Content marketing is an unmissable element of any complete Digital PR strategy, so much so that it has become hard to distinguish where the hyperbole ends and where the, well, actual content begins. But while many have trumpeted content marketing as a unique product of the internet age, we’re going to see that content marketing actually has a history nearly as long as marketing itself.
Content is, essentially, anything that enables you to communicate with your customers. Writing an article, creating an infographic, composing a Tweet or animating a video — these are all examples of content creation because they all contain some kind of message or idea that is passed from the creator of the content to the consumer. Content marketing is creating and promoting content that is specifically designed to help your business achieve its marketing goals.
In this blog:
- What is Content Marketing?
- What Successful Content Marketing Looks Like
- What is an Advertorial?
- What About Press Releases?
- How to Choose The Right Form of Content
1. What is Content Marketing?
Content marketing is a very simple concept. Basically, we’re looking to sneak a promotional message into our audience’s brains via something that they really want to consume. Newspaper advertorials are a precursor to content marketing as we know it today, and it’s no accident that in many cases they vastly outperform traditional ads. People read newspapers for the articles, not the ads, after all. And if it looks like an article, smells like an article, then it’s going to get read.
One of the clearest online examples of content creation is the email newsletter. You, the content creator, have a message that you want to communicate to your audience. Your message is how fantastic your new product is. To convey your message to your audience, you write a newsletter telling everyone exactly how groundbreaking your new product is. Your newsletter is the content, and because you are using your newsletter to achieve your company’s goals, sending your newsletter out to your email database is content marketing. Simple, right?
The key to content marketing, as with all advertising, is to make the content bit as compelling as possible. If you’ve ever read a typical corporate press release announcing a product launch for example, this is basically the antithesis of what we’re aiming for: a dry, dull and purely self-promotional piece of little to zero interest to most ordinary people.
Going back to our email newsletter, because your audience has their finger hovering over the DELETE button as they read, your newsletter must offer something of value to your readers — otherwise, they won’t read it. This value could be information, entertainment, some kind of discount or gift, but it has to exist alongside your content’s original message if your content marketing is going to be seen by anyone. While adverts are just placed next to something of value in order to be seen by the viewer, the commercial message in content marketing is built in so as to be indistinguishable from the content.
Let’s sum up the differences between content marketing and advertising:
|Contains a message?||Helps achieve marketing objectives?||Contains something of value for the audience?||Is paid for?|
|Content marketing||Yes.||Yes.||Yes.||Not necessarily.|
2. What Successful Content Marketing Looks Like
Content marketing is not a new phenomenon. In fact, it’s much older than many people realise. In 1984, Hasbro, a toy manufacturer, thought of a relatively new way of selling their action figures. Instead of creating a twenty second commercial that talks about how awesome their new action toys were, they decided to create a twenty minute TV show that showed their audience exactly how awesome their new action toys were. The show was a sensational hit, and Transformer-related toys flew off the shelves at an astounding rate. In fact, Transformers has become so entrenched in modern popular culture that many people don’t realise that Optimus Prime and the gang started out as content marketing in disguise.
But while Hasbro taught the world a valuable lesson about content marketing in 1984, content marketing has had a real renaissance in the internet age. This is because of two crucial factors:
- The internet connects businesses to a potential audience of millions
- The internet makes content creation much cheaper than ever before
Very few businesses have the resources to go out and create a TV show Hasbro-style just to promote their product. But by using resources that are free online, almost every business on the planet is able to start producing excellent content, such as blogs, infographics, or podcasts. One of the key reasons that content marketing is such an excellent tool for small businesses is that it costs as little or as much as you want to spend on it. Let’s look at some examples of super successful ninja content marketing from the internet age.
McDonald’s: Our Food, Your Questions
McDonald’s is a controversial brand that is admired in advertising circles perhaps just as much as it is hated in health circles. In fact, they intentionally exploited their less than stellar reputation in their “our food, your questions” content marketing campaign. What they did was invite their audience to post their questions online and committed to answering all of them. As you can imagine, not all of the questions were particularly polite, but McDonald’s went out of their way to answer the questions in a kind and humorous (if slightly obsequious) way.
This is a stroke of evil genius. It gave lots of people the opportunity to interact with the McDonald’s brand. By posting a question and getting a response, McDonald’s immediately feels less like a faceless corporation and more like a group of people, and people tend to like people. But if that weren’t reason enough to run the campaign, the second reason is what earned it the reputation for being “the greatest example of content marketing ever.”
Larry B. went ahead and asked what many people were surely thinking: “Is your meat made out of cardboard?” Rather than censor the post, McDonald’s went ahead and answered it: “Absolutely not. We don’t think cardboard would taste very good in our burgers.” Now Larry B. is far from the first person to wonder if McDonald’s meat is made from cardboard. But now that McDonald’s answered the question themselves online, every other person that Googles the same question will be directed to the McDonald’s official answer rather than some snarky McDonald’s hating forum. They stopped hundreds of McDonald’s rumours dead in their tracks by giving an answer to every single one of them.
Colgate: Oral and Dental Resource Center
You don’t have to have a cool or interesting product to create some absolutely out of this world content. While McDonald’s showed us how to get engagement, Colgate demonstrates how to become the number one authority in your field with their massive oral and dental resource center. The website is nothing less than an encyclopedia on every single tooth-related issue that you can possibly imagine, covered in an accurate and informative tone. Try asking Google a question about dentistry and I’ll bet you that Colgate comes in on the first page.
Racking Inspection Training Company: Dominating Google News
One of our major success stories was the digital PR campaign we’ve run for a small business who provide racking inspection trainings for warehouses. Have you ever heard of a more dry subject matter? Probably not, but it doesn’t matter. There are only a few experts in the world of racking inspection training and even fewer who are writing about it, which means we made sure these guys were absolutely dominating their market.
We write around a dozen articles each month relating to racking inspections and health and safety more broadly. Some are published on the company’s own blog, and others are published on websites in the workplace health and safety niche. If you type “racking inspection training” into Google News and you can bet your pound sterling than half of the articles on that first page are written by our client. After just 4 months of our SEO and digital PR work, the company’s website was on page one of Google for 21 of their target keywords and in the top three results on Google for 8 of their target keywords. Pretty ninja for a small business.
Paintballing Company: Featured on the World’s Largest Paintball Forum
When it comes to paintballing, there are only a limited number of publications in this niche but a whole load of companies competing for the Google top spots. We scoured the web for publications but quickly realised that all of the paintball enthusiasts aren’t just reading magazines, they’re actively participating on paintball forums and engaging in conversations about paintballing techniques and strategies.
We got an article written by our team and the company owner picked up and published on PB Nation, the world’s largest paintball forum. The forum users loved it. Within just 2 days, there were two pages of comments from paintball enthusiasts praising the advice in the article and adding to the discussion with their own tips.
3. What is an Advertorial?
There are few types of content marketing that are as contentious as advertorials. An advertorial is an advert that is placed in a magazine that mimics the style and appearance of an editorial. They are also known as ‘native advertising’ because the adverts look native to the publication they are in. The effect is that the reader usually gets halfway through the advertorial before realising that what they’re reading is actually an ad.
But just because they annoy readers doesn’t mean that they don’t work. Jingles are infuriating but undoubtedly shift products and the same is true of advertorials — AB testing shows that advertorials attract 81% more orders than ads with identical copy in a traditional format, and they are a mindblowing five hundred times more likely to be read. The key to retaining goodwill with an advertorial is to make sure that the piece provides value as well as a pitch. Hollow advertorials that ‘bait and switch’ (setting up the article to be interesting but ultimately becoming a pure pitchfest) annoy people but it doesn’t have to be like that!
4. What about Press Releases?
In the old days, it seemed like PR agencies did nothing but put together a never-ending stream of press releases communicating every possible facet of a business to the outside world. Digital PR has come a long way since then and content marketing strategies have evolved massively. Nowadays press releases are certainly less popular than they were and many companies are thinking about giving up on them altogether.
A press release is a message that a business sends to the press in the hopes that they will pick up the story and publicise it. The problem is that journalists are inundated with press releases from every kind of business imaginable — to the point where a full 50% of journalists say that they don’t even read any of the press releases that they get from start-ups and small businesses anymore.
To maximise your chances of securing successful press in this harsh environment, you have to make sure that you have a newsworthy story (i.e. it is actually new, interesting, and would appeal to a broad array of readers). If you don’t have a good story, shelve press releases and move on. Only once you have a story that your friends agree is genuinely interesting, then you can think about using press releases in your digital PR strategy.
The next step is crafting a killer headline for your press release. Remember, you’ve already lost 50% of the journalists that you’ve contacted, and unless your headline is exceptionally compelling you are about to lose the other 50%. The same applies to your subject line. Think of the first line of your actual email as an extension of your headline, the aim is to keep building the hype train and strike that delicate balance between raising the reader’s curiosity and providing enough information so it’s clear what you are talking about and why.
Next comes the actual body of the press release which should outline the story idea in under five hundred words. Keep reminding yourself that journalists are extremely busy people and will delete your email at a moment’s notice if it starts to bore them. Do tailor your emails slightly to each publication, and do paste your press release into the body of your email rather than attach it to your email (you think journalists have time to open attachments!) Given how difficult it is to get a press release picked up and the amount of effort that goes into making one, it’s fair to ask whether they are actually a good use of time. The answer is: only if they get picked up, which doesn’t happen very often.
Here are two examples of the kind of thing that is worth writing a press release about:
- Breast Milk Ice Cream
It’s got breasts in the title and it makes people go “eurgh” or possibly “hmm” — an instant winner. A restaurant in Covent Garden got national coverage when it announced to the world that it was selling ice cream made from human breast milk, and it even went so far as to name the donor who would be providing the milk. The story did even better than usual because the restaurant tied the announcement to the debate that was going on at the time about public breast feeding. He also came up with a name for the ice cream that the Sun would be proud of: Baby Gaga.
It’s sad but true: any story about breasts, or anything that makes people go “yuck” is more likely to be a hit, but there has to be a genuine connection to your business too.
- Paintball Bullet Tester
A paintballing company got an enormous amount of coverage when it announced that it was looking to hire a bullet tester with a high tolerance for pain. The company put up job ads on all the big jobs sites, describing the exact kind of stamina and endurance needed by candidates. Humour is the key ingredient here, with a healthy dose of curiosity mixed in. Whether a bullet tester ever actually got hired, who knows, but it sure got some publicity for the paintball company.
How does your story compare to breast milk ice cream or paintball bullet tester? “New accountancy firm in Milton Keynes” simply isn’t going to cut the mustard. Only devote the time to crafting a press release and sending the necessary hundreds of emails once you actually have something worth sharing. Otherwise, don’t waste your time.
The other route to go down is submitting your story to press release websites. Since Google’s algorithmic changes to Panda, the link benefit of these are marginal at best and actually harmful at worst. Again, with these websites, it’s probably only worth doing if you have a press release that people are actually going to share. Once you do have that story, consider checking out the following free websites:
These are two of the best paid websites:
5. Choosing the Right Form of Content Marketing for Your Target Audience
As you may have noticed, content marketing can take many different forms. Articles, blogs, social media engagement, books, podcasts, press releases, email newsletters, advertorials, and videos are just some examples of the different forms that content marketing can take. Understanding which form of content marketing will work best for your business is an essential aspect of any coherent digital PR strategy.
Just as Transformers is a cartoon perfectly geared towards the people who are most likely to buy the Transformers toys (children), you must choose the type of content that is most likely to be consumed by your ideal customer. But before we can decide which content is right for your customer, you first have to identify your customer. Read next blog post to discover how to identify your customers.
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