Content Marketing = Today's Marketing
Simply put, the internet, Google and social media have changed marketing. What we used to call marketing is becoming more outdated and ineffective every day.
What we now call content marketing is just the new marketing. Soon, we won’t say content marketing anymore, just marketing. It’s a different world, and it’s all about the internet, social media and value-adding content.
Companies need to establish branding and character and, most importantly, trust—to current customers, prospective customers and everyone else—all online, all through valuable content.
1. A Shift Back to the Customer
Good marketing is all about the customer and always has been. (Good business, in general, is all about the customer.) But somewhere along the way, things got wonky.
Marketing became more about tricking the customer than about serving them (think of the Marlboro Man ads, as if every guy who smoked was herding cattle on the weekends). When the internet rose to prominence, it looked for a while there like it was just another venue for doing that.
But a few years ago, there was a definitive shift in marketing—it went back to being customer-centric. Why the shift?
Internet commerce and Google search.
2. The Ascendancy of Internet Commerce
Internet transformed the customer relationship entirely. Before, customers vetted companies through phone conversations, meetings and whatever marketing materials the companies provided them. Now, they vetted companies with internet searches before any contact.
Internet also increased competition a thousand fold. Years ago, customers had a handful of companies nearby to choose from. Today, they have the entire world of companies online. Markets have grown beyond regions to include the entire world.
With the internet, people could do business—actually do business, effectively and easily—across the country and across continents. B2B, B2C, it didn’t matter. Customers didn’t need to stick with one company anymore. If they weren’t getting what they wanted, they could easily jump ship.
Software as a service (SaaS) is a great example of this. Before the internet, companies used what we now call legacy systems for their database, intranet, customer relationship management (CRM) and other needs.
These were systems physically housed on their property, with servers and other hardware they had to purchase. Most often, the companies had to outsource maintenance, updating and trouble-shooting to the company that designed the system for them.
They were stuck.
If they wanted new functionality, it had to come through the existing system. If they wanted a new system, they had to switch providers and start all over, spending tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to replace all the hardware and everything else.
And then SaaS and open-source software came along and changed everything.
Companies could effectively rent systems from providers. They could access them online and not worry about any hardware, maintenance or troubleshooting. They could switch providers at will.
3. SEO Shenanigans
With the internet, the Yellow Pages became obsolete—if you wanted to find a company, you did it online through a search engine. This shift fundamentally and permanently changed how businesses and customers interact.
In the beginning, there were a couple of different search engines, but over the years Google has come to absolutely dominate internet search—around 90% of all internet searches go through Google. (Which is why I’m only writing about Google.)
With search comes ranking. There are billions of pieces of information on the internet, and Google needs a way to rank search results so people can find what they’re actually looking for and not just a bunch of junk. (Imagine sifting through 1,500,000 results without ranking.)
Over the years, Google’s search ranking algorithms have become increasingly complex. Step by step, the company has improved search—although it hasn’t always been a smooth process.
For years, keywords were all the rage. Google needed a way to rank websites, so it used keywords. If you sold widgets, Google ranked you in searches for “widgets” by how many times you had the word “widget” on your website.
Immediately, blackhat (sketchy) marketers started stuffing their content with keywords (keyword stuffing). Basically, you just put the keyword all over your website to get good ranking, and it worked for a time.
It didn’t matter if your company sold umbrellas, you could rank high for raincoats if you had the word raincoats all over your website (a blackhat tactic many companies used). Google’s algorithm just wasn’t sophisticated enough yet to know the difference, which is why search results could still be very random.
Another big factor was links—the more links you had from other websites to your own, the higher you ranked. Blackhat marketers sought out links like they were going out of style.
Ever heard of a link farm? Basically, you could (and probably still can, although it doesn’t work anymore) pay for links. You could pay a third-party company to make a bunch of spammy (not legit) links to your website to raise your ranking.
For a time, these tactics and others like them worked. While I didn’t go so far as to keyword stuff any of the content I wrote, I certainly made sure to include keywords in every post at least a couple of times—it was a necessary evil.
4. Google’s End Goal: Natural Search
But the whole time this was going on, Google was aware of it and working to improve the entire process—to raise high-quality sites where they should be and jettison low-quality sites.
With every new algorithm update, search became a touch more effective, and search ranking became less about specific tactics (i.e., gaming the system) and more about legitimate content from the real experts. But, as I said, it wasn’t always a smooth process.
Google’s Panda algorithm release in 2011 was a rough one for many companies. Its intent was to lower the ranking of low-quality sites, but it unintentionally dragged a bunch of legit sites down with them.
The company I was working for at the time had—through no fault of our own—acquired 5,000 or so spammy links (link farms attaching themselves to us to increase their own legitimacy).
When Panda hit, the company went into Google hell. At the time, we were ranking on the first page for our main keyword in the third or fourth spot, depending on the day.
We disappeared. We dropped from a top spot on page 1 to page 50 or so—which means we were effectively invisible. We just happened to be collateral damage of the Panda release.
As Director of Communications, it was my responsibility to get us back, or I would lose my job, period. But rather than a professional setback, the calamity became a positive defining moment.
Obviously, we had to lose the spammy links, which required a million calls to the link farm and a long back-and-forth with Google. But more than that, we had to adapt to Panda—we had to follow the same path as Google.
And where was that path heading? Right where legit companies wanted to go.
It was great for me, personally, because I’m probably more journalist than marketer—I’d much rather tell a story and help someone than try to sell anything. And it turned out that Google’s direction was right in line with that.
If there’s one thing you need to know about Google and search rankings, it’s this:
All of Google’s efforts over the years have been towards making search as natural and human as possible.
And it’s not just about search terms. Before, you had to type in a specific search term to get the results you wanted. Now, you don’t, because Google’s algorithms are sophisticated enough to know what you’re looking for.
You don’t need to type in "widgets" to find widgets (although it certainly helps Google out). And marketers don’t need to put keywords all over articles, just as many times as would occur naturally in conversation.
Would you write an article about tires and not write the word "tire" somewhere in there? Probably not, because it wouldn’t be natural. But Google’s algorithms are sophisticated enough that you could—you could write an article mentioning rubber and tread and cornering grip and wear, and Google would know you’re talking about tires.
Content marketing has to be natural, written in the way that one human writes to another human. Because Google’s algorithms—arguably the most well-kept secrets in the world—are sophisticated enough now to know the difference between a poorly written, unauthoritative article and a legit one.
Personally, it’s right up my alley. I write a legit article, Google gives it the ranking it deserves. I’ve never enjoyed working in marketing more than I do now.
5. A Shift in Messaging
Years ago, we only talked about ourselves—our experience, our products, our services. “You should pick us because…” Every email or brochure or white paper I wrote had the word “we” everywhere. They were always company-centric.
But customers don’t care about us. They only care about what we can offer them.
Rightly so. And I think they got tired of reading the same narcissistic messaging from every company out there.
In any case, it suddenly seemed like every blog post and article I read (or wrote) had the words "customer service" and "customer experience" in them. And then it went beyond that, to publishing valuable content just for the sake of valuable content.
6. Value-Adding Content
The rise of internet commerce had the effect of whittling the list of differentiators down to one: value provided.
The content we used to give customers—product sheets, white papers, brochures—were all written from our perspective, focused on getting a sale. But these things aren’t good enough anymore.
Customers will, at some point in the sales process, want to see a product sheet, but they want to see a lot more before that, and even then the product sheet better focus on their needs and not the “greatness” of the product.
The Content Marketing Institute defines content marketing as:
A strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly-defined audience—and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.
And here’s what they have to say about that definition:
Go back and read the content marketing definition one more time, but this time remove the relevant and valuable. That’s the difference between content marketing and the other informational garbage you get from companies trying to sell you stuff….Good content marketing makes a person stop…read… think… behave… differently.
Customers want to know how to shop for whatever it is they need; how to use whatever it is they buy; how to maintain it; how to fix it if it breaks…any number of things that add value to their purchase.
What real content looks like to Seth Godin:
I think that it’s human, it’s personal, it’s relevant, it isn’t greedy and it doesn’t trick people. If the recipient knew what the sender knows, would she still be happy? If the answer to that question is yes, then it’s likely it’s going to build trust.
7. What Google Wants to See
In short, Google just wants to see what other humans want to see.
No one outside of Google knows exactly how many variables the company’s algorithms take into account to establish ranking—suffice it to say, it’s a lot...at least 200 by most accounts. But we do know that some weigh more heavily than others.
For the purposes of content marketing, these variables are critical:
1. Content quality and length.
2. Frequency of content updates.
3. Links from other authoritative websites to your website.
One, Google likes well-written, well-researched, well-informed and lengthy content.
Back in the day, content farms would churn out “articles” (with the hand quotes for good measure) that were basically a bunch of uninformed gobbledygook with lots of keywords. They performed well because Google’s spiders didn’t know any different.
But today you can’t write for an algorithm, you have to write for other humans. Google’s algorithms are sophisticated enough to recognize good content and bad content. They give higher rank to good content.
They also give higher rank to longer content. Why? Because, as a human, if you were looking for information and had to choose between a 300-word article and a 1,000-word article, you’d likely choose the 1,000-word one. Because it’s probably written by someone who knows what they’re talking about, has a lot to say and has taken time to create something of real value.
Two, Google likes to see frequent updates of content.
In a nutshell, Google’s spiders come to your site, go over every word of every page on it and then rank it based on what they find. They do this periodically, depending on how often you put up new content.
If your site is static (i.e., no content updates), the spiders won’t come back as often and your rank will stagnate or fall. If your site is active (i.e., regular content updates), the spiders will come back more frequently and your ranking will rise.
Google doesn’t share the inner workings of its spiders, but if I had to guess I’d say they go over a static website every couple of weeks to every month, while they go over an active site much more frequently. It wouldn’t surprise me if they go over big media sites several times a day.
It’s important to maintain balance while you’re doing this. Years ago, I would split longer articles up to increase the frequency of my postings, because that’s what Google wanted. But today it’s better to write two 1,200-word articles (Google likes 1,000-plus-word articles) per week than a dozen 200-word articles.
That’s not to say you can’t have shorter posts—if a short post gets lots of hits, Google will like it—and if short posts are all you can do, it’s better than nothing. But, in general, longer posts perform better because they indicate higher authority on a subject and more care taken in the article creation.
Three, you need other good sites linking to your site.
You have less control over this one, but basically if you show the cyber world that you’re an authority on a subject or in an industry, you’re likely to get other authorities linking to your site.
Numbers of links isn’t as important as it used to be. Quality of links is much more important than it used to be. Basically, you want quality links and only quality links. Spammy links will hurt your rankings rather than help them, especially after the Panda update in 2011.
8. Social Media: Not a Platform for Narcissism
The emergence of social media has thrown another wrinkle into the marketing picture. What began as an online community for Ivy League students—to share pictures of typical college monkeyshines and who knows what else—has become another communication tool like the telephone and email.
That social media is all about narcissism is one of the biggest misconceptions companies have today. Social media is not a soapbox from which to shout about your company—it’s just another means of communication, like email or the telephone.
Let me repeat that:
Social media is just another means for communicating with your customers.
Would you call a potential customer to tell them about your company picnic? “Rain this year…” Would you email a customer to show them pictures from that picnic? “Joe was three sheets to the wind…” No, you wouldn’t.
Quite simply, companies make the mistake of using social media the way the general public does.
On your personal Facebook page, if you want to clog your friends’ feeds with pictures of you standing in line at the supermarket all day long, that’s your prerogative. On your business page, there’s no faster way to lose customers.
9. Using Social Media
Why do you use social media in content marketing? That’s where your customers are—online, in social media groups.
How do you use it? To draw attention to and guide customers to the valuable content you’re providing.
That’s it, in a nutshell. This is worth repeating:
Customers don’t care about your company, they only care about what your company can do for them.
When I’m shopping for mountain bike parts online, I only care about a few things (as long as the company I’m buying from isn’t evil and running sweatshops or something):
1. Low cost.
2. Low/no shipping cost and quick delivery time.
3. Good customer service.
Customers don’t care about your company picnic or your latest press release talking about an update to your software that touts your technical prowess but doesn’t affect them in the least. They just don’t.
I mean, we’re all customers in our private lives. When you’re looking for a new couch or computer or car, what do you really care about beyond cost, quality, shipping and customer service?
Personally, I care that the company isn’t a bunch of shysters, that I’m getting a good deal, that I’ll be taken care of and I’ll get good service long after I’ve bought whatever it is I bought. Those are the things that create customer loyalty, because they provide value and establish trust.
10. Not Content Marketing, Just Marketing
Every industry undergoes paradigm shifts as it evolves. Content marketing is just the next evolution of marketing. It’s not a fad or gimmick or trend—it’s the new marketing, period.
And all this isn’t to say that you abandon what we now call traditional marketing efforts. Some still work. If you can get someone on the phone or in a face-to-face meeting, that’s always beneficial.
The difference is, today you don’t have to convince the person of your character or sell them on yourself on the spot—you’ve already done it online.
By the time you’re speaking with someone, you’re simply solidifying the image you’ve already created in their minds. But you need to focus your efforts on your online presence, with good content disseminated in the right places.
What Josh Steimle, CEO of digital marketing firm MWI, has to say on the matter:
At my own company we’ve used content marketing to grow more than 1,000% over the past year. Potential clients find our content, find value in it, and by the time they contact us they’re already convinced they want to work with us. We don’t have to engage in any high-pressure sales tactics, it’s merely a matter of working out details, signing an agreement and getting started. The trust that usually needs to be built up during an extensive sales cycle has already been created before we know the potential client exists.
I’ll leave you with a quote that I think sums things up pretty well, from Elizabeth Moss, owner of the Elizabeth Moss Galleries: