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Everyone is doing content marketing these days. Some 80% of respondents say they are doing content marketing according to 2017 survey data.

Yet I worry about some of the efforts I’ve seen or heard about. This is because they are missing some of the essential pillars you must have to grow the program and demonstrate the benefit to the business.

These essential pillars are a combination of process and vehicle. You can also think about these in stages of content marketing maturity. However, I’d caution, you never done with any given stage. Improvement is a continuous process.

Those four engines are as follows:

Pillar 1: Not you. Not your product. The audience.

To build an audience you have to get visitors to your content hub. To do this you have to focus on your audience needs, not what you want to tell them.

One of the best examples of this comes from marketing automation vendors. Many of them realized that CMOs have struggled to find digital talent.

It’s pretty hard to sell a product to a target market that doesn’t have the human capital to manage automation software. Consequently, the smart vendors started focusing on tips for talent management and acquisition.

Think about the concerns of your target market, list them, and then try to categorize them into overarching themes for editorial focus.

Tips for audience development:

  • Execute consistently. Whether you publish once a month, twice a week or every day, do it consistently. Study after study demonstrates that consistency one of the most important aspects of content marketing.
  • Analyze yet experiment. Studying the data to understand what’s bringing people to a hub, and what keeps them there, in order to replicate the motion is a good idea. But analytics are also like looking in the rear-view mirror, so you should continuously test hunches. If you’re publishing five times a week, you can easily find space for experimentation.

Pillar 2: Provide a mechanism for repeat visitors

This the top deficiency I see in B2B content marketing programs – they don’t give the audience a reason and mechanism to come back. They spend all this time, effort and budget to get them there…and then don’t invite them back!

If you look at your web analytics, chances are most businesses, many of those visitors are new rather than returning. That means people visit your content hub once and leave – and you let them if you don’t a mechanism to subscribe.

Businesses spend a ton of money on gated content and registration pages all to get an email address. Research shows the average B2B company spends $150 to acquire a single email address.

It is grossly negligent to spend resources producing content and attracting visitors without including a means to subscribe – to the blog, to the newsletter, to something! (Here’s an absolutely brilliant presentation on the value of an audience to a business and context for that $150 figure).

Tips for converting subscribers:

  • Keep the focus on the audience. If someone trusts you enough to subscribe don’t abuse it by immediately sending a sales pitch. Instead, let that trust build naturally through the subscription.
  • Rent-to-own strategy. If your organization sponsors posts or boosts social media content, this is a good business case for including digital breadcrumbs back to your content hub. In other words, if you are spending money on visibility, be sure you have a way and means for some members of that paid audience to join yours.

Pillar 3: Give subscribers a reason to raise their hand

There is a case to be made for a completely agnostic content marketing platform, but that’s not what I’m advocating for most companies.

Instead, I recommend business judiciously choose to include calls-to-action. Most often, what I’ve found to be effective, is to essentially be an “advertiser” in your own publication with use of the white space, distinct calls to action and event carefully managed content.

Over time, I have found brands earn the right to promote their own products. For example, if you publish useful and relevant content for a financial technology company, three times a week, you earn the right to publish a story, about a new financial analytics product your company just launched.

This chance to allow your audience “raise their hand.” It’s a pivotal moment and maintaining a healthy respect for the audience and editorial are important so as to not ruin it. The big caveat here is preventing this from becoming overzealous; this is why PR pros are the best-kept secret in content marketing.

Tips for inviting raised hands:

  • Advertising on your own platform. Banner ads, embedded demo videos, and white paper CTAs are all appropriate for a sidebar and other white space.
  • Reporting on data. If your company has spent resources on quality original data or analysis for a report, there’s no reason you can’t write a blog about it and include a link to the registration page at the bottom. You can run campaigns inside a content marketing framework, but this doesn’t work the other way around.
  • Retargeting. This is probably one of the easiest (and most overlooked) ways to demonstrate the business value of a content hub: cookie the site and use it in retargeting. It’s very passive too, which I like when you are trying to build an audience and it doesn’t put any additional strain on what is likely, a very lean content team.
  • Custom audiences. Similar to retargeting, many social sites permit you to advertise to custom audiences. It’s a no-brainer.
  • Internal links. If you build a content hub you should abusively use it to build internal links to your product pages. Certainly, referral traffic can be measured, but the biggest value is in search. This requires some thinking because you do not want your content hub and your product pages competing for the same terms.[Note: Want to test my assertion in real time? Go Google the phrase “law firm business development.” If you click-around the top links and you’ll find my fingerprints. I did that with internal links two years ago from the date of this publication.]

Pillar 4: Iterate and improve

The list of things you want to do to improve your content marketing is probably very long. The best advice I can offer here is to pick one or two and tackle them. Then pick one or two more and go tackle those.

I tend to favor small but consistent improvements over time because trying to make a big change can derail the entire program.

There are plenty of metrics to track, but in content marketing perhaps none are more important than the performance of the content across the three aforementioned points:

  • What content is helping you build an audience?
  • What content coverts subscribers?
  • What content facilitates raised hands?

Tips for improving over time:

  • Analytics. I suggest looking at overall content marketing metrics in four broad buckets: visibility, community strength, quality, and marketing impact. What you include in each category will vary from organization to organization, but the fundamentals are tried and true.
  • Look for external benchmarks. I’ve always found larger companies become very inwardly focused. It’s as if the size of the organization causes them to lose their collective peripheral vision. Don’t let this happen to you: include external metrics like a ranking from Moz, Ahrefs, or even Alexa. This is because the performance of your content platform on the web is relative to all the other platforms out there – not just your actions.
  • Visitor survey. Don’t overlook asking your readers or visitors for feedback directly. An effective way to do this is to include a survey poll on your hub or even send a direct email to your subscriber list asking for feedback. This will also give you a chance to identify demographic data that web analytics can’t provide.

* * *

Long before content marketing was cool, my boss the CMO and I were kicking around new ideas for marketing. I was advocating for an industry newsletter, one that we would manage just as if it were managed by a professional media company.

He grimaced, and in a response, that was half chiding and half joking, suggested it just wasn’t that exciting. We didn’t do it…at least not until three years later.

I often think back to that conversation, because we lost three years of building trust, credibility and growing a list of subscribers because an email newsletter just didn’t seem cool enough in that moment.

Similarly, content marketing is not going away. What is the alternative? Sending more one-off emails? Spending more on social ads, PPC or sponsored content? More press releases?

There will probably never be a shortage of rental property in marketing in our lifetime, but there may be a shortage of businesses that rely too heavily on it.