Content marketing is not a just a fancier way of saying “blogging.”
Despite popular belief, they are two distinct things; blogging is often a subset of content marketing, but content marketing encompasses so much more. What constitutes that “so much more,” however, is a matter of much confusion.
In fact, “content marketing” is a nebulous enough concept that there’s no one specific or exact definition.After all, the entirety of your marketing (and much of your sales) will involve content. Which parts are “content marketing” and which parts are “branding” or “sales” or “advertising” is tricky to suss out.
For the purposes of this article, we’ll look at content marketing from the perspective of an eCommerce store that wants to attract new customers and retain and nurture current (and future) ones. We’ll define what content marketing is and isn’t, and examine how it fits into the broader marketing strategy for eCommerce sites. Then we’ll look some of the key ways eCommerce sites can use different forms of content marketing to attract potential customers and retain current ones, turn customers into brand advocates and evangelists, and of course, eventually see all of that translate into sales.
Content marketing doesn’t just start and end at having a blog… so what is it?
While it can be something of a nebulous and tough-to-pin-down concept—if you Google “what is content marketing?” you’ll get tons of different definitions. Those definitions vary somewhat, especially depending on industry. We read through dozens of articles and combined what we learned along with our own experience to come up with the following definition.
Content marketing is using content to provide extra value to customers, either via entertainment or education.
That’s it. Content marketing isn’t about driving sales now, but rather about forging a bond with customers, establishing credibility, growing trust, positioning your brand as an authority, and engaging interested potential customers or current customers so that when they’re ready to buy, they buy from you and buy often.
Content marketing is different than copywriting, which is the copy you craft specifically to sell, like product descriptions, sales emails, advertisements, and landing pages. However, despite their differences, they have a symbiotic and even codependent relationship. Content marketing makes your copywriting more effective because you’ve primed your top-of-the-sales-funnel customers with your good content—and now that they’re ready to move down the funnel and make a purchase, you close the deal with good copywriting. But without good copywriting, your content marketing efforts can be in vain—great content marketing brings in prospects, but if your copywriting doesn’t ultimately help that good content translate into revenue, it’s for nought.
Now… it’s important to keep in mind there are plenty of cases where content marketing and copywriting/sales do overlap, and overlap successfully. “Will It Blend?” is a legendary YouTube series that provided entertaining content while also demonstrating how Blendtec blenders operate. The Blendtec example demonstrates why concrete definitions of content marketing are hard to come by. The line between what’s content marketing and what’s just content can be fuzzy.
And that’s ok. As long as you’re creating good content that provides real value to your current or potential customers, you don’t really have to sweat where it falls on the content spectrum.
In the eCommerce world, content marketing is any type of content you put out that educates or entertains, provides value, and—somewhat frustratingly—usually isn’t directly selling your products. You can think of it as a form of free, indirect, slow burning advertising for your brand.
Content marketing is one of the key ways an eCommerce store can bring potential customers into its sales funnel. The top of the funnel is about “awareness”—the point where customers go from not knowing your brand exists to wanting to learn more about your store and your products. That’s what content marketing does: it makes potential customers aware of your brand, and begin to develop a trust and an affinity for your brand, by providing something to them without asking them to spend money in return.
Content marketing is also an important opportunity for eCommerce stores to capture email subscribers. Once a prospective customer engages with your high-quality content, you want them to keep engaging—and to come back to your site to buy things. Email marketing is the most effective way to create that connection, which is why one of the primary actions stores push readers toward in their content marketing is often email signup.
Over time, those relationships can translate into sales—and, hopefully, repeat sales.
Is content marketing right for every eCommerce store? Yes and no. “Yes” in that the statistics overwhelmingly show that content marketing is smart and effective:
- eCommerce companies that publish 16 or more pieces of content per month get almost 350 percent more traffic and 450 percent more leads than companies that publish four or fewer.
- Content marketing brings in 3.3 times the leads of paid search advertising. (PDF)
- 82 percent of customers feel more positive about a company after reading custom content; and 78 percent perceive a relationship between themselves and that company.
- And conversion rates are almost six times higher for companies that use content marketing than companies that don’t.
But “no” because content marketing is a commitment. It’s not an advertising campaign you spend some time on for a few weeks or months and then release into the world; it’s an ongoing project. And it’s an ongoing project that requires significant investment—either in terms of your time to create high-quality content, your money to pay someone else to create high-quality content, or both. If you’re ready to make that commitment, however, the long-term investment in your store should pay dividends.
And to help you get started, here are some basic content marketing techniques and strategies for eCommerce stores.
Email marketing that’s not about sales
One of the top reasons why people unsubscribe from marketing emails is bad content. That includes content that’s boring, repetitive, or constantly focused on selling without providing anything particularly interesting or useful to the customer. When you make a commitment to using at least some of your emails for content marketing purposes, you’re taking steps toward making your email list more customer friendly and retention focused.
The file sharing platform WeTransfer does this with their newsletter “Wepresent” (which is either pronounced like “we present” or Elmer Fudd saying “represent,” we aren’t sure). The email presents interesting articles relevant to their target audience—none of which are about the nuances of transferring three gigabyte files..
There are a number of very strong benefits to pedagogical marketing (Google it, I just made up that phrase, royalties please). You establish your brand as a thought leader and expert in your space. You build customer loyalty because you’re going out of your way to help improve their lives without asking for anything in return (well… yet). And you hook your customers and keep them eagerly reading the lessons on your blog, in your emails, or in your ebook.
Blue Bottle Coffee has an entire section of their website devoted to educating customers about the vagaries of coffee. It features an online quiz to help you find the perfect coffee match for you; well-written and -designed guides to brewing coffee using different appliances and techniques; a blog digging into a wide variety coffee-related topics; and even a schedule of in-person classes Blue Bottle hosts in major markets. They also invite people to join their email list with the headline “Want to learn more about brewing coffee?” What’s absent from each of these things is any hard sales pitch for their products.
Minimal selling doesn’t make the content ineffective, though. All of that education ultimately accomplishes the same goal: Blue Bottle establishes itself as a bona fide coffee authority, so once you’ve read their guides and you’re ready to brew coffee at home, you gravitate toward their products. After all, the product they make has to be as good as the content they produce, right?
REI does something similar; they have a virtual encyclopedia of tips, advice, guides, and more for camping, hiking, and a slew of other outdoor activities. The content sometimes links to products for sale—but never at the expense of educating or informing. That’s important, as customers can sniff out content that’s clearly just a weakly disguised ad. Yet all that outdoor education content serves the dual purpose of making REI a trusted authority you want to buy from, and potentially getting more people interested in outdoor activities in general.
There are other means of creating educational content (without a hard sell) as well. Beardbrand uses an email series to teach customers everything they could want to know about beard care. An electric bike company called Evelo uses a free eBook called The Complete Electric Bike Buyer’s Guide as an incentive to grow its subscriber base and enhance its credibility through customer education. And Gillware Data Recovery posts long, well-researched answers to user questions about cybersecurity, data loss, and general hard drive and storage issues on Quora.
Videos are a potential opportunity for you to work your products into content that’s engaging, entertaining, and doesn’t feel like an advertisement.
For instance, GoPro became a household name because of action videos—both produced in-house and from users—shot on GoPros. People didn’t feel like they were watching commercials, though—they were watching stone cold lunatics flip their bikes over 72-foot canyons or models skydive from a helicopter.
ChefSteps uses video in a different way. Their product is informational, cooking classes and recipes, much of which is video based. So… they just give a ton of it away. ChefSteps’ YouTube channel features recipes and lessons—and has amassed nearly 900,000 subscribers in the process. Those are all potential customers now at the top of the sales funnel. Over time, some will want to go deeper and sign up for ChefSteps’ premium program. Would they do that without the YouTube content marketing push? Maybe some people would, but most likely not to the level of an estimated $2.4 million per year.
Social media marketing is its own world entirely. To that end, social media, like blogging, isn’t inherently content marketing-oriented; but it can fall under that umbrella. Social media can take the form of content marketing when a brand uses it for something other than promoting products or handling customer service issues.
Grammarly sells an app that detects writing errors—but you wouldn’t know it from their Instagram. Instead, it focuses on two things: Inspirational quotes for writers (“We write to taste life twice”), and language-oriented discussion topics (“What’s your favorite word in the English language?”).
In doing so, they’re creating a community and a destination for writers to find inspiration and geek out about the English language—which, one day, just might lead those writers to paying Grammarly’s subscription fee. Their Instagram is so content marketing-focused that their bio link doesn’t even go to a sales page—it goes to their blog, where there’s more non-sales content.
One big key to properly using social media for content marketing is to create content specifically for each medium. Instagram is the place to show a great picture or video. Facebook can work for something longer form and written. LinkedIn or Medium might be the best spots for a thought leadership piece. Twitter is right for something short and pithy. If you tailor your content to the medium, ultimately it should resonate more than, say, putting the same picture, same short write-up, and same link to a blog post on every site.
User-generated content (UGC) is powerful for a number of reasons. It gives your customers validation, bonds them to the brand, and ushers them down the path toward the ultimate goal of the customer journey: Becoming brand advocates. It adds an authenticity and social proof to your marketing. And it takes some of the burden of creating original content off of you.
The outdoor clothing aggregator Huckberry focuses a good portion of their content marketing on user-generated content and user stories—and uses both to stand out in a crowded marketplace. “The Journal” section of their website features customer stories. Their Ambassadors program focuses on content from large and small influencers. Their monthly newsletter, called “The Rundown,” contains interviews with customers. It all adds up to a brand that constantly reinforces its genuine interest in its customers—and makes new potential customers want to be a part of that crowd.
Spotify is another brand finding ways to maximize UGC. They run an annual end-of-the-year campaign where they reveal a user stats (minutes listened, top artists, top songs, top genre)—and also create content around interesting trends and quirks from the data. The result is a mix of personalized content and user-spawned content that makes a monolithic company feel intimately focused on its users.
While there’s more to content marketing than blogging, your blog can be a major part of your content marketing strategy—and a hub to showcase your content marketing efforts on other channels.
WP Buffs decided to use their blog for content marketing because the data shows 96 percent of people who visit an eCommerce site aren’t ready to buy—so if all of the content is focused on pushing a sale, it’s only really serving four percent of your visitors. So rather than push their managed WordPress plans, their blog instead features educational content for WordPress site owners. They also have a podcast, downloadable eBooks, case studies, and webinars—all content marketing initiatives to help educate current and potential customers to grow their relationship.
You can also use your eCommerce blog as a central hub for your content on other channels. If you have a podcast or YouTube series, you can write a quick blog post with each new episode. You can use your blog to showcase UGC or the content you’ve been putting on social media. And if you have a separate section of your site with educational content (like REI’s encyclopedia we discussed above), you can spotlight parts of it on your blog to direct people towards it.
Other forms of content marketing
We hit on many forms of content marketing here, but there are lots of eCommerce companies finding other unique ways to grow through content. Some examples…
- The clothing store Barney Cools runs its own Soundcloud where they commission mixtapes from DJs and producers that match the vibe of their products.
- The women’s fashion site Pretty Little Thing has a podcast called Behind Closed Doors that features gossip-style interviews with celebrities—it’s not about clothes, but it’s totally on-brand for the company’s target audience.
- And from the “everything old is new again” files, the pet food company Chewy sent handwritten holiday cards to its customers—even once its customer list got up into the millions.
There’s more to content marketing than blogging. Content marketing is a focus on creating any type of content that entertains or educates customers and rarely directly sells to them; instead, it’s a long-term play to grow customer loyalty that can pay off significantly in the future. It works hand-in-hand with your copywriting which, down the road, will close the customers you’ve primed through your content marketing efforts.
For eCommerce stores, content marketing is a worthwhile investment—the stats show that brands making a commitment to it see greater results long-term when it comes to leads and sales. However, it is an investment, an ongoing one, that takes time, money, or both.
So when you are ready to get into content marketing, consider the different avenues you can take, including:
- Email marketing that’s not about sales, but rather delivering interesting content.
- Educational content.
- Videos, especially ones that can showcase your product in interesting ways.
- Content-driven social media.
- User-generated content and stories.
But, of course, that’s just the beginning. Anytime you can create something to engage your customers and potential customers—be it one of the things from the list above, a blog, an infographic, a podcast, or even a handwritten postcard—that’s content marketing. And all signs point to it paying off for you.
Just probably not right away.