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If you’ve read our article What is Digital Marketing, you know digital marketing refers to all the online strategies used to sell products and services (whether you’re targeting potential audiences via computer, iPad, or app). But that’s a pretty broad definition.
Under this big umbrella, you’ll also come across more specific terms related to marketing roles, concepts, and methodologies. Probably the two most common among them are “content marketing” and “content strategy.”
Are these two ways of describing the same thing? And are they crucial concepts in the grand scheme of digital marketing?
The answers are:
- no, not really
- yes, very!
Content marketing and content strategy are two distinct (though related) digital marketing approaches, and each plays a role in selling products and services online.
So without further ado, let’s talk content marketing versus content strategy, get a sense of what’s different about the two concepts, learn how they work together, and start to see why they’re so important to the work of digital marketing.
Table of Contents
- What is Content Marketing?
- Content Marketing Examples
- What is Content Strategy?
- Content Strategy Examples
1. What is Content Marketing?
The marketing software company Hubspot defines content marketing as:
“a marketing program that centers on creating, publishing, and distributing content for your target audience—usually online—the goal of which is to attract new customers.”
In other words, content marketing (like the name suggests) is literally the practice of creating content to use for digital marketing purposes.
So does that mean it’s the same thing as creating print advertisements, radio spots, and television commercials in traditional marketing?
Well, not exactly.
While print, radio, and TV ads ARE content (and that content is used for marketing purposes), they’re not technically “content marketing.” That’s because the term “content marketing” refers specifically to digital strategies in which marketers use proactive campaigns to reach new visitors. In the simplest terms: content marketing is how marketers are using dynamic storytelling to attract new audiences.
In order to really understand what content marketing is, it also helps to take a brief detour and understand a term called “inbound marketing.”
Inbound Marketing—A Brief Detour
Inbound marketing is a term first coined by Hubspot co-founder Brian Halligan. Today, Hubspot defines inbound marketing as:
“[a method of] creating valuable experiences that have a positive impact on people and your business [by attracting] prospects and customers to your website and blog through relevant and helpful content.”
This definition of inbound marketing illustrates how significantly different digital content is from more traditional marketing content.
Traditional marketing (print, radio, television, etc.) is generally a passive experience—an advertisement appears in the print or visual medium a customer is viewing and makes an appeal for a product or service.
Digital marketing, inspired by Hubspot’s “inbound” definition, is a more dynamic and interactive experience. Online, customers are likely to encounter content by searching for it themselves. Rather than watching their favorite TV show and incidentally seeing an advertisement for a car, for instance, digital consumers are searching Google for terms related to cars and actively finding car-related content.
With this inbound model in mind, you can see why digital marketing content needs to be more than a static advertisement asking customers to buy. The potential customer searching Google for cars isn’t looking for car advertisements, they’re looking for useful articles about “the best cars of 2019,” or “how to get a good deal when shopping for new cars.”
Content marketing is the practice of creating that kind of helpful content and using its value proposition to guide customers down a sales funnel, building a long term relationship with your company or brand en route to an eventual purchase.
2. Content Marketing Examples
Here are some of the core types of digital content used in a content marketing campaign:
Blog Posts and Articles
Blogs and blog posts are at the heart of content marketing and lead generation. Quality blog content that’s relevant to your customer base and written per best SEO (search engine optimization) practices makes your site (and content) “findable” by consumers on Google and other search engines (and keeps them on your site once they’ve found you).
Real life example: I buy a new coffee grinder and need help figuring out how to set it up. I search Google for the right grind setting and end up on a blog for a coffee roasting company. Their article is helpful, I go down a rabbit hole and read a few more articles while I’m there, and I return to their site the next few times I have coffee questions.
The roasting company’s brand creates value in my mind, and eventually—while on their site—I end up ordering some of the coffee-related hardware they have for sale. This is content marketing in action by way of the humble blog post.
To think of it in terms of stats, Hubspot reports that:
- Companies that published 16+ blog posts per month got almost 3.5 times more traffic and 4.5 times more leads than companies that published zero to four monthly posts.
- B2C companies that blogged 11+ times per month got more than four times as many leads than those that blog only four to five times per month.
If blog posts are the heart of content marketing, social media is its circulatory system.
While most clear-cut lead generation and customer conversion takes place on your blog as you funnel customers toward premium content like ebooks, guides, and webinars (see below), social media marketing serves as an amplification of those lead generation efforts.
In order to make your site content “findable” by search engines, you need to do things like use relevant keywords and thoroughly answer user questions on the topic at hand. But it also helps search rankings if you can demonstrate an influx of traffic to your content. Social media is the vehicle for doing so.
A well-crafted Instagram story or Facebook post that spotlights a blog article you’re trying to promote will bring additional traffic to your site and article, giving a bump to your search rankings which will then bring more traffic to your site, rinse and repeat.
Video Content and Podcasts
As big a part as blog articles and social media posts play in content marketing, don’t forget about videos and podcasts.
Video and audio content—whether it’s recaps of the material covered on your blog or separate informative takes on similarly relevant topics—is another way to connect with customers and communicate the value proposition of your brand.
In fact, while the written word is still a key player in getting people to your site via search engine queries, audio and visual content is even more likely to keep them there.
- Including a video in a post increases organic traffic from search results by 157%.
- 20% of people will read the text on a page, but 80% of people will watch a video.
- Monthly podcast listeners grew from 24% of Americans to 26% year over year.
Premium Content—eBooks, Guides, and Webinars
While the content mentioned above will bring visitors to your website (and ideally keep them coming back for repeat visits), at some point you need a concrete way of converting these visitors into leads who can eventually be funneled toward purchasing products and services.
This is where premium content comes into the picture. Content like a blog article is designed to be accessible with no barrier to entry—you want as many people as possible to read your blog articles without anything standing in their way.
Once those articles have established a significant value proposition, however, it’s time offer a deeper dive into subjects relevant to your audience by way of content like eBooks, guides, and webinars.
Each of these premium forms of content can be seen as expanded versions of things like blog posts, videos, and podcasts. Where a blog post might cover a single topic about digital marketing (something like…I don’t know, content marketing vs content strategy?), a digital marketing guide will cover everything from digital marketing definitions, to the skills digital marketers need to get hired, to lists of job boards specializing in digital marketing positions.
Speaking of, don’t forget to download our Beginner’s Guide to Digital Marketing from the forms at the top or bottom of this page.
Unlike blog posts, videos, or podcasts that can be accessible directly from your site, premium content is gated behind a form requiring an email address or some other identifying action in order to access it.
By collecting the email or contact information of a visitor who’s interested enough in your brand to go further than your basic content, you’ll have secured a quality lead who may be interested in purchasing from you in the future (and who you can now contact with sales emails and other targeted offers in an attempt to convert them into a paying customer).
For more on the topic of premium content, check out this article from Hubspot.
3. What is Content Strategy?
So with a general understand of content marketing out of the way, what exactly is content strategy?
Returning to Hubspot, their definition of content strategy is:
“the management of pretty much any tangible media that you create and own: written, visual, downloadable … you name it. It is the piece of your marketing plan that continuously demonstrates who you are and the expertise you bring to your industry.”
In other words—you guessed it—content strategy is the planning and implementation of all that value-rich digital content listed above (you can think of it as your content marketing strategy).
It’s probably not a surprise that quality content alone doesn’t make a successful content marketing campaign. Content marketing without content strategy is like that proverbial tree in the forest that no one hears.
There needs to be a method to your madness in order to connect with visitors and convert leads in an effective way. Content strategy is the process of developing and executing that method, but what does it look like?
4. Content Strategy Examples
Here are some examples of content strategy in action:
Conducting a competitive analysis is a foundational step in content strategy. It means identifying your competitors and analyzing their businesses with a fine tooth comb. This lets you learn from their successes and mistakes, understand their strengths and weaknesses, and find gaps in the market that other businesses aren’t covering.
Once you understand similarities and differences between your business and competitors in your field, you’ll learn how to occupy the best market niche for your company and attract your own target audience.
The core steps of a competitive analysis include:
- Identifying competitors—which business are truly direct competitors and represent a threat to your market share?
- Choosing parameters—decide which parts of a competitor’s business should be studied comparatively with your own. This can include core products, pricing structures, websites, blogs, social media presence, etc.
- Tracking and sharing—the results of your analysis should be tracked through a simple spreadsheet, which you can transfer to a slide deck and share internally with your company or client.
For more about each of these steps, be sure to download our Beginner’s Guide to Digital Marketing from the forms at the top or bottom of this page.
Another important component of content strategy is a brand or content style guide. A style guide is a document with guidelines for making marketing content conform to your brand’s look and voice. In terms of visual content, this includes things like:
- color palettes
- font sets
When it comes to written or scripted content, style guides cover details like:
- voice and tone
- preferred terms
- standard conventions for capitalization, punctuation, attribution, etc.
Since style guides are designed to appeal to your company or client’s particular market niche (see competitive analysis above) they help present a consistent look, tone, and message that your audience will recognize and trust across your entire digital platform.
Consistency (as defined by a style guide) ensures that your content delivers on what Hubspot calls the “delight” phase of inbound marketing—delivering the right information to the right person at the right time, every time. Without a style guide, your content runs the risk of losing a cohesive identity and confusing your audience.
Pillar pages are a great illustration of content strategy vs content marketing.
Let’s say, sans strategy, you’ve written 20 different blog articles about different parts of the same core topic. If the topic is digital marketing, then maybe you’ve written about entry level digital marketing jobs, the best tech skills to have for digital marketing, free digital marketing resources, how to find a job in digital marketing, etc.
If all this similarly themed content is sitting disconnected on your site without a plan, it’s going to compete with itself when it comes to Google ranking and searches. Your “entry level digital marketing jobs” article might rank well, for instance, but it might rank at the expense of your “best tech skills for digital marketing” piece.
Which means the segment of your audience who’s interested in a list of tech skills and not looking for entry level marketing jobs will gloss over the post that shows up in their results and move on to something else.
However, if you can aggregate your content in a cluster (the aim of a pillar page), Google can recognize that all of your articles are related to the same general topic, giving your site increased authority on said topic and improving the ranking for each of your individual articles.
Meanwhile, your pillar pages themselves become a way of funneling your audience from a general topic of interest and into subtopics that meet their specific needs (increasing time spent on your site, which is a win for digital marketing).
So what does a pillar page look like? It’s really just a blog post or landing page that superserves a topic. If you’re writing a pillar page for digital marketing, you’ll want it to cover ALL THE THINGS digital marketing—but at a surface level. Each subtopic you cover will link to content you’ve written that tackles the subtopic in detail.
By creating pillar pages and clustering your content, you’re actively participating in content strategy (and, really, content marketing as well, since the two are never completely separate).
While content marketing is a creative job in a lot of ways (remember, every piece of content you see online had to be created by someone), content always needs to be informed by data, which is another critical way content strategy compliments content creation and marketing.
Business owners, digital marketers, and content creators will all have their own hunches and feelings about what resonates best with an audience, but what matters most is direct evidence from the audience themselves.
Testing is a clear way to gauge your content’s performance and inform your overall content strategy moving forward. This testing looks similar to what you might see in the user experience (UX) research field, with one of the simplest and most effective ways to test content being A/B testing.
A/B Testing is the process of user testing two versions (A and B) of digital content with a target audience and learning which one the audience prefers. When it comes to digital content, this preference is usually measured by conversion rate—the number of visitors to a website or app who take a desired action during their visit (things like signing up for an email list, purchasing a product or service, or subscribing for a paid membership).
Marketing platforms like Hubspot have options for A/B testing built into their infrastructure, but you can also manually test content based on the steps laid out in this Hubspot article.
Along with the data you collect from testing, a solid content strategy also includes periodic website audits. Site audits are exactly what they sound like—systematic reviews of your website’s performance in terms of benchmarks like search ranking, traffic numbers, time users spend on each page, external links viewers are using to get to your site, links visitors are clicking once they get to your site, etc.
When you track, collect, and record this data, you establish a clear, numbers-driven sense of your site’s performance. This allows you to implement site changes, additions, and improvements from a strategic vantage point. For more on what a site audit actually looks like, Hubspot lays it out in detail in this guide.
Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)
A content strategy won’t ultimately be useful unless you know whether and how it’s working. Testing and site audits are two big pieces of that puzzle, but how do you track and assess bigger picture marketing goals? The answer? KPIs.
KPIs (or key performance indicators) are quantitative benchmarks you can set as part of a content marketing campaign to track how much progress you’re making towards your marketing goals. Simply put, content marketers aim to hit their KPI numbers in order to show that a content strategy is on track, growing, and adding to the company’s bottom line.
Randle Browning breaks down digital marketing KPIs in depth in her article How to Define Digital Marketing KPIs, but the following is a snapshot from the article:
The best KPIs follow the SMART framework, a system often used in management consulting. KPIs should be:
Let’s say you want to hit 20,000 Instagram followers on your company account. To convert that to a SMART KPI, here’s the context you’d need to think about:
In order to influence Instagram sales (relevant), I want to grow my company’s Instagram following (specific) from 10k to 20k (measurable) this quarter (time-bound), using a social media agency (achievable).
As another example, let’s say you want to get more website traffic. To make this KPI smart, you’d break it down like this:
I want more people to visit our website and become customers (relevant), so this month (time-bound), I want to boost our organic search traffic (specific) from 70,000 visitors per month to 80,000 visitors per month (measurable), which I’ll do primarily through link-building and improved keyword ranking (achievable).
In practice, you’d probably list these KPIs on a spreadsheet like this:
20,000 Instagram followers
80,000 site visits from organic search traffic
Of course, these numbers should be informed by other aspects of your content strategy (like the testing described earlier) so that they’re data driven and you’re not simply seeing what sticks on the wall.
If content creation and strategizing sounds like a perfect fit for you, your next step should be signing up for our Skillcrush Digital Marketing Blueprint. This online course is designed to be completed in just 3 months by spending only an hour a day on the materials.
It covers all the skills you’ll need to be familiar with to break into the lucrative and growing world of digital marketing, whether that’s through content or any other role under the digital marketing umbrella.
Scott Morris is Skillcrush's staff writer and content producer. Like all the members of Skillcrush's team, he works remotely (in his case from Napa, CA). He believes that content that's worth reading (and that your audience can find!) creates brands that people follow. He's experienced writing on topics including jobs and technology, digital marketing, career pivots, gender equity, parenting, and popular culture. Before starting his career as a writer and content marketer, he spent 10 years as a full-time parent to his daughters Veronica and Athena.