How to put more (and better) content into content marketing

Getty Images: who else?

I’m a journalist and publisher. One of those people who cares about proper typeface kerning and delights in catchy headlines. Beyond the occasional magazine profile or column, I make a living helping (mostly tech and media) companies come up with articles, papers, video clips and the like in hope of engaging customers and prospects. In other words, I’m a for-hire participant contributing to the widespread practice called “content marketing.”

This is the spot in the post where we nod our heads in agreement around a core understanding: Content marketing aims to attract and persuade business customers by presenting them with interesting information in the forms of articles, blog posts, papers, videos and podcasts that engage audiences, generate favorable impressions and ultimately support buying decisions.

Describing content marketing as a trend understates the force it has become. From independent consultants to large multinational corporations, seemingly every company has embraced some form of content marketing as a mainstay approach to growing their businesses. Yet few do it extremely well, despite vast amounts of advice and freely available resources to support the effort.

The reason many initiatives fail, I think, has to do with the “content” side of content marketing. Most marketing organizations are very good at presenting, promoting and measuring usage around their content marketing efforts. They’re masters of website design, search optimization, social media promotion and analytics, all of which are important components of a content marketing initiative.

What many aren’t so facile at is making decent content in the first place. The crafts of storytelling, writing, research, videography, narration, design and presentation that are essential to attracting and appealing to thinking audiences — and are the staple elements of journalism, publishing and broadcasting — often are absent among companies. “Content” itself is frequently an afterthought, deemed to be secondary to the various bells, whistles and analytics that revolve around the practice.

This abiding neglect is typified by a content marketing how-to guide I recently stumbled upon (thanks, Internet). After addressing requisites like target audiences, SEO keyphrases, buying stages and “trigger events,” this well-intentioned guide devotes a single page (among more than 20) to content, suggesting companies repurpose any materials that might be handy: “sales decks, archived webinars, etc.” The result of this common approach is that rather than presenting compelling original content audiences will gravitate to, companies are encouraged to publish pre-existing, arguably dated content that rarely sustains engagement. All the search optimization and analytics in the world won’t make up for lackluster content. Even so, this tendency is totally understandable, for these reasons:

It’s not in the DNA. Businesses often lack the content creation skills and staffing talent that are the lifeblood of traditional content industries such as publishing, broadcasting and advertising. Producing quality content is difficult, time-consuming and costly. If it wasn’t, everybody would do it well.

It’s a competitive marketplace. When you enter the game of publishing content, you’re not just competing with your fiercest industry rivals for attention and accolades. You’re angling for a share of attention right along with established, credible third-party publishers and content providers that range from respected magazines to award-winning websites. Audiences today enjoy near-instant access to top-shelf writing, analysis, research and graphic design. If you can’t live up to these standards, you won’t break through.

Content takes courage. Marketers are all-too familiar with elongated approval processes and revision demands that can sap vitality and originality from created content, leaving only pedestrian work in their wake. Compelling content, the kind that attracts and sustains audiences, often involves conflict and requires risk — attributes businesses (and their legal departments) are prone to avoiding.

How to solve the content problem

Thus, the business community faces a challenging circumstance. Companies believe in content marketing and want to do it well. But getting there almost always means overcoming institutionalized impediments. Here are four ways to get around these problems.

1) Hire or engage talented and experienced content creators. If you buy into the argument that compelling headlines, rich copywriting, thorough research, striking imagery and expert editing are requisites of a top-notch content development initiative, then ask an important question: Does my organization possess these capabilities in-house? If so, congratulations. You’re all set for fabulous success in original content creation and curation. But chances are you don’t, because that’s not the core business you’re in. And if that’s the case, then it’s time to implement Plan B: Identify and enlist people from outside your organization who are good at creating content relevant to your business marketplace.

2) Put the interests of your audience first. At the risk of sounding indelicate, nobody wakes up in the morning hoping today is the day Company X publishes a 27-page White Paper about “The Critical Imperatives for Solution-Based Enterprise Cloud Implementation.” This is not to say your organization doesn’t have tremendous knowledge and expertise that can be brought to bear on critical subjects of the day. The trick is to identify the key issues and agendas that drive the interests of your marketplace, and publish relevant, timely information about them within the context of attractive, compelling articles, videos and posts. Then, once your audience is “hooked,” you can weave in your expertise in the broader context of the piece. I love how the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business applies this approach at its dedicated microsite, Knowledge@Wharton. Notice how academics from the school are quoted as experts within the body of articles that deal with interesting subjects. This “outside-in” approach to organizational publishing can be highly effective at drawing in readers, establishing independent editorial credibility and then integrating the viewpoints of the organization into them.

3) Consider an independent content vehicle. There’s a neat trick for successful content marketing that surprisingly few organizations have embraced. It’s the creation of an independent content entity that publishes content exclusively on your behalf. Rather than shoving articles and blog posts onto the “About Us” or “In the News” sections of your web site, the idea here is to create an entirely new vehicle that’s expressly devoted to original content publishing. Don’t worry: the content can only be accessed through your organization’s website and related content/social media presence. So you get the credit and the kudos and the brand luster you’re after. But it exists within an independently branded microsite or publishing vessel that provides some editorial independence from the mothership organization. It’s an approach that has great utility for reducing friction between the content marketing initiative and the tendency of the parent company to want to carefully parse every word or point made. This tactic has been employed nicely by digital video tech company Ooyala, which produces and aggregates original content under the banner of “Videomind,” a microsite that can be accessed either through an independent URL or via the Ooyala website. Here, Ooyala has engaged a “Principal Analyst” (again, creating a sense of editorial independence) who produces a regular stream of original content addressing subjects that are of interest to Ooyala’s marketplace.

4) Think outside the box. And the company. Instead of gravitating to the mean — rummaging about for internally produced documents and resources that might charitably qualify as “content” — think about value your organization might be able to add by curating a steady stream of externally produced material. The common example here is the “News” section of a company website, where third-party articles are listed and linked. But why stop there? Chances are your customers/prospects have keen interest in keeping up with knowledge, analysis and intelligent discourse about their markets. There’s a trove of material out there that might attract interest beyond the articles about your company that have appeared recently in business publications or the popular press. Academic research and literature in particular is an often-neglected resource that can add dimension to the understanding of markets, industries and the economics surrounding them. Government-funded studies, too, can be among the most exhaustive and thorough examinations of issues your customers care about. Compiling these works, synopsizing them and pointing readers to the original source material for further reference is a valuable (and appreciated) contribution that can help you establish and sustain a reputation for expertise and credibility.

In summary: Much of what falls under the “content” rubric in the business community today is really marketing literature in disguise. Smart companies have a chance to stand out by creating and sustaining a compelling content offering that establishes a reputation for providing thoughtful and original commentary about subjects that matter to the buying community. Yes, this approach requires a leap of faith and a departure from familiar “company-first” marketing practices. But if the objective is to sustain a reputation for smarter-than-the-other-guy credibility — which in turn translates to lead generation and buying predilection — I can’t think of anything with more potential. But then, I’m a content guy.

Read recent stuff I’ve written, created or masterminded at my website. If you wanna.