When the topic of content marketing comes up, it’s easy to be drawn into a very basic view that marketing is all about producing blog articles. However, that idea gives little in the way of credit to the larger element of storytelling that can be done across a variety of formats. Companies have been using storytelling as a form of content marketing for decades. Some examples include:
- The introduction of the Michelin Guide in 1900 to generate interest in vehicle travel
- Hasbro’s use of comic books and TV cartoons to sell G.I. Joe and Transformers action figures in the 1980s
- John Deere’s introduction of “The Furrow,” an agricultural publication, in 1895
We think of content marketing as a novel strategy from the age of blogs and social media, even though it’s anything but that. If you’re curious about how content marketing might help you to build a brand and to connect with an audience, here’s what you need to know.
Committing to a Long-Term Strategy
Foremost, you need to embrace the idea that content marketing is about steadily producing posts, articles, videos, and other materials that people actually find engaging. If you look at the previous example of Hasbro’s use of the strategy in the 1980s, that has become such a source of engagement for the audience that seven feature-length, wide-release movies have come from it. While your content doesn’t have to be so good that people demand the opportunity to pay you to see it in theaters, the example does give an idea of just how strong the public’s appetite for investing in storytelling built around certain products can be.
To get to that point, though, Hasbro had to invest in producing books, television episodes, and movies over decades. A major part of that personal investment from each audience member, in fact, comes from the promise that there will be more material to come. When you visit your favorite bloggers or YouTube channels, for example, many maintain fairly strictly daily or weekly production schedules. It’s not enough to tell a story. There has to be a promise built in that you’ll continue storytelling well into the future.
Finding Strategies to Use
The rise of numerous channels of entertainment and communication in the modern world means that you need to find a strategy that will allow you to connect with your audience. Back when the folks at John Deere were creating “The Furrow,” there weren’t many options. A company could basically choose to put up signs or to insert ads into newspapers and magazines.
The folks at John Deere took the second option and expanded those ads into a content source that’s still available today. How do they continue accomplish this?
A core strategy that many in the content marketing world employ is called 3D marketing. Despite the name, this marketing does not presume to use modern 3D technologies to create a vibrant visual experience. Instead, it refers to addressing three key dimensions of a problem in a way that brings value to an audience. These are:
- Identifying a pain point for the audience
- Putting the right content in front of people
- Mapping the content to a purchasing cycle that solves the problem
A good example of identifying a pain point can be found in this March 2019 article from “The Furrow.” It’s focused on the issue of succession in the modern agricultural world. The folks at John Deere don’t just want people to purchase farm equipment. They want them to become multigenerational purchasers. The article ultimately encourages the audience to set up legally well-structured trusts to ensure the ongoing succession of farms within families. This solution handles a pain-point problem for the audience while also encouraging a long-term buying cycle that hopefully turns a family into a John Deere family.
Before you roll forward in picking strategies to pursue, you need to figure out who your audience is and what its pain points are. For example, a criminal law firm’s audience is fairly obvious, but what are those readers’ pain points? These may end up being:
- Not knowing the exact law about a certain topic
- Identifying ways to avoid legal trouble
- Learning what to say and not say while being interviewed or interrogated
- Determining when it’s time to get professional counsel
- Understanding personal rights in different situations
A practice that takes on DUI cases may decide to publish blog articles about common defenses against DUI charges. They might also make social media posts reminding people about the big holidays when the police are out in force looking for DUIs. Videos outlining unusual cases can also be entertaining and can establish a particular attorney as knowledgeable regarding DUI cases. Many of these materials can be repurposed into print materials that can be handed to clients, too.
Depending upon your company’s goals and its audience, there are numerous other ways to put content in front of an audience full of potential customers. Anyone who has been on Facebook has seen people sharing and posting results from surveys, polls and quizzes. If appropriate, memes are a good way to foster sharing, too.
It’s also worth looking outside the print and online boxes. You may want to explore things like:
- Setting up a small concert for audience members
- Holding a convention
- Doing meet-ups
- Sitting down for Q&As at conferences (also a good source of videos!)
- Conducting giveaways
- Producing merchandise, such as shirts, caps, and mugs
Wherever you think your audience will be is a good place to conduct content marketing and storytelling.
Content Marketing Execution
Having an idea with channels you want to explore is one thing. Creating compelling storytelling is quite the other.
With a strategy in mind, however, you can start breaking the task down into executable blocks. For example, a company that wants to build a YouTube channel needs to connect with people who have the technical capabilities and talents required to produce videos. Within that subset of potential partners, though, you also need to find folks who are familiar with what clicks with viewers on YouTube to get you more viewers. This means the people you connect with need to have graphic design capabilities that will allow them to generate visual content that pops, such as title cards that also function as clickbait.
A business that wants to focus on a written strategy might focus more on things like articles with search engine optimization, social media marketing, editing of content, and the creation of evergreen content. Event-focused efforts will need to bring together people capable of planning and executing gatherings.
The Customer Journey
Some types of storytelling are capable of producing love at first, but most won’t. For example, a photographer with an Instagram feed filled with compelling photos might be able to have a visitor so stunned by what he or she feels that he or she just has to book a shoot right now. The more likely scenario, however, is that the photographer is going to need a marketing funnel to bring the audience closer and closer to a buying decision.
This process is what’s called a sales funnel. It starts very wide. The photographer in the example may attract a lot of interest, but even the most talented person isn’t going to convert every visitor into a paying customer. Instead, the audience will follow a journey that leads to a buying decision.
The customer journey should go something like this:
- Awareness: A person finds the photographer’s Instagram feed. Perhaps he or she clicks through to the photography website. This visitor may even go to the photographer’s YouTube channel to watch videos.
- Consideration: Wanting to see more or learn more, the visitor adds the photographer on Instagram and subscribes to the YouTube channel. He or she visits the about page on the website and bookmarks it. If the photographer has planned the website well, there’s also encouragement for visitors to join a mailing list. The visitor then goes to the photographer’s Amazon story to see what books have been published.
- Decision: The visitor goes to the contact form on the website and sends a message. He or she signs up for the mailing list. He or she sends a DM via Instagram to connect with the photographer. On the website, the visitor finds the page where he or she can buy prints. Then the visitor decides to book a session and buys a book on Amazon.
Content marketing and storytelling serve to bring the audience into the widest point of the sale funnel. Many people are going to check out the photographer’s Instagram feed, enjoy the photos, and never come back again. Others will visit regularly but never buy prints or book sessions. Some will come back for a long time as fans and will eventually move forward with booking a session because they finally have a moment that calls for it.
Don’t Be Boring
Content creators are often surprised by what they learn about their audiences and customers. For example, the marketers at Wendy’s discovered that posting tweets that picked fights with other burger chains was a highly effective strategy. The company even managed to create an EP album titled “We Beefin’?” that charted on Spotify.
Notably, what clicks with audiences is often the least “sales-y” content. Rather than trying to get people to buy the next big thing in bacon double cheeseburgers, Wendy’s produced content that was too strange for people to look away. The company defied corporate stereotypes and created massive social cachet by telling a story of feuding with other brands that’s obviously absurd on its face.
It’s not always necessary to launch into an epic rap battle with one of your competitors. The folks at Excedrin, for example, have focused the brand’s content marketing efforts on producing value. In particular, Excedrin offers tips for dealing migraines on its blog. Rather than focusing on making a sale, the company encourages potential customers to identify the signs of migraines and to learn how to curtail them. Naturally, a call to action is included in the form of a coupon offering a dollar savings on Excedrin purchases.
GoPro has built an entire brand by essentially using a marketing channel, YouTube, that many of its customers will also use. The value in each GoPro video is obvious because the company’s videos show the cool content that you could be producing. There’s even a GoPro channel dedicated to telling you how you can use a GoPro to create your own YouTube channel.
Assessing Content Marketing Efforts
Tracking the customer journey is just as important as encouraging it. You need to have data regarding visitors that includes the number of registered users, view counts, the amount of time spent with content, and overall viewer engagement. If possible, you want to have a system in place that lets you see how a visitor goes from finding your content to making a buying decision. Fortunately, virtually all platforms include analytics systems that allow you to see how it all comes together. Utilizing tools like unique identifiers, customer profiles, and cookies trackers, you can follow the customer journey with a high degree of precision in most cases.
The beauty of modern content marketing is that we have the tools today to assess our efforts. Even the smallest businesses on Earth can check Google Analytics to see how their blogs are doing. In time, you can build a model of storytelling that your audience will love and will want to share with others.