3 Keys to Content Marketing


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Looking for digital engagement? Aim to serve.

If you’re trying to gain recognition for your business in the crowded digital world, any expert will advise you to launch content marketing campaigns. But before you do, first consider the plight of the besieged digital consumer: The daily onslaught of unintelligible spam, relentless Twitterbots, annoying reams of irrelevant “sponsored results” with every attempt at a web search. All this digital garbage is the product of poor content marketing.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

What is content marketing?

Properly executed content marketing is actually both pleasant and effective; 82% of consumers feel more positive about a company after reading custom content. It’s actually just a modern name for a business practice that’s been around as long as commerce itself.

This is how it works: You demonstrate your business capability by freely offering something of value to potential customers or partners in order to engage their interest and earn their trust.

Picture an ancient farmer in the town square on market day chatting with passersby about the best uses for seasonal produce. This is the earliest — and purest — form of content marketing. If folks found his advice helpful, they’d be more likely to remember him and frequent his stall. Simple as that.

Nowadays, content marketing is largely digital, but it should remain just as straightforward. In practice, businesses create and distribute “content” (blog posts and social media missives, data visualizations and infographics, videos and slide decks, whitepapers and webinars). Like the farmer’s advice, this material is useful and interesting to its audience, and that inspires trust.

What isn’t content marketing?

First and foremost, note that “content marketing” is not the same as “marketing.” This crucial distinction is often overlooked, and it’s one of the reasons for all those negative connotations infesting public perception: In one study, 71 percent of readers said they were turned off by content that seemed like a sales pitch.

While content marketing ultimately generates sales leads and encourages transaction, it should never be executed as if that’s its primary purpose. Content marketing is inherently different than advertising or sales and it must freely offer something of value! It isn’t bent on self-aggrandizement or closing a deal. It is friendly conversation and genial outreach intended to cultivate a relationship.

The farmer’s advice on seasonal produce — not his produce price list — is what constitutes content marketing.

3 keys to content marketing
CC BY-SA 3.0 Nick Youngson / Alpha Stock Images

Key #1: Content marketing must provide something useful to the recipient.

Content marketing is intended to serve, not sell, so it should be free from explicit promotion of your company or product. Material should be developed to supply recipients with something they’ll find handy. Need inspiration for useful content? How about:

  • industry trend tracking
  • news synopses and analyses
  • productivity tips
  • advice and “How-To” instruction
  • survey results
  • best practice checklists
  • personal experience

Think about the sorts of things your potential customers may have questions about, then leverage your expertise to provide answers (there are entire marketing disciplines devoted to this pursuit, but it’s pretty uncomplicated at heart). If you keep your focus trained squarely on being helpful, you’ll always be heading in the right direction.

Key #2: Content marketing must engage interest.

Capturing attention is crucial to effective content marketing. But too many campaigns resort to the equivalent of digital harassment to get their voices heard. If you slap a clickbait headline on your sales brochure and post it repeatedly as a LinkedIn status update, you are not engaged in content marketing — you’re just being obnoxious.

Today, there are innumerable tools and techniques abused to assault the senses with marketing ploys 24/7. In response, most people have learned to tune out or ignore much of the digital experience available to them — it’s too tainted.

Luckily, there are also tools and techniques available to enhance polite and professional content marketing communications. For example, responsible professionals will commit to some basic target audience assessment and Google Analytics tinkering to ensure outreach is initiated with context — and conversation is relevant. Nuance and precision are everything.

Engaging interest digitally should adhere to the same standards of courtesy exhibited face to face. Remember, our ancient farmer in the square was chatting with — not screaming at — passersby.

Key #3: Content marketing must inspire trust.

Glass, China and Reputation
are easily cracked
and never well mended.
—Benjamin Franklin

This famed missive is as true today as it was back when it was published in Poor Richard’s Almanack (which some have argued is colonial America’s premier content marketing example, but that’s a story for another time).

The point is that a good reputation is difficult to build and easy to tarnish. In the case of content marketing, what you provide to your audience must be valuable and offered in good faith. Faulty information does not inspire trust, so make sure your facts are always flawless and that any advice is sincere.

Ancient shoppers returned to our farmer’s stall because they found his advice useful and genuine — he earned their trust to win their patronage.

Content marketing solved

The old town square and the modern digital world may be divided by the ages. But when it comes to the “content” in content marketing, very little has actually changed. If you engage your customer in the spirit of service, you’ll be doing it right.

Deirdre Blake
Deirdre Blake is senior content manager for Silicon Valley public relations firm Sterling Communications (sterlingpr.com), where she provides editorial coaching services to thought leaders in IoT, enterprise integration, analytics, and other innovative technologies. She was also longtime Managing Editor at Dr. Dobb’s Journal, covering software development, programming languages, and all manner of coding-related and technology tools and topics.


  1. Great analogy with the farmer in the town square. Content marketing must seek to serve both the business and the prospect/customer by making it easier to communicate knowledge in an advisory way by meeting the buyer “where they are” on their customer journey. If you are doing it right all the departments (especially customer facing: sales, marketing and customer service) are aligned and aware of where the buyer is on their journey; Awareness, Considering, Decision and working together to solve problems and delight the customers to create goodwill.


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