Content marketing is all around us. It’s been more than 20 years since Bill Gates declared that “content is king,” and it’s more true now than ever, when there are so many different ways to consume it. But what makes great content so valuable? The key is in its standalone value.
Unlike advertising, which is only becoming less popular, content doesn’t rely on the question it asks of the consumer (or on converting a sale). In the online marketplace, you have to give before you can receive, and providing entertainment is priceless. In fact, some content marketing is so good that it doesn’t even come across as marketing. And when you give people good content, it’ll make life easier for you when you do eventually ask for something in return.
Content marketing isn’t advertising
This is the first, most important distinction. Content marketing isn’t advertising, nor should it be. Advertising has its narrowly defined, useful purpose. But it’s also a lot more results-based than your content: You’re paying to have your ads placed, so you need them to lead to sales. Because of that, it’s less “give” and more “ask.” You have a very small window for your advertisement to convert, and when your ad is one of the 4,000–10,000 ads people see in a day, it’s easy to see why so many people hate ads. In fact, you probably do too.
Content marketing gives you a chance to do something different. It’s your chance to give, to provide value while asking for little in return. This doesn’t mean you don’t include a call to action, but it’s less intrusive. It sets you up so that when you do make the big ask, or when a customer sees your advertisement, they’re ready to say yes. When it’s done right, content marketing stands alone. Marketing material that provides value — whether through information or entertainment — does more than just throw yet another advertisement into a saturated environment.
Content turns your brand into something more
Red Bull. Star Wars. G.I. Joe. When you think of these things, and others like them, you don’t immediately think “content marketing.” You think of the product they sell or the entertaining stories they provide. But content marketing, in various forms, is an integral part of the ecosystems these brands operate in. Let’s break them down individually.
Red Bull sells energy drinks. Those six billion cans a year are how they stay in business (they actually are the business). But Red Bull also helped a guy skydive from the stratosphere, runs a highly competitive Formula 1 team (as well as one that’s not so competitive), and has created leagues for a number of extreme sports. None of these things are directly linked to sales, nor are they tied to performance like an advertisement might be. In fact, their F1 teams cost a lot of money to run. But for the millions of F1 fans, Red Bull is a major player in the sport they love — not just a sticker slapped onto the side of a car. These leagues and events create a non-intrusive presence that adds brand value without asking too much. Furthermore, all of these activities help establish Red Bull as an energy drink company that backs up its product by being involved in high-energy events.
However, of all the content marketing out there, Red Bull’s may be the least reproducible. So, the next one is a little more conventional.
Star Wars might not be on this list if not for George Lucas’s contract negotiations for A New Hope. In exchange for a significant pay cut (more than $2 million in today’s money), Lucas kept the merchandising rights for the Star Wars franchise. And guess which movie franchise has sold more than $25 billion in merchandise? Now, it would be ridiculous to claim that Star Wars was created as a way to sell toys, but Lucas certainly had incentive to make sure it did, and it worked incredibly well to that end. First and foremost, it is an insanely popular movie franchise that stands on its own right. But it’s also a great way to sell toys.
The important distinction is that because people love Star Wars, they want to buy lightsabers and action figures and Lego sets. At no point in any of the movies does our hero turn to the camera and tell us to buy Star Wars merchandise. So, even though the movie tie-ins are no longer any sort of secret, it doesn’t stop us from buying something we want, something that further connects us to something we already enjoy.
While Star Wars may have worked backwards from content to content marketing, our last example actually was created to sell toys.
G.I. Joe stands out when it comes to content marketing in comic books, which as a whole are a prime medium for the tactic. Inspired precisely by the phenomenon of Star Wars, G.I. Joe took their action figures (which debuted in the 1960s) and created the environment that made readers go “I want to buy that.” By using comics to tell stories that people could relate to and enjoy, it gave the action figures depth, which in turn gave readers an additional reason to want to buy them. They weren’t just getting a toy, they were bringing a story to life in their own home.
Content marketing takes any number of forms. While being an entrant in the most expensive sport in the world or creating one of the most successful film franchises of all time isn’t really a scalable model, it all serves to give consumers another level to connect with a product. And when it’s done well, we’re not even aware it’s marketing at all.
People love free stuff
Unlike the above examples, when we talk about internet content, we’re mostly talking about free content. Blogs, newsletters, short videos, and the like. People have gotten used to this free stuff, so it’s a lot harder to charge upfront for this kind of content. But it’s not a reason to fret. Instead, there’s a really good reason to lean into this: People love free stuff. So much so that the “zero” next to the price tag can override all other considerations.
While it might seem counterintuitive to offer something for nothing, free content helps create the environment that people want to be a part of. Even if you can’t create a rich backstory for your product, you can add value by providing information, such as a “how-to” or “common uses for” video or blog post. Most importantly, by not asking for something up front, you’re giving your customers another reason to like you.
More than just money
Ultimately, good content marketing establishes your brand as one that does more than just partake in financial transactions. The more value you can give your customers, the more reason you give them to continue visiting your website. Plus, there are ways to convert your content into non-monetary currency.
If people look to you for information or entertainment, they’ll eventually start looking to you for your products and services as well. If the content you offer has value, then you become more than a brand trying to sell something. And when you offer something of value, it makes it easier to eventually ask for something in return, because people will want to be a part of what you do.
If you enjoyed this post, remember to clap. For more on content marketing and writing, follow me on Instagram @anthonyjondreau. I can also be reached at www.anthonyjondreau.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.