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Talking to Customers (Content Marketing Part 2)

June 17, 2011

Brad Svrluga

In my last post I laid out some thoughts on content marketing and its role in social marketing strategy. Twitter and Facebook are great, and offer powerful channels for reaching customers and prospects for any business. But businesses need to put more meat behind those social channels, and content marketing is that meat.

I think that content marketing – and for the purposes of this discussion I’m primarily talking about blogging (though video, podcasts and other media can be part of the story) – offers virtually any small business a customer acquisition and cultivation mechanism that cannot be ignored. We’re still in the early innings of this game, with the vast majority of small businesses doing nothing, or at least nothing effective, when it comes to content marketing. And that means those who do develop effective practices have a big opportunity to get a leg up on their competition. I hope I might push a few people to think harder about it with this post.

When you think about most small businesses, be they technology startups or local merchants or service providers, very few have the luxury of any truly proprietary means to differentiate themselves from the competition. So in a world of largely commoditized product offerings, consumers end up making decisions driven by just a handful of factors:

  1. Reputation and referrals
  2. Customer service
  3. Trust
  4. Price

Think about content marketing as applied to these four decision-drivers.  Imagine a service provider, let’s use a landscape designer, that had a steadily active blog – even just a post per week or two with some thoughts and commentary on gardening and landscaping. Pushed out to existing customers, couldn’t that be an effective means to communicate new services, continue to deepen relationships with existing customers who you might inspire to think of new projects? Wouldn’t it be a perfect channel through which to communicate a philosophy and set of practices around customer service? Won’t some of that content be inspiration for link-sharing and instant, electronic referrals? Isn’t it an optimal channel through which to convey competence and expertise – so critical to building trust? And won’t the aggregation of posts communicate something impressive to prospective clients?

Content marketing is nothing new, of course. Businesses of all sorts have published newsletters for decades, frequently to good effect. They establish credibility around expertise, and offer the ability to communicate personality. My wife and I have religiously brought our cars to the same auto mechanic for 10 years, driven not their superior oil changes, but by the shop’s eclectic newsletter – replete with book reviews and philosophical musings – that is sent out each quarter. In a world where all oil changes and tire rotations are created equal, Dave’s newsletter deepened our relationship, kept us coming back, and led us to refer him to dozens of others. I’m working now on getting him to shift to a blog.

While newsletters have been effective for many, blogging offers an opportunity to completely rethink things, opening up a cheaper, more informal, enduring, and much simpler to execute against content marketing mechanism. With zero distribution expense and a more informal platform, it’s easier than ever to star a conversation with your customers. That conversation can come in a rapid-fire collection of small, casual bits – something newsletters never offered. And that conversation is then automatically archived, building into a corpus of material that can in short order become a powerful tool for speaking to prospective customers.

Use content marketing well and you advance the ball on each of points 1-3 above, thus moving your business further and further away from a need to compete on price. That’s somewhere every business owner wants to get.

Most people, even when convinced that blogging would be a good idea, get stuck at “but what would I say?” And to that, I answer simply, tell people what you know. Any even marginally successful business owner is an expert in his field, at least relative to his customers. The conversations that business owners end up in with their customers every day are the starting point for a world of more broadly distributed content marketing.

The owner of my favorite wine shop wouldn’t hesitate for a moment to spend 20 minutes talking in great detail with me, a loyal customer, about a recent buying trip he took to Burgundy. He’ll have that very same conversation ten times over in his first few days back in the shop. Why not take those same stories and write them down and share the knowledge and experiences with all of his customers? When he has an interesting discussion with a distributor about the impact of El Nino on the Australian and Chilean crops this year, I suspect his customers would enjoy learning about that from someone they know and trust. Build a collection of similar posts and he’ll further cement his reputation as the undisputed & most knowledgeable wine guy around and offer a powerful way for prospective new customers to get to know him.

If you’re considering getting started, don’t worry that you can’t think of 10 blog post topics right now – they will come from your everyday business life, I promise. To build confidence in this, start a list and jot down topics as they occur to you. I did this for a couple months before I started blogging and was astonished at how quickly and steadily the ideas came. My problem now is that the ideas have rapidly outstripped the time I have to write.

So why doesn’t everyone jump into the fray and make content a key pillar of their marketing strategy? Because, as I’ve discovered for myself over the past six months, it ain’t easy. It takes real work, dedication to the task, some creativity, and some writing talent. And arguably, unlike other relatively new but important tools in the marketing toolkit such as paid search, it’s not an easy thing to just study up on and get good at.

And even if you tackle the ideation and execution sides of creating the content, you’ll still face a distribution challenge. That’s a whole other can of worms (though traditional email lists plus working to build Facebook fans and Twitter followers can get you a long way). There’s a million places to find help on all of this, though – the Content Marketing Institute is a pretty good place to start.

Bottom line, what I’m excited about is the following:

  • Content marketing is here to stay, and an important opportunity for every business to forge deeper relationships with customers.
  • We will be in a period for several more years, at least, where the vast majority of businesses sit on the sidelines or make half-hearted efforts. That equals real opportunity for those who do it even modestly well.
  • Because it’s growing as a phenomenon but not easy to execute, there will be an inevitable wave of startup innovation around tools and services to support marketers.

This last point is the most exciting one to me. We’ve been looking hard for some winners, have made a couple of bets already, and will continue look for more. More on this in my next post. . .

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