There’s a lot riding on your content marketing strategy, because it isn’t simply about ticking boxes in the way that, say, technical SEO can be — it can be anything from wholly ineffective (even counterproductive if sufficiently botched) to a phenomenal money-spinner.

What’s more, there’s no such thing as a perfect plan: there’s always room for improvement, no matter how good you get. Even if you’re happy with the results your current strategy is yielding, you could surely be more efficient, economical, or well-rounded.

To make improvements, though, you need to know what works and what doesn’t in the current digital marketing climate.

There are two main ways to glean this: you can experiment at great length, trying countless A/B comparisons at huge scale until the cream rises to the top, or you can reverse-engineer the tactics of top companies after they’ve spent hugely to do just that.

Only one of those options is optimally suited to budget-conscious businesses, and I’m sure you can tell which one, but you can’t puzzle through the best practices without examples.

Content Marketing Best Practices Inspired by 5 Top Brands

We’ll cover 5 content marketing best practices here:

  1. Make your content strategy cohesive.
  2. Allow room to get extremely creative.
  3. Encourage UGC wherever possible.
  4. Don’t be too pushy about your products.
  5. Give people reasons to root for you.

To do so, let’s take a look at examples using 5 top performing companies.

1. HubSpot

Through the implementation (and subsequent popularization) of its topic cluster concept, HubSpot has sparked a major shift in how digital content marketers approach SEO-friendly content production.

Building topic clusters is all about bringing related content together and binding it in a way that’s valuable for visitors and edifying for search crawlers.

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If you wanted to distribute content about help desk software, for example, the conventional model would have you trickle-feed articles about help desks and customer support through a blog and leave it there. The topic cluster model, however, would have you create pages for specific topics and fill them with links to relevant content — e.g. building a “help desk tools” page hub and fleshing it out with links to articles such as “Three Ways to Optimize Your Help Desk” or “The Best Mobile Help Desk Tools.”

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The broad takeaway that applies to all content marketing is that cohesion is vitally important.

Scattered ad-hoc pieces of content won’t be anywhere near as impactful as targeted pieces intended to be considered as part of a larger strategy. Before you produce anything, think carefully about how effectively it can return value over time as part of a collective (kapost has some excellent tips for handling the strategic transition).

2. Old Spice

If you’ve been awake at any time in the last 9 years, you’ve probably heard of Old Spice’s 2010 campaign entitled “Smell like a Man, Man” — a campaign that contributed massively to the modernization of a brand that had been perceived as very old-fashioned. While that’s certainly an inspiring campaign, though, it isn’t what I’d like to focus on here.

Instead, I’m looking at The School of Swagger, a collection of resources provided to help adolescent boys deal with the awkwardness of puberty.

Most notably, it features a downloadable ebook called “The Struggle is Real: A Wild Guide to Growing-Up for Moms and Sons” (moms being highlighted because the company often targets women who buy products for men and boys in their families).

I find this campaign inspiring because it shows that you can get extremely creative with content production: you don’t need to stick to generic blog posts or infographics.

If you can find room in your content strategy for something long-form and ideally narrative-driven (if you’ve never written an extended story, try following these broad book writing tips from Jericho Writers), then it’s absolutely worth pursuing. And if you’re partway through a campaign and you happen upon a fresh idea, don’t be afraid to go off on a tangent: agile marketing has its benefits.

3. Coca-Cola

It’s an obvious addition, sure, but one that’s difficult to avoid when you’re looking for content marketing inspiration.

The “Share a Coke” campaign launched in 2014, and rapidly entered mainstream awareness through the simple ingenuity of its personalization strategy: each bottle or can had a name printed on it, and any one of that name (or who knew someone with that name) would be more interested in buying it as a result. It even led to a bottle customization service (see below):

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The reason this warrants mentioning as a content marketing campaign can be summed up in just three letters: UGC.

User-generated content is a goldmine for companies of all shapes and sizes, because it’s the extra value that requires little work to generate — you need only sit back, watch your followers promote your business for you, and perhaps occasionally step to provide feedback or remove unsuitable content.

In fact, user generated content is so successful for brands that user generated videos on YouTube get 10x more views than content created by the brand itself.

Once the “Share a Coke” campaign revved up, the UGC rushed forth. People loved taking selfies with the drinks sharing their names, or using them as excuses to start up conversations with people they didn’t know too well. It was ripe for parody, surely, but for the most part it was simple fun — fun that kept the Coca-Cola brand highlighted and likely resulted in a great many selfie-driven sales.

The best practice takeaway here is to lean on your brand followers for support. Your marketing will never have the raw potency that their endorsements can, so the more you can encourage them to talk about you, the more you’ll benefit.

4. IKEA

IKEA has become a full-blown worldwide phenomenon, winning great affection with its idiosyncratic product presentation and its sheer value as a one-stop shop for everything anyone’s who’s just moved house is likely to need. One thing it’s done tremendously well through its content marketing is to reproduce the feeling you get when you’re walking around an IKEA store and seeing available products in situ as part of representative room arrangements.

Check out the Ideas section of the IKEA website and you’ll see what I mean. Each post is about a particular style, or a type of space, and provides various illustrated suggestions that partially or entirely feature IKEA products. This type of content marketing is so effective because it’s relatively subtle — while you can’t look at the illustrations and fail to notice the IKEA products, you’re under no obligation to use those products in particular.

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For instance, in the Mother’s Day breakfast piece, the KORKEN jar with lid is featured, but the text simply says “Instead of serving it in a bowl, try filling a jar so that it’s like a little gift to open.” You could clearly use any jar. If you happen to need one, the IKEA suggestion is there, but the reader is never given a hard sell.

My best practice takeaway here is don’t be too pushy about your products. Advertise them, mention them, endorse them, but respect the reader’s options. Pushing too hard will only make them resent the advertising and want to buy elsewhere.

5. Nike

If you were to put together an all-time elite team of brands that get content marketing, Nike would absolutely warrant a place, because it’s been getting results ever since the early days of “Just do it.”

The piece of Nike brilliance I’d going to highlight here is the Breaking2 campaign that was launched at the end of 2016 and concluded in May 2017. The purpose of Breaking2 was to have any of a group of elite runners break the 2-hour mark for running a marathon — something that seemed all but impossible to many.

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What’s so notable about this campaign is that it didn’t technically have a successful result. After all, the fastest runner delivered a time of 2 hours and 25 seconds, leaving the purpose unfulfilled. However, since that was a full 2.5 minutes faster than the previous record, and over 13 million people followed the race across myriad channels, it would have been a massive win for Nike regardless of the lead-in.

Of course, given that the lead-in allowed for a lot of motivational content charting the journey (culminating in a popular documentary), the value returned to Nike was even higher. In some ways, the fact that the mark wasn’t reached (despite the record-breaking performance) made Nike look even better — sometimes you don’t succeed, but you should still try your best.

The takeaway for content marketers? Set a goal, and let people in. It doesn’t really matter if you make it. What matters is that the journey allows you to show your humanity, passion, and dedication — and the more those things resonate with people, the more they’ll ultimately feel attached to your brand.

Wrapping up

To conclude, let’s revisit the major takeaways from these marketing-savvy brands:

  • Make your content strategy cohesive.
  • Allow room to get extremely creative.
  • Encourage UGC wherever possible.
  • Don’t be too pushy about your products.
  • Give people reasons to root for you.

By following these basic tips, you should be able to significantly boost the efficacy of your content marketing strategy, bringing in increased brand interest at reduced cost.

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