Just for a minute, think back to the movie The Matrix. (Don’t worry, I mean the first one, not the so-so sequel or the can’t-believe-I-paid-for-this third). Throughout the film, Morpheus insists that Neo can achieve greatness, so he pokes and prods and pushes him incessantly. But despite a few isolated moments of success, Neo mostly struggles through a grueling training and unsuccessful encounters with any and all obstacles.
But at the end, as you know, he’s practically a superhero, possessing massive power over the world around him. Why? What changes? He’s suddenly able to see the world for what it is — a sum of thousands of moving parts and pieces that combine to create the Matrix. He understands what’s behind-the-scenes rather than accepting the false reality that’s immediately in front of him. Once he understands that, everything gets simpler. He goes from frustrated and borderline petulant to calm, cool, collected, and in total control.
That’s the best way to think about great content marketing (PDF download link). Those who do it insanely well understand how all the pieces fit together to form a viable strategy that sustains and generates results. But in most cases, content marketing can seem loose, scary, and uncertain, hence the assumption that this approach is just a bunch of ephemeral, buzz-worthy nonsense or a lame attempt at forcing your way to thought leader status.
But content marketing is not about thought leadership. Nor is it about individual moments of brilliance or virality. It’s also not about securing the best partnerships, or creating the most amount of content, or gaming search rankings better than your competitors. Instead, it’s much simpler — content marketing is about solving the same problems for your buyer that your product aims to solve, but doing so through systematic, sustainable, and scalable publishing.
Unfortunately, that can feel impossibly hard. It’s hard because egos come into play in a way they don’t with other types of marketing. (Nobody argues over a byline and Twitter mention on your company’s banner ads.) Creating content can also take longer than writing a search ad and uploading some keywords or buying an email list to spam. And, let’s face it, adopting content marketing can feel like you’re pumping out a bunch of random things that go spinning off into cyberspace without rhyme or reason.
However, marketers and companies who succeed with content possess that same kind of “sight” that Neo suddenly gained near the end of the movie. They’re able to cut through the noise to understand all the various moving pieces behind good content strategy, and they execute in a systematic, calculated way that drives actual results for the business.
So How Can We All Get There?
Almost every startup gets tricked when looking at the “Matrix” of content marketing. Like Neo throughout most of the film, they see what’s right in front of their face — finalized, published content from an organization they admire — and not all the various moving pieces behind that. But the latter is what a marketer needs to understand, because more often than not, startups and their founders sprint out of the gate and publish the wrong stuff.
This is due to four simple realities facing most startups that typically leads to a frantic rush to produce content, without a hope or prayer of generating any return. I see this all the time in my role at NextView Ventures. I saw it while leading content production at HubSpot. And I see it in my content marketing community group. The four realities are as follows:
- Startups are highly in-tune with the latest trends (and content marketing ascended to near ubiquity).
- Entrepreneurs, even if they won’t admit it, often fantasize about rising to business fame.
- Startups have a surplus of passion, drive, and mission.
- Startups are low on time and money.
Here’s how these combine into potential content marketing disaster:
First, because the team is so plugged into the latest trends, they’ve heard of content marketing and may already be eager to adopt it. (I’m actually surprised at how many of our portfolio companies proactively initiate the discussion on content. Prior to joining NextView, I’d assumed it would take more convincing, but most companies seem genuinely interested in the approach.)
However, despite their initial interest and eagerness, the entrepreneur, founder, or marketer often lacks the right mentality to succeed. They’ve been tricked by the output of the “Matrix,” which is to say, they only learn from the completed product, the sum of other companies’ moving parts. Entrepreneurs may see others, from BuzzFeed to Red Bull to HubSpot to Wistia to InsightSquared, and they get excited by the possibilities. So the team just jumps ahead into production mode and starts brainstorming all kinds of sexy things that they want to create.
Next, driven by the insane surplus of passion and their company’s big, bold mission, the startup rushes ahead and produces stuff. And that’s all it is: just “stuff.” The target buyer has not been discussed, nor have they talked about what success looks like beyond hollow vanity metrics like views and shares. (Unless you sell advertising space, these metrics only matter if they lead to the audience taking another action and converting, such as becoming a subscriber, lead, customer/user, etc.)
How will they prove ROI? Where’s the strategy? How will they avoid going dark? These aren’t discussed enough because the first three realities listed above take over.
And the startup publishes … whatever.
And they schedule it … whenever.
And they measure it … however.
And then, unfortunately for the startup, the fourth fact then kicks in: lack of time and money. They realize that sustaining their publishing is incredibly hard, not to mention actually distributing their content to grow an audience, which then needs to be converted. But because they started with what feels good but isn’t actually strategic, they’ve now sunk precious resources from an already low tank into the wrong things. And when the results don’t come, they’re left with a choice to (a) admit they messed up, (b) dump more resources they don’t really have into an approach they don’t really believe in anymore, or (c) point to content marketing in general as the wrong strategy for the business. (Spoiler alert: Option C usually wins.)
All of this only underscores the need to stop, step back, and understand the process. How do you publish systematically and sustainably? How can you reel in more than just empty views and bring in actual, qualified traffic? And, better still, how can you convert that traffic into something valuable to your business?
Content marketing is nothing if not these two things:
- Solving the same exact problem as your product through a different medium.
- Commitment to process- and data-driven publishing.
That’s all the big guys are doing — we just can’t see it from the outside. We get fooled by their output and assume it’s the real world. But it’s not — it’s a mirage. Their output is a combination of many moving pieces that form a rigorous, sustainable process.
[Tweet “”Content marketing is just solving the same problem as your product” @Jay_zo”]
Visualizing Your Content Marketing Process End-to-End
So, how do you actually go about using content to solve the same problem as your product? And what is this process- and data-driven approach mentioned above? After watching companies struggle with this, we at NextView created a content marketing blueprint for startups (download here) as part of our Growth Guides series of resources. Rather than Matrix code, you’ll visualize the reality of content marketing like this:
You’ll also find the following included in the resource:
- A step-by-step breakdown of the above graphic, from the upfront infrastructure you need to enable greater speed and success, to the process of creating and distributing your content.
- Startup-friendly hacks to this playbook that can help you save time and money.
- Interviews with entrepreneurs and individual contributors who have found success through content marketing.
- Free tools and other resources to explore.
The purpose of this Growth Guide is NOT to give you more work and hours upon hours of reading. Instead, we’re hoping this helps you execute better and faster. So I encourage you to treat it less like an ebook and more like a blueprint to leave by your side as you work.
In the end, it’s Morpheus who perhaps says it best: “Sooner or later, you’re going to realize just as I did that there’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.”
Time to march ahead, only this time, in the right direction. Good luck!