Content Marketing: Just Sizzle, Flash, And Occasional Splash?

The use of the Internet as a platform for customer engagement is maturing within organizations; it is no longer the preserve of the technologically gifted. As the Internet has moved from a technical, tasked-based function up the corporate agenda, we are seeing distinct business disciplines and best practices being defined. Web governance, content strategy, and content marketing are all examples of “things that people have been doing for ages,” and they are now coalescing into these new professions.

I was recently interviewed by Website Magazine about content marketing. The editor, Peter Prestipino, asked me how a marketer can create “sizzle, flash, and occasional splash,” which I thought was a great phrase. And it got me wondering: Does this phrase truly apply to content marketing?

As mentioned above, content marketing is nothing new; it’s what marketing folks have been doing since Tim Berners-Lee gave the world his idea 20 years ago. I like to think that the Web site he first created at the CERN laboratory–about this new WWW project–was the first piece of persuasive Web marketing as he promoted his notion of the World Wide Web through content explaining how you, too, could create a Web page. This was critical to the proliferation of his idea. Like the telephone, there is not much to an Internet if it just has one node, one Web site.

Unfortunately, a copy of that first Web page does not exist, but I think we can probably be certain that when Berners-Lee, a senior academic, king of the geeks, decided to address his audience, there was not a great deal of sizzle or flash. However, there was a splash because his idea clearly caught on. His content engaged the audience, it inspired them to action, and it gave them what they needed to become champions and advocates–or as Seth Godin describes them, “sneezers”–essential for the spread of this idea. In contemporary marketing parlance, we would say he “achieved his engagement objective.”

I admit, as a case study of content marketing, it’s simplistic. Berners-Lee knew his audience (possibly by name in those early days), and engaging them was an implicit part of his work. The “call to action” to share his idea was already culturally part of the behavior of this audience.

Contrast that with the position that a marketer is in today, where you are competing with thousands of Google search results that promote an idea, service, or product just like yours. Content publishing is your second business, you have a relatively unknown audience overwhelmed by messaging, and you need to generate the desire in them to answer your call.

How Content Marketing Can Help
Content marketing helps the modern marketer achieve the same results that Berners-Lee did, first, by creating a sense of who you are. Before the audience experiences you, your service, or product, it builds perception of your brand experience, your people, the quality of your product, the level of your service, your understanding of the problem you want to solve, and your credibility to do that.

I recently read a really nice example of this, where a seasoned traveler and industry analyst, Theresa Regli, used a trip to Provence as an analogy of this brand experience:

“Impressions of a brand or a place are often instilled before you even experience something: this happened to me earlier this spring when I took a week-long holiday in Provence. I realized before I even went there that certain characteristics of Provence–the lavender fields, the gnarly olive oil trees, the smell of wild thyme–existed in my mind almost as a memory, even though I’d never actually been there. The “brand” of Provence had been cemented in my mind thanks to the novels of Peter Mayle, the plays of Marcel Pagnol, the paintings of Van Gogh, and eating bowls of herb-laden ratatouille.”

To experience your brand, what are your Peter Mayle novels, Marcel Pagnol plays, Van Gogh paintings, and bowls of herb-laden ratatouille? What content tells the story of you and your brand?

Second, content marketing provides the information, tools, or guidance to the next steps that enable your audience to solve their problem.

This part of your content marketing strategy is not just focused on the initial engagement, or call to action, or to buy a product, but on how to grow this customer into an advocate of you, your products, and service. As Robert Rose says in his book, “Managing Content Marketing”:

“To succeed today, we need to use content to continually engage our audiences–from the first time we meet them, continuing throughout the customer lifecycle. In short the job of marketing is no longer to create customers; it is to create passionate subscribers to our brand.”

So why do we care so much about creating passionate subscribers to our brand? Have we not just achieved our objective? Have they not just bought something?

Call them brand advocates, passionate subscribers, fans, or Seth Godin’s sneezers–their influence is an essential part of your nextcustomer’s journey, and there are various studies that support this. For example, according to SocialLab’ Social Impact Study 2012, “75 percent of shoppers who read social sharing comments have clicked on the product link in their friends’ Facebook posts, taking them to the product page on a retailer’s Website. 53 percent of the shoppers who have clicked through to the retailer’s site have made a purchase.”

Consider these numbers against the results marketers normally expect from pay-per-click campaigns on Google that are normally in the low single digits (roughly 2 percent)–and the value of an engaged audience is clear.

So, is content marketing just “sizzle, flash, and occasional splash?” I don’t think so. It should be a sustained marketing discipline that has become a business imperative for anyone embarking on a Web engagement strategy.

This article was originally published in CMO.com

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