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The Top 10 Content Marketing Strategy Lessons from the Last 15 Years

top 10 lessonsI first started to dabble with content marketing in 1998. At that time, I worked in the internal communications department for an insurance company. Our goal was to get the employees to use our internal processing and database services, rather than outsourcing. Our solution: We created a monthly print newsletter focused on educating employees on the latest Microsoft Office updates and enhancements. Over the following six months, employees did start to use more of our services. The newsletter was part of the solution that made this achievement possible.

Now, 15 years later, I’ve seen all sides of this little, booming industry, and it has afforded me a bit of perspective. We’ve come so far, and yet there is still so much to be accomplished.

Here are some of the things we (at CMI) have learned along the way. I hope you find one or two helpful nuggets of wisdom in here.

1. There is no silver bullet

Regardless of what anyone says, there is no silver bullet when it comes to content marketing strategy. So many marketers are looking for the perfect dashboard, system, process, and distribution plan for their content marketing. It simply doesn’t exist. We’ve worked with hundreds of small and large brands around the world, and only one thing has been consistent: Every plan we developed was different. Why? It’s simple: The mixture of communicating what your business offers, delivering on your customers’ informational needs, and sharing your own corporate story is impossible to duplicate —  the output from your particular blend of attributes and goals should always be different and unique.

As Don Schultz, the father of integrated marketing, has always professed, competitors can copy everything about what you do… your pricing, your product, where you promote it… but they can’t copy exactly how you will communicate.

2. You can play offense or defense

One of my favorite basketball players of all time is Julius “Dr. J” Erving. I’ve heard many interviews in which Dr. J talks about two ways to look at basketball offense: You can impose your will on the defense, or you can take what the defense gives you. Dr. J always chose to exert his own will, and that worked for him (quite well, in fact). LeBron James, on the other hand, usually takes what the defense gives him, which is why he racks up so many assists.

Both strategies can be effective. At CMI, we decided to exert our will with the term “content marketing.” In 2007, we popped onto the scene and started using the term like it had been around for years. Through lots of planning, strategy, and luck, it worked, and now content marketing is the defacto term for our industry. (Incidentally, HubSpot did the same thing with “inbound marketing.”)

But imposing your will is just one way to do it. You could also choose to ride the waves of others and pick your sweet spot. A great example of this is Social Media Examiner. When it launched in 2009, many thought it was late to the party… but it rode the social media wave and executed a content marketing strategy second to none, growing into one of the most-trafficked B2B marketing sites on the planet.

3. Content marketing is the great equalizer

“David vs. Goliath” is alive and well in content marketing. Large budgets don’t always win; actually, the smaller players usually come out on top because they are equipped to move more agilely and quickly than their larger competition. For instance, CMI had a smaller budget than almost every marketing media company on the planet, yet we came out on top through focus and hard work. I’ve never seen a bigger company move faster than a smaller organization. OpenView Venture Partners is, relatively speaking, a small VC company compared to its peers. On the web, though, it dominates.

4. You don’t have to be on all platforms

In many cases, it’s smart to weave your story onto multiple platforms. It’s entirely possible to have a killer webinar series, amazing blog, outstanding video program, and cutting-edge digital magazine all at the same time.

But there is another way. You may decide to focus and work to dominate one platform. How about a killer podcast series? What about an amazing print newsletter? Maybe a blog is just the platform for you.

Yes, you construct your strategy before choosing your channels, but don’t feel obligated to be active on every channel that your customer uses. The international travel magazine, Monocle, has just a print magazine. No iPad version. No Facebook page. It works for the magazine and its readers.

Sometimes simple and focused is better.

5. Subscribers rule

If I have one regret as a content marketer, it’s that I didn’t focus early enough on generating subscribers. It took us years of experimenting, but we finally found our “Moneyball number:” the subscriber. We’ve found that once someone is a subscriber, they do different things than non-subscribers that lead to more revenue for us. Instead of converting from content to an immediate sales opportunity, we’ve found that converting from content to more content is the best way (for us). (For more on subscribers, please check out these outstanding reports from ExactTarget — a great example of content marketing, as well.)

6. The smaller the niche the better, but being distinct is a must

Content marketing works best when you target a very specific group of people with a very specific story. The smaller the niche you choose, the better. Think about it this way: In what content area can you become the leading expert in the world? If you can name five organizations or people already focusing on that area, you may want to start telling a different story, rather than just telling the same one in an incrementally better way.

7. Public speaking fans the flames

Public speaking is almost always overlooked in content distribution strategies. Yet, few tactics spread your message as effectively and powerfully as having a compelling speaker share inspirational stories about your brand around the globe. Look at the greatest content creators out there — such as SAP, Kraft, and Cisco Systems. Each of these organizations has multiple people out sharing their stories in public industry forums.

Find and groom storytellers in your organization, and start working on getting speaking opportunities for them at industry events. When you do, share these public speaking tips with them.

8. With a solid strategy, content can be as easy as shooting big fish in a small barrel

Over the past year, I’ve spoken to more than 5,000 marketers about content marketing. Easily, fewer than 10 percent of these people had developed a documented content strategy. I’m serious.

That is why we are seeing so much horrible content out there. Marketers are filling buckets (channels) without clearly thinking about why they should be doing so.

Simply put, if you develop even a simple strategy for your content marketing, and give some thought to how that strategy should integrate with the rest of your marketing plan, you can, and probably will, dominate. While everyone else is lost in the woods, you’ll already be on the path to greatness.

9. Coordination is critical

About a year ago, I met with the email marketing manager for a large travel company. She was responsible for sending millions of emails a day — some sales-focused and some educational — to their database. I wondered how she coordinated her content activity with their social media content creation, so I asked her. She told me that she had yet to meet the person who oversees content in social media, but she planned on doing so soon.

Unfortunately, this is the rule, rather than the exception, in most organizations.

We don’t know what the structure of marketing departments will look like the future, but for right now, collaboration and coordination is key. For example, SAS holds weekly meetings with the key content ambassadors from the different silos. Lattice Engines uses enterprise social networking service Yammer to coordinate work across multiple teams. Find what works for you, but you’ll find that a little coordination on the front end will save you a ton of time and resources.

10. Content marketing works with — not against — other initiatives

This is essential, so let me repeat it: Content marketing works best when it’s conceived as an integral part of your marketing initiatives, rather than having to function in isolation. So many people out there feel it’s an either/or scenario. It’s not. You don’t necessarily stop advertising because you are launching a content platform like Procter & Gamble’s Home Made Simple or American Express’ Open Forum. In fact, those are two great examples of how paid promotion can expand the reach of epic content.

Content marketing is like butter: It makes all your marketing recipes come out that much better.

For more strategic advice on content marketing best practices, read “Managing Content Marketing” by Robert Rose and Joe Pulizzi.