Despite all the hoopla, content marketing isn’t new. In fact, it’s older than you are. When you consider that John Deere produced The Furrow magazine to “educate” farmers all the way back in 1895, and since then, persuasive copy has been used to sell everything from tires to toys to toilet paper, you realize that we’ve all been marketing content for centuries.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we’re good at it.

What John Deere had the foresight to understand back at the turn of the 20th century (though the term “content marketing” wasn’t coined until the 1990’s) was that thought leadership influences brand perception. And even though 2014’s marketing environment is very different from what it was in 1895, this is still valuable knowledge. Deere's style of thought leadership has morphed into this thing called “content marketing,” an all-encompassing term for good copywriting—in a good format, in a good channel—that doesn’t have a hard sell. Today, large, well-branded organizations are embracing this discipline, as they spend significant amounts of money on branded journalism designed to elicit emotional reactions from their audiences. They’re even creating their own media channels to share it.

But many small to mid-sized company types still haven't embraced this marketing tactic. They’re busy plugging away at headlines for print ads, coming up with jingles for radio spots, and developing bullet points for direct mail/email. They’re using social media, but mostly to promote products and store events and to issue mea culpas when online banking goes down. Content marketing hasn’t become a line item in most marketing budgets. And not many people in smaller organizations have added “Content” to their titles.

This is a problem. Look around... people are tuning out traditional, intrusive, mostly unwanted advertising. This is especially true for Millennial and Gen Z targets. These digital natives have been over-marketed to since birth, and they possess highly sophisticated BS meters. Born into an overload of crisis communications that has them questioning Wall Street, politicians, and “experts,” they suffer from a serious lack of trust in the media and in advertising messages.

So, how can we use thought leadership to influence positive perceptions of our brand? Or maybe the better question is: how can we sell ourselves less in order to sell ourselves more? How do we gain the trust of the younger customers we all need?

It begins with one simple principle: the less we talk about ourselves, the more interesting we are.

Think about your own consumption of media. Most of us are drawn to topics that inform, entertain, and inspire us.  They likely aren’t “Me, Me, Me!” messages. We form positive perceptions of the brands that deliver valuable, relevant content, the kind of content that gives us something useful in return for our attention. And those are the brands we reward with our business. (See a few examples at the bottom of this post.)

Here are some ideas for making your marketing messages more interesting:

1.     Conduct an honest evaluation of your digital and printed content. Gather up your newsletters, emails, direct mail, blog and social media posts, etc. and lay it all out on a conference table. What are you telling people you stand for? How likely are they to share your information? Are you addressing real customer pain points or your own talking points?

2.    Figure out what you need to change in order to show people why you are in business. Investing in messages that don’t talk about products might mean letting your professional guard down a bit in order to communicate more like a human and less like a corporate herald. Or finding a new channel, one that is more appealing to your target. At a minimum, it means discovering and developing stories that illustrate your understanding of real issues, demonstrating why someone should believe in you.

3.    Dedicate real resources to content creation. Content marketing is a big job, no bones about it. (I won’t tell you how long it took me to write this article, but it definitely didn’t crank itself out.) You need someone who is always on the lookout for great, sharable moments and topics. Someone who can curate content and keep it moving. This person needs to lead your program with a publisher mentality, marshaling resources and generating ideas.

4.   Stop talking and listen. What do your customers care about? What’s happening in their world? What’s happening in your own world? What are the interesting trends or changes shaping your industry? Are there partners or other brands you can support or leverage to share a point-of-view?

5.    Find your non-corporate voice. Identify a subject likely to resonate with your targets and then write (or have a talented employee write) something that ties in, something with a point-of-view, something someone might pass along—because it is that helpful, insightful, or entertaining. Start a social media conversation. Take pictures. Create a video. (Video offers a unique opportunity to slow down the scroll of headlines, visually communicating an idea faster than a paragraph can.)

6.    Determine your metrics. Decide how you’re going to measure your content marketing program up front. This doesn’t have to be a highly technical process involving advanced analytics—though if you’ve got them, use them. Likes (the organic kind) and shares are easy to measure by volume and give you an initial understanding of what’s interesting. Comments also give you invaluable insight into who you’re reaching.

7.    Test it. Push your content through the channels you already use and see what lights up. Are people interested? Do they care? Definitely don’t spend money promoting content that isn’t hitting its mark.

8.    Adapt. In digital channels, you find out very quickly if people care. Use that data to speed up decision-making, to revamp or drop content that isn’t working, and to amplify anything that is gaining momentum. You’ll know when your content is resonating because people will respond to it.

There are many reasons your organization should invest in content marketing. Overall, content can be very cost effective to produce, has a longer shelf life with a lower risk than traditional campaigns you may run, and puts you back in charge of your reach and distribution. It improves your search results and helps people who share your values find you. And, if it connects, motivates, and amplifies someone’s experience of your brand, it creates a truly loyal fan base.

One last thought:  we, as marketers have to remember that there is a live person behind every mailbox, Tweet, Facebook share, and website visit. And that person, that moving target, wants to fall in love with something that matters. Content marketing is about sharing something that matters, something that gives that person a reason to believe.


Examples of content marketing's impact:

P&G’s #LikeAGirl campaign goal is to transform “like a girl” from insult to compliment. Does this impact the way you feel about Always feminine products?

Old Spice uses Twitter to develop rapport with followers. Their site is less about sales messages than it is about the non-stop humor their followers seem to appreciate.

Lowes’ 6-second How To videos on Vine provide quick, helpful tips and tricks for common chores. I’m definitely using their tip about lining my paint pan with foil the next time I tackle a painting project. So helpful!

Pepsi’s Millennial-facing site, Pepsi Pulse attracts those interested in the arts and music scenes. Does this influence the way younger audiences feel about Pepsi?

Airbnb’s neighborhood guides are helpful resources that don’t say a peep about renting. But the tie into the brand and the product is obvious. Hmmm... London looks amazing. I wonder if they can find me a flat in April.