Here is a quick quiz to help you identify how mature your content marketing strategy is. Which phase best describes where your organization is today?
Phase 0 – Content Marketing? What’s that?
Phase 1 – We have a corporate blog and branded social accounts.
Phase 2 – We have a company-branded blog, with a good mix of outside contributors.
Phase 3 – We leverage employees by using software to pass targeted marketing content to their social networks.
Phase 4 – We help employees – nearly all of them – create content in their own voice and then feature their insights on our site, demonstrating their expertise as a way to incorporate their personal brands with our corporate brand.
I’ve been studying content marketing for years, first as a blogger myself out to build my personal brand as a leadership author and thought leader; later watching as companies journeyed through the cluelessness of Phase 0 and the ineffectiveness of Phase 1. The business cases and clear ROI (yes, provable ROI for social!) for Phases 2 and 3 were so compelling, they were the only aspects of marketing we wrote about in A World Gone Social: How Companies Must Adapt to Survive, which published in September of 2014.
Then, not two months after publication, I learned all about Phase 4. It’s a whole new take on content; an entirely novel use of the marketing department, for companies visionary enough – and brave enough – to get it.
And, as with any blue ocean innovation, the companies ready for it are sure to unsettle their industries. Steal market share. And probably make it into a book or two as a result.
But first, let’s go back to the quiz. Which of the four phases of content marketing best describes you?
Phase 0: What’s Content Marketing?
Everyone’s got to start somewhere. If this is you, or if it represents the current level of understanding within your company, don’t worry. Are you behind? Yes. Can you leapfrog ahead of your competition? Absolutely. The one redeeming aspect of being far behind the curve is, you get to see what everyone else has done and is doing now. Then, you can jump to the head of the pack, skipping all the slow and painful experimentation in the process.
Phase 1: The Corporate Blog
Your company has a blog, or if it’s big perhaps it has several blogs, each focused on a different topic your divisions cater to. Company-anointed Subject Matter Experts, those whose job title implies formal positional leadership (your CEO, your top dogs in HR, Marketing, PR, and Investor Relations) or official thought leadership (your scientists in R&D, your industry analysts) write posts which your Social Media Marketing team shares via corporate branded accounts on Twitter, the company Facebook and LinkedIn pages.
Surprised that no one reads these blogs? That very few friends, fans, connections, and followers share them with their own circles of social influence?
You are surprised? Why?
How many corporate blogs do you read – outside your company’s own, of course, and then only because you feel it’s your duty, like doing the dishes? How many corporate-branded social accounts do you follow? More to the point, how many do you actually pay any attention to?
There is a very simple reason corporate blogs and corporate social accounts don’t ever seem to get much traction: people don’t trust them. Remember PT Barnum’s famous line, “There’s a sucker born every minute?” Despite the popularity of reality TV and bozos like Donald Trump and that redheaded chef who yells at everyone, consumers just aren’t the suckers they were in Barnum’s day. Generations of hucksters duping consumers have forced us to wise up. And if you’re trying to address a corporate audience…? Good luck trying to present your brand’s side of things as unbiased. Indeed, good luck getting read at all.
Quite surprisingly, though, about seventy percent of companies can still be found right here, wallowing in Phase 1 of the content marketing journey. If this is you? If your firm is here, it might be a good time to move your current head of digital into a new role, one better suited to their expertise than marketing.
Phase 2: The Branded Blog
A few years ago now, a few intrepid companies took what was then a bold step, and attempted something brand new: create a blog that provides all sorts of useful content, from all manner of objective outside contributors, and affix the company logo to it.
You’re likely already familiar with this clever play, but in case you aren’t, try Adobe’s CMO.com, Domo’s CEO.com, or the SAP Business Innovation blog – all of which we discussed in chapter 13 of A World Gone Social. The marketing strategy is simple: Adobe, for instance, sells much of its products and services to CMOs. By creating a one-stop hub for these leaders to learn what the top experts have to say about their craft, and what their most admired peers are doing to grow their firms, CMO.com quickly became a magnet for Adobe’s prospects. A marketing leader visits the site, consumes great content, and thinks, “Adobe sure is helpful to me. And look, they sell something my firm needs – who knew? Maybe I should give them a try.”
In marketing parlance, Adobe has created awareness, interest, desire, and is now ready for the next step: an actual sales conversation.
Provide value, give, give, give… and position yourself to sell, when the prospect is ready. This is how marketing is done in the Social Age.
Phase 3: Employees Represent Marketing Department
Here’s the thing, though: as savvy as the branded blog of Phase 2 may be, that strategy is nevertheless limited by the size and reach of the marketing department’s social accounts to share this content.
But what if every member of your company were deputized adjuncts to the small social marketing team? What if your 1,500-person-strong workforce all advocated for you online, as in the case of Zappos? Or what if your company were much larger, perhaps with tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of employees?
Yes, that’s right. Hundreds of thousands of social advocates!
…In theory, anyway. To pull this marketing coup off, you’d have to train them in how to use social properly – a wonderful career-development benefit, it turns out; a real morale-booster.
We first learned about this via IBM. At the time, they were pioneering a tool from a company called Dynamic Signal; today, there are a large number of competitors in the space, and IBM is far from the only enterprise leveraging these tools.
Eight months ago, as our book went to print? This was it: the bleeding edge of what software-plus-employee-advocacy could do to leverage content marketing to the hilt, and build a company’s brand like never before.
But there’s a steep downside to this marketing approach that proves increasingly problematic as companies become more familiar with this technology: Where’s the trust?
It turns out, when employees share what Marketing asks them to, the trust factor takes a giant step backward, to Phase 1 of content. Employee-as-corporate-mouthpiece has its downside. As with the inherently-biased corporate blog, the networks of employees quickly learned to tune out the content. We follow and “friend” each other to connect with real people. Not to be sold at.
So what’s a modern marketer to do?
Phase 4: Employee Ambassadors
So if no one’s buying your blatant sales pitch, either on your corporate blog or via your employees’ social sharing, what’s a brand to do?
Fortunately, there’s a very good answer to that, one that flips the employee-Marketing Department dynamic on its head.
Phase 4 of content marketing? Turn your Marketing staff into facilitators of employee branding.
Consider this: you employ some very talented individuals. Most of whom do not work in Marketing.
Some of them have already established their thought leadership within their area of specialty. What if your company had a way to show them off to the world, thus building your corporate brand as the home of all their talent? Somewhere other than on your unvisited corporate blog?
Others are at the beginning of their careers, and would like to make their mark in the world, building a reputation they they can carry with them throughout their careers. What if you could help them do that, again showing off to the world what talent you employ, and what a desirable employer you are, for supporting your people regardless of official rank?
What if you could leverage the sheer bulk of your employee base, as in Phase 3?
And what if you could do so by providing value based on trusted content, as in Phase 2?
And, best of all, what if your employees were able to build their personal brands, on a corporate-branded site, in only minutes a day? After all, no company can afford to pay its whole workforce to blog for half a workday. And few employees have skill or desire to write a long-form blog post every day, or even once a week; heck, let’s be honest: even once a month!
Welcome to Phase 4, the latest wave of content marketing. (It’s hard not to talk about this without going into some level of company-promotion, so please bear with me). The founders of Meddle.it saw this as an inevitable next phase. So they set out on a mission to provide companies with the tools to show off the brainpower of their employees, by helping those employees establish their own personal brand alongside the corporate brand.
They wanted content to come from trusted employees, rather than from spin-addicted marketers.
This is a whole new approach to marketing. An entirely new (and, to be fair, somewhat scary) use for the marketing department.
To provide value, not slick copy, to prospective customers.
To build employees’ careers, not take advantage of them.
Are you ready for this new chapter in marketing? Are you ready to be a trailblazer, and innovator? Are you ready to put your employees, the ultimate reason your customers do business with you, at the forefront of your marketing?
It’s easier than you may think. Talk to us.
Tired of reading? Check out this podcast with Ted on the merits of putting your employees into your marketing.
UPDATE: For those of you already past Phase 3 and loving Phase 4, let Andrea Edwards introduce you to Phase 5 of Content Marketing. Here’s just a teaser of the wisdom she shares:
- Phase 5 – The entire business ecosystem – customers, partners, influencers, associations, employee connections, and so on – comes together and creates a content platform of power for the entire community. This platform embraces all, promotes all and creates a powerhouse storytelling site that builds the success and credibility of everyone in this ecosystem.
I agree with Andrea completely when she states that this is the future of marketing (notice I didn’t say merely “content” marketing). The good news is, savvy, future-forward organizations don’t need to wait for technology to catch up with this vision to bring it to life. You can already do that today. Please let me know if you’d like our help.