Content Marketing, Explained: The Ultimate Guide

In order to explain the concept of content marketing, sometimes it helps to zoom out for one second. Let’s start with the second word first: marketing

The American Marketing Association defines “marketing” as “the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.” In other words, it is the practice of crafting and distributing messaging to sell an idea. Marketing encompasses many formats to help create brand awareness, drive traffic, and leave an impression on the desired target audience. 

Now, let’s focus on how the first word, “content,” fits into the larger theme.

What is Content Marketing?

Content marketing is a specific type of marketing that largely focuses on creating and distributing material that consumers can read, watch, or listen to on a consistent basis. 

That’s our definition. According to the content marketing institute, “Content marketing is a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly-defined audience — and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.”

When done right, meaning the content is valuable and relevant, it can help brands retain and engage an existing customer base and attract new leads. Using content to retain and generate new business is both an art and a science. Not only do you need to be articulate, witty, punny, or just insanely knowledgeable about your niche. You’re also working with and against search engines, ESPs, and a whole host of other technology platforms that can make or break your content. It’s a tricky business, but it’s one of the best forms of soft sales, period. 

Think of content marketers like chefs preparing food in the kitchen. The job of the chef is to create the best dish possible for their desired demographic. Maybe that’s American fare or Mexican cuisine. People pick restaurants based on their appetite and overall taste. Chefs cater to those desires. 

Chefs also tweak and toy with recipes constantly. This optimization process helps them refine their piece of content (or dish) which can then be served to customers. Sometimes chefs cook food so well that no other marketing is needed. Customers recommend the restaurant to their family and friends through word of mouth. Not only do the existing customers continually come back, but they help generate new leads for the chef and restaurant as well. 

This is how we like to think about content creation. Cooking up an amazing piece of food and cooking up an amazing piece of content have a lot of similarities. Let’s dig in! 

What are examples of content marketing?

Content marketing examples include everything from blog posts to case studies to long-form articles, e-books, video series, and webinars. Simple photos and witty tweets can also be types of content along with video content and even e-commerce. Many companies release white papers or utilize email marketing and social media channels for content marketing purposes. 

What you’re reading right now is a form of content marketing! Our goal at Walk-On Holdings is to produce high-quality content for both ourselves and our clients. Valuable content has helped us grow and scale our own brands as well as others. There are various types of content marketing and it doesn’t matter if you’re a small business or a massive corporation, every brand and business needs to be thinking about the kind of content they want to generate on a consistent basis to retain existing customers and find new ones. 

What are the basics of content marketing?

Can you write and/or speak? Perfect, that’s a good first step towards producing great content. This means you can start creating content like blog posts, newsletters, and Twitter threads for yourself and your business. If you’re not a great writer, but you can speak well maybe it’s worth thinking about creating a podcast or video series. Now, with that said, a first-class content marketing program requires strategy and purpose. Here are a few things to think about before you randomly decide to launch a customer-facing newsletter, podcast, or any variety of b2b content. 

  • Start With Your End Goal in Mind: What is the aim of your business? Are you a restaurant and your goal is to serve the most delicious food possible? What about as much food as possible? Are you going for quality or quantity? Do you want to be a five-star Michelin location with room for 20 people who sit there for two hours? Or do you want to be a 2-star McDonalds drive-through that can serve 20 people every 2 minutes? We love both types of restaurants. We just want to note that it’s important to think about your end goal because that’s going to help you define your customer personas. This brings us to our next point. 
  • Think About Potential Customers: Once you’ve thought about the type of company and brand you want to build, take a second to think about the customers that you will be serving. What are their pain points? For the people who choose McDonald’s in the example above, quite honestly they might just be hungry. That’s totally fine and we’ve all been there. This is important to understand, however, because when it comes time to think about the customer journey and establish a plan that includes things like a content calendar, we want to make sure we are producing relevant content for this potential customer. People who opt for the five-star Michelin spot probably have more time to spare. They don’t need to rush in and out. In fact, if they’re spending up for a nice meal, they probably want to stay awhile. Think about your potential customers, sketch out personas and try to understand why they would want to consider your brand. Tailor your content, including tone, voice, and timing, appropriately.   
  • Establish a Marketing Plan: Once you have a vision for both your business and the potential customers, it’s time to draft up a marketing plan. Content marketing efforts are wasted if they are done haphazardly. Think about the main content hubs you want to focus on and various metrics that will help you track your progress. Do you want more traffic? How about more purchases? What about more sign-ups for your email newsletter? Or, are you trying to get people to download apps? You need a plan for your marketing team so they have direction and purpose. Believe us, this goes a long way towards creating the best content possible for your specific niche. Think about it this way: what happens when you go into the grocery store without a list? In general, you’re just kind of shopping around aimlessly. When you get home, inevitably you’ll realize you forgot something. Before you go to the store, make a list or a plan of attack. This principle holds true for content marketing as well.  
  • Walk Before You Run: Content marketing campaigns are deceivingly tricky to implement sometimes, especially for larger organizations. Even if you’re a small business owner and you want to handle content marketing yourself, it requires implementing a process. Let’s take producing a podcast for example. If your goal is to produce one episode every week, write out the steps that it will take from concept to listening to it live on platforms like Apple and Spotify. This is where the marketing plan above comes in handy, but even after you have that in place and you’ve recorded your first episode, who is doing the editing? What about post-production and distribution? You can always increase cadence after you have a process in place. We recommend starting slow and then ramping up. Maybe that’s one podcast per month, which then moves to one podcast per week, which then maybe (maybe) switches to one podcast per day. In most cases, you might not need one podcast per day, but this concept can apply to email newsletters, blog posts, Linkedin posts, and many other types of content marketing. 
  • Test and Track: Once you’re up and running, make sure you have a way to track your progress. Think about both real-time metrics like downloads and subscriptions to long-term forms of measurement like increasing site or store traffic after months and years. You want to make sure that you have a framework in place to give you clues about how you’re doing. It depends on the type of content you’re producing but let’s say you’re trying to grow a newsletter and engage the subscribers. Email service providers will be able to tell you how many people are subscribing to your newsletter along with who is opening it and clicking on certain links. Digital marketing tools like Google Analytics are helpful to gauge site traffic and sales. Maybe b2b marketers need to focus on different types of conversion rates. The bottom line is that your marketing plan needs accountability. Testing and tracking your process is how you know whether or not you’re heading in the right direction. 

What is the role of content marketing?

As mentioned above, the main purpose of content marketing is to help retain existing customers. Attracting a new customer can cost five times more than it does to retain an existing one. According to some estimates, increasing customer retention by 5% can increase profits from 25-95%. Well-written, professional content can keep current customers engaged so your marketing funnel doesn’t turn into a sieve. At the same time, content marketing that gets shared and scraped by SEO engines like Google and Bing can help generate new leads. Content marketing is an extremely integral part of lifecycle marketing in terms of bringing people in the door and keeping them there.

How does content marketing work?

In some respects content marketing is straightforward, it just requires a little thought. Let’s imagine you’re a bank and your core products are saving and investment accounts. First and foremost, you want to tailor your content to talk about those two things. You obviously don’t want to talk about the best travel deals or some other random subject. Moreover, even though you’re a financial institution, you might not want to talk about mortgage lending or trust and estate planning. Stay focused. 

Let’s dig deeper. Because savings and investment accounts are fairly generic, make sure you’re thinking about your end-user or the persona you think will be interested in your offering. Maybe you are a legacy institution that’s catering to baby boomers. Use language they use, keep your font large, and when you write, put yourself in their shoes. Maybe an informational email series that leads them to a simple landing page is the best option. If you’re a neo-bank, however, and you’re catering to the next generation, have you thought about Instagram stories or making TikTok videos? Content marketing works a multitude of different ways, but it works best by imagining yourself as the one consuming the content. Put yourself in their shoes and work backward from there. 

How does content marketing impact SEO? 

Content marketing can have dramatic impacts on SEO. This mostly applies to blog posts, white papers, and written forms of content, but it can also apply to video. YouTube ranks content virtually the same way Google’s search machine ranks content so it’s something to pay attention to when you’re uploading clips, thinking about titles, guests, and publishing cadence. 

As it relates to written content, if you are articulate and follow SEO templates like Yoast in WordPress, you are setting your brand up for success. When done the right way, this usually means higher rankings on google and more visibility for your brand. 

Is social media content marketing?

Social media is absolutely a form of content marketing, in fact, it’s kind of wild to think about the number of content humans produce on a daily basis. Much of this content is for personal reasons, but a large share of that is produced by brands promoting their products or services. 

Every social media platform has its own nuances that we’ll discuss in greater depth later. From a high level, there are a few things to keep in mind when thinking about using social media for content marketing purposes. 

  1. Make sure you are posting content that is interesting to your end-user. If you are working on content for your local church and trying to increase attendance, it’s probably not a good idea to talk about gambling. Post content that your customers will like. 
  2. Don’t overpost. This comes across as spammy no matter what platform you’re using. We also have that one friend on Facebook or Instagram that overshares. Sometimes it’s enough to make us unfollow them. This can be true for brands as well. 
  3. Use social media to make and amplify content. Take Instagram for example. You can make content on Instagram and share it. You can also use Instagram to distribute other content like blog posts and landing pages for email sign-ups. Do a mix of both to help advertise and amplify your other content. 
  4. End posts with calls to action. Calls to action are prompts to get your customers to engage. This might be a question. It might be an offer. Mix these in fairly frequently to drum up some back and forth between you (the brand) and your customers. Take a note from the second bullet point, though. Don’t overdo the calls to action. Sometimes posts can just be funny or informational without asking for anything in return. 
  5. Be unique. There are over 1 billion accounts on Instagram. Yes, a decent portion of those accounts are probably bots. The point is, there are a lot of freaking people on not only Instagram, but also Facebook, Twitter, and every other social media platform. Think about ways to be unique when you start using social media for content marketing purposes. Maybe that means publishing in a unique format or in a defined voice. Figure out what resonates with a small tribe of your most dedicated subscribers and then stick with it. 

Are infographics a form of content marketing?

Infographics are a fantastic form of content marketing. They can help break down complex and confusing topics through an easy-to-understand visual or graphic. Infographics can help summarize information into one-pagers. They can even make boring data look more interesting, which can help tell a story. 

In a visual world where, let’s face it, a lot of people prefer just scrolling through pictures, infographics can be repurposed on all of your social media accounts. Infographics work well across a range of platforms, most notably Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn. 

Infographics and images can also be sneakily good for your SEO. When a user enters a term into Google’s search engine, they will have the option to filter by images. A well-tagged image that’s part of a larger article might be scraped by Google’s web crawlers and help drive traffic to your site. If people end up liking and sharing the graphic, and maybe even linking to it, this will help it rank higher. 

Another way infographics help is by promoting your own brand. Anytime you produce an infographic, be sure to add your logo and company information. If it does make the rounds on the internet, you want to make sure people know where it came from. 

One thing to remember, however, is that infographics are only as good as the story behind them. Make sure to keep the short simple and easy to follow. You want the visual flow of the graphics on the page to be logical and seamless so by the time the consumer is done reading and looking it over, they have an “ah-ha!” moment. Jumbled infographics can actually hurt a brand, because if they don’t make sense and they aren’t easy to follow that will be a frustrating experience for an existing customer or a new one. 

We love using Canva to make infographics. For example, here is an example of a free template when you type the word “Infographic” into Canva. 

How should you structure a content marketing strategy?

Now that you have a better understanding of what content marketing is, it’s time to think about a strategy. This is where it’s helpful to revisit the basics of content marketing section above because all we’re going to do now is wrap those concepts into a tighter framework. Here’s how we recommend establishing a content marketing strategy:

  1. Pick a north star: As we mentioned above, you need an end goal. Imagine you’re in the army and you’re heading into battle against other marketers who are trying to win the attention of the customers you want to attract. What’s your mission? What are you aiming for? It’s super-important to have a goal in mind and be disciplined enough to stick with it. Content marketing is a marathon, not a sprint. You need to stick with it day after day and sometimes this can get hopeless. It’s easier to keep marching towards your goal if you have an endpoint in mind.
  2. Pick your audience: Once you have a goal in mind, make sure you’re constantly thinking about your audience. Who are they? What do they wear? Why type of music do they listen to? What makes them happy and what keeps them up at night? These questions might sound silly, but what you’re trying to do is get in their head to understand what makes them tick. If you can do this, you’ll be better able to create content that attracts them. Spirit Airlines and Netjets are two airplane companies. You could argue that they provide the same service: they help people get from point A to point B. Pop the hood, however, and you’ll see that they cater to completely different demographics. The content that appeals to the spring-break-loving college kid who is looking for cheap flights to Miami will most likely differ from the wealthy business owner who can afford private flights. Have a customer in mind, before you start creating content. 
  3. Pick your preferred metrics: When you start a new diet and you lose five pounds, is that good? Maybe. What about 50 pounds? It depends. You need to pick KPIs, or Key Performance Indicators, that can help you make sense of your progress. This is a nuanced item on the agenda that will differ for every brand. This goes back to the comment we made above about staying persistent. Because content marketing can feel like a long slog, clearly defined milestones and metrics will help you understand if you’re missing the mark. If you are, maybe it’s time to reassess and pivot. If you’re not, you’ll feel an invigorating sense of accomplishment that will help you keep motivated. 
  4. Pick your channels: Blog posts, podcasts, social media, infographics. How do you want to let your expertise shine? How do you want to distribute your brand voice? Think about your strengths and start there. If you’re a great writer, then opt for written word products like blogs, newsletters, and white papers. If you’re a designer then maybe a visual medium fits you better. If you’re a sharp speaker or super-funny with a distinct voice and information to share, maybe think about YouTube or podcasts. Sometimes it’s easiest to pick one channel and then focus on finding what works there before broadening to other means of distribution. You can also repurpose content. For example, you can record a video, download the audio, and then transcribe it into text. Just by recording a video you now have a YouTube channel, podcast, and monster blog post. If you want, you can even splice up the video and distribute it on social media. There are many channels to choose from. Start with your strength. 
  5. Pick your spots: This bullet point is about cadence and quality. Do you need to create content every single day? The answer is maybe not. Opt for quality content over the quantity of content you’re producing. A lot of content marketing revolves around highlighting your expertise in a given area. Make sure you have time to express yourself clearly. This means start with fewer posts first and then work your way up.
  6. Pick your dates: This is our final suggestion, which is to form a content calendar. Content calendars can help you and your team stay organized and accountable. Essentially content calendars are just dates in the future where you plan to publish or distribute content. You can include new pieces that need to be created and even add in times when you can reuse old or existing content. You can include the distribution platforms that the content needs to be published on along with the workflow for your team to follow. One way to think about a content calendar is simply as a giant checklist that you can refer back to the entire year. 

So, there you have it. Hopefully, this post does a good job of walking you through answers to questions that many people have when they first encounter the mystical concept of “content marketing.” The term, which fits into the overall concept of marketing, can and should be paired with other forms of marketing. Paid marketing efforts are sometimes a nice compliment to content marketing and there is definitely overlap between the two. Sprinkling a little Facebook and Google traffic on a great landing page, for example, might be a unique way to generate leads.

We’ll leave you with the idea of content marketers being chefs that are constantly trying to cook up the best content possible for their patrons. Think of your favorite restaurant. Why do you keep going there? Most likely it’s because you have a craving for what they serve. Your mouth waters when you think about their dessert, for example. As content marketers, that’s what we’re trying to evoke as well. How can we create consistent, high-quality content that makes readers and listeners want to keep coming back for more? These people will not only be your best customers, but they will also be your biggest evangelists. As every marketer knows, the best form of marketing is word of mouth. Amazing content, which is really just the presentation of an idea, has the best chance to spread like wildfire.