Content is the fuel that propels any inbound marketing effort. A consistent, well-written blog and/or email newsletter results in a loyal audience that is eager to hear what you have to say and tends to share it with others (hint, hint). A high quality, well-promoted ebook spreads brand awareness and generates leads. But the best part of content marketing, in my (not very) humble opinion, is that it’s the gift that keeps on giving. Content is forever. When you invest your time in content marketing, the result is an asset that will continue to work for you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
I thought this week I’d deconstruct content marketing and examine the reasons why it works so well.
But before we go there, I have to offer some standard disclaimers. First, as I talk about content throughout this post, please understand that I’m talking about a very specific kind of content. Surely, long time readers of this blog will already know what I’m going to say: It must be remarkable. If you need a refresher on that concept, read about Remarkable Content’s “Big Three.” If it’s not remarkable, then none of the effects I’m going to talk about today are applicable.
The second disclaimer is that you must be able to convert interested visitors into leads. Otherwise, you’re a writer and not a content marketer. The difference (at least for the purposes of this discussion) rests in the desired outcome. For a writer, their objective is to have their ideas enter as many minds as possible. For a content marketer, it’s to generate leads. Successfully generating leads through content requires a conversion strategy.
There are four reasons why content marketing works: motivation, education, reciprocity and promotion.
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Good content tells a story. It gives the reader a glimpse into the future and allows them to see how their life could be different. This is called outcome-based marketing and it takes the whole “features and benefits” approach to a new level. Hopefully, everyone reading this blog knows that you generally won’t be successful selling on features. A common alternative to this is to start with benefits and then use the features as proof.
Outcome-based marketing works because it allows a customer to visualize an improved life for themselves. This is something content marketing can really do well. Notice that I began this article by mentioning positive outcomes that any inbound marketer would want: a loyal audience, sharing and leads. When a reader can identify with a particular outcome, they become motivated to find out how they can get it.
Sometimes, value propositions are obvious and there isn’t a whole lot of education that’s required. But many of my readers are in the B2B space and their product and service pitches generally benefit from a more educated prospect. Content marketing is a great vehicle to provide that education. Of course, as mentioned previously this education has to come in the form of problem-solving and not chest-pounding. Unless they’re already a customer or final stage prospect, nobody is particularly interested in learning about how awesome your product or service is.
But they’re always interested in solving their own problems. Do that, and your content marketing can be successful.
In social psychology, “reciprocity” refers to our tendency to want to reward kindness with kindness. If you help me out, I feel like I owe you and want to help you in return. Of course, we all know this isn’t the case for all people but it is for most and certainly for those whom you want to call your customer. The Wikipedia entry on reciprocity includes the following evidence:
Reciprocity is so strong that a person will feel obligated to return a favor regardless of whether they like the person who originally gave the favor and even if they did not want the favor, as was demonstrated in an experiment by Dennis Regan in 1971. Regan had subjects believe they were in an “art appreciation” experiment with a partner, who was really Regan’s assistant. In the experiment the assistant would disappear for a two-minute break and bring back a soft drink for the subject. After the art experiment was through, the assistant asked the subject to buy raffle tickets from him. In the control group the assistant behaved in exactly the same manner, but did not buy the subject a drink. The subjects who had received the favor, a soft drink, bought more raffle tickets than those in the control group despite the fact that they hadn’t asked for the drink to begin with.
Wouldn’t it be great if your content promoted itself? Well, in some ways it can. If your content is truly remarkable then your audience will want to share it with others. That’s one of the effects of reciprocity; as thanks for educating me, entertaining me and/or motivating me; let me share this with my friends as a way to “pay it forward.” Good content generates social shares and back links, which will not only generate more traffic and awareness but boost the search engine optimization of your site.
Content marketing isn’t a new concept. It’s been around forever and I even wrote about this a couple of years ago in a post that remains one my personal favorites, Grumpy Old Marketers. In that post, I was responding to a LinkedIn discussion in which inbound marketing was being mocked by a grumpy, old marketer as nothing new. He argues that he was doing content marketing all the way back in 1982, which is true enough but certainly not the same. Part of my response was:
His brochures and white papers cost his company a fortune in production, printing and mailing costs. Today, I can write my own e-book with free open source software, upload it to a cloud-based host like Scribd for free, register with an affiliate sales channel for free, Tweet it, share it on Facebook and have it downloaded by a million people without spending a nickel. I can record high definition video on a $150 Flip camera and upload it to YouTube where millions more can watch it – for free.
I’m reminded of a quote from Crazy Earl in the movie Full Metal Jacket: “These are great days we’re living, bros. We are jolly green giants, walking the Earth with guns.” Except, of course, in our case our weapon is not an M16 – it’s the Internet.
There are lots of articles on this blog and others about how content marketing works. But before you get there, you need to understand and accept why it works in the first place. Motivation, education, reciprocity and promotion are the four main reasons why I think it’s such a powerful fuel for marketing in today’s wired world. Outbound, interruption-based marketing is getting harder and harder to pull off.
Editor’s Note: Each week, I used to include three additional inbound marketing stories I thought were the best of the week. Analytical as well as anecdotal evidence suggests that this wasn’t a particularly popular feature. For that reason, I’m going to discontinue its inclusion. However, if it’s something you enjoyed feel free to give me your feedback and if there’s enough demand I’ll be happy to put it back in.