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Successful Digital Marketing Strategies Have These Three Things

I recently popped off on Twitter that digital marketing was easy, saying that successful digital marketing strategies focuses on three things for: content, getting in front of people and authenticity. I also said that most businesses get two out of the three wrong, diminishing the effectiveness of their strategy. But I got one thing wrong as well: as a practitioner of digital marketing for close to a decade, I forgot how hard it can be. While these three things may be easy to say, they can be hard to put in practice. It’s no different than a basketball player saying, “Basketball is easy: just make your shots, play defense and hustle.”

The goal of this post is to further explain by what I mean of each of the topics, how businesses can get tripped up on each of them and some resources that folks can shore up their digital marketing capabilities.

While I maintain that the topics should come easy to most digital marketing professionals/agencies, let me start off by apologizing to Bret for the terse, oversimplified reply. Twitter has too much bluster these days and we should always strive to be more helpful than terse. This post is an effort to do just that.

Content Is King (But It Has to Be Good, Really Good)

When I joined content marketing in 2011, there was a renewed interest in producing content. Google’s algorithm was rewarding content placed both on your site and authoritative third party sites, and there was this massive “gold rush” for producing and placing as much content as possible. My team was no exception.

We were churning out articles, videos and infographics with the best of them. Most of them were good, few were rock stars, but we were playing the game (as was most in industry)—after all, content was king.

And then it happened around 2013: the content glut.

“Content” became a buzzword that everyone was talking about, whether you were in tech or made dog food. Content, content, content. People wanted content: they didn’t have a clue what they would do with it and didn’t have a care if it was good.

Fast forward to the present, and content is still king. But it has to be good. Really, really good. To use a baseball analogy, no longer are singles and doubles going to work. You got to have homeruns and triples when it comes to content. So, what makes good content? To me, it must fall in one of these buckets:

  • Solve a very real problem for your particular niche (both short and long is OK)
  • Showcase people solving their problems with your solution
  • An unexpected application of your product/service
  • Inspirational, light-hearted or fun

Yes, I understand the need for press releases, pieces on organizational changes or the latest product announcements, but those are just table stakes. Good content rises above that and does one of the four things listed above. And above all, good content respects the time of your readers.

Solve a Very Real Problem for Your Niche

The guiding concept for this type of content is to be helpful. Put yourself in your user’s shoes and provide relief to a problem that’s afflicting them. This type of content can be either long or short, that isn’t as important as solving the person’s problem. People will read a 3,000-word opus if it is abundantly clear that the time put in consuming the content will yield results equally or greater than the value of that time.

Often, the best ways to solve a very real problem is to give back to your community and write about how you overcame a particular problem. But for marketers who are marketing a product that they don’t actually use, it’s imperative to sit down with people who do use it and tease out problems that consumers face. For tech marketers, this means having active conversations with your technical talent building and using your products rather than trying to market it to someone in a vacuum.

Y'all got a problem? Yo, my content solves it.
Y’all got a problem? Yo, my content solves it.

One of the pieces that I’ve created that hits on this issue was the One Image to Rule Them All, a guide for the one image size you need to know on social. I had experienced a very real problem of having to resize images across social media platforms, so I dusted off my trusty calculator (I was once an engineer after all), crunched the numbers and came up with an image size that can be used across platform. This post gets thousands of reads a month.

For B2B tech, the white paper that comes to mind is the State of the Cloud Report by RightScale. This is a masterful piece of content that provides information (getting solid information is a problem for many in the cloud/technology) and has become a seminal piece of content marketing for RightScale, year-over-year.

Showcase People Solving Problems with Your Solution 

When we talking about showing others using your solution to solve their problems, these two words come to mind: customer story. But pay particular attention to those words, it is “customer” story, not “your company” story. In fact, it should be “Customer” with a capital “C,” and if all caps didn’t imply shouting, it should really be “CUSTOMER” story.

If you are going to feature a customer using your product, service or technology, you have to put the customer as the central protagonist of this story. Say it with me, it is about THEM not YOU. This is something that is very unpalatable for most brands, after all, you’re the one spending the money! Why shouldn’t the story be about us? The answer is that it’s more compelling to talk about the customer.

You know who’s killing it right now when it comes to showing customers using their technology? Microsoft and Apple.

Instead of talking about their Big Data solution and how it can process so X bits in Y seconds on hardware with Z specs, Microsoft demonstrates their capability through showing how they are preventing diseases by helping scientists analyze a tremendous amount of data through mosquitos.

Apple took a unique approach to the customer story on their latest Watch campaign called Dear Apple that aired through the Olympics. They put the customer front and center by having them read their own words and stories about how the Watch has impacted their lives—sometimes even saving it. This is far more powerful than talking about the latest screen resolution or chipset.

At Rackspace, I had the pleasure of getting to work on a customer story profiling YouCaring and how we helped power them and J.J. Watt in the largest crowdfunding effort ever for Hurricane Harvey. We wanted to showcase how our support was there for YouCaring so that they could help Watt raise a tremendous $37M in funds for Houston and the surrounding areas.

Unexpected Use of Your Product

One of the hardest, but potential to have the largest reach, forms of content is showcasing your product in an unexpected way. This not only will delight your fans and customers, it will encourage them to share it with their friends.

The piece that comes to mind that was absolutely killer was what Samsung did with their solid-state drives almost ten years ago. Rather than talking the speeds and feeds, the team put together a video that showcased what that speed ACTUALLY means in real life. The result was nothing less than YouTube gold, back in an era when views weren’t bought.

Inspirational, Light-Hearted and Fun 

This is the category of content that has the biggest risk/reward ratio. Done poorly, marketing that aspires to be inspirational, light-hearted or fun can fall flat. But done properly, you can have a hit that really resonates. This is the toughest form of marketing because it’s so difficult for you to get out of your own bubble and produce something that your AUDIENCE will find inspirational or fun. The biggest asset to have if you’re working on a piece along this line is empathy, truly putting yourself in your audience’s shoes.

I hate to sound like a broken record, but Microsoft is once again a force in this area of content. The Microsoft AI commercial that featured the conscious rapper Common during the Olympics was incredibly powerful. In it, he goes through all the tools and possibilities that technology is giving us, ending with the question, “What will you do with it?” Powerful.

How People Trip Up on Content

As I mentioned at the top of the post, most people trip up on two of the three digital marketing topics. With content, I’ve found that larger, slower-moving corporations have problems with making great content. It seems as though the marketers forget that there’s a person on the other end of the marketing and often lack the empathy to put themselves in the position of their audience. Taking a look in the mirror of, “Does this matter to me if I was a customer?” is imperative. That’s why many of the larger corporations have to get outside of themselves to produce solid content and often hire an agency to help distil their truth for a broader audience.

But you know who does content really well? Startups and smaller companies. The reason is that they are closer to the people creating the product and they’re closer to their customers. Some of the most supremely helpful content comes out of tech startups posting to their forums/communities. I’ll never forget how powerful the Slicehost forum was for our early cloud customers at Rackspace. Marketers at startups also have the benefit of being closer to the product team, and for the smaller startups they most likely have a genuine interest/may be an end user of the product themselves.

Getting in Front of Your Audience (It’s a Pay-to-Play World Baby)

After you have that content, it’s imperative to make sure that you get it in front of people. This is the next place that people get tripped up on. And the reason is that you have to put some money behind the message if it is ever going to see the light of day. Let me ask you the following:

  1. Would you ever spend the time to make a commercial to have it air only once on TV?
  2. Would you ever record a spot on the radio to have it only air once on the radio?
  3. Would you invest the time in creating artwork for a poster and only print one to advertise a show?

Obviously, the answer is “No” to all those questions. So, why would you spend all this time, effort and money into producing content if the only exposure to your audience is a blip on their RSS feed (if anyone still uses those), a brief moment in a Twitter timeline or the hope that it gets picked up on Hacker News?

One of the most misguided notions when it comes to digital marketing, and social media marketing in particular, is that it is “free.” The idea is that if I create something and post it to Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn, my entire audience is going to see it. I got news for you Toto, you ain’t in 2007 anymore.

Social marketing is a pay-to-play world now.

In fact, the notion that all your followers will see your social media post is one of the myths and lies of digital marketing consultants that I’ve debunked in this post. Plainly put, organic social is not a viable strategy to get your message out in 2018 (and hasn’t been for the past six or more years).

We live in a pay-to-play world and you’ll have to have a comprehensive digital strategy that spans social, search and display (though I’m biased for more of a social strategy given how prevalent ad blockers are today).

As you build your content, you need to earmark dollars to spend on promoting it. Sure, you might catch lightning in a bottle where one post resonates and you get a ton of organic search volume. But that is the exception rather than the rule. This is why focusing less on quantity and more on quality content matters: you only have so much money to promote your content and you want to be promoting winners.

When it comes to social media marketing, the platforms have amazing tools to reach specific buyers. This is because many of them have voluntarily given out information on their preferences as they fill out their online profiles. Additionally, platforms like Facebook has a further notion of who the person is by virtue of their offline pixel gathering data on their web browsing habits. This means that you can target all females in the Bay Area who make $150,000+, don’t have kids and love Justin Bieber on Facebook: 32,000 women fit this target. Seriously.

How People Trip Up Getting in Front of Their Audience

When it comes to making sure their audience sees their content, startups are most apt to fall short. This is a function of money: in the bootstrapped world of a startup, funds to place posts, whitepapers and webinars may not be readily available. However, by not putting some dollars behind digital marketing, startups run the risk of never getting their message out. Furthermore, they may also minimize the impact of all the effort (and money) they’re putting into content creation.

On the other hand, larger companies often have budget allocated to promote their content. But they are still at risk, namely because (1) their team may not have the appropriate digital marketing skills and (2) their agency may lack those skills as well.

Paid social, search and display is a tricky beast: I believe that you have to have a personal interest in learning it as much as a professional one. This is because the platforms are constantly updating, evolving and releasing new features. Furthermore, you have to have a team that is willing to question the results that they get: sometimes a fantastic CPC/CTR is an indication of an actual problem rather than a successful campaign. For example, one time an agency I was working with wanted to target the job role of a president and instead targeted the “interest” of a President. Inadvertently, the company spent $50k+ to target folks interested in President Trump that had nothing to do with tech!

Being Authentic with Your Audience (The Hardest Thing to Do)

The last piece is finding a way to be authentic with your audience. This is the hardest thing to do and one that I don’t have a lot of guidance on. In short, “you do you.”

People ache for authenticity—they want to do business with companies that can keep it real and step out of corporate speak. This is why the Wendy’s Twitter account has caught fire and why influencer marketing has become prevalent. Consumers want to feel that there is actually something “real” behind the brand.

It’s hard to be authentic as a person, but doubly hard to be authentic as a company. Having a clear definition of your core values and corporate responsibility can help. But they have to be more than buzz words on a piece of people—people have to live and breathe them.

We can spot someone being fake a mile off, but it’s hard to put your finger on what makes something real. If you’re a startup, you have the luxury of having your founders to help guide you. Why did they start the company? What problems were they trying to solve? How do they carry themselves? But it is still hard. Larger companies are at an even bigger disadvantage.

But I can tell you this, the sooner you define your authentic voice, the better it’s going to be. I’ve seen it in my person business, and I’ve seen it in the professional world. When you can speak to your community in an authentic manner, the sky’s the limit.

Getting Help with Your Digital Marketing Strategy 

After writing this post, I’m even more convinced how misguided those tweets were that I sent out. Digital marketing concepts may be easy, but the execution is indeed hard. However, I would say that if you’re a company hiring an agency or consultant, you should expect these things to come easier for them (especially content creation and/or getting in front of your audience). This is, after all, what you’re paying them to do.

I’m currently consulting on digital marketing strategy both in and out of San Antonio. I’d love to be able to help provide guidance for your overarching strategy, or simply to put on a workshop for your team to help improve their skills. I have deep experience in content, social (paid and organic), video and nurture. I also have experience in paid search and display. But the greatest quality is that I see how all these things work together in concert.

Additionally, if you’re company is located in San Antonio, you have two unique opportunities to help improve your digital marketing department:

  1. Scaleworks just announced their Marketing Academy where folks can apply to “gain invaluable work experience inside of unique and growing SaaS companies, complete with hands-on training, peer mentorship, and monthly coaching sessions from some of the world’s best marketing experts.” This is an incredible opportunity for people new to the digital marketing field or those wishing to make a career change. I know many of the people on the Scaleworks team and I’m confident that they’ll rapidly build a top-notch program and marketers.
  2. Digital Creative Institute provides real-world instruction to a cohort of marketers in a unique system. Each of the students enrolled in the program are vetted and placed as a full-time employee at a company and throughout the year they are given instruction two nights a week. This helps the company know that they are getting a person who has a keen interest in digital marketing as well as receiving a strong educational foundation in it.

As you approach digital marketing remember to have an emphasis on quality content, find a way to get your message in front of your market and be authentic. Remember to also respect your consumer and ensure that the content you produce is worth their time. Finally, this space is rapidly changing, ensuring that your team or partner is up on the latest trends, products and features is paramount if you want to get the best value for your digital marketing spend.

This is all easy to say, but really hard to do.

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