2013 Hot List - Hot Trend - Cracking the Content Code

Why Content Marketing Is Important And How To Capitalize On It

Cracking the Content CodeThe biggest buzzword in marketing today is content. Learn why content marketing is important and how to capitalize on it.

Speech, sales pitch, or marketing tactic?

This fall, on three separate occasions, Gregg Emmer will hop in his car and head to a series of conventions not far from his company's Batavia, OH, headquarters. He'll pull up to a meeting in Cincinnati, Columbus or some other Ohio locale and address a crowd of businesspeople about various aspects of the advertising specialty industry. In all that time, not once will Emmer, vice president and chief marketing officer for Kaeser & Blair (asi/238600), mention his company's products, its services, or the vast network of dealers the company employs.

Let's press pause on the story here for a moment. Speech, sales pitch or marketing tactic? An executive with a big distributor firm is simply speaking to a room of businesspeople about how promotional products help companies and organizations spread their messages. No pitch about his own company. No leave-behind saying where he can be reached. Nothing overt about a next action or setting up an appointment or anything that can be construed as selling.

While it is most definitely a speech of some kind, it's actually far from a sales pitch. What it really is, though, is a marketing strategy – one that's gaining increasing popularity in business today.

It's content marketing, which ultimately is the practice of providing information to position yourself and your company as an expert. Emmer, for one, would be hard pressed to admit that his talk won't somehow cement his company's name and place in the ad specialty arena. And the speeches are just one prong in his content marketing plan. Emmer will also pen a few articles, sit down for an informational chat with an industry colleague, or otherwise dedicate his time purely for educational purposes, without a thought for drumming up business.

And that's the point. It's about "putting engaging content in whatever media you're using to reach your customers," Emmer says.

Emmer, whose company has recently begun to really focus on this type of promotion, says these days it's a cornerstone of the company's marketing strategy. He's not alone. According to the Content Marketing Institute's 2013 survey on the state of content marketing in North America, 91% of business-to-business marketers are using content marketing.

So what is it exactly? "Content marketing is a marketing technique of creating and distributing relevant and valuable content to attract, acquire and engage a clearly defined and understood target audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action," according to the Content Marketing Institute.

Or, it might be easier to think of it like this: a sales pitch without the pitch.

Make Clear Connections
In years past, content marketing's closest relative might have been custom publishing – educational materials (corporate brochures and white papers) that provided expertise without a hard-core sales pitch. Today's content marketing is more versatile. "It's part of PR, search, social media and more," says Joe Pulizzi, the Content Marketing Institute's CEO and founder. And it's quickly gaining ground.

With so many more outlets, distributors can become content marketing contributors – and industry experts – through Twitter as much as they can by speaking at a local chamber of commerce meeting. Respondents to the Content Marketing Institute's survey said they use anywhere from 11 to 18 tactics for content marketing, from podcasts to apps to annual reports and newsletters.

And, while traditional advertising presents a costly line item in a small company's budget, many of today's marketing experts insist that creating content is the cheapest, easiest, most effective way to reach clients and prospects. Also, some of the most effective marketing campaigns today begin with traditional advertising and lead people to online and mobile mechanisms that help brands connect even deeper with their audiences.

Take GoToMeeting, for example. The online meeting provider is currently running print ads in business magazines like Fortune, which are based on testimonials. A client provides a sound-bite that the ad centers on, and then the secondary copy leads users to a website (meetingisbelieving.com) where the conversation continues. The website contains videos, more testimonials, and links to GoToMeeting's social network pages. The key? The improved connections that GoToMeeting can make with its customers online that it couldn't have made with just a print ad. This particular ad drives people directly to further interaction – and even to a conversation that includes testimonials.

"The best part about content marketing is when you can drive people from traditional outlets to online venues where they can find more information, learn from their peers, and even ask questions to other people just like them," says Joseph Trombetta, principal with marketing consulting firm Trombetta Associates. "Brands that are able to create these forums, and this kind of content, for their customers are the most successful today at really connecting with their target audiences."

This kind of content marketing strategy is also gaining favor with search engines, as Google, for example, recently announced a push to realign search algorithms with websites that regularly post new content. The beauty of it is that anyone can create content marketing, virtually for free, says Ted Birkhahn, president and partner at New York-based communications firm Peppercomm.

How can you make the most of your content marketing? For starters, find out what your customers want to hear about, Birkhahn says. Sounds simple, but content marketing will only be heard and read if it's of interest to a distributor's clients. Ideally, you want your content marketing to help them solve business and promotional problems they're facing.

"Too often companies develop content without really listening first and don't understand what's going to interest their audience and drive participation with content and business," Birkhahn says. That input is most easily gained from current customers but can come from the ad specialty marketplace as well – via trade shows or by monitoring RSS feeds, for example.

Tip-Top Branding (asi/344851) regularly e-mails a two-minute survey to clients, offering them a $10 Starbucks gift card for answering a few brief questions, says Brad Akers, the Chicago-based company's president and owner. Input from those questions has allowed the company to create content on sites like Pinterest, where they pin certain supplier products as ideas. Only ideas. Remember, a good content marketing strategy has to shy away from being an overt sales pitch.

Distributors don't need to become experts overnight by creating 30-page white papers on how to use a Slinky to dominate the local school market. Instead, they can start by commenting on industry blogs and websites outside of their company or by becoming involved in industry events as a contributor at a regional meeting. Starting small, in fact, is the key to building credentials as a content marketer, Birkhahn says. "Look to see where conversations are taking place elsewhere on the Web and then ask, ‘How do I engage there first and build a following?' " he says. Doing so allows distributors to enter the content marketing arena slowly and build a following without spending a lot of time and money, or taking away from their daily tasks. It's also a great way to make mistakes, so to speak, on someone else's blog before starting your own.

Time & Effort
While marketing experts agree that the dollar cost of content marketing can be minimal, there is a time cost that companies have to put into the effort to determine what content makes the most sense. It's smart to create content year-round, but distributors would be wise to boost their efforts in line with their clients' order history and buying habits, says Dave Hochman, owner of DJH Marketing Communications Inc., based in Monmouth Beach, NJ. Hochman suggests creating a "content calendar" to remind distributors to be more active on blogs as well as with customers at certain times of year. "Obviously if I have a gift basket company, I'm not going to put content out in the summer," Hochman says. "I'm going to put it out in November," before the holiday rush.

Building content marketing credibility comes from consistency, says Susan Baroncini-Moe, author of Business in Blue Jeans, and a content marketing consultant based in Indianapolis. "Repetitiveness is something you want to avoid," Baroncini-Moe says, but consistency is key. One way to do that is by having coworkers share the job of creating content, spacing out assignments far enough that it keeps material fresh and workers motivated. To start, "find someone on your team who is a good writer and start with a company blog that educates customers," Baroncini-Moe says. Find another employee who's a great speaker and send him out into the community to local business meetings. Tapping the key talents of staff keeps the content fresh.

At Top 40 distributor Halo Branded Solutions (asi/356000), there are plenty of team members to provide input – some 700-plus account representatives nationwide. But asking them to carve out time daily or even weekly has been tough, says Jamon Heller, the company's director of e-commerce, who is based in Oakbrook Terrace, IL.

In 2012, Heller says, the company "dabbled" in content marketing. This year it's become a priority after the company launched a blog and created a marketing resource center with six categories of information to better help clients do their jobs utilizing promotional products. It's a constant informational push that requires almost a full-time commitment, something the company's sellers don't have time for.

"They don't have a lot of time to dedicate to being content marketers," Heller says. To maintain the site's content marketing push "you have to post and edit entries constantly, and it's kind of endless."

So, rather than burden staff with that task on a weekly basis, the company has leveraged its volume of staff by asking them to contribute only once a quarter or twice a year at the most. That keeps the content flowing, which is crucial to content marketing production, without causing employee burnout.

Content should be created at least every other week, if not weekly, says Lisa Tilt, president of Full Tilt Consulting, a branding, marketing and communications firm based in Atlanta. While it may seem like fulfilling that kind of task is daunting, remember that the key to good marketing is creating as many touch points with potential clients as possible. Another plus for the wide adoption of content marketing strategies: good content can be short and sweet, yet still have impact.

Content creators just need to make sure that whatever they Tweet, e-mail, post or say is in line with their overall marketing strategy and, more importantly, reflects their clients' interests. And while content marketing should never include a hard-core product pitch, it's OK to mention products periodically, perhaps "every third time" a piece is produced, Tilt says.

For those who become easily flustered or intimidated by the idea of creating original content, make the effort easy, says Jeff Cobb, managing director of Tagoras, a professional development firm based in Chapel Hill, NC. "You can showcase your expertise simply by having a colleague ask you a few questions about topics your customers really care about," Cobb says. "You can then post that video to the Web and also have it transcribed at a very low cost using a service like Elance and turn it into an article or white paper."

In fact, making content marketing versatile by repurposing it for multiple platforms is the key to reducing the production workload and getting more marketing bang for your buck, experts insist.

Many content marketers are taking written materials and reviving them via videos. It's one of the fastest-growing content marketing areas, with 70% of Content Marketing Institute respondents saying they'll use videos in 2013, up from 52% last year.

That kind of effort is certainly paying off for Halo's Heller and others in the ad specialty market. For starters, "we have concrete evidence that our content marketing efforts are affecting our search engine optimization results," Heller says.

Content Marketing Institute's Pulizzi puts it bluntly: "Our customers don't care about us, our products or our services," he says. But they care a great deal about information they can glean to improve their own business.

"That can build an emotional connection," Pulizzi adds. "If we can position ourselves as the trusted expert, it is very likely that a prospect will buy from us when they are ready to buy." More to the point, Pulizzi says, "great stories (read: effective content marketing) are what our best customers share to become evangelists for our brand."

–E-mail: BetsyCummings23@gmail.com