A few years ago, when content marketing was an unknown concept, businesses celebrated when they were featured in major newspapers, invited to speak at prominent industry conferences or landed book deals with major publishers.
Unlike paid advertisements, this type of earned exposure established credibility far beyond any advertisement. Earned attention was more valuable (and believable) because it bestowed high levels of credibility. It was more difficult to attain and (presumably) not bought and paid for. Consumers saw earned media coverage as an implied endorsement – companies that appeared in the media, or whose leaders appeared on the public stage, enjoyed validation of their expertise and authority.
Today, many assume that content marketing and social media have created new rules of marketing. A chorus of online and social media marketers attest that consumers and buyers now judge authority differently than in decades past, suggesting that an effective content marketing strategy should be driven primarily by numbers of fans, follows, likes or blog comments.
Businesses, we’re told, must see themselves as media companies, establishing industry thought leadership through content marketing. Many companies have followed this advice, producing millions of blog posts, white papers, podcasts and online videos, spreading them exponentially via social media.
The volume of online information has become a fire hose of content. The rise of content marketing and social media has resulted in fatigued consumers swimming in an ocean of marketing content.
The Age of Validation
Content marketing blurs the line between objective editorial coverage and paid advertising. Because content marketing has an agenda (ultimately, it hopes to sell you something), it’s hard to know what to believe. Consumers sort through overflowing email inboxes and social media dashboards, questioning the veracity, quality and credibility of online information, businesses have to rethink what it means to establish brand authority.
“The reality is, there’s too much content and not enough time,” said Steve Rubel, EVP of Global Strategy and Insights for Edelman at Mashable Connect 2011. “More content will be created today than existed in entirety before 2003.” With limited time and attention spans, people are experiencing information overload as well as “people overload,” which Rubel calls a “friending arms race” referring to the Facebook phenomena in which “he or she who dies with the most ‘friends’ wins.”
The 2011 Edelman Trust Barometer (a yearly survey published by Edelman, a global PR firm) reveals online users are revisiting who and what they trust, increasingly favoring academics, experts and technical experts within companies as the most trusted sources of information. Ruble describes a “Validation era” where web users seek “the signal in the noise” and how they come to trust the information and people they encounter online.
The most trusted validated content lives on multiple media channels and combines traditional media (newspapers, magazines), “tra-digital” Media (influential blogs), owned media (company websites, content marketing) and social media but traditional sources of authority (as illustrated in Edelman’s concept of the Media Cloverleaf):
Content Marketing + Credibility = Authority
It’s time to see our marketing and branding efforts as part of an integrated marketing strategy: combining traditional marketing strategies like PR and public speaking, online thought leadership and web-based content marketing, blogger relations and strategic social media. This integrated model is not only key for gaining the trust and attention of today’s skeptical consumers, it’s the secret of earning authority in an increasingly noisy world.
Plug yourself into every possible outlet that influences your niche – both online and traditional channels. Assess what others are doing, saying and writing about your industry. Your goal is not just to be fully informed, but also to develop a keen perspective that sees links between your industry and the larger world.
Consumers are less likely to believe in companies merely because they’ve relied only on content marketing, or blogging, or any single online-focused marketing strategy. A winning brand strategy means combining your company message across several media channels – traditional, online and owned.
Become A Trusted Resource
Making authority the touchstone of your entire content marketing strategy will help you rise above a sea of self-serving content. Today, that means more than tooting your own horn. You must not only be known as a source of expert information, but an authority that supports your content with facts, outside viewpoints, credible data, and even the opinions (and counter opinions) from other recognized authorities.
Experts know that they must actively seek out new evidence that impacts their theories and assumptions. You don’t need an ultimate truth, but you do need to articulate your position clearly and have relevant facts close at hand.
By clearly testing your assumptions, and producing content that strives to tell the truth (not implicitly oversell your own solution), the more your potential customers will trust you. It’s helping people sort through hype, understand competing options, avoid false comparisons and ultimately choose your company because you can truly help them.
Prioritize (and Filter) Everything
It’s never been easier to be informed. Unfortunately, we often find ourselves swimming in information, much of it irrelevant to our core business.
Are you following blogs that focus primarily on becoming a successful blogger (even though blogging is not your core business?) Are you obsessed with social media tips, instead of giving priority to media that directly impact your target prospects? It’s easy to get overwhelmed, especially if you’ve spent years opting in to everything that interested you.
Revisit (and prune) your burgeoning online reading list. Prioritize your information intake on the most vital areas that advance your niche authority. Include trade and special interest magazines affecting your niche that provide focused, up-to-the-minute relevant information that keeps your finger on the pulse of your industry.
Support Claims Like a Journalist
You can quickly establish your authority by adhering to journalistic standards of publishing, including a respect for accuracy and fact checking, and avoiding information that may be biased, second hand or inaccurate.
“At two recent conferences, I was amazed by speakers’ using data that I knew had been debunked,” says Rebecca Morgan, co-publisher of SpeakerNet News. “Then I heard the “On the Media” radio show report about how a journalist checked out the data that ‘85% of recent college graduates now live with their parents.’ He dug and dug and uncovered that the number was not verifiable and he believes was made up.”
Morgan advises digging into data, reading original studies or source material to ensure accuracy and relevance. “It takes work, but it’s worth it as someone in your audience may know your usage may be wrong and it will kill your credibility.”
Keep It Going
Maintaining your expertise and authority is an ongoing process. Helping your target market cut through information clutter with solid, well-researched, credible information can serve as your most effective marketing strategy.
You don’t have to be appointed by anyone other than yourself to become an expert in your field. If you can deliver to your prospects’ unique needs, people will be interested in you, no matter how brief your business experience or how few diplomas grace your walls. Becoming an expert takes work, but it’s within your reach.