Content Marketing Guide Part 1: What is content marketing?

This is the first article of a 12-part guide on Content Marketing For Startups And Small Businesses. Check out the introductory article for an overview of the guide and access to other chapters. (On Medium)
(Next Chapter:
Traditional VS Content Marketing)

You might think that content marketing is about giving away free content to your potential customers. Businesses have always used the gifting method to promote and attract customers. Whether it is giving away free samples, throwing in gifts with purchases, software companies adopting the freemium model, or food product companies giving away free recipes to help their customers become expert cooks, these are all ways to get the customer to try out and convince them to make a purchase.

Photo by  AbsolutVision , Unsplash.

Photo by AbsolutVision, Unsplash.

In marketing, the goal is to eventually generate sales or conversion for your product or services. Whether it is cold calling, advertising on various platforms, or running a marketing campaign, you are trying to generate business and revenue for your company.

With the proliferation of the Internet and smartphones, marketing has also assimilated into the many digital channels. Digital marketing has become increasingly smart and relevant to the end users as targeted advertising serves out advertisements based on users’ web browsing behaviours.

Content marketing, quite literally means to utilise ‘content’ as a means of marketing one’s services or products. However, it is a bit more complicated than that because:

  1. The content should be ‘organically produced’, and

  2. The purpose of creating these content is primarily to help and benefit the target audience, which will

  3. Indirectly (and ideally) drive sales for your product and create a positive impression for your brand.

If a company creates its own brochures, or banner advertisements, these are in fact content. However, they might not exactly be considered ‘content marketing’ because the goal of these materials were meant to advertise and sell, rather than to help the customer. Hence, the intention of the content, and the indirect method of marketing are important qualities for content marketing.

Content Marketing Examples

In the 1900s, Michelin is a producer of tyres and they created a guide with handy travel information like restaurant and hotel landmarks, in order to get people to drive more and travel more, which will thus increase tyre consumption and their need for tyres. This travel guide later became the Michelin Guide, where the founders reviewed good food across the country.

The food guide was a discovery platform, and would benefit gourmet-seeking people, telling them where the best food in town were. Although the guide may or may not have directly publicised Michelin tyres, it gave out valuable information and got people travelling more on their cars, which in turn generated more demand for their tyres. Nonetheless, we should keep in mind how the guide was an indirect approach and was created to benefit the audience. (Source: Michelin)

Content marketing in a digital world could be a blog created by a fitness enthusiast or brand, where they share their experiences with different fitness regimes, tips and tricks, discipline hacks, and healthy diets. In this case, the content produced is simply meant to share knowledge and help others achieve the same fitness goals. Therein lies the a marketing opportunity, because readers subscribing to these content might end up purchasing the products e.g. protein powder, shoes, equipment recommended by the enthusiasts.

The goal of producing content has to be about providing value for the end user. By helping the target audience achieve their goals, it indirectly benefits the brand as users now trust them (brand positioning), is engaged with their content (customer engagement), and might actually end up buying from or consuming more of the brand’s products.

What Constitutes ‘Content’?

Unlike traditional marketing, which we will delve deeper in the following week, content marketing uses a more indirect approach to persuasion. The twist comes when some brands decide not to create the content by themselves or to build their own audience. Instead, these companies leverage on an existing influencer or content platform who already have an established audience that fits into the profile of their ideal customers, and pay these influencers or content platform to promote their products.

For these brands, content marketing has thus become a form of paid marketing channel for them to advertise their product. From the perspective of the influencers or content platform, it may still be authentic content marketing as they see it as providing their audiences with materials that would help make informed choices. After all, influencers and content platforms are still creating the helpful content organically, and most of them do try to remain objective and brand-neutral in promoting these products.

As a startup or small business with limited resource, content marketing can be a long-term strategy that helps you build an audience who might potentially become loyal customers, simply by providing useful, relevant, and interesting content for them.

Useful — In order to attract and build an audience, the content you provide has to benefit them in some way. Whether you are sharing a knowledge or handy information, providing actionable materials like worksheets, checklists, or guides, or sharing an instructional video, the goal should be about helping your target audience.

Relevant — Remember that your eventual goal is to turn them into your users or customers, which means that the content has to be relevant for your ideal target audience. Imagine that you successfully engage an audience interested in films and movie through your content, but your business is about selling handmade toys for children. I suppose it would help if your business plans to focus on making customised figurines based off movie characters, but if you are all about children toys, perhaps a content strategy that is more relevant would revolve around childhood and learning, and should be targeted to parents.

Interesting — This could be a subjective trait. The key idea is that the content should capture the audience’s attention and engage them entirely. There are plenty of articles out there that you would read and deem it a waste of time, so try not to produce such content.

Evergreen/Timeliness — Lastly, your content should ideally be something so useful and relevant across different time periods that anyone reading it at any time would benefit from it. Alternatively, it can also be timely, like producing seasonal content to capture the festive mood during December.

The Customer Journey

customer journey

For content marketing, I find it useful to think about my ideal target audience, how they would come across my content, how they might engage with my content, and how the different forms of engagement can influence conversion, brand perception, and customer loyalty. Of course, I am also keeping in mind that if I am doing content marketing on a digital channel, what are some things I can implement while producing the content, which may help push up my website and improve SEO.

Laying out specific goals along the customer journey will help me to refine the strategy subsequently. For example, if I am attracting people to read and share but the eventual conversion to sales is low, I might want to relook at my call-to-action, whether it is too big a chasm for this audience to cross. Hence, it is essential to know your content strategy and goals right from the start. We will explore more of that in Chapter 4.

Content Marketing On Tight Resources

Businesses try to be more cost effective, which is to minimise cost and maximise profits. We should adopt a similar approach for content marketing, which means knowing your strengths and your available resources and utilising them effectively.

Is writing your expertise? How much time, effort, or money can you afford to invest in marketing? My experience with content marketing has mostly been experimental because I had no budget. It may have been low in monetary cost, but it has certainly taken up a huge portion of my time, and time is money.

A unique trait about startups and small businesses is that they operate in a relatively lean fashion (think small teams, quick feedback loops, and fail-fast-learn-fast). This means that they can afford to test out creative marketing strategies and sales methods, and see what works for them.

It is also within this starting-up and figuring-things-out period, where you acquire knowledge, experience, expertise, and by-products, which can become valuable content for your customers. For example, one of my favourite artists on Instagram (@heikala) documents and shares her creative processes on Stories, which increases engagement amongst her followers. This is a clever way of utilising the by-product of her creating the actual art pieces, although it has to be said that the documentation process has to be a deliberate effort.

Another fine example is the story of Unsplash, which started out as a simple website to give away the extra paid stock photos from one of Crew’s project, for free. It later became highly popular and successful, not only in driving online traffic to Crew’s website, but also in becoming a useful platform for freelancers to get royalty-free stock photos.

Most of the time, we do not realise that we already have something valuable to give away. Sharing your knowledge or processes may not necessarily lead to success, but if you are a small business or startup, what is stopping you from experimenting? For me, I figured that I could share some content marketing knowledge, and so I am doing just that with this guide. I do not know exactly how this project will turn out but I will figure.


Content marketing is more than just a marketing tactic designed to drive sales of your product or services. It has many other positive effects, which includes driving traffic to your website, positioning your brand as the subject matter expert, engaging customers and building brand loyalty, and also it helps businesses and startups learn more about their customers.

Content marketing is an indirect method of sales with additional benefits for the businesses. It also becomes easier with time as you would already have a plan in place and would have built up an audience, hence your content marketing efforts can become more cost effective.

Start by creating useful and relevant materials for your potential customers. Next, how do you move from engaging and helping these people to getting them to pay for your products or endorse your brand? How does that translate into business and money for your company?

Stay tuned as I share more about the nuances of content marketing, how it is different from traditional marketing (in Chapter 2), and hopefully these pieces might inspire you to start on or tweak your content marketing efforts.

Chapter 2: Tradition VS Content Marketing >>>