t has taken a while, but Internet marketers are finally realizing that if you build it, they won’t come — unless you have something worthwhile to say.
The Internet promised to make instant publishers of us all, and no mouths were watering more than those of the marketers, who envisioned snaring millions of Web surfers with a single keystroke. But it hasn’t been that easy.
As it turns out, Web dwellers are more discriminating than they imagined. Shrewd marketing copy and polished product pitches, they discovered, are simply not enough to lasso visitors who have a digital sea of alternate destinations at their fingertips.
Enter content marketing.
As commercial enterprises compete for Web eyeballs, a new marketing strategy has emerged, aimed at providing what visitors want most — useful and meaningful information.
Content marketing is not really new. Nor is it strictly defined in terms of commercial marketing. The phrase encompasses anyone who endeavors to increase the audience for his or her content, including bloggers, online publications, public institutions and others.
But it is commercial marketing that has poured the most gasoline on the content marketing fire. If you doubt the explosive growth of the phenomenon, you need look no further than the “Authority Intensive” conference held in Denver last week. More than 400 writers, bloggers, marketers and assorted others descended on The Curtis Hotel to hear a small army of speakers examine every corner of the content marketing landscape.
The conference was produced by Copyblogger Media, one of the first apostles of the importance of substantive content as a prerequisite to successful marketing. The Boulder company was founded in 2006 by Brian Clark, a lawyer turned blogger, who started the company as a one-man operation with just $1,000 in seed money. Today, the company boasts 115,000 customers and multi-million dollar revenue.
Copyblogger offers a variety of educational tools and services to help writers create more effective content. The company has also amassed a dedicated community of bloggers and writers, who graze a voluminous store of posts about writing and marketing subjects on the company website. The company’s latest product, called New Rainmaker, provides a platform for building websites.
The Authority Intensive conference — so named to underscore the mission of generating authoritative content — was a first for Copyblogger. Brian Clark, the company’s unassuming founder, says he waited eight years to produce the event so “the timing would be right.” Apparently, he was spot on; the conference was sold out months before show time.
The event drew a broad cross-section of writers and marketers. An impromptu poll of occupations at a breakfast table on day two revealed a developer of e-learning materials, a Kellogg’s employee seeking a career change, an entrepreneur who wanted to improve communications with his school district clients and a member of the communications department of a large software company.
The variety of participants reflects the growing interest in learning how to better communicate in the crowded arena of the Internet, a recurring theme in nearly all of the presentations.
Few can articulate the “meaningful content” movement better than Seth Godin, the well-known marketing savant and perennial favorite on the speaking circuit. As the opening keynoter, he set the tone for the conference with one of the best quips of the day: “Are you going to be a meaningful specific or a wandering generality?” (Click here for more on Seth Godin’s presentation.)
Godin has long been preaching the necessity of authentic content to reach a discerning public. But he was far from a lone voice at Authority Intensive.
“Ninety-three percent of B2B marketers are now engaged in content marketing,” says Ann Handley, the Chief Content Officer for MarketingProfs, a marketing research and training company in Los Angeles. In her presentation, called “Dear Diary: A Content Marketing Makeover,” she also reported that 58 percent of those marketers plan to increase their spending on content marketing this year. Yet many marketers still feel their content efforts are coming up short, she says.
“Only 42 percent of the marketers that we surveyed say their content is effective. Just four out of 10 marketers feel like their content is really meeting the objectives they are trying to reach,” she says. “I think this is a tremendous opportunity.”
To seize that opportunity, Handley proposes a content formula that combines empathy and experience with relevance and usefulness. An author and former journalist, she believes appealing content must offer concrete value and a “pathological empathy for readers.”
Arienne Holland is the communications director for Raven Internet Marketing Tools, a Nashville, TN, company that makes software tools to manage marketing campaigns. As part of a panel discussion on “Professional Content Creation Done Well,” she emphasized that content does not necessarily achieve communication. To achieve effective communication, she says, content must be “clear, concise, compelling and honest.”
“Communicators who are perceived as sincere, who are honest and who can share information in a clear and concise way,” she says, “are going to make the biggest difference in terms of their customers and their understanding.”
Good writing, however, is not the only component of successful content marketing. Most marketers agree that design can play an equally crucial role in attracting and retaining website visitors. The Authority Intensive conference featured a number of speakers who doled out advice and guidance for visual presentation.
Pamela Wilson, the founder and owner of Big Brand System, helps small businesses and organizations create “big brands” using marketing and design methods. Part of a panel focusing on effective website design, she suggested a staged approach to refine the look and feel of a website and brand as a company matures.
Stage one entails a minimal design, limited to two fundamental colors and one accent color, two basic type fonts and simple brand logo. In stage two, as the company gains its footing, brand standards are refined by adding a descriptive tagline and fleshing out the “brand story.” In stage three, Wilson says, “you build the design into your DNA” by applying high-level design standards to the brand, incorporating it into all aspects of the business – products and services, invoices, email signatures and other company elements.
Chris Garrett, Copyblogger’s Chief Digital Office, helps to run the company’s educational programs and also develops guides and tutorials for customers. He believes website design is about “isolating the things you want people to do.”
“Remove distractions,” he advises. “Have just one primary call to action on a landing page. Clear pathways. Tell people where to go. Make sure people know what to do next. Show people what they are getting, and what it is going to do for them.”
The final component of the Authority Intensive conference focused on what everyone wanted most – traffic. For many, this segment was the main event. And to the surprise of no one, there were no easy answers. There were, however, some inspirational success stories, along with plenty of tips and suggestions.
Darren Rowse started a personal blog in 2002 and quickly parlayed it into Problogger.net, a website that teaches the art of blogging, and Digital-Photography-School.com, an online photography educational site. Both sites have large audiences and both are profitable.
Rowse, an affable Australian who traveled halfway around the world to speak at Authority Intensive, says “success is about doing the things you already know, and discovering the secrets you don’t yet know.”
Like so many other speakers at the conference, he believes the key to building traffic is bringing concrete value to the table.
“Usefulness is king,” he says. “Fluff is everywhere; the trend is to chase eyeballs. People want depth. Understand who your readers are, what they need. Get clarity about the change you want to see in readers.”
As in most conversations about Internet traffic, the conference offered up the obligatory discussions of search engine optimization and traffic analysis tools. But as Dennis Goedegebuure pointed out, “SEO is the outcome of a great product, not the objective.” Goedegebuure is the head of Global SEO at Airbnb, the popular website where people can find or list bed-and-breakfast style accommodations for travelers.
If there is anything that evoked universal agreement among the conference speakers, it is the critical role of trust in attaining repeat visitors.
“Getting information from the Internet is like getting a drink of water from a fire hose,” laments Lee Odden, the co-founder and CEO of TopRank Online Marketing, a Minneapolis digital marketing
agency specializing in SEO and content marketing. “There are 10 billion Internet-connected devices in the world. The sheer volume of information is overwhelming. So how do you stand out?”
The answer, he says, lies in building trust with consumers. “You need to be the best answer for buyers,” says Odden.
If audience enthusiasm is any indication, it appears the interest in content marketing is just warming up. Copyblogger CEO Brian Clark says he didn’t have any particular expectations about how the conference would be received, but he was clearly thrilled with the outcome. Near the end of the event, the company was already pitching early discounts for next year’s affair.