Content marketing is for experts

It might be among 2014’s most prominent business buzzwords, but content marketing has its roots in the American Midwest of 1895. It was then that the US farming machinery manufacturer John Deere launched The Furrow magazine to give customers useful information about ways to grow their businesses and, crucially, build up relationships that would help the company shift more of its products.

While correlation has never been a guarantee of causation, the events of the intervening 119 years suggest that the company’s content marketing strategy has been a success. John Deere is one of America’s largest and best-known global businesses, with revenues of $38 billion last year.

Its magazine has also grown and is an international concern, published in 14 languages in print, online, on tablet and is accompanied by an associated social media presence on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

But John Deere was an outlier, the ultimate early adopter. The real uplift in content marketing is happening now, as the power and influence of traditional media outlets wanes and brands realise that it can be a useful tool, but only if it’s used effectively.

The ability to speak directly to customers by publishing for free on the web and using social media is actually something of a double-edged sword. The ease with which any company can do it means that there is a huge amount of competition and noise. Only the highest quality and most keenly targeted content is likely to make a significant impact.

Data from marketing software developer Curata suggests that the trend for content marketing won’t be going away any time soon. Some 71 per cent of marketers plan to increase their spend on content marketing this year, while almost two thirds say content marketing leads to an increase in the quality and quantity of leads.

And, according to Joe Pulizzi, founder of the Content Marketing Institute, this is just the start. “I think you can look at where content marketing is at now and compare it with where social media was at in 2006 or 2007, when Twitter was launched and Facebook was taking off,” he says. “If there was one key metric, a Holy Grail of content marketing, it would be trying to grow an audience [for a brand].”

However, there is more than one way that this Holy Grail can be captured. Some companies, such as Intel, have opted for branded content. The computer chip manufacturer has a partnership with Vice, the billion-dollar youth culture media empire, that sees the publisher produce videos, articles and other content for a standalone Intel-funded website, The Creators Project.

The rationale for the project is that by being linked to cool, young people using technology for creative pursuits covered on the site, Intel enjoys a halo effect in the eyes of its prospective customers.

Elsewhere, companies such as Red Bull and Kraft Foods, have large in-house teams tasked with producing content, including magazines, videos and websites. Kraft, Mr Pulizzi says, has about three million subscribers who opt in to get access to the company’s Food and Family resource – mostly recipes and articles about the home – roughly half of whom pay for the privilege.

Some companies have even reworked entire business models to put content at their heart. Take Carhoots. The UK-based startup began life in 2013 with the goal of becoming “the TripAdvisor for cars”. However, soon after the business launched, the founders realised that to get the investment and technical infrastructure required to achieve that goal would take time.

Only the highest quality and most keenly targeted content is likely to make a significant impact

As the company developed, they noticed that the blog posts and other content published on the site were getting significant traffic and enjoying a symbiotic relationship with the company’s social media profiles. Its following on Pinterest alone has grown to almost two million, making it the most popular automotive brand in the world on that platform.

“We decided to pivot,” says Carhoots co-founder James Waddington. “At the moment, content is actually the main thrust of the business. It generates revenue through advertising and partnerships on social media, but it’s not about producing content for content’s sake. We’re doing it to build a community, make people enthusiastic about the brand and take on their feedback as we work towards our other goals.”

Mr Waddington says he has observed other businesses attempting a similar thing. “But some people are just jumping on the bandwagon, they often don’t know how to do it properly, there’s no strategy,” he says.

Increasingly, the key to a successful content strategy is marketing automation. According to marketing analysis firm Raab, business-to-business sales of such software are projected to grow by 60 per cent to reach $1.2 billion this year.

Software from companies, such as Eloqua and Marketo, is used to track leads’ activity online and establish where they are in the buying process so that the right type of content can be delivered to the right person at the right time. The goal is increased customer profiling and sales.

However, Mr Pulizzi warns, the quality of the content will always matter and must be kept consistently high if a brand is to see real results. “Content marketing is a marathon, not a sprint,” he says.