This past month, I’ve been working on a freelance project that analyzes where companies are along the SEO strategy maturity spectrum, and it got me thinking about how that principle applies to Content Marketing. Right now, the field is still relatively new, so you have a wide range of skill sets and expertise levels, ranging from the 8 percent of B2B marketers who think their content marketing efforts are “sophisticated”, to those using the “throw things against the wall” approach, all the way to the folks who are just trying to figure out which wall should be the first to get dirty.

There are a number of ways you can evaluate where you are, but from a philosophical/strategic standpoint, they seem to fall out along these lines:

  • “What Makes Us Great” marketing
  • “What Are You Searching For” marketing
  • “What Do You Need To Learn About” marketing
  • “What Makes You Great” marketing

“What Makes Us Great” marketing

This includes the vast majority of businesses right now, probably because it’s our default. Even in our personal lives, when we open up a social media channel and start trying to have a conversation with the Internet, our first instinct is to post a lot of what? Pictures of ourselves. Pictures of our food. Pictures of our lives. Updates on what we just did that was great. Comments on what made us mad. Things we thought were funny. After all, we know what we like reading about, so why wouldn’t everyone else?

Most initial or unintentional Content Marketing efforts are brand-centered, which is how we’ve always viewed advertising. And that worked when we had a captive audience who could either watch our commercial or get up and leave the room while they were watching TV. In digital, you have about 7 seconds to grab someone’s attention before they leave your site. And that’s when they’ve actually come to you (presumably) of their own free will in order to learn something! It’s even worse when I’m on social media and in permanent “scan” mode, just looking for something I find interesting or engaging.

I don’t believe the myth that our attention spans are just that short. I believe we’re smart enough to know that the web gives me seemingly unlimited options to find information, and if I’m spending time with you trying to fight through your messaging to get to what I wanted to know, I’m better off leaving now and spending my 7 seconds elsewhere.

(Incidentally, if you DO have an attention span longer than 7 seconds, Andy Littlefield at Ceros does a great job of pointing out that the issue probably has a lot more to do with a lack of respect for our audience’s ability to process content when it’s actually relevant and useful to them, and the subsequent superficiality of a lot of the marketing messages now being sent out.)

“What Makes Us Great” marketing doesn’t work in that environment. You being great doesn’t tell me how I can solve whatever unique problem or answer whatever specific question I may have.

“What Are You Searching For” marketing

This is where Search Engine Optimization enters the picture, and it’s where more and more marketers find themselves today. Basic SEO strategies are starting to become commonplace, as businesses realize how much control Google (and other search engines to a lesser extent) have over their digital marketing efforts.

Intellectually, it makes sense. Rather than putting out a bunch of content and hoping someone will stumble upon it, or sending it to them and trying to force them to see it, you can create something they’re already searching for (if you know what that is.) And with a host of online toolkits available, we can determine what search terms are trending, what key words people are already using to come to our site, what terms our site already ranks highly for, and which ones are are more closely tied to our products and services and would theoretically bring us “good leads” — the “Glengarry leads,” if you will.

It’s a great place to start, but many marketers also see it as a place to stop. “Create a keyword list, write a bunch of content geared toward those words, measure which ones brought traffic to the site, and keep working to build SERP ranking for those terms.” But it’s also a very reactive, and its limited in its application.

All you know about the visitor is that they typed your keyword in a search and clicked on your site. One client I worked with wanted to target people using the keyword “boot camp” to promote their gym’s classes – except it turns out bootcamp is also a software used to run a Windows operating system on a Mac. There might be a few computer programmers who could be inspired to change their lifestyles, but by in large, there’s probably not a strong overlap between your product and the searcher’s intent.

Keywords without context aren’t going to provide the type of traffic that will eventually move down the mythical “Sales Funnel.” There has to be more strategy, more context, more intelligence.

“What Do You Need To Learn About” marketing

Now we’re getting somewhere. At this stage, you have a much better understanding of the audience you’re trying to attract. As a result, you don’t necessarily have to rely on finding the right specific words to target, because now you’re starting to optimize for “intent” – what is it REALLY they’re searching for? Are they looking for “bootcamp?” Or are they looking for “Top ways to lose those 10 Christmas pounds?”

Now you’re not running over to jump into someone’s line of site in the hopes that they’ll like what they see. Instead, you’re looking at that searcher as an individual with a problem they want solved, or an answer to some question or issue.

Maybe you have a product that would help. Or maybe you just happen to know some things about their issue that could help. Or maybe you know enough about your audience to know that this is the kind of issue they need help with, and even though you don’t have something to sell them, you can at least point them in the right direction to make their lives a little easier.

When you’ve created strong buyer personas and you have an understanding of where your customers and prospects fall along that cycle — and what their need is when they’re there — you can start creating really useful content. And once you have a reputation for useful content, you start to gain trust, and people start seeking you out more specifically, whether it’s subscribing to a newsletter, or even picking you out of the list of SERP links because they know they won’t be wasting their time if they pick you.

And because you can identify a visitor’s buying readiness, you can start effectively measuring whether your content is impactful. A first-time visitor is probably not going to purchase from you, but they might register for a newsletter, or they might click over to some other parts of your site. Someone who came to your site looking for hints on how to select a vendor for their project might download a white paper or price list even if they don’t want to talk to a salesperson while they’re doing it. Those are wins relative to visitor intent.

“What Makes YOU Great” marketing

No, this is not a nod to what everyone claims is the new Millennial mindset of continual affirmation-seeking and glorification of self. It refers to the concept that if you really want to inspire a relationship with your visitors, you have to get past the idea of utility for the sake of utility, and move into the realm of aspiration.

Think about what you share on your own social channel. Think about what friends followers people who annoy you on social media people you really respect and enjoy hearing from on social media share with you. It’s not the burrito they had for dinner. It’s not the funny MEME they wanted you to see. It’s something they posted that made you stop and think a little – maybe encouraged you or even motivated you to be better at something, even if that something is just to be a little kinder to people around you.

Anyone can send us cute puppy videos. Not everyone can tell us a story that speaks to our experience and says “this is something that can make your life better.”

There aren’t a lot of people in marketing who’ve reached this stage yet, and that’s because it’s really hard to do. Sharable content varies from person to person, even within the most elaborate personas we can devise. It challenges us to really understand our prospects and clients, and show true empathy: What is their success story? What do they want their success story to look like? How can I inspire them to see that goal as attainable, and make them believe that I know how to help them achieve it?

The top content types shared on LinkedIn tend to be about self-improvement of some sort — things that you can enact in your own life and that (theoretically) will make you better at doing your job, making more money, or maybe just living a better life in general. So what are ways you can help someone do those things in a business context?

Create content worth sharing

The ultimate goal of content marketing is to stop being your own best cheerleader, and find volunteers to fill that role for you. When you’ve discovered that formula, you’ve become the Jedi Master of content marketing.

And when you do, make sure to share it out so the rest of us can use it!

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