January 22, 2015
Written by Iryna Velykokhatko
Prior to taking marketing course, I have read a few marketing-related books this fall (I am mostly referring here to “Inbound Marketing”, “All Marketers Are Liars”, “Unleashing the Ideavirus”). Having discovered a great deal of interesting information there, the most important message that I took with me was that content matters.
Regardless of simplicity, this point is definitely brilliant as it requires minimum costs, is relatively easy to implement and yields great results. However, getting into the core of this idea, it got me wondering, what actually makes good quality content, how it fits into online marketing and what strategy to undertake when implementing it?
As the field of marketing is still emerging and constantly changing there is currently no set recipe for creating good content and good strategy for it but rather some suggestions, tips and guidelines. Traditional 4P or 7P approaches do not seem to fully satisfy the need of online marketing related to content especially in the case of early stage companies. In the end it is about trial, error and effective learning – principles, as I discovered, are very much integrated into the concept of lean startup. So why not give a closer look at it and analyze whether it is possible to make a good case for successful content marketing using lean startup approach focusing on companies in the early stages of development?
There is no need to revert to old truth that with the rise of Internet the world has changed and so did marketing. It is important, however, to investigate the nature of this change.
For the first time technology has given consumer a chance to walk away from information that he or she does not want. Due to this we observe a huge power shift from companies to consumer brining to en end the era of outbound marketing. There will no longer be annoying phone calls, junk ads and brochures in our mailboxes or useless emails in our inboxes. Or at least there shouldn’t be (Deighton & Kornfeld, 2009). At the same time, users are starting to take maximum advantage of their power. Using existing social media platforms they are actively engaged in creation of their own content. Much of it is often related to their user experience of different brands which could be both positive and negative and consequently do a great disfavor to companies (Winer, 2009; Kietzmann et al, 2011).
Of course, current state of things alerts marketers. Loss of control over customers poses a serious threat of declining revenues in their eyes and who wants that? But, really, that’s old news. What is more compelling is emerging array of solutions to deal with the challenge brought up by this power shift.
This is why the field of inbound marketing is becoming widely popular. This approach includes a number of interesting and engaging techniques of customer acquisition (Halligan, Shah, 2009). Content marketing is a great part of it. Recent research conducted by the content marketing institute, suggests that “content marketing is gaining traction at many companies, and some may argue that it is now mainstream. According to the 2013 content marketing research reports for B2Band B2C industries by the Content Marketing Institute and MarketingProfs, 91 percent of B2B marketers and 86 percent of B2C marketers are using content marketing. In addition, 54 percent of B2B marketers and 55 percent of B2C marketers will increase their content marketing spend in the next 12 months” (Royse, 2012).
So what is good content and what place does it take in marketing?
According to the Content Marketing Institute (2014), content marketing is defined as “Content marketing is a marketing technique of creating and distributing relevant and valuable content to attract, acquire, and engage a clearly defined and understood target audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action” Content varies in a number of ways. It includes texts, info-graphics, tables, charts, pictures whatnot basically. There are a number of characteristics that fit the definition of good content. For instance, Arabella Santiago (2013), content marketing advocate at Scoop.it suggests that good content is valuable, consistent and dynamic. However, according to Nguyen Quoc Binh “killing content” is interesting, inspiring and relevant (Duc Le M, 2013). Now, go figure how to create something of the sort that combines those features and on top of things satisfies the taste of my target audience and would also help to acquire new customers.
The challenge becomes even more difficult if to add the notion of content marketing strategy. I mean, let’s say you have put a lot of effort and created, what you would call, a remarkable content. However, there is no expected positive feedback from your customers: no engagement with the content, no sharing, no leads, basically zero response. This is exactly why definition of “good content” might be a great place to start with but not enough to produce desired results. The major problem here is subjectivity. What is believed to be valuable, consistent and dynamic, aka great content, by one group might not be perceived the same way by another one. The challenge might be even more difficult for early stage startups that do not have 100% market assurance regarding their project. Therefore, to succeed one has to start with developing an effective content marketing strategy instead not only great content per se.
What is a good strategy for creating effective content marketing?
The field of content marketing is relatively new and, therefore, there is no orthodox methodology or proper way of doing it. Traditional marketing strategies that have proven to be effective earlier such as 4Ps or 7Ps are no longer the best choice as they are not taking into consideration power shift that was discussed earlier. So no wonder that content marketing practitioners have come up with a vast array of new techniques and models based on their experience. While not all of them are researched and validated, I believe that their major contribution is in stirring the discussion which will be beneficial for further search.
Recent publication in the Harvard Business Review on the subject of content marketing strategies by Richard Ettenson, Eduardo Conrado, and Jonathan Knowles (2013) suggests modification of 4Ps. The authors offer S.A.V.E framework that focuses on solution, access, value and education instead of traditional product, place, price and promotion. Offered change is motivated by the need to fine-tune old models based on the changes occurring in the Internet space and with regards to B2B field. In a nutshell, this approach is customer-oriented on the receiving side and holistic on the marketing side as it requires cooperation with sales department in the company (Ettenson, Conrado, and Knowles, 2013)
Another approach is offered by Pulizzi and Barrett (2009) in their recent book. They are talking about B.E.S.T. methodology for B2C markets according to which companies should use behavioral, essential, strategic and targeted, formula when approaching content marketing. Each category has a set of questions, answering which helps creating effective content marketing strategy. Examples of questions include: “How do we want our customers to feel? What effect must we achieve with them? What action do we want them to take? etc.” (Pulizzi and Barrett, 2009).
The above approaches along with some other ones that are not covered in this paper are useful tools for online content marketing. However, I have spotted two challenges with them. First, they are static. They are useful in mapping out important questions to address for setting content strategy. However, they are not very useful in suggesting what to do next. Or what to do in case there is no desired response from the market? Of course, the answer might deem obvious – you should reconsider your strategy, ask those questions again and adjust the content based on the feedback. The problem is that it makes the process very cumbersome and costly.
The second issue is that these models are complex in their terminology and not straight forward enough. This should not be a problem for professional marketers who know their subject to the core, but this could create a problem for companies in early stages that do not have the means to afford professional marketing assistance or might not even be sure if their product/content is going to evoke customer interest.
As an addition to existing models that would help to address the above issues, I suggest to look into lean startup model and evaluate whether it could be useful.
What is lean startup?
The concept of lean startup was offered for the first time in 2011 by Eric Ries and has been gaining popularity among businesses ever since. In essence the idea seems quite obvious as it is based on early hypothesis testing. The novelty, however, is in the fact that this has not been done in business field ever before! Traditional approach to business dictates the need for thorough business plan, with well-defined marketing and financials (Ries, 2011). Unfortunately plans prone to fail especially when dealing with new and unknown and something that could not be controlled, like markets. This is exactly where leans startup approach comes in so handy.
Lean startup approach has three key principles. First, instead of engaging in complex research entrepreneurs start with a hypothesis and then write it down on the business canvas, focusing on the most essential questions. Second, it uses customer development approach. Entrepreneurs get outside to directly ask customers about product’s features, pricing, distribution channels etc. The key is to be agile and fast by employing minimum viable product concept. Based on the feedback, necessary product adjustments are implemented and hypothesis is pivoted. Third, lean startups use agile development approach working with their customers. This way they develop products iteratively and incrementally with a minimum waste of resources. (Blank, 2013).
So, applying lean startup cycle to content cycle, we the get the model presented below. What is different in this model is that it is simple, dynamic and based on constant feedback from customers. Applying this methodology allows for early hypothesis testing and correction of content based on the results which end up in producing better, more valuable and interesting content. This seems like a very obvious way of doing things, however, this is not always the case as we, as individuals, are often prone to concentrate on extensive planning and in-depth research prior to implementing something. This is not bad of course, but in the Web 2.0 where things happen with the speed of light and where customer has power dominance too much planning might be useless (Hodges, 2014).
Figure 1. Applying lean startup cycle to content cycle (Santiago, 2013)
Instead, according to the model, it is far more effective to research the field and see what competitors are doing and then get to content creation right away. It is important to have it out there, evaluate customer response to it, modify it based on learning experience and repeat the cycle until success formula is retrieved (Santiago, 2013).
There are a few things about lean startup approach that I find compelling. First of all, it is quite easy and requires minimum expenses. As testing is happening in early stages it does not cost much to modify products or services. Second, lean startup approach is quite universal and therefore suitable not only for early stage companies but also for established sizable businesses. They even have an advantage here in terms of financial and human resources. Finally, you can actually get a meaningful validation of your idea through reaching out to your customers and see whether your business will fail or succeed in the future (Laurie & Harreld, 2013). These are also some of the reasons that could be beneficial in content marketing.
When setting off to write this paper, my goal was to explore an area of marketing that I have thought was rather under-searched due to its novelty. In the course of writing I have discovered much new to myself and also tried to establish the link between two different areas: marketing and entrepreneurship through investigating whether it is possible to apply lean startup methodology to content marketing strategy. To sum up, I have discovered the following:
- The notion of good content is very subjective
- Existing content marketing strategies are useful in mapping out important questions that should be a part of content marketing strategy but are missing dynamic component
- The concept of lean startup adds missing dynamic component and allows more simplistic approach to the strategy
- In addition lean startup approach offers extra values in reduced costs and accessibility by not professional marketers
There is still much left to the discussion on the topic in this paper. At the moment most of the information available on the topic of content marketing and content marketing strategy comes mostly from content market practitioners. Therefore, there is lack of scientific research and standardized models in the field.
Blank, S. (2013). Why the Lean Start-Up Changes Everything. Harvard Business Review, 91(5), 63-72.
Content Marketing Institute. (2014). What is Content Marketing? Retrieved from http://contentmarketinginstitute.com/what-is-content-marketing/
Duc Le M. (2013). Content Marketing. Retrieved from http://www.theseus.fi/bitstream/handle/10024/62104/Duc_LE.pdf?sequence=1
Ettenson R., Conrado E. and Knowles J., 2013. Rethinking the 4 P’s. Havard Business Reviews, January/Feburary publication. 01.01.2013. http://eds.b.ebscohost.com/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=2&sid=1846e276-d666-4122-be79-18e30b54f31c%40sessionmgr111&hid=104
Halligan, B., Shah, D. (2009). Inbound Marketing: Get Found Using Google, Social Media, and Blogs. John Wiley&Sons, Inc., Hoboken, New Jersey.
Hodges, A. (2014, February 6). Validating Your Content Marketing Business Case Using Lean Startup Methodologies. Retrieved from http://www.stateofdigital.com/validating-content-marketing-business-case-using-lean-startup-methodologies/
Laurie, D. L., & Harreld, J. B. (2013). 6 ways to sink a growth initiative. Harvard Business Review, 91(7), 82-90.
Kietzmann, J., H., Hermkens, K., McCarthy, I., P., Silvestre, B., S. (2011). Social media? Get serious! Understanding the functional building blocks of social media Retrieved from https://liveatlund.lu.se/departments/BusinessAdministration/BUSN32/BUSN32_2014VT_50_1_NML__1281/Lists/CourseSchedule/Attachments/3/Kietzmann%20et%20al%20social%20media%20get%20serious.pdf
Pulizzi, J. & Barrett N. 2009. Get content, get customers: Turn prospects into buyers with content marketing. 1st edition. McGraw-Hill.
Ries, E. (2011). The Lean Startup: How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses. Crown Publishing Group.
Santiago, A. (2013). Leaner, better, faster: More impact with your content marketing. Retrieved from http://www.slideshare.net/arabellasantiago/market-campsf-prez
Winer, R., S. (2009). New Communications Approaches in Marketing: Issues and Research Directions. Retrieved from https://liveatlund.lu.se/departments/BusinessAdministration/BUSN32/BUSN32_2014VT_50_1_NML__1281/Lists/CourseSchedule/Attachments/2/new%20approaches%20in%20marketing_Winer_2009.pdf