Best Practices: Don't Turn Content Into This Generation's Banner Ads

Four Key Strategies for Brands When Creating Content

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Our industry has finally woken up to the power of content marketing. According to eMarketer, 59% of marketers plan to increase their investment in content marketing. Not surprisingly, there's a cottage industry growing to help brands cheaply and easily create content. From distribution to measurement, there seems to be a new tool popping up every day.

Personally, I'm getting nasty flashbacks to the early days of banner ads. When banner ads first came out, the marketing industry treated them like rebranded laundry detergent -- "new and improved!" So, we shifted a bunch of dollars online and used half-baked data to prove it worked. Until, of course, we realized it didn't.

The reason banners didn't fulfill their promise isn't that they were completely flawed. It's because we didn't look at them from a strategic standpoint. We didn't understand their role, how to measure them or how to optimize them.

The same will be true of content if we don't apply the lessons we learned. If we simply develop content because we think it's new, improved, quicker and easier than previous tactics, we're doomed to get the same disappointing results that we got from banner ads. We can't simply create content to offset the fact that interruptive advertising is being avoided at an unprecedented rate. Content is not a panacea. It needs a strategic foundation. Here are four key action items to keep in mind when creating content:

1. Embrace content's mid-funnel role. Content marketing is best for mid-funnel metrics. Specifically, improving brand perceptions. It can do exactly what other tactics can't. Traditional paid advertising is great at the top of the funnel -- building awareness. Banners, coupons and direct mail are great at the bottom of the funnel -- creating conversions. But great brands are built in the middle, where people's perceptions are shaped and strengthened. Great content shows customers why a brand is different and better than the competition. It creates evangelists that carry the brand message more effectively than paid media ever could. Sure, content helps a little at the top and bottom of the sales funnel, but primarily, it focuses on mid-funnel metrics.

2. Empower the audience. At the heart of all great content marketing is empowerment. It's about providing utility -- enabling people to make smarter purchase decisions and get more value out of the category. We often see brands trying to "get into the conversation" without considering what the audience truly wants. It's easy to create a social post with a cute kitten and generate a bunch of social shares, but that doesn't do anything for the brand in the long run. What really produces bottom-line results is mid-funnel content that helps the audience fulfill a specific need. It comes down to a basic value equation: The audience provides time and attention. In exchange, they receive utility. Fulfilling this equation empowers the audience and moves them further down the funnel.

3. Focus on brand metrics, not just engagement. Content marketing needs more sophisticated and actionable metrics than are typically applied. Every day, we see agencies and tech vendors touting likes, shares and engagement. It reminds me of when banner ad vendors were touting click-through rates. Great content marketing requires more complex metrics that correlate to its mid-funnel role. Ultimately, you need to understand how well the audience understands what makes the brand different and better. You need to understand what, specifically, shifts them down the sales funnel and generates revenue. That requires a sophisticated system that aggregates many disparate streams of data. Brands need custom dashboards that reflect their own unique needs and enable action. We need to make complex data simple. We can't just use simple data.

4. Give it more than lip service. It's critical to provide sufficient time and budget to content marketing. Unlike banner ads, which can be implemented, tested and optimized almost overnight, content development is tantamount to developing an entire brand platform. Anything less than stellar will be invisible. To cut through the noise, brands need to understand that each psychographic audience requires its own content and will interact with it in different channels. That takes months to launch correctly, and should go on in perpetuity with real-time optimization and periodic tent-pole ideation. It also requires significant budget. Too often, brands spend countless hours talking about the power of social media, but spend an infinitesimal amount of their overall budget creating content for the channel.

Unlike banner ads, content marketing can fundamentally alter the future of a brand. But it won't be quick and it won't be easy. It requires a long-term focus, strategic processes, integrated analytics and brilliant creative. The brands that break through will embrace the tools of the future without repeating the mistakes of the past.