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Last month, I took part in a panel discussion at the Great Indian IT Marketing Summit, and the two buzzwords that came up in almost every marketing session were “data” and “content.” The consensus was that that content is the key dynamic in marketing success. But is it?

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Content marketing may still sound like a fashionable concept right now, but in fact it is nothing new. The century-old Michelin food guides are classic examples of content marketing. Red Bull’s backing of daredevil stunts and high-adrenaline sports is another.

These are brands that have brilliantly built market awareness, differentiated and ultimately sold their products (tyres and energy drinks) by inspiring, informing and entertaining. Establishing relevance has helped them establish leadership in their respective fields.

Content marketing today is different today in that it can be shared far and wide, fast and cheaply online. This is why content is so important to marketers today. And the changing nature of search promises to further magnify the value of good content in the future. Google is increasingly basing its search products on technologies that facilitate content sharing. Those that create widely shared content can meet with spectacular success.

How do you create good content? How do you build authority in a specific domain that commands the attention from your audience, leading them to take a specific action?

The short answer, according to the recent Marketing Excellence Study conducted by the Corporate Executive Board Company, is that you will draw customers with content that is distinctive and which shares new insights, specifically commercial ones.

What Makes for SMART Content?

The slightly longer answer is that content marketing only works for those that create the right content for their audience while also aligning it with their strategic goals. Back to Michelin: In the early days food guides were a brilliant way to reach and engage the early motorists touring far beyond their usual locales and hungry for good dining tips.

People want content relevant to their lives or work. They respond to content that engages them either intellectually, practically or emotionally and ideally all three. This applies as much to technical and business content as to consumer content.

The most successful content is content that is shared among friends and peers. A Nielsen study from 2012 showed the top trusted sources that influenced consumers’ purchasing decisions were: people they know; other people’s opinions published online; editorial; branded websites; and emails they signed up for.

The least successful content is ill-focused or simply thinly disguised sales talk. People are increasingly resistant to the hard sell and not interested in the internal thought processes of a business. Authenticity is a key to good content marketing and true leaders should be compelled to share their thoughts in a genuine manner. An element of entertainment or genuine utility is also important. That could be an infographic, consistently useful tweets that give your followers useful links or industry insights, a short instructional film or simply a well-argued blog post.

Measuring Success, Achieving Thought Leadership

Measuring the success of content marketing isn’t always a science but there are a number of ways to do it. The numbers of re-tweets, shares via sites like LinkedIn, comments, time spent on page, and number of followers are all good indicators of how engaging your content is over time.

It’s also important to recognize that measuring content success requires patience. Creating a reputation for good content and attracting the right audience takes time. It takes more time still to realise the value you are creating by building thought leadership through good content. But in time the right and smart content will bear fruit.

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