London Heathrow may have lost its crown as the world’s busiest international airport, but it probably retains its claim to some of the world’s oddest customer enquiries – who else gets asked:
- What’s the difference between a toilet and a loo?
- Where can I exchange currency for some Scottish dollars?
- Are there ATMs in central London? Can you mark them on my map?
These and other gems are shared in a a “Top 10 strangest passenger requests” list on Heathrow’s “information and help in the terminals” web page. Top 10s, indeed lists of any length, are a classic tool of the content marketer, and Heathrow’s is a fine example of the genre – appealing to a broad audience, with plenty of hooks to drive deeper interest; human in tone and scope, with touches of nostalgia and humor; not explicitly advertising anything, but subtly connected to a service being provided.
The list caught my attention because I was still musing on a seminar about content marketing, organized by ALPSP as part of the program in the London Book Fair’s “Faculty” theatre. The session was chaired by Wiley’s Kate Smith, and featured the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Laura Finn, Amy Nicholson from Sticky Content (part of the Press Association) and TBI Communications’ Lynne Miller. The speakers built a strong case for content marketing as a medium for connecting with customers at a deeper and longer-term level — critical objectives for scholarly publishers as competition increases for the best research and researchers.
Content marketing, of course, is the technique of building visibility and reputation by creating materials that contribute to the discourse around key issues — without directly publicizing your products. I say “of course”, but there’s the rub: one view of those in attendance is that scholarly publishers misunderstand content marketing, confusing it for simply marketing content. It is a difficult distinction to make when the content you are marketing is in itself comprised of discourse around key issues. That is to say, it’s hard to draw lines between “product marketing” and “content marketing” when product = content.
Or is it? Most groups I’ve worked with are struggling with content marketing not because it’s hard, but because they haven’t comprehensively committed to doing it. Content marketing doesn’t lend itself as well as one might assume to dipping a toe in the water. Much like swimming, before you get anywhere or impress anybody, you have to put in some time, learn from some experts, and build confidence. It helps if you have a natural aptitude and / or a good support team. Standing fully clothed on the edge will not get you anywhere; if this is the mode you choose, committing to it fully will be a lot more effective than fadaddling in the shallows. Like its close relative social media marketing1, good content marketing requires:
- A strategic framework. What are we trying to achieve? How much are we prepared to invest in that goal? How will we define “success”, and measure progress towards it? How will we quantify the effort expended in getting there?
- A clearly defined brand. What debates are relevant to us? What causes do we espouse? What characteristics do we want to convey?
- Knowledge of our topics. What is the significance of what we are publishing? To which wider trends does it relate?
- Authority to engage. Who do we trust to be a mouthpiece for the organization? How can we give more people the confidence to step up? Who needs to buy into content marketers stepping away from the product and engaging in broader conversations?
- Time to dedicate. How will we make space for thinking, research, writing, editing, revising and following up responses to the content created?
Individuals or organizations who can tick off all of these are rare; the strategic and brand frameworks are often the pieces most conspicuous by their absence, and authority is also a common obstacle. All these points are interconnected, too; it’s no coincidence that the publishers who are best at content marketing are the ones with strong brands – think Nature, or PLOS. If we have a clearly defined brand, we can trust more people to represent it than if it is just a nebulous concept in the heads of senior executives; if we have set up our strategic framework, we can make an informed decision about how much time to dedicate.
In summary, while the substance of our content marketing needs to come from the ground up – it is similar to grassroots marketing in the need to listen and appeal to a specific target group – the commitment to it, and the framework for it, needs to come from the top down. If there is a sense that publishers are not yet getting it right, the answer lies not only in better knowledge-sharing and collaboration at the coalface (e.g. to ensure that content marketing doesn’t fall in the gaps between marketing and editorial, or in bigger organizations, between marketing and PR) but also in better support and structure further up the organization (e.g. making sure everyone knows what the organization stands for, and is thereby empowered to speak on its behalf).
Finally, a striking title is all very well, but a good content marketer makes sure it is rooted in the content itself. So I close with one more list of tips for getting started in content marketing:
- Strip off: pare down your goals so that you are focused on a defined strategy for a defined audience – without focused objectives, it will be hard to know what kinds of activities to pursue, and how to measure them
- Jump in: don’t fadaddle in the shallows. Decide whether content marketing is the right tool for your organization, define your strategy, and then embrace it fully if you want to see return on your investment.
- Splash out – in two senses: a) recognize that content marketing is an investment to which you must commit if you want to see a return; b) focus that investment wisely by finding conversation areas in which you won’t be afraid to make waves (so your efforts don’t sink without trace).
1 What is the difference between social media marketing and content marketing? Social media has certainly driven the rise in content marketing, not least by providing good channels for building an audience for content marketing activities. In the context of this post, social media marketing might best be considered as a subset of content marketing – one medium through which to communicate, alongside others such as PR (e.g. speaking engagements, media articles).