“Knowing yourself is the beginning of wisdom.”

When companies venture into the content marketing world, many of the conversations center around the audience, the delivery and the metrics. All important and worthwhile topics, yet there’s another, more crucial element that needs to be the foundation of your content marketing efforts -- your story.

The whole idea behind content marketing is to create a way to engage with people and move them through the journey from prospect to customer to evangelist in a short and cost-effective, amount of time. It’s a shift in the previous advertising mindset, which interrupts people, toward one of education and community through valuable content, which attracts people.

What, Exactly, is Content Marketing?

Joe Pulizzi, founder of the Content Marketing Institute and one of the first evangelists for content marketing, describes content marketing as:

… a marketing technique of creating and distributing relevant and valuable content to attract, acquire, and engage a clearly defined and understood target audience -- with the objective of driving profitable customer action.”

I like to think of the movie Field of Dreams when the voice in the cornfield told Kevin Costner, “If you build it, he will come.” Nice, effective and successful content marketing is less creepy and doesn’t require you to pay attention to the voices in your head. But if you build your content marketing program right, your customers, prospects, influencers and evangelists will definitely come.

Everyone Knows Marketing has Changed

There’s a slew of research and articles reminding us that marketing has changed. Agreed, how prospects and customers connect with companies has changed dramatically, especially with digital, social and mobile in the mix. But one fundamental in particular still remain the same; we have to have something to say.

That’s Where Content Marketing Comes In

In the past, editors and reporters held companies captive, and we vied for their attention to cover our products, services or insights on trends. But no longer.

Today, communities and influencers have overtaken the importance of media outlets, and the responsibility of reporting has shifted to the marketing department. In fact, many organizations now consider themselves publishers rather than marketers. And that’s smart.

Where it Begins

Before you can measure ROI based on clicks, hits and sales, you need to have content to send across the channels. And that content starts with a storyline.

When I see companies struggling with content marketing initiatives that fail to engage, it’s generally because they haven’t thought through the story they’re trying to tell. How many times have you walked away from a movie and muttered, “That storyline was crap!” It’s often:

  • Not well thought out
  • The same plot with different players (the “me too” syndrome)
  • Confusing
  • Left you with too many unanswered questions

Just like Hollywood, organizations need help developing a storyline that’s enticing, engaging and enduring. Talking about stories when stakeholders care about bottom line revenues may sound like fluff, but there’s a reason that companies with a concise message realize greater success:

  • Enticing -- When was that last time you heard a customer say, “wow, that set of analytics really rocked my world!” Probably never. People use data as a proof point to reinforce a story, but data on its own isn’t a story. A 12 percent spike in sales in the third quarter is a statistic. But if you’re a technology company, the story about why your company shifted its focus to ensure that first responders had your handsets during a crisis is what matters. A good story entices someone to want to know more, and they transition to the next step: engagement.
  • Engaging -- This is probably one of the most over-used words in any vocabulary right now, but there’s a reason for it. We’re bombarded with messages from the time we wake up until our head hits the pillow at night. We can’t pay attention to everything, so what matters most to us? We choose where we focus our attention, and we want to engage with experiences that have meaning and those generally start with a story.

Take, for example, REI. If you check out their web site, you’ll see a page called “The REI Story.” Skim it and you’ll find:

Since the beginning, REI has been committed to helping people enjoy the great outdoors to the fullest-form weekend family camping trips to Mt. Everest expeditions -- by offering innovative, high-quality outdoor gear and apparel."



They know their story inside and out, so that when you interact with them in the store or online, you sense their passion for the great outdoors. Their story not only serves as a magnet for the right customers, it also filters out those who aren’t a fit. And that’s how you begin to shorten your sales cycle and fill your pipeline with more qualified leads.

  •  Enduring -- There’s a reason why series of stories are so engaging -- they have a storyline that endures over time. Lord of the Rings. The Godfather. Harry Potter. Star Wars. What each of them has in common is the ability to extend the storyline beyond just a single experience -- just like we as marketers need to do.

It’s easy to kick-off our content marketing planning with what’s on the horizon and the hot product we’re about to launch. We talk about blog posts, web pages, case studies, articles, white papers, tradeshows and a plethora of other content, but how does that all tap into the bigger story over the next six, 12 and even 18 months? To have consistency down the line with both a message and a customer experience, we have to know what’s the common thread that links everything together between now and then and consistently delivers that relevant and valuable content our audience wants.

As Aristotle said, knowing yourself is the beginning of wisdom. It’s also the place where all storytelling and content marketing should begin. Because after all, if we don’t know our organizations well enough to create stories that have value for our audiences to engage with and share, then we’re right back to the advertising game.

Title image courtesy of Panos Karapanagiotis (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: You may also be interested in reading this article about content marketing from Joe Pulizzi:

-- Brands and the Great Paid Media Correction