We’re absolutely inundated with content these days. We see so much content every day it’s hard to even imagine a quieter world without a million marketers constantly vying for our attention. It’s easy to forget that it wasn’t so long ago that this wasn’t the way of things.

I suppose you could say that content marketing’s history begins in the late 19th century with brands like John Deere launching “The Furrow,” a magazine offering farming tips, in 1895. But the rise of the internet in the 1990s is where we were originally introduced to digital content marketing, as brands gradually realized their audiences were going online and they should too.

This hit the big time in the 2000s, with the introduction of social media, blogs, and SEO, further expanding (and complicating) digital content. Today, it encompasses a vast array of formats, including videos, podcasts, and interactive content, and leverages advanced technologies like AI to push the envelop even further.

What’s important to understand is that the evolution of content marketing demonstrates a shift towards using engaging, value-driven content to connect with audiences.

Value-driven. What’s that mean? Isn’t all content marketing value-driven?

In theory I suppose, but not in execution. Most content marketing is just that…it’s marketing. If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, etc. -it’s a duck, right? We all know a duck when we see one.

No, real value is giving more than you’re getting from any single member of your audience (obviously that last bit is key, or there’s no way to monetize yourself).

Give, give, give. I still hear people complain about having to give something away for free online and it’s maddening because you know those same people are just as entitled when they’re in the customer’s seat; they just don’t realize it. We all expect a lot for free these days because we’ve been forced to rely on FAQs, chat bots, and automated phone lines -or worse, sales– to do our research and make our decisions.

Free content is the welcoming party that greets your potential customers and invites them to hang around (and maybe do some business).

It’s probably the most important part of your funnel…

Where is content used in a marketing funnel?

Everywhere, at every stage, for sure…but when we talk about content we’re usually just focused on the content right before the visitor converts to a lead and the content that helps nurture that lead into an opportunity. This is the heart and soul of content marketing for lead generation, of course, but this is a very limited way of thinking about content’s role in marketing and sales.

The funnel is an imperfect metaphor because the process of buying is rarely as linear as the model would lead you to believe. Content plays roles at all stages of the decision-making process; some of which are related to lead gen directly and others might be considered more of a branding strategy. And I don’t just mean types of content like text, audio, video, etc., I mean types of content strategies, like link magnets, lead magnets, social videos, repurposed videos, and so on. Content is generally the hook / value proposition itself and that can be applied in a lot of ways and in conjunction with a lot of other marketing technologies to achieve the effect you want.

But content marketing isn’t just about attracting and nurturing leads, not directly anyway.

Some of the most popular (most viral) content that’s being produced today is short form storytelling content; which has already become huge on TikTok and is rapidly catching on among YouTubers. Storytelling content can, in certain cases, pitch a lead magnet to the audience but the essence of this content is ultimately (and deliberately) anti-sales / anti-hype / anti-pressure.

The point of this content is to share a relatable story and to help the viewer in some way (inspire, educate, entertain) which ultimately generates familiarity, reciprocity, and increases your authority in their eyes. This may eventually convince them to do business with you but it can hardly be considered “lead generation” content.

Storytelling content is just thought leadership in sweatpants

This is the hot new trend in digital marketing but it’s not really that new of an idea when you think about it. Remember “thought leadership”? That’s basically what we’re talking about here but pivoting from a stiff commercial presentation to something more personal -more like a “fireside chat”.

People want to hear from experts on the topics they’re interested in but they don’t want to feel like they’re constantly being sold in the process. You, the creator of this content, have a right to compensation of some kind for all your time and effort, of course, but your audience has the right to expect value for their time as well.

There is obviously a huge opportunity in short form vertical video content in B2C marketing but B2B marketing trends follow closer and closer to B2C trends as the younger generations occupy progressively more of the workforce; including decision-making roles. That means there is similarly a huge opportunity for B2B brands to reach those mobile-first, video-obsessed younger decision makers and influencers in their prospect companies. Across both hemispheres of business, short-form storytelling content is unquestionably where it’s at.

Soon TikTok, Instagram Reels, and YouTube shorts will be just as important to branding and awareness generation in the legal industry or in education as it is currently for e-commerce sellers and influencers. This is because the longer a social media platform is around, the older the demographic of its audience by aging and by late-adoption. Either way, TikTok (and the other platforms) are growing up.

As the audience matures, the platform matures, and business case becomes stronger.

But to engage in a strategy like this we have to abandon the results-driven framework temporarily. Storytelling content can’t be a bait and switch. The younger generation today has grown up with the web and all it’s scammy BS. They can spot an ad, a pitch, an offer, etc. a mile away and will just tune out or swipe away. So what you produce actually has to be legitimately, authentically helpful to them and then (and only then) will you win their attention and business.

That’s the power of brand marketing in general, and why content marketing for branding sake “alone” needs to be normalized and employed more widely among the marketing community.

How to implement storytelling / branding content in your company

Ideas can only become reality if we can convince others to believe in them, and nowhere is that more true than in a corporate environment. Everything depends on the buy-in of other stakeholders, so expanding your content strategy to achieve branding goals requires:

  • clearly differentiating between lead gen content and branding content
  • establishing new KPIs for branding campaigns
  • educating stakeholders about these ideas and the trends behind them
  • and sharing examples of brands who are already doing well in this space.

Let’s take a crack at that now…

Branding vs Lead Generation Content

Branding content attracts visitors at the top of the funnel (brand awareness) and it reinforces brand loyalty among existing customers. Lead generation content directly promotes a lead magnet; think: pillar posts, content promoting webinars, and anything else that connects to a lead form. This type of content sits at the crossroads where a visitor becomes a lead and that lead’s journey to qualification and closing.

Realistically, a potential customer will interact with a mix of top-of-funnel content before converting into a lead on one of your offers. And then another mix of content during the lead nurturing process. Content marketing in the first category doesn’t even need to explicitly mention your brand or services. In the nurturing process all that matters is your product’s fit for the customer.

Branding is all about familiarity and affinity. Lead generation is all about proving value and establishing rapport and eliminating the obstacles to buy.

Potential KPIs for measuring content marketing branding campaigns

Where we can measure lead generation clearly with prospects, visitors, contacts, leads, qualified leads, and closed customers, branding campaigns are more slippery. However, when your branding campaign is working, your sales team will certainly feel it, and most likely your marketing team as well, because brand recognition increases, advocacy increases, and yout potential buyers’ natural defenses become less rigid.

But we’re in the business of measuring marketing success, so to try and understand the effectiveness of branding campaigns we should pay attention to all the top-line metrics. Traffic will increase to the website, engagement increases across social media, and leads are more informed because of the content you’ve published.

Specific assets which attract a lot of viral attention online (link magnets) will get a boost in traffic and will rank higher in search as a result.

Educating Stakeholders

Examples of brands that are doing branded content right:

Neil Patel (aka NP Digital)

Neil is famous for buying companies with technology that can help marketers and then making it partially free, which is clearly a lead gen effort because you have to sign up to use the tools. But there is a lot of data-driven reporting that comes off of his technology stack that he puts out as branded content only vaguely advertising any of his lead funnels.

Here’s an example of Neil promoting his Ubersuggest tool which tracks SEM spending subtly while providing high-level but valuable information to enhance his authority and recognizability.

DuoLingo

Someone at Duolingo has a great sense of humor and it’s obvious from their TikTok account which puts out funny, entertaining, and brand-reinforcing videos like this one captioned “When You Ignore My Notifications”.

Google’s Search Relations Team with John Mu

Google got into the business of managing public opinion fairly early on by empowering their best and brightest to act as officially unofficial spokespeople for the search giant. The SEO industry is massive and there are many, many opinionated and paranoid technical SEO specialists out there dreaming up Google conspiracies that needed to be managed with a firm hand and so the Search Relations team at Google, which includes John Mueller, officially Google’s Search Advocate and unofficially a bit of an influencer-style personality in the world of search marketing. He and his counterpart, Danny Sullivan, Google’s Public Liaison for Search, publish all kinds of articles and videos, speak at conferences, appear at roundtables and so on on behalf of Google Search.

Orbit Media

Orbit Media’s 2023 Blogging Statistics report, which they’ve been producing for 10 years now, is an excellent example of branded content. You’ll notice there’s no obvious pitch in the report that leads to a marketing funnel, just useful data and lots of it. I’ve been reading this annual report for years and have so much appreciation for it that I can recall it’s creator by name (Andy Crestodina). That’s good content marketing…

Looking at content as a driver of attention at every level of the marketing funnel

From the agency point of view, every time content marketing is suggested as a means for attracting attention, growing a brand, building rapport with customers, etc., the conversation immediately hits a wall of “how’s this going to help us sell?”

Every marketing investment is ultimately about driving sales and revenue but you can’t just turn on the money faucet and wash your hands of strategy.

Content marketing isn’t going anywhere, it’s becoming even more ubiquitous, and the demand for content is skewing heavily towards highly authentic video which is fundamentally difficult to sell from directly. Indirect as the effect may be, it is still very effective -just ask Gary Vee.

We need to stop worrying so much about the direct impact of content and get better at wrapping our analytics around more abstract concepts like the authority of a brand or its power to command respect.

The marketing funnel is a wonderful map that helps you navigate the territory of marketing and sales but it’s important to remember that it’s just a map. It can’t account for the imperceptible realities of brand affinity in a marketplace. These things are hard to measure but easy to feel.

Branded content, and particularly storytelling and thought leadership content, have the power to convince your audience at a distance and, at that point, conversion is only a matter of time.

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