What Is Content Marketing, and Why Does Your Business Need It?

Content marketing has become a hot buzzword these days, thanks to Google algorithm updates and social media. Three experts offer content marketing strategies and examples to follow.

In one form or another, content marketing has been around at least 100 years. It began in the late 1800s, when John Deere started publishing a magazine for farmers with the hopes of selling more tractors and farm machinery, says Brian Clark, founder and CEO of Copyblogger Media, which offers content marketing advice and software. The idea took off with the rise of radio soap operas in the 1930s, he adds, as Proctor & Gamble targeted housewives.

In recent months, content marketing has become a hot buzzword as businesses strive to navigate Google algorithm updates and convert targeted prospects into customers.

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In the era of Panda and Penguin, Google's recent algorithm changes, content marketing has taken on even more importance. But what exactly is content marketing? Why is it important? How can businesses do content marketing effectively? CIO.com asked three experts for their best content marketing strategies and examples.

Content Marketing Is Anything That Builds a Relationship

For starters, content marketing is an umbrella term that "captures all the different ways to communicate within a marketing, lead generation and retention framework," says Scott Fasser, director of digital marketing solutions for Optify, a B2B digital marketing software company.

Clark adds that content marketing refers to any piece of content—including tweets, blog posts, YouTube videos, downloadable white papers, email newsletters, webinars and website articles—designed to build a "direct relationship with prospects and customers."

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The goals of content marketing are to convert prospects into customers and customers into brand advocates. Through effective content marketing, a business engages its target audience by answering questions they have, helping them solve problems or entertaining them. The hope is that prospects will see the brand as a trusted, reliable source and, most importantly, a company they want to do business with.

Social Media, SEO Drive Content Marketing

The rise of social media is one reason that content marketing has become more important today. "In the past, you may have created a piece of content and put it on your site or in an email newsletter. Now, you have all these social channels to feed," Fasser says. "The good news is you can take a single piece of content and make it work across multiple channels, especially social media networks. It all feeds back to your brand."

Google's recent Panda and Penguin algorithm changes have had people talking about the need for better content marketing, too.

For instance, the Panda algorithm updates, first rolled out in February 2011, have targeted sites with "thin" or otherwise low-quality content, says Clark. In Panda's wake, those practicing questionable SEO tactics—such as stuffing keywords into junky website content in hopes of ranking well—discovered that Google was penalizing their content by pushing it down in rankings.

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Arnie Kuenn, president of Internet marketing company Vertical Measures, says some businesses lost 80 to 90 percent of their revenues after Panda and Penguin because their content marketing strategies focused on low-quality content. On the other hand, Google tends to give top rankings to content that is original (as opposed to duplicate), lives on sites with high domain authority attracts links from other sites, and is shared on Facebook, Twitter and other social media networks, among other factors, Fasser says.

Developing high-quality content for marketing purposes, then, has never been more important.

5 Good Content Marketing Examples

Coca-Cola, Whole Foods, McDonald's and P&G are among the big brands often receiving kudos for effective content marketing, Clark notes.

For example, McDonald's Canada rolled out a content marketing program called Our Food, Your Questions in which Canadians are invited to ask the fast-food retailer questions about its products. Participants pose such questions as "Do your warming trays contain BPA?" and "Why do you microwave so much of your food?"

McDonald's Canada has tackled more than 10,000 such questions, Clark says. This is a good example of content marketing because it addresses problems and questions from people McDonald's wants to do business with. It also provides McDonald's with "a huge volume of unique, valuable content on its site," Clark adds, which has proven SEO benefits.

Meanwhile, the Whole Foods blog Four Pillars of Healthy Eating represents good content marketing because it matches the beliefs of the company with the needs and interests of its customers, Clark says. "This is smart content marketing because it gets people to buy into the Whole Foods world view."

Small businesses have shown themselves adept at content marketing as well, says Kuenn, who offers three examples:

The Motor Lodge, a 12-room inn in Prescott, Arizona, uses its Facebook page as its primary content marketing vehicle. "They've done a good job building an audience through content by being clever, humorous and engaging," Kuenn says. As a result, despite its size, the Motor Lodge's Facebook page has nearly 2,000 likes, and many of its updates receive 30 or more comments, he says.

The famous Will It Blend? video series, in which Blendtec founder Tom Dickson throws unusual items such as an iPad into a Blendtec blender to see what happens, is "probably one of the best content marketing programs ever," Kuenn says. The viral videos promote the blender's strength while being engaging and funny.

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During its first year of operations about six years ago, FixYourDLP.com—which provides replacement bulbs for DLP televisions—had about $100,000 in revenues, Kuenn says. Last year, the company had some $24 million in revenues.

"They did it all by producing hundreds of how-to videos and PDF manuals that show consumers how to install the bulbs they sell in specific TV sets," he explains. "That was their whole marketing effort, and it worked because they produced helpful content that consumers needed, then sold them the product that would solve their problem."

Experts cite free downloadable guides, white papers and how-to webinars—when done well—as reliably effective content marketing methods.

The shelf life of a white paper or free guide tends to be long, and you can capture leads by asking people to give you their email address and other information in order to download it," Kuenn says. While such leads aren't always the highest quality, it gives marketers names and email addresses they can "nurture" with other forms of content in the future, he says.

You can also make useful content available for easy downloading without requiring a name and email address as a way to promote your expertise. For instance, Vertical Measures offers a free editorial calendar spreadsheet template to help organizations develop, assign and track their content marketing efforts. Prospects aren't required to enter a name or email address in order to download the template.

What Is Bad Content Marketing? Thin, Generic, Duplicate

As for bad content marketing, there isn't "a bad form of content, but there is bad content within a form," Fasser says. One example is a recent Gap tweet that the clothing retailer posted during Hurricane Sandy: "All impacted by #Sandy, stay safe! We'll be doing lots of Gap.com shopping today. How about you?"

The tweet came across to many as insensitive and opportunistic, Fasser says. "A better way to have handled it was to say the Gap had just made a Red Cross donation to aid in Hurricane Sandy relief."

In general, poor content marketing examples tend to be "thin, generic, watered-down content that someone has slapped up anonymously on a site," Clark says, adding, "it doesn't engage the reader and it doesn't solve a problem or inform them, so it doesn't get any links."

Others take a "lazy approach" to content, Kuenn says. An example would be a realtor with multiple locations and Web pages for each location that are nearly identical except for the differences in location names. "Sites like that with obviously duplicate content got hammered in recent Google algorithm updates," he says. "Going forward, you've got to develop useful, helpful, unique content."

(That said, Google doesn't penalize all duplicate content. Read the Google's Webmaster tools article on duplicate content for more information.)

11 Top Content Marketing Strategies and Tips

There's a thin, but important, line between success and failure in content marketing. To help you find that line, our experts offer these 11 tips to put you on the right path.

  • Ask yourself some key questions, Kuenn says: Why are you creating a particular piece of content? Who's the intended audience? What's your brand's voice? What types of content should you create for your audience? Finally, what does success look like?
  • Think like a publisher, Fasser says. Build an editorial calendar that details who's writing what; assigns deadlines, lists the focus keywords for each particular piece of content, notes how the content ties into your overall SEO program, identifies the problems customers have that the content addresses, and so on. "If you don't nail all that down, you end up developing content just to develop content," he warns.
  • Act as a resource to prospects and customers. "If you can bring someone into your site who is actively looking for a solution to a problem, and you can solve it for them in an in-depth way through content, you'll have higher-quality visitors to your site who tend to convert more," Fasser says.

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  • Use social media to syndicate your content. "When you develop high-quality content and share it through social channels, others interested in the topic will likely connect with you," Fasser says. "That's super important, because the more you can grow your social networks, the bigger the potential audience you'll have for new content."
  • Establish benchmarks as you begin a content marketing program. That way you'll know if the efforts are paying off down the road. Among the things to track are the number of new visitors to your site from a particular piece of content, the number of page views and leads generated from that content and how often the content has been liked or shared on social media, Fasser says.
  • When brainstorming content, get people from across departments together in a room and get a dialogue going, Kuenn says. Find out what questions customers ask them the most. "You can generate a lot of good content ideas this way."
  • Look for more ideas at Q&A sites such as Quora and Answers.com as well as relevant LinkedIn groups, Kuenn adds. Do keyword searches on phrases relevant to your business and see what questions people are posting—and you can answer those questions with your own content.

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  • Develop a 12-month editorial calendar and plan seasonal topics at least 90 days in advance, Kuenn says.
  • Identify subject matter experts (SMEs) within your organization and promote them as much as possible, Clark says. Have them author bylined blog posts and other content. If they don't have time, get someone to write the posts on their behalf, but with the SME's input.
  • Have SMEs set up a Google+ profile if they haven't done so already, then link that profile to the site on which they're posting content, Clark says. "Google authorship," as it's called, is important for several reasons. It helps build authority and trust for content developed by an author, which helps that content rank higher in searches. Also, Google authorship places a thumbnail image of the author next to his or her content in search results, which increases clickthrough rates. (Read the Google authorship how-to for more information.)
  • Finally, your SMEs should get an active social media following, too. "Like the 'rock star' writers at top magazines, the writers who create your content matter. They can become an asset of your brand," Clark says. "Having writers with a strong social following helps bring traffic to your site from social media networks, and it helps build the author's authority on Google."

The goal of content marketing is relatively simple. "You want to create cool content that's useful to your community and that attracts [people] to your website," Kuenn says. "Once they're on your site, you try to engage them and ultimately do business with them. Those visitors might not become buyers today. But if you keep bringing them back with good content, if you can capture information about them, if you nurture them, the chances are high they will become customers."

James A. Martin is an SEO and social media consultant and writes the CIO.com Martin on Mobile Apps blog. Follow him on Twitter. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, on Facebook, and on Google +.

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