner that isn’t bland. It is the absence of self-promotion with a focus on genuinely educating the user.
Valuable content can also be funny or entertaining.
Furthermore, it can be about evoking an emotional reaction. This could involve making someone laugh, cry, feel empowered, or the millions of other things you could make someone feel.
Essentially, value is something real.
And value also needs to be able to be found.
That is the role of SEO in content marketing – to help create discoverable value.
To “create for humans” is to provide something impactful that makes a difference in their lives.
To “optimize for search engines” is to take the necessary steps to ensure that the content asset is set up to be found for relevant search queries.
And to do these things successfully, you need to have both things in mind from the beginning.
Think of the creation of content as a two-step process.
- Make it amazing (by following a thorough content development framework).
- Optimize it (by following the best on-page SEO practices).
The benefits of content marketing, such as,
- establishing yourself as an authority (or becoming a thought leader),
- better average position in rankings for targeted keywords,
- increased organic backlinks,
- better brand awareness,
- and sustainable growth,
are simply results of effectively and consistently executing that two-step process.
There is no point in optimizing something that is not worth consuming in the first place.
So, it starts with creating “great content.”
But – what is great content?
Again, for an in-depth look at this, check out my content strategy post linked above.
To keep it simple, great content is that which is either memorable, impactful, or entertaining.
It could be taking a trend, a familiar concept, a popular theme, or something informative and presenting it in the most complete, visually-pleasing, engaging, and/or entertaining manner.
That’s not entirely true.
So, let’s talk about it.
Here are three great examples of content marketing we’re probably all familiar with:
1. Moz’s Whiteboard Friday
If you’re looking for insider-tips and actionable advice about SEO, presented via engaging videos featuring some of the world’s best marketers, I highly recommend watching Moz’s Whiteboard Friday videos.
Rand Fishkin, the founder of Moz and one of my all-time favorite marketers, started the Whiteboard Friday series many years ago. And since then, they’ve never once failed to consistently churn out these videos.
The idea behind Whiteboard Friday videos is to clear misconceptions about SEO and other areas of digital marketing, provide actionable advice, and allow aspiring SEOs to make their mark in the game.
The result? Today, Moz is the go-to source for interesting angles and the latest updates for marketers (apart from their awesome SEO tools, of course).
Here are two things that I like most about these videos:
- They’re simple and effective – Rand could have gone above and beyond and turned them into animated explainer videos. Instead, he chose to turn these into simple lecture-type tutorials (involving a whiteboard), one of the reasons they’re so huge.
- They’re super insightful – Instead of beating around the bush playing with “ifs, whens, and coulds,” these videos get straight to the point, offer high-level insights, and actionable advice from an expert – all backed by their years of experience.
Today, these videos bring in millions of views and some serious web traffic.
But of course, this series isn’t the only source of actionable advice and engaging content on SEO, which brings us to:
2. Brian Dean’s Backlinko Guides
If you’re in the SEO and content marketing game, I’m pretty sure you know who Brian Dean is – the genius behind Backlinko.
Brian Dean started Backlinko as a one-of-a-kind source for SEO training and advice on link-building tactics – offered through highly in-depth and aesthetic guides.
Leveraging his experience and deep knowledge of SEO, he offers actionable advice, tips, and insights like it’s no one’s business.
And the best part – they’re all visually pleasing and super-engaging.
Here are some reasons why I’m a huge fan of these guides:
- They’re truly in-depth – if there’s one thing I like most about Brian’s content, it’s that he dives deep into every topic he covers, discussing all angles, with examples, and leaving no stone unturned. He popularized the Skyscraper Technique (i.e. making your content asset better and more detailed than your competitors – similar to the tallest skyscraper in a city that warrants the most attention).
- They’re highly engaging – despite being thousands of words long, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ll make it to the end of a Backlinko guide in one go. Pretty insane, right? But how is that possible? Because these guides keep you engaged from the beginning to the very end. Just when you think about switching tabs or looking at your phone – boom – he hits you with a screenshot or a visual to keep you hooked.
- They use awesome visuals – again, the main thing I love about Backlinko guides are the custom visuals they employ. From awesome ToC icons to visually-appealing illustrations for the chapters, everything just looks great. I’d argue it’s one of the main reasons they are consistently successful.
Through his content alone, Brian Dean was able to mold a reputation for being a go-to source for learning about SEO.
3. NerdWallet’s Ocean of Personal Finance Content
Tim Chen and Jake Gibson started NerdWallet back in 2009 as a personal finance company, focused on credit card tools.
However, the company had to quickly evolve to stay relevant, and as a result, leveraged content marketing to position NerdWallet as the ultimate authority in the world of personal finance.
How did they pull this off?
By building large directories, producing detailed reviews of different finance products (credit cards, banks, loans, insurance companies, etc.), and crafting comprehensive guides including professional tips on personal finance – on top of comparison tools and useful calculators.
Here’s what I like about their content:
- It’s highly organized – Despite offering an ocean of content, NerdWallet’s content assets are well-organized, making the website fairly easy to navigate.
- It all packs great value – Naturally, the content that NerdWallet puts out is purely factual, and not to mention, actionable. Their website helps thousands of people make important decisions regarding their finances.
And wouldn’t you know it, the website receives close to 15.8 million visitors from organic search alone.
I guess what I’m trying to say is – content marketing works.
Okay, so, create great content – got it.
Now – how do you optimize it?
Aside from the regular on-page SEO variables that you should already be familiar with, such as adding the keyword in the title, wrapping headings in H2s and H3s, etc., you can also do the following:
- Craft around user intent and experience – There are many ways to package a positive user-experience. Some quick pointers include creating a table of contents for longer content, adding sidebar navigation to allow users to jump around, improving site speed, incorporating visuals, focusing on the intent (why the user searched for a keyword), etc.
- Ensure the content is authoritative – Don’t produce content for the sake of it. Your end-game should be to establish yourself as an authority in your industry. It’s a long process, but through consistently crafting insightful content, coming up with original ideas, and delivering value, you’ll get there.
- Build trust with the visitor – You can’t establish authority without building trust. And to build trust, you have to work on your presentation. Unless you’re like running a site for the government, a slow and poorly-designed website (straight out of the ’90s with that HTML look) will make you seem shady and undependable. Don’t compromise on the design. Additionally, for blogs, don’t forget to add author bios and share your credentials with the audience.
- Optimize site architecture – Make sure that the back-end of your website is all sorted out. This involves checking your content for broken links (Ahrefs’ site audit is a good tool), and most importantly, monitoring page speed (nothing turns users off like a slow website). To check for speed-related issues, you can use a tool like GTMetrix.
Ultimately, by crafting consistent content focused on user-intent, and turning everything into a repeatable (and scalable) process, you’ll be a content marketing badass in no time.
Every time a marketer simply hits publish and moves on, Ross Simmonds is somewhere clenching his fist.
Content promotion is the last piece of the puzzle. If you get this part right, it’s smooth sailing from there.
That being said, if you’re not making active efforts to promote yourself, you might as well just stick to calling yourself a writer, a designer, an animator, an editor, or a podcaster.
Cause you can’t be a content marketer with that attitude, bruh.
via Way Out Mobile
But what does ‘promotion’ mean in this context?
It simply means getting your content out there. The following are some tips to help you get started.
Share on social media
As soon as you hit publish, share your content on social media. Also, always write insightful captions, don’t just simply share content (ew). Additionally, add social sharing buttons on your blog to help your readers instantly share your content to their accounts. Most importantly, keep in mind that social media doesn’t just mean Facebook and Twitter – you should be present on every platform your readers and prospects are on.
Create shareables for bloggers and publishers
A tactic used by the likes of Siege Media, this involves creating a shareable asset that’s related to your content (free tools, interactive maps, and calculators work well), sharing it with relevant bloggers and/or publishers for their own content – in exchange for a link/shout-out. Of course, for this, you’ll need to first create an email list (and super high-level content) of prospects to pitch to.
Take advantage of popular subreddits, niche communities, and provide in-depth answers on Quora to questions relevant to the new blog post you just wrote (and drop a link to that bad boy).
That 10-minute video you made for your YouTube channel? Chop it up into smaller videos and share them on your social profiles (like LinkedIn) every other few days. Break down that amazing infographic you just had designed into a carousel post. Remember the “big rock content pieces” by Marketo? Create a massive content asset, such as their Definitive Guide to Lead Generation (gated content), which consists of 160 pages, 16 chapters, 3 case studies, and 6 influencer interviews. Each chapter can be broken down into an individual eBook/guide. Every eBook can be broken down into several blog posts. Each blog post can be broken down into different social media posts.
This one gets a bad rep, but no matter what people say, the stuff works. By offering your thoughts and insights to other websites, you get to promote and link back to your own content. Just try to get yourself published on popular authority websites, such as Forbes, Business Insider, etc.
via Outsource SEM
Ultimately, your goal should be to make the most of every content asset you publish.
If you need a pro-level distribution plan but don’t want to invest too much time or money, I highly recommend this resource from Foundation. It’s an in-depth and high-level webinar on building a distribution campaign for your content assets. It also provides you with extra downloads, such as a content distribution framework spreadsheet, a content distribution checklist, and more. The best part about it all? It’s only 59 bucks, fam.
Now, all this sounds great – but what’s the end-game here?
I’m glad you asked.
Again, the ultimate goal is to provide your audience with valuable content and build authority. However, you can’t do either without consistently and properly distributing your content.
Sure, domain authority plays a role in getting a piece of content to rank immediately. But not every content creator has that competitive edge.
To essentially “jump-start” your content asset, you need to go the extra mile and get your content to your audience. Don’t sit around and wait for them to discover it. Spoiler alert: it’s never going to happen, fam.
From an SEO point of view, the goal is to build high-quality links, which, in turn, can help you:
- Get a surge of organic traffic from the linking sources
- Improve your backlink profile, which can (positively) impact your DA
Essentially, getting a link from the right source (relevant to your industry, not some dodgy site, natural link, etc.) counts as a “vote of confidence.”
The more (quality) links you get, the more trustworthy you become in the (non-existent) eyes of search engine algorithms. This helps lead to a higher DA/DR, which will eventually help you rank easier for difficult terms.
As you might have noticed, the whole process is like a cycle.
Some more content promotion and link-building tactics include:
- Broken link-building
- Creating content around topics with high intent-to-link
- Becoming a source for reporters and journalists (HARO is a great place to start)
If you’d like to learn more, I highly recommend reading these posts:
- Backlinko’s complete list of link building strategies
- Siege Media’s link building strategies that scale
I’m finally done writing this post
I hope I was able to paint a complete picture of what content marketing is.
Now, it’s up to you to do what you want with this information.
There’s a lot you can accomplish with content marketing, provided that you do everything right.
If you’re truly able to wrap your head around the six rules discussed earlier – as in, understand the methodologies, the logic behind everything, and the different tactics and tools that can help you pull everything off – you’ve set yourself up to reap some potentially serious content marketing ROI.