Since about 2011, the phrases “search engine optimization” and “content marketing” have become conflated, but it wasn’t always that way. If you are a genuine content marketer, you should be able to turn a profit even without search engine traffic.

Today, we’re going to talk about how.

While above ground SEOs have always preached that “content is king,” the phrase “content marketing” was actually coined when John F Oppedahl led a roundtable on the subject for The American Society for Newspaper Editors back in 1996.

Even then, what we would call content marketing today had already been around for over a century. John Deere pioneered it when they launched a magazine called The Furrow, which gave farmers practical advice about how to become more profitable. That very magazine is still in circulation today, with a readership of 1.5 million people.

That is content marketing.

It’s about building a strong, loyal audience of people who follow you like a media company. It’s about owning the platform, instead of paying for eyeball space on it.

The more you think about it, the more it makes sense. If media companies can earn a profit selling advertisements, imagine the profits a product company can earn just by playing the media company game.

How does this content marketing process work in the online realm? Let’s break it down into five steps.

1. Pick Your Unique Selling Proposition

A lot of content marketers and SEOs preach the importance of having “unique content.” I’ll agree that it’s 100 percent necessary to avoid duplicate content and plagiarism. But do I think each and every piece of content needs to be completely and utterly unique?

This isn’t about content for content’s sake. It’s about your brand. If you focus on how unique your content needs to be, you’re asking the wrong questions. The real question is whether your brand is uniquely positioned in the marketplace. Content is only a means to that end.

So here’s what you do.  You dig around, ask questions, and find the top 10 online content brands in your space. They don’t necessarily have to be blogs. They could be resources, YouTube channels, or any other source of content.

Now you ask yourself not how you can be better than these brands, but how you can be different.

The obvious place to start is with your products and/or services. Hopefully, you already have some semblance of branding in that area. What differentiates your products? How are you different from your competitors?

Now, what is the natural extension of that into content?

Once you’ve found that out, you’ll have started to define your unique selling proposition. But hold on, you’re not done yet.

Here are a few other ways to differentiate yourself:

  • Look at print media. Are there any popular books and magazines serving a segment of the market offline that aren’t being served consistently by any of the top blogs? If that segment of the market is a good fit for your existing brand, you may have just discovered the information gap in your online space.
  • Look outside of your niche. How are the top 10 blogs in other industries differentiating themselves? Is there a way that you can borrow their stance and adapt it to your niche?
  • On a related note, is there a way you can combine your niche with a different one to create something new? Is there a large enough overlap between the two audiences for this to make sense? If so, this is an opportunity you probably shouldn’t pass up.

Everybody seems to know that they should create a unique selling proposition, but for whatever reason, most content marketers seem to end up skipping this step anyway. I can’t for the life of me figure out why, because this is absolutely the most important step in the process.

2. Create a Free Piece of Content that would be Worth Paying For

Once you’ve defined a unique selling proposition, your next step is to build an audience around it. The best way to do this is still to build up an email list, and the best way to do that is typically to offer a valuable piece of content in exchange for an email address.

To do this, you will need to come up with a top notch piece of content that you think influential people would be willing to recommend if you were able to persuade them to take a look at it. This means you’ll essentially need to put together a piece of content that people would be willing to pay for.

Please don’t assume that it needs to be an eBook. This frequently works, but it’s not the only way. Here are a few alternatives:

  • A video
  • A training course
  • The results of a survey/experiment, or any other kind of original research with proprietary data. This is especially useful for B2B brands.
  • A tool, a software as a service, or a platform for building a community. If you look at the most successful sites on the web, most of them actually follow this formula, although this is certainly stretching the meaning of the word “content.”

Whatever type of content your produce, there are a few attributes it must have:

  • It should fully embody your unique selling proposition. This is the first impression people will have with your brand. You want it, and any promotional efforts surrounding it, to clarify exactly who you are, how you’re different, and why you’re worth paying attention to.
  • Users must not feel cheated after signing up. The content should surprise them with its value, and leave them eager to hear more from you.
  • It should be so compelling and useful that people will want to share it with others who are like them.

For more about building an email list, take a look at our post about the art of blogging to acquire customers. Check out the section called “Your email list is probably underwhelming. Here’s what to do about it.”

Now, it’s important to recognize that despite the “inbound” language that we and other online marketers might use, content doesn’t have some mystical power to attract visitors who have never heard of you.

Content is only useful in two ways:

  • It allows you to capture visitors who find out about you
  • It allows you to expand your reach through social sharing, but only if you already have an audience

Knowing this, it should go without saying that you will need to promote your free product in order to build up an email list.

Here are a few ways to do that:

  • Guest posting. I know, you’ve heard this before. If you’re doing real content marketing, though, you need to be guest posting on platforms that will send enough relevant referral traffic to grow your email list. I would also like to add that it’s okay to guest post about the same kinds of topics over and over, as long as you are reaching out to unique audiences, and sharing your absolute most valuable information while you do it. Focus on sending referral traffic not just with the platform that you choose, but the location and phrasing of your link.
  • Post on forums. This might sound like some outdated tactic from the dark ages of the internet, but the truth is that the average person spends more time on internet forums than they do on blogs. Post a link to your product in your forum signature, and just add as much value as possible to the forum. Give the best answer to every question asked, and post guides of the same quality level as your guest posts. In some niches, these forums may have more visitors than the most popular blogs.
  • Similarly, take advantage of Q&A sites, Quora in particular.
  • If you use social media in the beginning, focus on topically centered social networks such as Google+ Communities and Facebook Groups. Wherever you go, make sure there are actual discussions taking place, and that they are at least tangentially related to your topic.
  • Work with influencers. By this, I mean collaborate with influential people on the web like popular bloggers, YouTube “celebrities,” well-known photographers, comic book artists, and so on. You may need to pay them. This is fine, assuming you aren’t doing something idiotic like paying them to link to your site. I’m talking about paying them to produce content that you can post on your site, and that they can help promote using their network.
  • Link to your free product in your email signature.
  • Post a highly visible sign up form on all the most vital parts of your site: your header, just after your blog posts, your “About” page, and so on. Try to remove as much distracting clutter as possible. Email signups are your most valuable resource, and your site design should reflect this.

3. Build Trust with a Consistent Stream of Top-Notch Content

While you build your audience, you also want to make an effort to keep them. If all they receive from you are sales messages, the vast majority of them will unsubscribe. The purpose of content marketing isn’t just to capture demand, it’s also to create it. This can only happen if you build trust with your audience and transform them into loyal fans.

There is a myth that the best way to do this is to constantly publish new content. I disagree. You should never email your subscribers more than once per day, and in most cases that is probably going to be too often. Somewhere between once a week and once a month is usually a better choice.

This comes with a caveat, however. If you’re taking that much time between posts, the quality level needs to be exceptional.

The word “quality” gets thrown around a lot in this industry, so I’d like to get a bit more specific. Here’s what I really mean by that:

  • The content is actionable. This is almost always the best choice when it comes to retaining an audience. You can be as entertaining or memorable as you want. If you aren’t making a difference in people’s lives, in the end you are still just a luxury, one that many of your potential customers won’t have time for. Focus on getting your subscribers to take an action that will make their lives better in some way, and to take it as soon as possible. This is what people will remember you for, and trust you for.
  • The content is interactive. This is closely related to the last point. By compelling them to act, you are creating an interactive experience. However, to make the biggest impact, you should push this to the next level. Encourage your audience to ask questions and to talk amongst themselves. Get involved in the discussion. Make them feel heard, not invisible. Studies have proven that this kind of thing boosts sales.
  • The content is shareable. This is actually less important than the first two points, and it should be prioritized in this way, because it is always more important to retain an audience than it is to grow one. That said, shareable content tends to have the following attributes: it’s visual, inspiring, relatable, cute, funny, surprising, novel, entertaining, and “mind blowing.” On email, surprisingly, it also tends to be longer and more in-depth than usual. On social networks, the opposite is true; it’s almost always bite-sized (since that’s all that will fit in the feed).

To produce top notch content, you need to offer unique value. This is different from simply producing unique content. We went in depth on this when we talked about 5 myths and misconceptions about the art of building links. Take a look at myth #2.

I strongly believe you should plan ahead as much as possible in order to minimize waste. Content that gets results isn’t cheap. We recently talked about how to plan a whole year of content for 2014.

If you’re having trouble coming up with content ideas, we recently talked about sources of inspiration here on the blog. We also talked about other aspects of this over at CopyBlogger.

If you have the resources, we’d also recommend taking a look at our advice on how to build a content marketing team.

Blog posts alone will probably be fine as you build up your first 10,000 subscribers or so, but you will eventually plateau. (This number can vary dramatically depending on your unique selling proposition.) In order to appeal to the widest variety of people, as well as keep things interesting, you will want to mix up the kinds of content you produce.

In addition to blog posts, you will want to share:

  • eBooks
  • Whitepapers
  • Videos (and possibly gifs or vines)
  • Images
  • Infographics
  • “Instructographics” (visual instructions and guides, which probably have more mass appeal than infographics, to be honest)
  • Tools
  • Discussion prompts or surveys
  • Interviews
  • Podcasts
  • Anything else you can think of

I also strongly recommend the power of embeds. For example, you can use them to reconcile the issue between email sharing, which favors in-depth content, and social media sharing, which favors bite-size content. By embedding Facebook Posts, Twitter Cards, Vines, Podcasts, and YouTube videos into your blog posts, you can offer value to your core subscribers and expand your reach through social sharing at the same time.

Most social networks and related external platforms (like YouTube and iTunes) organize content by its popularity. The more often people see the embeds on your blog, the more visible they become on these external platforms. This is especially true if they choose to share it with a “share” or a “like.” Use this to draw additional traffic to your blog and pick up more subscribers. Remember, it’s always about pulling users back onto your own platform.

Keep in mind that if the embeds are videos or audio, a good portion of your audience will not watch them or listen to them. For certain people, reading is simply faster, more easy to skim through, and more easy to come back to as a reference.

Unless you are zeroing in on a specific type of audience, you want to make sure that your blog posts are still valuable even if visitors choose to skip over the embeds.

4. Track Your Results

To fully optimize your content strategy, you’ll need to dig deeper than surface-level, aggregate metrics like traffic and revenue. While these are certainly necessary for keeping track of results and noticing when something goes wrong, they don’t offer any insight into how you can improve your results.

For this reason, we recommend using an analytics package that can track individual visitors and trace them to their source, such as KISSmetrics. We mentioned this and other tools recently when we discussed 7 tools you should use for content marketing.

The particular package doesn’t matter so much as what you can do with it. I’m talking about:

  • Analyzing initial referral sources, not just the final referral source, for their impact on sales
  • Looking at lifetime value, as opposed to immediate sales
  • Looking at correlations between time spent on certain pieces of content, and certain kinds of sales
  • Correlations between time spent looking at or buying certain products, and time spent looking at or buying other products
  • Correlations between individual pieces of content and lifetime customer value

By doing this, you can identify which kinds of content and platforms are contributing the most to your bottom line, instead of looking at superficial metrics like the number of visitors or “likes” a certain piece of content gets.

While this is useful for getting buy-in if you need to convince your client or your manager to help fund certain kinds of products, it’s also useful as a source of information to continuously improve your strategy. You can test packaging your most valuable content into a lead nurturing campaign to see if this improves sales. You can also test augmenting your content strategy to emulate your most valuable content.

While lifetime value is one of the most useful metrics you can use to evaluate your content, it’s important to look at not just from the perspective of overall value, but from the perspective of value per visitor.

All too often, we may find ourselves burying our most valuable content, promoting content that appears valuable simply because it has been seen so often. It stands to reason that a popular piece of content will appear to provide more value if more people see it.

Pay close attention to content that offers a great deal of lifetime value per person. It is possible that this content may actually be even more valuable than your more popular content, if you just promote it in a way that makes it more visible. You will never know without testing.

Of course, with all of this testing, you also need to keep your eyes on the brand. Do not sacrifice your brand identity to test ideas that might temporarily boost profits. Branding is an extremely complicated, nonlinear process, and no amount of data analysis is going to guide you to the perfect solution. It takes a smart combination of gut instinct and hard data to guide your business in the right direction.

5. Focus on the Interaction

I’ve already mentioned how important it is to interact with your audience, and to encourage them to interact amongst themselves. Interactivity is a crucial part of successful content strategies if you’re hoping for success. You should be thinking about how to encourage it throughout steps 1 to 4. So why am I listing it as step 5?

It’s because, in large part, interactivity is actually kind of easy when you’re first getting started. All it takes is a willingness to get involved, to ask and answer questions, to email your readers, to respond to comments, and to make it clear that you’re available.

But as your audience grows, interaction turns into a full-time job. It can start to consume your business. It can seem impossible to scale. How do you maintain that kind of interaction as your audience continues to grow?

Let’s start with the why. Many marketers question whether this kind of interaction actually has any influence on sales. According to a scientific study by the National University of Singapore, it undoubtedly does. After analyzing the Facebook and buying behavior of 14,000 customers, a team of researchers discovered that interactions on Facebook produced sales that couldn’t be explained without the social network. They discovered that:

  • At least on Facebook, the marketer could only influence sales when they interacted directly with consumers, and only if those interactions were positive.
  • When consumers spoke amongst themselves, both direct and indirect interactions influenced sales. In other words, posts that were heavily commented on by others would influence sales, even if the consumer didn’t interact with the other commenters.
  • Consumers were also more likely to buy something even if the interactions with others were negative. While positive, indirect interactions had the strongest impact of all, negative interactions, whether direct or indirect, improved sales.
  • While positive, indirect interactions had the strongest impact on sales, direct interactions had the strongest influence on elasticity. In other words, consumers who interacted directly with others started to think of the product as an inelastic commodity. They would be more willing to buy it, even if the prices were raised.

What’s remarkable is that the Facebook posts themselves didn’t seem to have any influence on sales. All that mattered were the interactions.

This might not necessarily apply to all Facebook Pages, and it might not necessarily work exactly the same way on your blog. The point is that interactions almost certainly influence sales, and there’s a good chance that they may be even more important than the content itself when it comes to sales.

Now that we recognize just how important interaction is, we can start to think about how to improve it.

  • Content marketers can’t necessarily interact with every single subscriber or commenter, but at bare minimum they should answer any questions posed of them, even if it comes down to sending them a link or an email template. Of course, keep in mind that the more personalized the response, the better, and that only positive experiences with the marketer will lead to sales.
  • Use content as a launching pad to start discussions, not just as a way to build up referral traffic. Ask readers for their feedback and to ask any questions. By the same token, try to discuss subjects that are conducive to conversation.
  • Ask your subscribers to talk to you, and be prepared to respond. If you don’t have the resources to answer emails from all of your subscribers, try asking a small segment of them, one at a time, instead.
  • If you are getting a decent number of comments on each post, try carrying the conversation over to a forum on your own site. Forums keep communities alive, and you will find them, or something like them, on a good portion of the web’s most popular sites. Remember: forums are even more popular than blogs.
  • Set very clear moderation policies, and enforce them, to maintain a culture on your website that is consistent with your brand.
  • Take safeguards to prevent user-generated spam.
  • Implement upvotes/downvotes, karma points, report buttons, etc., to introduce some level of self-moderation.
  • Quote your audience members and respond to their feedback and questions within your blog posts and your content.
  • Continue to interact on other platforms like forums and blog comment sections
  • Encourage your audience to interact with itself. This is perhaps more important than anything else. At least in the study mentioned above, interactions between users contributed far more to sales than direct interactions with the marketer, and direct interactions transformed the products into inelastic commodities.

Remember, interaction has a measurable impact on sales, and may contribute even more to it than content.

Conclusion

While content marketing can be an exceptionally powerful way to improve your SEO, it is not SEO. It’s about building an audience. To recap:

  1. Choose a unique selling proposition
  2. Capture subscriptions using a free product
  3. Keep and grow your audience with actionable, interactive, shareable content
  4. Track your results with smart data
  5. Use content as a platform to launch discussions, not just as a way to drive traffic

Hopefully everybody here has learned something. I want to thank you all for reading. Please leave a comment if you have something to add, and pass this along if you thought it was helpful.