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3 pillars of outside-in content marketing

September 19, 2010

There’s a new buzzword in digital strategy circles: content marketing. As near as I can tell, it’s a tacit acknowledgment that content is what drives success or failure in digital marketing. In common parlance, there is a particular emphasis placed on using social media marketing to attract potential clients to your offerings. But this seems to be part of the general tendency to place emphasis on external social spaces rather than a company’s internal social assets.

As we say in our book, the web is a social medium. Distinctions between on-domain and off-domain content are somewhat artificial. The relevant distinction is between inside-out and outside-in marketing. In inside-out marketing, companies develop messages about their offerings and push them to a mass market with the expectation that a large percentage of the audience will consider it noise and a small percentage will hear the message and engage. In outside-in marketing, companies start by listening to the target audience of folks who are likely to hear and understand the message if it is couched in relevant content. Content marketing is outside-in.

Some of the savvy folks on my must-follow list have adopted the concept with great success. One notable is Valeria Maltoni,  the Conversation Agent (@ConversationAge). She recently wrote a great blog post dispelling the myths of content marketing. Here is a snippet that rings true for me:

The top reason why many organizations and people are holding back from building effective social presences is confusion about what constitutes good content.They’ve heard or imagine that social media is very content intensive, and they don’t have the resources to feed all the streams.

This snippet particularly rings true for me as I attempt to convince my company to invest more heavily in content marketing. Content marketing is expensive because it requires highly skilled writers and editors to ensure that the content is relevant to the target audience and of high enough quality to foster loyalty and engagement. Still, I can demonstrate that achieving 30% more relevance on our marketing content results in more than $1 billion in net new opportunities for our company over a five-year period. Skilled writers and editors pay for themselves many times over if they’re given content marketing projects.

Many of the insights that follow the snippet also ring true. In particular, good content strategy is not about attracting a high volume of potential leads and expecting a large percentage of them to opt out of your experiences. It is about deep engagement with a targeted audience of loyal followers who opt into your digital experiences. Yes this takes investment in good people who know how to analyze audiences and write relevant content for them. But, as I have said, this investment is well worth it.

In our book, we show that the most effective way to achieve better relevance for your target audience is by placing search at the center of your content strategy. In a nutshell, you listen to your target audience by mining their search and social media semantics. You then take this keyword research and develop content that is likely to be relevant to them (on- and off-domain). You attract them through search and social media optimization. And you continue to tune your experiences for better optimization. This is a radical departure from the way marketing is currently done in our inside-out practices. After the break, I develop three things that have to change to make our marketing outside-in.

1. Do keyword research before developing your messaging

In traditional inside-out marketing, a few product marketing managers in a company sit down in a room and talk about how to differentiate their product or offering from the competition. They then develop a messaging model from this discussion. This is all well and good. But if that messaging model does not speak the language of the target audience, it will not be engaging to them.

Too often, we get caught up in describing our products or offerings in our own terms. When we try to connect with the target audience, they don’t understand us or assume that we are talking about something else. The writer uses the messaging model as the building blocks of her content. Then the SEO consultant comes in, does keyword research and finds that the target audience describes these offerings with different words than the building blocks of the content. When the audience clicks the search result and lands on the page, the semantics of the page seem foreign to them and they bounce. When they bounce, they don’t come back. Inside-out messaging does not attract loyal audiences.

If you use keyword research before you build your messaging, your messaging will speak the language of your target audience. The experiences built with the messaging will tend to be optimized for search without needing an SEO consultant to rig them for the search engine. The audience that finds them will tend to engage with them and become loyal, repeat visitors, regular commenters and partners who spread the word to their followers.

2. Focus on the grammar of the target audience

One of the tenets of traditional SEO is to choose keywords with high demand, meaning words that have a lot of search queries per month  in Google AdWords. This is the epitome of inside-out marketing. Again, you develop content and use search as a channel to push it to a mass market, expecting high bounce rates and low engagement rates. Inside-out marketers are OK with this because they still get good volumes of engagement even though they have low engagement rates because there’s a high volume of traffic from high-demand words.

True outside-in SEO takes a different approach. You want to attract a target audience that is likely to engage at a 30% rate or better. To do this, you don’t choose high-demand generic keywords. You choose keywords that are highly relevant to your target audience. That means looking at the phrases your target audience uses and mapping your content to the user intent implicit in those phrases. In B2B tech marketing, this means using the verbs they use at the various phases of the buying cycle (e.g. solve–awareness, compare–consideration, buy–decision). Also, the nouns get more specific to brand names the closer you get to the decision phase. Even though you get lower traffic volume with these words, higher conversion rates return more ROI and brand loyalty.

Bounces are not neutral events: If you force people to opt out of an irrelevant experience, it leaves a bad brand impression with them.

3. Never stop tuning your content for the target audience

In traditional inside-out marketing, you create a piece of content–direct mail, TV ad, radio spot, print ad, web page, etc.–and you try to get it out to the largest audience possible with the dollars you have. Then you measure your results while you go off and create the next piece of content. If your content doesn’t perform, you console yourself that you took your best shot and you’ll do better next time. Rarely do inside-out marketers adjust content that’s already in the market, unless there’s a major problem with it. Inside-out marketers also leave a trail of derelict web pages in their wakes.

In outside-in marketing, you plan to pay careful attention to your engagement and bounce rates and to tune your content to unexpected user behavior. No matter how good you are at doing keyword research early and often to create relevant experiences for your target audiences, there is always room for improvement. Web pages are never done. Abandoned orphan pages are friction for people looking for relevant digital experiences. Good outside-in marketing is iterative, focusing on creating and maintaining a lean and targeted content inventory that gets high engagement rates and low bounce rates.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 21, 2010 12:24 am

    Great post James!

    This is highly relevant to the Digital Labs, during which we invite the teams to plan outside-in marketing. This process starts with listening by mining search and social media.

    Your post explains the importance of the outside-in approach very clearly – I’m adding it to the Digital Community of Practice site now. Thanks!

  2. Mhinjel permalink
    January 5, 2012 1:41 pm

    These kind of post are always inspiring and I prefer to read quality content so I happy to find many good point here in the post, writing is simply great, thank you for the post
    I recently read a post comparing direct marketing to content marketing and thought you might want to check it out.


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