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Updated: Dec 13, 2019
Small business owners know they should be doing something to promote their business online, but what exactly that thing is sometimes seems vague and unclear. Or worse: arbitrary, a waste of time, lame. And it’s true, when you take a cursory look at the online marketing efforts of most small businesses, it’s not hard to find examples of the toothless, the boring, the uninspiring.
Content marketing is the practice of creating ‘content’ that will appeal to your audience or customers, while also supporting your business—sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly. So what does that mean? Well, for starters, if you’re anything like me, the word ‘content’ has a slightly dry, even pejorative feel, like the thing it’s describing is just taking up space, filler, inessential. But it doesn’t have to be that way. And the reason for that has something to do with the second half of what we’re talking about—the part about your audience or customers.
Most small businesses simply do not exist in a really thrilling lane that lends itself to obvious opportunities for telling exciting stories. However, it’s highly likely that a decent number of your customers choose to support your business over other similar local businesses because, in some way, you and they are on the same team. You are joined by an invisible thread that binds their loyalty to businesses that understand their needs, affirm their values, or in some way add fulfillment to their lifestyle. Because you are bonded to your customers that way, they are predisposed to be interested in the stories you can tell about your business. On the internet, your customers can become your audience.
So, content marketing is really about telling your audience things that will capture their attention and give you a bigger share of their mind. There’s a term for it, it’s mindshare. For businesses, mindshare is like loyalty on steroids. It’s loyalty, but also trust, engagement, and all of the other things that fuel meaningful connections between a business and its customers.
Small businesses have lots of opportunities to create really great content marketing, but it can be difficult to get started.
Broadly speaking, it could be anything: videos, blog posts, podcasts, micro-sites, e-zines, newsletters, music, workshops…anything goes. The way to think about this is to choose the best format to fit the story you’re telling. Content marketing can be simple and easy and direct and virtually painless to create, or it can be part of a bigger vision of how you want your business to live in the world — how you want people to find you, what you want them to know about you, what story you want to tell.
It can be about you—how did you get started? What is the thing about your business that matters to you most? What do you know that no one else knows? What were your formative influences? What advice do you have to offer to your peers? What are the most interesting things you’ve experienced as a business owner?
It can be about the people who work for you—who are they? What are they good at? What is their role in the team? How’d they wind up working for you? What separates them from the other people who have sought to work for your business? What are they interested in outside of work?
It can be about your ‘thing’—where does your thing come from in the world? How do you get it? How did you find it? Why is it better than other things? What are your earliest memories related to it? How does it make people’s lives better? What does this thing look like in the world with actual people using it?
It can be about your customers—who are they? Like, actually who are they as individual people? Where do they come from? What do you learn from them? What are they interested in outside of your thing? What are their values? What matters most to them? How did they find you? Why do they need what you have? Why do they choose you over other options?
The answers to these questions will form the basis for the stories you can tell through content marketing. Starting out in content marketing will require a little bit of experimentation. You’ll need to understand what platforms your audience is using. What social networks, apps and websites do they visit? You’ll need to define what success looks like. A good goal to start with is to begin amassing an audience. You can measure this by analyzing hits to your website, new followers across social media, video views or content impressions, as well as brand mentions across social media and the web.
There are tools to help you optimize your approach, and we’ve written about some of them before (19 Essential Social Media Tools for SMB’s). Focusing on reach may seem tangential to your current business priorities, but building trust and gaining mindshare with an audience who is interested in the stories you’re telling will allow you to be more persuasive and more effective when you begin to integrate more focused content marketing campaigns.
Starting out in content marketing can seem overwhelming to small business owners, but it shouldn’t be. You don’t have to do everything and you don’t have to be super active everywhere. Pick one thing, and put in the work to become really good at that one thing. This focus comes naturally to entrepreneurs — it’s related to the skills that keeps your business growing.
Imagine that your online presence is T-shaped. At the top of the ‘T’ are all of the areas where you have a presence. All of the social platforms, your website, and all of the places that your audience resides. But in the stem of the ‘T’ is where you’re focusing your most intense energy. Be pretty good at a lot of things, but be really great at one thing, and you can generate a huge amount of interest from your audience.
Michael Jones is a Senior Editor for Funding Circle, specializing in small business loans. He holds a degree in International Business and Economics from Boston University's Questrom School of Business. Prior to Funding Circle, Michael was the Head of Content for Bond Street, a venture-backed FinTech company specializing in small business loans. He has written extensively about small business loans, entrepreneurship, and marketing.