What is content marketing and how do you use it to grow a business? Interview with Sonja Jefferson

What is content marketing? How do you get it right? What are the most common pitfalls? How do you create valuable original content? An interview with Sonja Jefferson for the WeContent conference in Romania.

sonja jefferson for wecontent conference Romania

I’m off to Bucharest in November to give a talk and a workshop on content marketing at the inaugural WeContent conference. This is my very first trip to Romania and I’m seriously excited. The WeContent team has published an interview with me, translated into Romanian.

It’s always interesting to tell the story for a completely new audience. The conference organisers have asked some really interesting content-related questions. Here are my answers to help businesses in Romania, and you whereever you are too.

Q: Why Valuable Content?

There’s no standard path into a career in content marketing. Some come from journalism, others from communications, or copywriting, or PR. Some are subject experts who find their way into it through their own blogging, or people who run businesses who discover this successful way of marketing their own businesses, and get the content marketing bug! My own journey started in the world of sales.

At University I studied Sociology – I’ve been fascinated by patterns in human behaviour ever since. After graduating I worked in business development for consultancy firms, selling to corporates across the UK and Europe. I quickly spotted that people generally ignored flashy marketing material, and were resistant to hard sales messages and cold calling. So I tried a different approach to generate new business. I noticed that if I sent potential clients thought-provoking information that might help them – copies of thoughtful articles my MD had published in the specialist press – then they’d be much more likely to take my call and start conversations. Those conversations sparked trusted relationships that led to meetings and sales. This was back in the early 1990s – before blogs and social media were invented. There was no such term as ‘content marketing’ at the time. But it’s this approach – engage people with useful insight (valuable content) and build trusted relationships that lead to sales – that’s at the heart of the principles I still believe so strongly in today.

I founded Valuable Content in 1999 to show people how to use this powerful ‘value in advance’ approach to marketing to grow their businesses. Changes in buyer behaviour and advances in web technology have given this high-trust marketing approach wings.

Business development remains a challenge for every firm. Marketing with valuable content bridges the gap between the way people like to buy – doing their own research online and via recommendations from their network – and the way smart businesses sell – by sharing content that demonstrates empathy, purpose, and usefulness in advance to spark relationships.

I’ve discovered a strange paradox at the heart of selling: the more you help and the less you ‘sell’, the more you end up selling. Sharing valuable content is the best way to build awareness and trust in what you do, to attract people to your business and motivate them to connect with you, and buy from you, whatever type of company you run.

Q: What is content marketing and how we use it to grow our business?

Content marketing is a very human way to do business. In essence, it’s about sharing your story online, sharing what you know and giving value to your audience.

It works for business because the content gets found by people who are looking for the knowledge you have and the help you provide. Get content marketing right, and selling becomes a lot easier. You’ll find the right clients coming to you, already feeling that they trust you, and wanting to work with you.

“Content marketing is a very human way to do business. In essence, it’s about telling your story.”

One of our clients told us someone found her and said ‘I’ve done all my research, and it’s you I want to work with.’ That’s content marketing in action. She’d never met that person before, and certainly never tried to sell them anything, yet all the useful content she was sharing online made her irresistible.

We love the way Doug Kessler put it in the foreword of our second book:

“Content marketing is very simple: use your expertise to help your prospects to do their jobs. Work hard to add value in every piece you produce. Be generous. And earn their attention by injecting passion, attitude and energy.”

Q: What is not content marketing?

It’s easier to answer ‘what is bad content marketing?’ because most things are not content marketing! So content marketing that doesn’t succeed usually shares some of characteristics.

Bad content marketing is…

  • Un-strategic. Without a content strategy – and a clear goal in sight – you will just be creating content, and content alone won’t do the job of marketing.
  • Poor quality. Badly written or badly designed so people don’t want to read it or watch it.
  • Not created with a real person in mind. Good content marketing always answers a genuine question – it’s always customer focused, not inward looking.
  • Not created in the spirit of generosity. That desire to make a difference is key.

Q: How do we create valuable content? Give us some tips.

The best content is 80% effort in the planning, 20% in the creation. Here are some planning tips to make sure your content is customer-focused and valuable to your intended reader:

  1. Plan before you write if you want your content to be valuable:
  2. Why are you creating this content? What do you want it to do for your business?
  3. Who is it for?
  4. Why do they need it? How will it help them?
  5. What’s the big idea? Target keyword or concept?
  6. Main messages?
  7. Format?
  8. Who will you send it to once it’s finished? (NB: Think of a real person you want to send it to once it’s published. If you can’t think of someone, don’t create it!)

Remember, as one of my content marketing heroes David Meerman Scott wrote:

“Nobody cares about your products and services (except you). What people care about are themselves and solving their problems.”

Q: How do we protect our information in the Fake News era?

It’s true, in this Fake News era it is harder than ever to get people to trust what they read and see online. I think the only thing we can do is to be honest, transparent, and approach your content marketing with a genuine desire to help your clients and make the world better for them. I think genuine integrity and consistency do shine through.

Q: There are tens of thousands of articles and hours of content produced. How do we produce original content?

Good question. It is daunting, and it’s easy to think that everything’s been said before, so how can we possibly be original?

I think the answer is not to make originality your goal, but to make helpfulness your goal. Yes, pretty much every subject under the sun has been written about before, but that doesn’t stop people looking for answers to their challenges online. No one else has your outlook, and your experiences, and your knowledge. Make it your business to know your clients and their challenges better than anyone else, and create content that goes deep and specific into how to help them.

Helpful, deep and specific are all better things to aim for than ‘original.’ We don’t go online thinking ‘I want original’, we go online thinking ‘I want help!’

Q: What do you think is the biggest challenge for businesses when it comes to content marketing?

First, there’s the challenge around strategy and positioning. Is the business clear enough on its goals and targets to know what it wants content marketing to deliver? And is it clear on its perspective? Does it know what it wants to say?

Then there’s the challenge around understanding clients. For content marketing to work a business needs to invest in client research so they can create the right content.

Lastly, there’s the challenge of content creation. Okay, so we know what we want to create, and what our clients really want, now how are we going to write/design/shoot/edit/deliver it all?

Q: Mistakes that can ruin a content marketing strategy. (3 examples) How do we repair them?

  1. Not having a strategy! Lack of strategy can lead to random acts of content that don’t get you the business results you need. Take time to research, agree and write up your content marketing strategy.
  2. Not grounding it in WHY. Not having a clear goal is a common mistake. What outcomes do you want from your content marketing activities? Is it to attract more of the right talent to join your organisation? Or to draw in the right clients? The more specific you can be the better.
  3. Not grounding your strategy in real human needs. Your content can miss the mark if you don’t have a deep understanding of your customers’ world – what they think, feel and need. Investing in some research can transform the value of your content. Just 10 customer feedback interviews can make a huge difference to the quality of what you produce.

Q: How do we measure the success of a content marketing strategy?

Measure progress towards your business goal. The ultimate purpose of creating and sharing valuable content is to build lots of great relationships with people who can help you build your business. This is what to measure. Track your effectiveness at each point of the journey – from followers to advocates.

Regular tracking and analysis of the data will help you learn and improve your content and marketing activities over time. There are plenty of useful tools out there to help you. You’ll find a growing number of smart social analytics tools that deliver insight reports, visuals, and graphs that provide a picture of what’s going on. These will help you make smart decisions about how to improve your content activity.

Pick a mixture of meaningful measures (subjective and objective, leading and lagging) and plot how you’re doing at each step in your monthly content planning meeting.

Q: How do we realise that we are working with unprepared marketing people?

Creating and sharing valuable content is a mindset as much as anything, so you don’t need a background in marketing to be successful at it. Some of the best content is created by people who don’t know much about marketing at all – the experts inside a business, or the people who are dealing with customers every day so who really understand what makes them tick. What you need is a desire to help your clients, and a willingness to share what you know. That said, marketing plays a crucial role in educating experts in the business, and in getting the word out.

Q: What are future technologies in content marketing?

There are other people who can answer this question better than us. Our content marketing tools are WordPress, Mailchimp, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook – all pretty old school and accessible to anyone. This combination gives us our own platform where we have our sales offer (buy our courses or consultancy services), a place to host our valuable content (we write a lot of helpful blogs), a way of communicating with our people (email newsletters are a key component in your content marketing plan), and somewhere to build relationships on social media – sharing our content, and just chatting to people.

Q: How much money a company should invest in content marketing? On which criteria we build the budget?

I can’t put a figure on this as every business is different. For a one-man band or micro business, once you’ve got your website right and up and running, the ongoing cost is mainly in your time creating all the content you’ve planned. If you set aside half a day a week to write/record, and a short time each day for social media, you’d probably be fine.

For a bigger business, who wants to invest in more ‘wow’ content – videos, bigger guides, and SlideShares, events – elements that need external help to create, the costs are much higher. For a bigger business, I’d look at the bigger picture of what content marketing can do for you before I decided on the budget. The business benefits of telling your story clearly online, attracting a steady pipeline of the right clients, attracting candidates who want to work for you, creating a buzz around what you do – are huge.

Good content marketing can win you more of the right business, and it can save you money too – on recruitment fees, on staff retention, (creating content makes people happier in their work), on outdated sales techniques that don’t work anyway, on innovation and new product creation (you’ll really understand what your clients want, so can design your business to meet their needs). I’d take all that into account, and invest to build content marketing into every layer of the business.

Q: The best way to sell a product is …

The best way to sell a product (or service) is to answer the question the customer is really asking.

About the WeContent Conference, Bucharest

The WeContent Conference is on the 1st November 2018. I’ll be speaking about how to create truly valuable content to win more business. My workshop on the following day teaches how to develop a content marketing strategy that leads to sales and growth.

More information on this fantastic new content marketing conference for Romanian businesses here:

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1 Comment

  1. Alison

    Thanks for the great tips! I especially like the points about what content marketing is not and how to convince leads in the Fake News era. Great questions and on-point answers.


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