How Content Marketing Works for Your Small Business

The main objective of your business website should be lead generation: building an email list.

For small brick-and-mortar businesses, a website often serves as an online storefront, which is beneficial when your site comes up on local searches. Visitors need your address, phone number, or business hours, but they’re also browsing around before deciding whether they’ll take the next step.

And you don’t want to lose them.

They’re just looking in the window for now, but you want to give them a good reason to return. That’s why your top priority should be building relationships with visitors who are already interested in what you offer.

Content marketing is how you keep these visitors interested and encourage them to subscribe to your list.

This might seem basic for some readers. But the enormous amount of information available can be overwhelming—and confusing. And you want to be sure you’ve got the facts straight.

What is content marketing?

Content marketing is marketing that’s based on supplying random visitors, leads, and prospects with valuable free content, which provides an opportunity to showcase your paid products or services.

It’s easy to mix up. It’s not about marketing your content. It’s about using your content as a marketing tool to sell something.

That content could be blog posts, video tutorials, infographics, podcasts, free ebooks, reports and white papers, or a series of lessons or tutorials. The possibilities are almost unlimited, and they’re often combined.

Sonia Simone, marketing guru at Copyblogger Media, explains in an interview: “The best content comes out of a relationship between the business and the customer — great content solves real problems and becomes a trusted resource. Content, when it’s done well, has independent value to the audience, not just value to the business that created it.”

In a nutshell, content marketing is all about educating visitors by providing free information and resources related to your paid offerings (products, services, or both). The better your content marketing, the more visitors eventually become customers.

How does content marketing relate to my email list?

If you want your website to serve as more than just an online storefront, you need a compelling reason for people to visit and want more. Your content provides the attraction, the reason to subscribe to your list, and the reason for people to stay on the list.

Valuable content that solves problems is why readers subscribe for updates, but the email list itself can also be used to deliver content separate from what’s on your website.

And by providing a clearly visible, easy-to-use sign-up form, you let people know there’s a way to subscribe, and you can encourage them by offering a free “opt-in incentive.” This is another part of content marketing, and it could be almost anything like a downloadable ebook, a report, or a short, educational course that’s delivered by email to your list.

Keep in mind that the email list generated by content marketing should be an opt-in email list based on permission marketing.

How does content help me sell my product or service?

Your content and email list serve as a communication bridge between you and your website visitors and, as your authority and reputation grow, many visitors become customers.

Take Marcus Sheridan, for example, and his swimming pool company that nearly crashed with the housing market back in 2008. By developing a blog loaded with informative, well-written content, he was able to save his company.

After all, even in a down economy, somebody wants to install a swimming pool. And it’s not usually an impulse buy; it’s an investment in lifestyle. Pool installation prices, styles, and sizes need to be investigated as well as maintenance and upkeep like cleaning and winterizing.

Well-written information on pool-related topics forms the website content, and opt-in incentives (to encourage list subscription) include a downloadable buying guide and an educational DVD.

During the sales cycle—from lead generation to actual purchase—Sheridan had time to earn customer trust and respect through that content, and his company was able to turn the tide, beat the competition, and succeed even during difficult economic times.

Can I give away too much free content?

You might wonder Why should I give away so much free information? Why would anyone buy if they can get it for free?

If you’re selling tangible products like swimming pools—or maybe you own a bicycle shop—you’re probably not too worried. It’s easy to see how a website with content about cycling will sell bikes and accessories both locally and online. You can share everything you know about cycling, but you’re not giving away your actual products.

If you’re selling digital information products or consulting services, on the other hand—let’s say you’re an interior designer— why should you supply readers with everything they need to know to furnish and design the look of their own homes?

The answer is simple: people don’t have time, they don’t have the skills, and they’re receiving your knowledge in bits and pieces. And it isn’t nearly enough to make them the experienced, creative professional that you are.

Sure, they’ll sew a few pillows, paint a few rooms, and coordinate the French Country look you describe in an article or two. But they aren’t likely to get it just right, and they don’t have time to do the whole house.

Plus, there’s status involved in hiring a professional interior decorator, and part of what you’re selling is image—your customer’s image, how they see themselves, and how they want others to see them.

So if you feel like you’re giving too much away or you’re being too helpful, you’re on the right path.

When your content is useful and informative, and if it solves visitor problems, they want more. People sign up to your list, they want what you’re selling, and they buy because they trust you and feel like they know you through your content and the relationships you’ve nurtured through it. That’s the essence of content marketing.

Over to you.

What type of content do you use for your marketing? Is there some aspect of content marketing you believe is particularly important? Share your ideas in the comments.

Why savvy marketers ask for permission

609_3702804Do you have a few minutes? I’d like to talk with you about something important.

It’s about two different styles of marketing and why one works a lot better than the other.

But first, let me give you some background information on marketing, in case all this is new to you.

Here’s the deal.

If you’re selling something, you’re involved in marketing. Even if you’re just selling some old furniture on Craigslist, you market it by taking photos, describing the furniture, pricing it right, and posting the ad. Easy.

And if you own a business, selling is always the goal whether it’s a specific product, a variety of products, or a service. Not always so easy.

How do you market your product or service?

If your customer base is local, your marketing efforts might include ads in a newspaper, direct mailings and groupons, a billboard, a phone book listing, or even radio ads.

If you’re a sole proprietor, you’re probably doing a lot of informal marketing: networking at trade shows, asking for referrals, or listing your business with your local chamber of commerce.

Now, if you’re taking your business online—or if you’re already there—understanding two basic marketing approaches is essential to seeing why one is far more effective than the other.

In fact, only one approach really works for small businesses, and the other is on its way out.

These two forms of marketing are called interruption marketing and permission marketing.

Interruption marketing, also called outbound marketing, is something you’re already familiar with.

Print ads in magazines, banner ads on websites, radio “sponsorships,” direct mail, telemarketers, and door-to-door sales are all forms of interruption marketing.

It’s called interruption marketing because it interrupts other activities.

TV commercials are classic “commercial interruptions.” Don’t you just love it when a movie cuts to a commercial just as the crime’s about to be solved? It’s designed that way to make sure you come back—for more interruptions 10 minutes later.

Interruption marketing is all about a company chasing the prospect whether or not the marketing message is welcome. And savvy consumers are tuning out.

Permission marketing, on the other hand, means prospects come to you. It’s also called inbound or invitational marketing.

As people develop relationships with a company and build trust, they’re far more likely to purchase a product or service than they would be after seeing a TV commercial or hearing a radio jingle.

Seth Godin, who gave widespread appeal to both the term and the concept, puts it like this:

“Permission marketing is the privilege (not the right) of delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to people who actually want to get them.”

When people give a business their email address in exchange for specific information, they’re giving permission to that business to market to them, even if the “marketing”  consists mainly of blog updates, a regularly published newsletter, or a free report.

This free but valuable information is part of what develops trust as well as the business’s authority.

For example, if you enter your name and email address on a real estate website such as, you’ll get access to additional information or be notified when homes are listed for sale.

Because you want to buy a house—solve a problem—you eagerly sign up for the service. In addition to home listings, you’ll also receive information about financing, insurance, relocation, and other “problems” related to buying a home.

What’s in it for the company behind the website?

In this case, the profit comes from many sources: real estate agents pay to be featured on the site. Businesses like moving companies pay to handle requests for quotes. Banner ads. Pay-per-click ads. And much more.

When website visitors sign up for information, they give permission to the company to send email. They opt-in or subscribe, and they can opt-out or unsubscribe.

Permission marketing is all about a prospect going after the company. That’s a nice way to do business, don’t you think?

The advantage of permission marketing

Interruption marketing is hit or miss, it’s often obnoxious, and it’s expensive to cut through the noise and get people to notice. And unfortunately, the return on investment (ROI) is often low.

What do you do with junk mail and email spam? Do you read it and whip out a credit card? Or do you throw it in the recycling bin or hit delete?

In the last few decades, consumers have become more knowledgable, more savvy, and less trusting, and they’re not so easily lured by catchy slogans and clever pitches.

They’re already overloaded, and most of it gets tuned out anyway. They want to buy products from businesses they trust and respect.

As a small business owner, it doesn’t make sense to spend time and money chasing after prospects who might be interested—if you’re lucky.

Permission marketing is far less expensive than interruption marketing. And instead of pummeling a target market with repeated campaigns that might only produce a trickle of new business, you develop relationships with people who have already indicated they’re interested in what you offer.

Permission marketing means lower cost, less work, more leads, and more buyers.

How can permission marketing work for you?

Your primary online marketing efforts need to focus on developing valuable content, building relationships, and inspiring trust.

Relationships and trust require communication, after all, and that’s why you need to get a conversation going that revolves, even indirectly, around your product or service. Plus, as anyone on the customer service side knows, you need to be helpful.

But how do you do that?

It starts with your website content and opt-in (permission-based) email lists, but social media—Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks—can also play a big role.

If your content solves problems and supplies valuable information, visitors sign up for more: they give you permission to deliver your content to them. And it works.

The reason is plain and simple: most people don’t like in-your-face advertising and pushy marketing.

They hate to be SOLD stuff, but they LOVE to buy stuff, and permission marketing educates them on you and your product and gives them an opportunity to buy when they’re ready.

To earn the business of those savvy consumers, be a savvy marketer.

How can you develop the relationships, the trust, and the authority that brings the customers to your business? Share your experience or thoughts about what works and what doesn’t in the comments.