In a nutshell: Use content marketing to educate your customers and begin a dialogue with them.

Today, it’s not enough to just talk to customers and potential customers. You must also find a way to talk with them. Conversations are the starting points for new business and repeat sales, as well as customer satisfaction and positive word-of-mouth.

Content marketing is how you begin those important conversations. Content marketing is not advertising. The dialogue is meant to be educational, not promotional. A good content marketing strategy will raise awareness, strengthen your reputation, build your credibility and differentiate you from other brands, products and services. And while most people still think of content as written articles, companies are now using a wide range of media and platforms to tell their stories.

What Does Content Marketing Do?

There are many parts to content marketing but, at its core, the goal is to create materials across a variety of platforms that engage customers and lead to sales. Previously, these were one-way conversations — limited technology hindered companies’ abilities to hear back from customers. Now, in the age of Twitter and Facebook, companies need content marketing strategies that include ways to respond to people. This back-and-forth dialogue is what makes content marketing so valuable today.

The Content Marketing Institute (CMI) describes many business goals for content marketing, including brand awareness, lead conversion, customer service and customer loyalty. One of the most notable business goals is to create passionate subscribers who can promote and “evangelize” a brand.

There is an expense related to content marketing — maybe not in money, but in time — but the good news is that it should be quite manageable for small businesses. Just don’t expect an AT&T-level impact without an AT&T-level budget. Some businesses might opt to manage their content marketing in-house, especially if they have employees who enjoy writing, taking pictures or shooting short video. Other companies may decide to hire an outside agency. Either approach works as long as it meets your needs and your budget.

Before You Begin

Before you dive into the world of content marketing for your business, there are two things you should do.

First, look at the brands you admire and ask yourself why they do such a good job of creating a powerful narrative about their companies and their products. How do they balance words, images and videos? What sort of voice and personality does the company have? These examples of successful content marketing can help you design your own approach.

Second, explore the resources at CMI. A good place to start is The Essentials of Content Marketing Strategy, a 16-page guide for people starting with content marketing. You’ll have to submit your contact information to download the publication, which signs you up for a helpful weekly newsletter and other information. Also look at the Back to Basics content series, which is updated periodically.

First Steps

Once you’ve done your homework, Entrepreneur recommends that you draft an editorial calendar that details when content will be published and on what platform. “Don’t worry about this being perfect,” Entrepreneur writes, “You can always make adjustments later on.” Content can include everything from short tweets to long blog posts.

Entrepreneur also says people starting out with content marketing should treat their first posts as experiments to see how people react. Don’t get frustrated if you aren’t getting traction. Adjust your approach and try again.

Be sure to think about images, and not just words. In a 2014 article, Fast Company says that images are processed much faster by the brain than words are. Think about your own experience — when scrolling through a Facebook or Twitter feed, don’t the pictures stand out much more than the text?

Remember that good content marketing creates a dialogue. Sometimes you might hear from unhappy customers. Be understanding and use these exchanges as opportunities to make your business better. It’s possible to turn critics into fans.

Now that you know the basics of content marketing, get started! Post, publish and have fun.

Keep the conversation going: What content marketing initiatives are successful for you?

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