I’ve just come back from a BathSPARK meetup in my home town of Bath where the topic was content marketing. The meeting was attended by a mix of marketeers from smaller businesses, some content people from bigger enterprises and a handful of consultants and agencies offering content marketing services.

Amongst a wide ranging debate, questions clustered around three themes – content creation, content distribution and return on investment (ROI). Here are some thoughts on each.

1. Regarding content creation

The key questions people asked were: What should we talk about? And, who should create the content?

A) What should we talk about?

I encourage clients to think of it this way. Imagine that you are creating a person who will represent you in a conversation on the internet. That person’s job is to build relationships with existing customers and potential customers in order to a) increase the likelihood of purchase or some other value creator b) gain a better understanding of what the market wants or needs.

“Listen to the conversations that are happening around the topics your company deals in and offer insightful, useful, amusing or surprising comments”


Ask yourself, ‘How should that person, that representative of my company behave? And what should they talk about in order to build those relationships?’

Should they interrupt or gatecrash conversations in order to talk about themselves? Should they share irrelevant content in a desperate attempt to be noticed? Should they pester? Should they jump on the nearest social meme?

Or should they listen to the conversations that are happening around the topics your company deals in and offer insightful, useful, amusing or surprising comment? Should they find ways of explaining topics that help people make sense of them? Should they host discussions with a variety of voices in order to learn what interests potential customers?

Clearly it’s the latter. So decide what you stand for, what topics you are an authority on and who your audience is, then find ways to offer them value through content. Formats can range from white papers, to guest posts, to comments and images, whatever is appropriate for the platform and the conversation that takes place there.

And don’t think of it as marketing. Instead think of your content as a loss-leading product. A product that’s valuable to consumers in its own right. A product designed to foster a relationship and increase the likelihood that they’ll turn into a paying customer. And don’t abuse that relationship by slipping in a hard sell. You’ll lose trust.

B) Who should create the content?

Ask yourself, who can create content of sufficient quality and frequency to enable us to add value to the conversation we are joining? Clearly it’s best if you have internal staff who have the skills and time to do it, because they will be a more authentic and natural representative of your company. They will have the domain knowledge to be able to answer questions with authority and it’s just better to do it yourself if you can. But it does take time. In my experience tacking it on to people’s job titles means they tack it on to the bottom of their to-do lists and frequency and quality of posts suffers.

If you don’t have the skills or time then you need to bring in outside help. And there are loads of companies out there. I would recommend finding someone who will take time to genuinely help you find your voice and your position in the conversation and create something unique to your company. Beware of content factories that bash out the same idea for different clients with a different heading. Remember an important part of developing relationships is authenticity.

2. Regarding distribution

A) Make the content genuinely valuable

The term ‘pay attention’ is apt. People’s attention is a limited resource so they allocate it based on the perceived value they’ll receive (subject to various cognitive biases, but that’s another story). To stand any chance of grabbing attention the content needs to be genuinely valuable to your audience. And if it makes them look good they will share it. Everybody knows word of mouth is the best marketing. So the first rule of distribution is to get the content right. See above for tips!

B) Start with your core audience

Whether it be snowboarding, power tools or medical data – there will be a community of people out there who care about your topic. There will be Linked-in groups, forums, journals and events for that community. Find the influencers in that community, present your point of view and engage with the feedback.

Ensure that your content is designed to be shared In his book Contagious Jonah Berger identifies the following factors that contribute to the sharing of content and ideas, based on his research.

  • Social proof – would it make someone look good to share the content you are suggesting?
  • Triggers – will people be naturally reminded of the message in your content as they go about their daily lives?
  • Emotion – will your content cause an emotional reaction (funny, poignant, surprising)?
  • Public – does the idea like being out in the open (Apple’s white earbuds, Movember moustaches, Brompton Bikes)?
  • Practical value – is the content useful to people?
  • Stories – does the content tell a story? People love stories.

C) Make your content machine-readable

Tag up your content to make it easy for Google to or Facebook or whatever platform we’re talking about to understand what it is. Content platforms are in the business of recommending content to users in order to keep their attention, they’re on your side. So make it easy for them. There are lots of resources telling you how to do this.

3. Regarding measurement and return on investment

So you’ve made some content and you’ve fed it into the online conversation around your topics. How do you know it was worth the effort? I must confess I am not up to date with the various platforms out there and the ins and out of what they can do with regard to tracking engagement with content through to purchase or some other pay-off. I know Google Universal Analytics and others are tracking user-journeys across multiple devices and multiple sessions and it’s only going to get better over time (if you think being tracked is ‘better’).

That said there are effects you can’t measure. For example I subscribe to content from a CRM/automated-marketing platform called Intercom.io which is targeted at product managers. I rate their stuff, so when a client asks me about platforms I’d recommend, I mention them. Not because I’ve done an analysis of their product, but because I trust that it will be of the same quality as their content, which is great – this the ‘Halo Effect’ in action).

But there is no way of Intercom knowing that this particular verbal conversation has taken place, so when my client sits down and Googles ‘intercom crm’ they don’t know why. And I don’t think that story is unusual at all. Until Google records every conversation (no doubt they’re trying) measurement will never be perfect.

What’s more I think it can be really detrimental to focus too much on ROI when it comes to content. It leads to forcing things into conversation which are inappropriate and erode the trust you’ve built up. And it can be hard to interpret the various metrics that are available resulting in unwarranted changes to content strategy before it’s had time to pay off.

And anyway, do you have a choice? Would you really consider not talking to potential customers on the internet? If you’re going to do it at all, you may as well have a strategy and do it well.

You can see more of Alastair’s thoughts on content marketing and digital strategy at his website: Product Panda