In earlier articles, I defined content marketing as an approach based on finding out what your target audience needs and delivering that. You’ll notice I didn’t define content marketing as what happens on your agency’s nonprofit blog or on YouTube channels, on Twitter, on Facebook Live, in white papers or on whatever other platform is emerging as you read this.
But people often confuse content marketing with the channels it is commonly distributed through.
For example, some businesses think they have a content marketing plan because they maintain an active blog and put out a new entry every. single. day.
That takes a lot of money or time or both — especially if it’s a well-written blog. And yet, the blog may be doing nothing to attract new customers or to achieve any strategic goals.
Content marketing should be defined by its function or what it’s trying to accomplish. The format is secondary to that. Your nonprofit blog is a format, but it is not content marketing necessarily or by itself.
Much of what you see in content marketing arrives in a few common formats:
- Blog posts, of course
- White papers
- Videos that are interesting, inspiring or funny (Remember the Ice Bucket Challenge?)
But just because it’s on a blog or compulsively shareable doesn’t make it content marketing. In fact, most of what’s happening on these formats is promotion.
A glance at almost any nonprofit blog will show that few do anything but promote their cause, their own work or their volunteers and clients.
In fact, this series was partly inspired by an earlier effort to show off nonprofit blogs doing great content marketing. My colleague Joseph Rauch, who looked high and low, actually had trouble finding good examples. He instead ended up writing about how How Nonprofit Marketing Isn’t Quite Getting the Content Thing Yet.
Not that there’s anything wrong with promoting your cause, your work, your supporters and your clients. That probably is necessary to your overall nonprofit marketing plan. But those traditional tactics aren’t rooted in putting the needs of the target customer first. They are rooted in promoting the brand.
So let’s think function first. Decide what you’re trying to accomplish, and then you can choose your channels.
Choose a channel relevant to your goals
Before deciding on a limited number of channels, you’ll need to decide on your content marketing goals. You may, for example, decide a couple of these are your primary objectives for a content plan:
- Engage your target customers
- Establish yourself as a thought leader in your community, sector or field.
- Gain trust
- Establish yourself as an authority
- Show that you can be an effective partner
- Show that your organization is innovative
By putting out content that accomplishes any of these, you are ultimately attracting attention so that people come to you.
We’re going to go into goals and other fundamental questions in a later article on strategy and planning, but what I want to emphasize here is that you shouldn’t assume you need to be on a certain channel because you heard that was very popular now. The channel decision should be decided by the goal, among other essential questions such as the target audience.
Oddly, even the most sophisticated Chief Marketing Officers at Fortune 500 companies make this mistake. My colleague Pete Sena, who is an expert in digital marketing and innovation design, calls this “me too marketing” or “check the box marketing.”
“They say to themselves, “We need to be on Snapchat. We need predictive marketing. We need connected tech and an app.” They get caught up in wanting to be involved in every new tool or concept they hear about so they can “check the box” that yes, they’ve got that one.
Sometimes brands get so drawn to shiny objects they forget to think about who their audience is right now and — more importantly — who their audience will be tomorrow. They’re not thinking deeply enough about their customers’ wants and needs. They’re grabbing onto social media platforms or other marketing tools without any real strategy or purpose to guide them.”
Today’s channels. If you were going to make the “check-the-box marketing” mistake, you would be using all of these channels that are popular right now:
- Your own website
- Pages on social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.
- Media sharing sites like SnapChat, YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest, and SlideShare, etc.
- Managed groups within those platforms, such as professional discussion groups on LinkedIn
- Community and Q&A sites like Quora, Yahoo Answers, or any Listserv or discussion board where a particular group hangs out
- Email newsletters
- Search engine results pages (also known as SERPs) — i.e. search engine marketing via SEO or PPC promotion of your content
- Livestreaming tools like Facebook Live
Classic channels. And you would probably be turning your nose up at some of the channels that are less fashionable right now:
- Traditional media like newspapers, TV and radio
- Direct mail
- Ads on the sides of buses
- Door-to-door canvassing
- Carrier pigeon
- Messages in bottles carried away on the ocean currents
I list these very unlikely methods of reaching your audience to emphasize an important point. Channels come and go. What lasts is your commitment to communicating trust, authority and expertise. And, luckily, that’s what’s in your control.
The second point to remember is that the best channel for you depends entirely on your target customers and where they actually are and circulate. If the people you want to connect with are completely off the grid for some reason, then skywriting might be ideal for your campaign. Go for it.
Less dramatically, but following the same logic, if your target audience rarely goes online, there’s not much point in maintaining a Facebook page to reach them with.
Every platform is right for a limited set of circumstances, and none is right for every marketing plan. So you should avoid any marketing agency or consultant that is more enthused about its methods than about figuring out your strategic needs.
Enough messing around. What channels are for us? (And do we need a nonprofit blog?)
Well, the answer depends on a few factors unique to your nonprofit. On a more practical level, you are probably going to start out by deciding a few basic things:
- How much to use your own website
- Which one or two social media sites to build an audience on
- How you use your email list for content marketing
- Whether it’s important for you to bother worrying about (and therefore trying to control) your rank in Google search results
- If there are any other less common channels that are just perfect for your particular organization and that you can use creatively
SERPs (search engine results pages) are a channel, and as ubiquitous as they are, and as powerful as Google seems to be, you shouldn’t just uncritically spend your engergy on SEO (search engine optimization.) I have one B2B client who’s sales happen in a very direct one-to-one hands-on way. Not only that, their leads are all developed in a direct one-to-one hands-on way. Their prospective buyers just aren’t going to discover them — or their competitors — through Google search. So SERPs are not a high value channel for this client. We put in a little time on SEO, because every little bit helps, but it’s not a priority versus giving their business development team great white papers that they can literally hand out.
In the case of local nonprofit organizations, most have access to channels that are totally unique to their community such as newsletters put out by the local library, the Chamber of Commerce or local philanthropic foundations.
This parallels a tactic common in B2B marketing to find opportunities to publish their own guest articles in industry magazines or websites — either in the industry they themselves operate in or in the industry of the companies they are trying to market to.
For example, software company selling payroll management solutions might offer their content to editors at software design journals or to editors at human resources journals.
So ask yourself what the local equivalent is of “industry publications.” That’s a channel you want to be in.
What would Sunny Center do? (And yes, it includes a nonprofit blog)
Let’s consider our imaginary after-school program from Part 4 of this series, Sunny Center. They have some content that is helpful to parents, right? They have articles on back-to-school stress and talking to your teenager and so on. They ought to offer that material to the internal communications staff at the major employer in their area to use in their employee newsletters.
Some companies won’t be open to that, but if the content is good and useful — that is, if it was developed in the spirit of helpfulness and not to solicit — some companies will appreciate it. They’ll publish the articles, which will bring Sunny Center’s name to a new and broader audience, and it will pay dividends for Sunny Center over time.
Channels like that are unique to each community and to the kind of work each nonprofit does.
Equally, though, Sunny Center might also determine that the teenagers they’re hoping to reach are active on social media and that a page for their nonprofit on Snapchat would indeed be valuable. They could promote material from their blog that that’s genuinely valuable to this target audience — perhaps why your parents keep asking about your day at school or what to do if you’re feeling bullied.
The key is to make those decisions based on thoughtful analysis — not doing any of them just because you heard somewhere that you should.
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I have a vision of a content marketing agency that consistently produces standout material aligned with my clients’ business goals.