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What is content marketing and how do you do it?

Great storytellers tend to use two tricks of the trade. The first is to send characters on a journey. Sometimes, an emotional change is charted. Sometimes, it’s about discovery and characters learning something new about themselves or about the world around them. Sometimes, it’s an actual journey: from road trips to pilgrimages to quests.

The second trick is to “show, not tell” – to demonstrate through actions rather than simply saying something is the case. Show a character was kind or cruel through what they say and how they behave, rather than say blandly, “the character was kind” or “the character was cruel”. But these tricks of the trade aren’t confined to film-making and fiction.  You can see them in the world’s best content marketing campaigns. But before learning the tricks of the trade, we should start at the beginning …

What is content marketing?

Content marketing is a subtle sell. It’s about engaging an audience rather than shouting at them with a call-to-action to buy or click. It’s gentle persuasion. Ask the smart folks at the Content Marketing Institute in the United States, and they’ll give you a good working definition:

Content marketing is a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly-defined audience — and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.

Let’s unpick that definition a little and focus on the phrases that really matter:

So, content marketing is about having a plan of action that’s geared to engaging a clear target audience … an audience you want, ultimately, to transact with. The problem is, most content marketing doesn’t work like that. Instead, marketers often skip the preparatory steps and think about “creating and distributing”. Publish and be damned, old newspaper hacks would say. Publish and be ignored is the fate of much of today’s content marketing.

When HubSpot and SmartInsights polled 700 marketers across Europe this year about content marketing, they found two contrary conclusions. First, they found that about one-in-five marketers believe content marketing is the activity that makes the single biggest commercial difference to their business – more than search, PPC or display advertising.


But, second, they found that 46% of marketers have no strategy. They’re just doing stuff in the hope it will work.


So how do you create a content strategy?

Click here to read our step-by-step guide to creating a content strategy.

The starting point is knowing your end point. What are you trying to achieve? Traditionally, talk of setting objectives makes creatives cringe. Creativity is subjective, right? There’s no sure-fire way of knowing if a creative idea will be a hit or miss …

The problem is, if you don’t know why you’re doing something, you’re burning time and money without purpose. The odds of any kind of success are diminished.

Acquisition and Engagement

Let’s break-down the objectives of content marketing in two basic components: engagement and acquisition. The first is about building awareness and advocacy. The second is about acquiring traffic and potential sales leads.

  1. Engagement

The traditional marketing funnel starts with awareness and ends in advocacy. You pour as many people as possible in the top, work on converting them into customers, and hope that some will end up becoming loyal buyers and advocates for your brand by the end of the process. Rinse and repeat.

To understand your starting point – and measure progress – you need to consider metrics that indicate awareness:

  • Shares
  • Likes
  • Comments
  • Mentions/media coverage
  • Sentiment and reviews

Effectively, you’re using social media activity and media coverage as a proxy for the level of awareness. You need to look at quantity and quality: lots of negative sentiment is hardly a recipe for success.

At the other end of the funnel, you’ll need to monitor similar metrics to get a sense of advocacy and loyalty.

  1. Acquisition

Content marketing may not be a direct sales effort, but you can measure its impact on acquiring customers. In the digital sphere, you’ll need to consider the impact of content across every channel you’re using to disseminate it … from email to media outreach to paid syndicated. But you’ll track the end-effects on your own site:

  • Page views
  • Visits
  • Visits by channel
  • Return visits
  • Bounce rate
  • Time on site
  • Leads
  • Sales
  • Conversion rate

But there’s an indirect way that content can help with acquisition: organic search. The quantity and quality of links to your website still matter when it comes to improving search rankings. The best way to generate links? Give people good content to link to. So, to measure the indirect effect of content on acquisition, you’ll also need to measure:

  • Ranking movements
  • Link quality and volume

Offline, you’ll still find plenty of examples of brands vouchers, coupons, discount codes, special phone-lines to help push the audience from content-consumers to customers.

So, right at the outset:

  • Define your objectives
  • Have clear metrics to monitor performance and measure success
  • Think about channel mix
  • Determine time-period for campaign
  • Sense-check against your budget and resources

Welcome to the world of content shock

Now you’ve got a sense of what you want to achieve with your content – engagement, acquisition or both – and how you’ll measure progress. What’s next?

Take a step back and look at the wider digital landscape. Back in April 2005, a young man named Jawed Karim published an 18-second video of his visit to the elephant enclosure at San Diego Zoo. Just … don’t expect a grandiloquent speech:

“The cool thing about these guys is that, is that they have really, really, really long, um, trunks, and that’s, that’s cool. And that’s pretty much all there is to say.”

Jawed’s video was the first ever YouTube clip. Skip forward 11 years and nearly 35 million people have watched it. But that’s nothing compared to the 2 billion-plus who have watched the top three most popular clips of all time. These days, 400 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. And it’s not just YouTube …


Click for image source.

If social channels began in their early days with individuals and amateurs creating content at home, today big brands with big production budgets are consistently grabbing the most views. All but one of the top 10 most viewed videos on YouTube originated with a record label – the other being an episode of a TV animation series.

So, when marketer Mark Schaefer coined the phrase “content shock” in 2014 he was describing the impossibility of consuming all the content that’s produced in a single day. Faced with this deluge of material, consumers have to be ruthless with their time and choices. With a finger-tap content gets picked, with a finger-swipe it gets overlooked.

What this means is that you need to have a very clear idea of what will be of most interest to the people you want to reach. You need to engineer content with the best chances of success.

Adding the two tricks to your content

The only answer to content shock is to do your homework before you type the first word or push the first pixel of your creative ideas. There’s a simple “value exchange” equation you need to figure out. If you want customers to give up time and attention, your content needs to deliver something in return. You will need to either:

  • Trigger an emotional response – on a spectrum from awe to amusement and everything in between.
  • Give timely insight: impart deep knowledge that fits someone’s field of interest.
  • Timely utility: give information that helps solve someone’s problem at just the right time or ahead of time.

Remember the starting point, the two tricks of the trade?

We’re talking about trick one: sending your audience on a journey where they experience something new that gives an emotional kick, teaches a new skill or shares knowledge at just the right moment.

The emotional journey

Phoney emotion – corny, saccharine, sentimental fluff – isn’t the answer. If you want to capture audience attention and interest, you’ve got to touch on authentic emotion. That can be laughter, shock or tugging at the heart strings.

Each year in the UK, a battle is waged between retail brands at Christmas to achieve the latter – the spark of collective emotional warmth across the nation. The relative success or failure of the brands to achieve this desired effect is measured first in the relative number of social shares and mentions – both between the brands and compared to their ads’ performance in the past. It’s then measured in the early Spring when those brands publish their Q4 sales figures and talk about what kind of Christmas they had in terms of sales. None of the ads tell people to go and buy specific products, or even visit a particular store. They convey a simple message: we understand Christmas and how you feel about it.

Watch the John Lewis 2016 Christmas advert
Watch the 2016 Sainsbury’s Christmas advert
Watch the 2016 Marks & Spencer Christmas advert

The insight journey … trick two

Tell me something I don’t know but ought to know. It’s another old rule of the newsroom about what defines a good story. One of the best examples of an “insight play” is Mary Meeker’s annual report on internet trends.

In recent years, Meeker’s 200+ slide presentation have been eagerly awaited by the tech media, analysts and strategists alike. It’s heavy on charts, smart in its observations … but devoid of fun. It’s thought leadership that informs the long-term plans and strategies of businesses across the globe. And it’s free. Meeker’s pay-off is coverage by anyone from CNN and The Guardian, to Forbes, Inc and Wired.

It’s also a great example of the second trick of the trade in action: Meeker doesn’t claim to be an expert. She demonstrates that she is one.


Click for image source.

The utility journey

If Mary Meeker’s insightful report is a rich meal of brainfood, the utility journey is all about problem-solving and applied skills. Once again, you’re deploying the second trick of the trade – showing expertise rather than simply claiming you have it.

The American content marketer Jay Baer called it “Youtility” in his best-selling book: solve someone’s problem and you’re baking-in loyalty to their experience of your brand. If you want evidence of how powerful a tool utility is, just Google “How to …” and you’ll be served with more than 36 million results.

You’ll find people and brands explaining anything from how to jailbreak an iPhone, to how to unlock a door with a banana …google-serps-content-marketing


Six questions to map the journey

So, you know where you need to get to (objectives) and you know that applying the two tricks of the trade will fuel your journey.

But how do you know the best route?

To define the needs, interests, concerns and cares of your target audience, you need to answer six basic questions:

  1. What do your target consumers care about?
  2. What worries them?
  3. What problems could you help them solve?
  4. What stops them choosing your brand?
  5. What are your competitors doing?
  6. Where is all this happening – what channels?

How do you find the answers?

Ask the audience
Surveys and feedback forms give direct insight into what customers think. But be prepared to pay for surveys, and know that feedback forms will often focus more on product quality and customer service.

Ask the sales team
Talk to colleagues who are in touch with customers to find out what objections they have to overcome to turn interest into a sale. They’ll tell you it’s always about price … but dig a little deeper and you’ll find nuggets of insight into what else matters.

Scan the media and trade press
You’ll find information about trends, hot topics and predictions of what the big issues will be in your industry in the coming 12 months.

Do the maths
Data analysis will give you sharp insight into what your audience loves, likes and … ignores. Choose keyword topics that are relevant to your brand and market, then use a tool like Buzzsumo to look at what is picking up both social shares and links. You’ll also get insight into what social channels are preferred by the audience in your market segment. You’ll find suggestions of practical tools here.

And check out the competition …
Don’t stop at looking for what kind of content topics are picking up social/link-building traction. Look at competitor activity too. Tap your competitors’ web URLs into Buzzsumo and you’ll see what they produced in the last 12 months that picked up shares and links. You’ll also see what influencers they engaged and what media interest they generated.

Doing this will also give you an instant benchmark of what success will look like. When the inevitable question comes from the boss about “has this worked?” – you’ll know how your content performance compares to what competitors have achieved.

But you can dig deeper still. Try a tool like SimilarWeb  to get insight into how much traffic – and via which channels – competitors are earning or buying customer attention. Thinking about dissemination channels that competitors are using will help you understand the nature of the content they are creating. Whitepapers and infographics? Sounds like there’s an email marketing play.  Short-form video? Sounds like they want to build out social. Peaking over the fence at what competitors are doing can help you see opportunities – and where the conversation is already overcrowded with content.

Reach for the sky without costing the earth

Sending a man to the edge of space and asking him to jump back to earth probably counts as the most ambitious marketing plays of all time. But when Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner stepped off the platform of his helium balloon powered capsule, he was watched by millions around the globe. Fifty-two million watched the online live-stream of Felix’s record-breaking jump. Millions more watched on TV or listened on radio. Eighty TV stations in 50 countries broadcast the jump live.

Red Bull, his sponsor, invested an estimated $30million in the project that gave life to its motto: “Red Bull gives you wings”.


Click here to watch the video on Youtube.

The pay-off? In the six months after the jump, Red Bull sales rose by 7% to $1.6 billion … in other words, a jump of more than $100m compared to the prior half year.

Ah, I can feel your scepticism. Big brands, millions of dollars, crazy ambition. Totally irrelevant, you think, to most companies?

There are a couple of lessons to learn.

  1. The first is to be the first.

A winning content play often starts with being the first to try or achieve something. We’re not just talking about breaking records. It could be the first with a new product, idea, or even just a unique take or data on a hot topic.

In 2016, Further helped our client Adrian Flux launch the world’s first prototype insurance policy for driverless cars. It was a simple enough idea. The world was talking about how driverless cars would revolutionise road travel … and everything that goes with it: including car insurance. But no-one could really say how. So, there was an opportunity for Adrian Flux to try to fill that knowledge gap with a prototype policy for people and the industry to debate. Google it – and you’ll see news coverage that spanned the UK mainstream media, tech and business press, to titles like the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post.


  1. You can tell one story in a multitude of ways

The story of Baumgartner’s jump wasn’t just a TV event. The story was told beforehand, live and afterwards across multiple channels in different ways: ads, organic social posts, videos, text, photography, interviews, infographics. The story was told online and offline, whole and in parts – split into appetising gobbets or served as a whole meal for those who wanted it.

For an idea of the range of different tactics used, look at the project microsite:

So, the lesson is to think of your content in the same way. How can it be split into different elements for different channels? Some call this “atomisation” of content. The best way to think of it is maximising your investment. Whether you’re spending hundreds or thousands of pounds on a content project, you’ll want to see the maximum possible relevant reach. 

The viral trap

While we’re on the topic of reach … “going viral” can often come up as a potential objective for content marketing. If you’ve done your homework, you’ll already have a good idea of what kind of volume of social reach or acquired links represent a “good result” in your competitive set.

The important caveat to maximising reach is relevance. Viral success looks great, but if you’re in a B2B field or niche B2C, you’ll be reaching people who would never buy your product or service. And asked “how to go viral”, one of the masters of clickbait headlines and stories offered the advice: “Capture a leprechaun and steal his lucky charms.”


Click here for image source.

Our advice? Aim high, be ambitious, but ground your sense of what can be achieved in data research.

Ideas, ideas, ideas

If you’ve followed all the steps so far, you’ll know:

  1. What content has worked to-date
  2. What channels are being used to share content successfully
  3. A benchmark against competitor performance
  4. What the target audience cares about, is interested in and is likely to share or act on.

But you’ll also know that one idea can be the start of a campaign – but not the entirety of it. You need ideas, ideas, ideas … and ideas about how to atomise or split them into different elements for different channels.

So, now comes the fun part: ideation. We all know that creative ideas come from taking opium-fuelled walks in the Lake District, right? Wandering as high as a cloud as well as being as lonely as one? Maybe not.

Start with volume. Generate a lot of ideas quickly, then hone the best concepts until they are sharply defined. Different creative teams try different methods (read our 5 Ideation Tips article). Many involve dragooning lots of people into sitting around a desk and coming up with ideas off the top of their head. But our experience suggests that one technique that generates a large volume of ideas quickly is called “brain-walking”. It’s a technique that evolved from traditional, sedentary brain-storming sessions. But this one involves getting participants on their feet, moving around … and building on each other’s ideas as they go. You can read how to do it here. Try it – you might be surprised by the results. And it might help find the winning creative idea for your next campaign.

Check out our 6 simple magazine tricks to make your online content more engaging article.

A final thought

Have you ever met someone who said they weren’t creative? No, thought not. Everyone inside and outside your organisation will have an opinion if your content marketing is inspired or sucks. But applying a combination of science – data research and investigation – and art (creative ideas and treatment), you can manage the risk of content falling flat. You need strategy, clarity of objectives, and a deep understanding of what your audience wants and likes. There are always wild-card successes. Ideas that appear to come out of nowhere and surprise and delight an audience. You can’t bank on those happening.

So, research, strategize, execute your ideas with a sharp eye for detail, and measure the results. Oh, and don’t forget to steal the leprechaun’s lucky charms…


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  • Ledwig / 5 years ago

    Thanks for some other wonderful post. Exactly where else could just anyone get that type of information in such an perfect indicates of writing? Ive a presentation next week, and Im at the search for such information.


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