The Internet was widely recognized as an important marketing tool as early as 1995. Yet it wasn’t until ten years later that marketers began to realize that the Internet would redefine marketing itself. In this first part of a series on content marketing, I offer the context for how this marketing revolution came about.
It seems hard to believe in retrospect. When I helped launch one of the nation’s first Internet marketing firms in fourth quarter 1994, the big challenge in sales was explaining what “the Web” was—and why businesses should even care. Then in 1995, Bill Gates delivered a memo titled “The Internet Tidal Wave” and declared the Internet as the most important development since the PC. Not surprisingly, 1995 was soon formally declared by marketing pundits to be the “Year That Business Discovered the Internet.”
It was obviously one of the great watershed years in American business. Exactly how America would use the Internet for business was not so clear. Suddenly marketers had the luxury of offering large amounts of content on the Web at a very low cost, and customers could interact directly with that information 24/7. No longer were marketing messages bounded by the high costs of print and airtime.
Marketers’ first and natural reflex was to create reams of “brochure ware” that basically reflected the kinds of direct marketing messages they had always been inserting into their traditional media and sales collateral. The “old school” style of sales copy simply had more space to palaver about products or services. Web sites were seen as minor, “long copy” adjuncts to the overall communications program, still built around traditional media and messaging approaches. But important changes were underway.
For the “Net” to hit critical mass as a marketing tool, two things had to happen. First, the majority of Americans had to have high speed access (called broadband) to online content. Second, a visionary company born in 1998 would have to grow up to become the place where Americans begin their search for information and sources of interest.
That company was Google. Today, it’s used more than 5.9 billion times a day—a number approaching the entire population of planet Earth. You’ll probably use it a minimum of 3-5 times today.
By 2005, the majority of Americans also had broadband access to virtually unlimited content, and doing a “Google search” became the first stop on the way to find anything you were looking for—whether text, images or videos. Some called it convergence, but in every sense, the perfect storm had arrived. It began as a groundswell but soon evolved into a profound sea change. As early as 2007, experts were talking about a whole set of “new rules for marketing and PR.”
By 2010, it was becoming very evident that these two factors—broadband access and search capability—were giving rise to an entirely new marketing model. Prospective customers no longer depended on marketing messages directed to the masses in self-serving bursts of sales copy. Now the pendulum of power swung to the buyers, who have virtually all the information in the world at their fingertips. And they began with general information before seeking sources for products or services.
This included background on the needs, issues and trends those offerings were intended to address. The Web also provided forums for sharing and posting actual customer reviews, which could move your company to the front of the line or remove you entirely—without you ever even knowing why.
Once they felt educated as informed consumers, only then would they compile a short list of companies that seemed to make sense in light of their information. Even if they went straight to locating a potential vendor, they used the keywords—and not company names. In either case, if your company didn’t come up in the search phase you might as well not exist at all.
Smart marketers began to realize that if they provided more generic content that spoke to the prospects’ information needs—and included keywords relevant to their searches—those prospects might find their way to their websites earlier in the process.
Soon, the smartest marketers were realizing that it all began with offering information—not sales copy—in a way that brought prospects to their websites via Google (or other search engines) based on a strong search engine ranking. Achieving a high search position (first page or two of search results) birthed a whole new marketing discipline called search engine optimization or SEO.
When social media began to come of age in roughly that same time frame, there suddenly became another new way to move people to your content, again at very little cost. A “tweet” with a link could lead prospects right to your content bank—whether that meant a blog, a Facebook page or special content on your website (ideally all three). That digital combination of online content, SEO and social media began to become known as content marketing.
In full bloom, content marketing sees the prospect first as someone to attract through search and social media and then to engage in intelligent conversation about what interests them. Products and services are kept more in the background—at least at first. This dialogue leads to sales as an afterthought, a logical conclusion to a trusting relationship. Transactions are secondary to engagement.
As simple as it sounds, content marketing requires a set of finely-honed skill sets to be successful. For example, content must exhibit true, strategic thought leadership, and your keyword/SEO/social strategies must be intelligent and agile. Also, with 46 percent of searches now happening on mobile devices, your content has to be “mobile friendly” as well. The focus must always be on your prospect.
Ironically, content marketing must still serve your company goals for revenues and profit. Achieving that golden balance between educator and seller is the art form that defines content marketing success.
So now that we have traced the roots and reasons behind content marketing, I will be following up with a series on the key elements of content marketing and the best practices associated with each. You’ll find a lot of great information you can use—all with no sales propaganda included.
Because content marketing is all about what matters to you.