Propllr is a PR and content marketing firm, so creating “content” is a huge part of what we do every day. It makes a difference for our clients. I like to think it helps people in the world understand things better and see connections they wouldn’t have otherwise noticed.
I also, however, don’t particularly like the word “content” in the way it’s used to describe content marketing. I think a lot of writers, designers, videographers, podcasters, and other (shudder) “content creators” feel this way. Why? Because talking about “content” suggests there’s some inherent value to this stuff we create – to creating stuff of any kind – beyond what its function is.
To be fair, that’s sometimes true or has been true in the past.
Like in the early days of the internet, when keyword stuffing could lead to excellent traffic numbers, which could translate to sales. Content factories churned out low-quality content that would nonetheless help lots of businesses rank in search and sell their goods.
The internet, circa 2004
But did it make people happy?
Maybe some people. The ones who were making money off it, I guess.
Meanwhile, “content” got a bad reputation in some corners.
There’s still plenty of bad content out there today. After all, content marketing still works, so lots of people are doing it. Inevitably, some of them aren’t doing a great job.
Ultimately, though, that’s okay (according to the Propllr content philosophy). There have always been bad versions of things and good versions. In fact, the bad versions help illustrate what’s so great about the good ones.
At Propllr, we’re always striving to be in the latter group. And really, to be more than good. To create content that’s effective, engaging, and informative. As we strive to do that, we operate from these 10 principles.
1: Content Is a Way to Build Relationships
It’s not just stuff. It’s not just words or videos or infographics.
Done right, content is a mode of communication whose goal is to build a relationship between the publisher and the reader (or viewer).
In the case of a business blog, the nature of that relationship, in many cases, is that the reader turns to the blog’s authors for insight, analysis, or explanation. The blog’s authors believe that, armed with this insight, analysis, or explanation – and with the knowledge that the authors gave it away freely – those readers will be more likely to know about and look favorably on their brand and what it sells.
Business leaders can’t talk face to face to every prospective customer, but through the magic of blogging and Googling and social media and podcasting and the rest of the internet, they can communicate their ideas to these people. And that’s what content aims to do.
2: Content Is a Gift You Give the World
I mentioned above that part of the magic of the blog, for example, is that its authors give it away for free.
Despite that, when done right, content marketing is incredibly cost effective. It’s the online equivalent of the smell of baking cakes wafting from the neighborhood bakery.
In and of itself, this smell is a gift. The sidewalk in front of Lutz’s bakery is my hands-down favorite stretch of my morning runs because of this smell. Also because of this smell, I know the name of a bakery I would have otherwise considered just another piece of scenery on my route.
Me running + smell of baked goods = me happy
Just like content, the smell is free to everyone. To those who happen to enjoy it, it also does a great job of creating warm feelings toward the company creating it.
And in some cases, the smell is enough to lure people in to buy something.
Me, I haven’t actually bought anything from Lutz’s – yet. But that’s because 1) it’s not open when I usually pass and 2) there’s a pandemic on, so I’m not doing much shopping these days. But you better believe that next time I’m in the area and it is open and it’s safe to go into bakeries again, I’ll be going inside.
This is how content works: sometimes, it leads to an immediate conversion. More often, though, it works to grow awareness and goodwill over time so that when a potential customer is ready for what the content-creating brand is selling, they think immediately (and fondly) of said brand.
When you embark on a content marketing strategy, you’re inherently undertaking something long term. You’re taking a leap of faith. You’re giving something away without asking for anything in return.
And here’s the thing: if you give the right thing away to the right people for the right reasons, everyone involved will benefit.
People who need information (or a pick-me-up at mile three) get it.
People whose businesses depend on selling their products to customers get exposure to more potential customers.
People who need a cake or cup of coffee right this minute have a clear signal of where to go to get it.
That’s the basic premise of content marketing. Of course, the practice is more complicated, which is why this is a multi-part philosophy statement.
3: Content Strategy Matters
So content is a gift you can use to build relationships, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need to be strategic. We all give gifts strategically. Maybe you’ve switched to experiential gifts to de-clutter your life. Maybe you only give gifts to children. Maybe you coordinate with your loved ones to make sure you’re not all giving the children the same gifts.
These are all important strategies that help ensure your gifts have an impact that matches the effort you put into them.
To be effective, content marketing also requires strategy.
Let’s revisit the bakery example. It’s simple and it’s bound to be effective. Right? Well. What happens if…
- The people smelling your baking are diabetic?
- The scent-smellers are vegan (and your baked goods are not)?
- A nearby bakery also bakes delicious-smelling desserts that actually smell better than yours?
- Everyone going by loves the scent but they’re all really busy and when they try to look you up online, they can’t find your website? Or they find your website but there’s no way to place an order?
All these have content marketing analogies: if you’re creating content that your audience doesn’t want or need; if you’re creating a worse version of content a competitor already has; if your website is set up in a way that makes it hard to get from your content to your product or service, you’re likely not going to see a very high ROI from your content marketing investment.
So it’s not enough to create content knowing that content marketing works. It’s also essential to have a strategy behind what you’re doing. This has always been true and it’s only going to get truer as the world becomes more and more content saturated.
In practice, having a strategy means…
- Taking the time to understand your audience, see what’s going on, and identify areas where you can provide content to fill a need.
- Coordinating with the rest of your company to make sure you measure the right things.
- Setting performance goals.
- Understanding a realistic timeline for those goals.
- Checking in on those goals regularly.
- Trying new things as needed.
- Sticking with it. Shiny objects will appear to distract you (or your bosses). But strategy only works when you can actually follow through on it.
This brings me to the next pillar of our content philosophy.
4: Content Performance Is Measurable
The key to knowing what and how to measure is having a clear strategy about what you want your content to accomplish. If you don’t have the latter, you can’t do the former.
As content strategists, it’s our role (at Propllr) to help clients understand what makes sense to measure and what reasonable outcomes are for our clients. Traffic? Inbound links? Conversions? SERP spots?
It’s also our job to advise clients about what they need to do to optimize the performance of the content we create for them. Many things outside our control can affect how content performs. We have to be upfront and consistent about communicating what clients can and should be doing, including…
- Structuring websites properly (with folders in URLs, e.g.).
- Marking up charts and graphs to be visible in search.
- Using meta data properly.
- Tagging images properly.
- Promoting content.
- Coding external links correctly.
- Incorporating CTAs.
- Using / not using gates.
It’s also our job to remind clients that not every measurable thing about content appears in a Google Analytics dashboard. E.g., if blog posts are fueling successful media pitches, we need to take that into account as well. Which brings me to the next pillar.
5: Content Can Support Demand Gen…
… but it’s also much more than a demand gen tool.
SEM is about demand gen. Pay for ads, receive traffic.
Done right, content can help generate leads, but it will also trigger an emotional response in your audience that will get them to feel a certain way about you or your brand. And guess what. People make decisions with emotions far more than they make decisions with logic.
Remember our bakery? Do you think a sign that said “cake for sale” would be as effective a marketing tool as the scent of baking cake in the air? (Let’s be honest: the two would work best together!)
Show and tell with scents and signs for best results
What it comes down to is that demand gen is a transactional endeavor. And remember: content marketing is about building relationships. This isn’t to say demand gen can’t lead to long-term relationships; but with content marketing, the focus is on building a relationship first and trusting that, eventually, strong and rewarding relationships with enough people will yield positive business outcomes.
I know. It sounds super wishy-washy. So here’s an example: you curate a killer newsletter every week. Your fans gobble it up because it’s always good (because you put time and energy into making sure it is). One day, you include a job opening in that newsletter. A fan tweets about it. Someone sees that tweet and applies. You hire them. And as it turns out, they have a great network of connections who become new clients for your firm. WOW.
Or more directly: same newsletter, same fans. One day, a year into subscribing, someone asks one of your fans if they can recommend a firm that does what you do. You’re top of mind for your fan, thanks to the great newsletter. Recommendation. Client. Boom.
6: You Can’t Start and Stop Content
Well, you can’t if you want it to work.
You also can’t keep changing “strategy” every time you hear about a new thing someone’s doing (again, if you want it to work).
Yes, this is somewhat self-serving. But it’s also true. Remember: content is about relationships; those don’t happen overnight. They don’t happen without regular maintenance. You can’t expect to call someone you haven’t spoken to in five years and pick up where you left off.
Remember, too, the reality of the medium you’re working in and what you’re hoping to get from your efforts. The first thing you want is attention. You can get someone’s attention with a big, splashy move, but will that sustain their attention? Can you keep making splashes for as long as you need them to pay attention to you? If so, you don’t want content, you want advertising.
Content is for people who want attention not because they're making a fuss but because their audience believes they have something valuable to share. I listen to NPR every day because I really enjoy it. I follow the people I follow on Twitter because I value their perspectives. Ditto for what I read and watch.
And right there, you can see that I’ve got a pretty full plate of what could be considered content. I’m enjoying it. If I add something, I probably have to take something away. And that’s true of everyone you’ll try to connect with via content.
We all have limited attention to give. By consistently delivering something worth your audience’s attention, your content earns a place in their lives. And as I mentioned earlier, that eventually leads to positive business outcomes.
7: Voice Matters
It’s worth saying that how you say something matters as much as what you say – and really, how you say it affects the meaning of what you're saying. Voice is a big umbrella that can include many things for various kinds of content; generally, the voice of a content program (and of individual pieces within it) should be well thought out, well executed, appropriate, and consistent.
8: Manners Matter
In our closest relationships, we don’t have to worry about eating with the right fork or avoiding uncomfortable conversation topics. But in all relationships, manners matter: showing up when you say you’ll be there, listening when someone talks, remembering birthdays. These kinds of behaviors show our loved ones that we care about them and are using our energy to address their needs.
In content marketing, manners manifest on the page: clear sentences, well-edited prose, helpful headlines, intuitive web designs, emails that are welcome (not spammy), and so on. We show our audience we care about them and value their time (and are worthy of their limited attention) by investing time and care into what we create for them.
9: Everything Is Fodder
Again, remember that content marketing is about building relationships. Real-life relationships aren’t straightforward, linear endeavors. We don’t only talk about one subject with our family and friends.
The same should be true of content marketing.
In fact, the more we bring to content, the deeper the relationship with readers can be. Look at Michael Smart’s emails. He’s constantly writing about his personal experience and using it to illustrate larger points about the work he does (and the advice he peddles). I enjoy those emails, even though they’re mostly about PR and so not directly relevant to my work.
Maybe the best thing about the “everything is fodder” principle is that mistakes become material, as do failures and bad habits and boring experiences. Everything we do teaches us something; content marketing is one way to turn those lessons into relationship-building material that ultimately leads to (say it with me) positive business outcomes.
10: Great Content Will Win
Whether this means win in search, win new customers, win social shares and engagement, or win dedicated fans of a newsletter, it’s true. Great content backed by a reasonable strategy works for the right audience.
This doesn’t mean you can write great short stories and publish them on your business blog and hope to sell shovels. But if you do this thing called content marketing well and you do it consistently and you make the effort to improve as you go, you’ll see success.
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