In his long yellow and red coat, with the eerie notes he played on his odd little flute, the fabled Pied paper of Hamlyn drew all the rats, and later all the children, of the town irresistibly after him. If only there were a formula that could be used by businesses to draw all their customers irresistibly in, skyrocketing sales and boosting profits as they go. What is it about content marketing that makes marketers of today think it holds such promise, and honestly, how can a few words on a website turn browsers into customers?

Relationships first, profit later

It all boils down to the mysterious power of relationships. Without a doubt, sales are good, and profits are exciting, but nothing, and I mean nothing, is more important in business than the relationships you build with your customers. If you do not succeed in building healthy, long-term relationships with your customers and future customers, your business is pretty much dust in the wind – here today, gone tomorrow. I’d even go so far as to say that all your marketing efforts should focus on building relationships with your customers.

You already know that the rules of marketing and advertising have changed. To make the point, tell me when was the last time you pulled out your Yellow Pages to find a plumber or a carpet cleaner? (exactly!) You’ve probably heard it bandied around that content is the “new” marketing. But what does this mean in practice? How do you actually “do” content marketing for your startup or business?

It’s so easy to get lost in a world of figures and graphs and forget that business is less about the numbers and more about the people we serve. My last article (How To Talk So Your Customers Will Listen), was about making your customers feel special by putting yourself in their shoes and giving them information that genuinely helps them in some way. If you want your customers and potential customers to keep you in their inboxes and Facebook feeds, you have to stop selling for a minute and make some effort to get to know them and give them something of value – to them, not to yourself. The valuable thing you can give them is information in the form of – you guessed it – content.

Yellow Pages! Are you joking?

It’s laughable to think of all the hours we used to spend scouring directories or the back pages of newspapers to find services or products when all we do today is type into Google: “pet food delivery services in London” and Bingo! All the information we need just pops up on our screen. We only need to click to access the services we want. It’s so simple; we wonder how we ever managed before.

In his fascinating book “They ask, You answer,” Marcus Sheridan points out that:

“Today, on average, 70 percent of the buying decision is made before a prospect talks to the company.”

This is because your customers are doing most of the research themselves online.

By the time you get to meet or speak to your customers face-to-face, they already have a pretty good idea of what they want and whom they want to buy it from.

Inbound vs. outbound – The “new” marketing is here

What we are actually saying when we say that the world of marketing has moved on, is that inbound marketing has replaced outbound marketing.

For those who are wondering what that means, here’s an explanation.

Outbound marketing is old-style advertising as we knew it. It consists of TV and radio ads, banners, billboards, newspaper and magazine ads, cold-calling, and internet pop-ups. All these things are intrusive. They are thrust in front of you and demand your attention, whether you asked for it or not. Outbound marketing is, well, on it’s way out!

Since the advent of the internet, we are bombarded with advertisements wherever we look – in our email, social media feed, on websites, banner ads, pop-ups, and more. The overkill of traditional style advertising means that most of us today blank these demands on our attention, and old-style outbound marketing doesn’t have the pulling power that it used to.

Enter inbound marketing. Marcus Sheridan describes it as:

“simply the process of attracting (instead of chasing) customers.”

Sheridan’s premise is that we do this by anticipating the kinds of questions our audience might have, and offering them the answers – they ask, you answer. His book describes how to do this in great detail. I recommend you read it. Sheridan sees content marketing as “the act of teaching and problem solving to earn buyer trust.” In short, it’s though the content your company puts out that you can build this trusting relationship with your customers who will turn to you for answers to all their questions (and ultimately, to buy from you too).

Sell me a washing machine!

Let’s see how all this works in practice…

For simplicity’s sake, say you sell washing machines. The customer of old would walk into your brick-and-mortar store with a long list of questions that require answers. Having run through all the requisite information and presented the pros and cons of various machines, and provided you did your sales pitch convincingly, your customer would be ready to choose one, and it would be down to you to try and sell.

But today’s consumer is a different creature. They will have much of their research online before they even walk into your store. In fact, they may never walk into your store at all because they prefer just to click and add the item they want into their basket. They will look for online shops to provide their needs so bye-bye store! How will you engage and win this kind of customer over?

It would help if you kept in mind that the consumer of today opens Google in search of an answer to every question. By putting yourself into the mindset of your washing-machine buying customer, you can anticipate the kinds of things they will want to find out. For example, they may have a list of functions their ideal machine needs to have. They may have an ideal budget in mind; they may want a particular manufacturer or ask you to suggest a manufacturer.

The more you understand your customer, the more you can build your website around his/her questions. The options are endless, limited only by the boundaries of your imagination. You could review different machines for them, write about some useful functions, offer comparison charts, infographics, showcase great deals, do video reviews, and more. All these fall under the umbrella of inbound content marketing.

The better you present your information, the easier you make it for your customers to find what they want. If you do your content marketing well, customers and future customers will be left with the impression that you are the ultimate resource for all things washing machine. (You also sell kitchen appliances by the way, so if your customer is also in the market for a new oven one day, they’ll probably come back to you.)

Your customer liked you and trusted you because you helped them. You made life easier for them. You honestly provided the answers to their pressing questions without overdoing it on the selling, and you did all this through your content. That’s the power of content marketing for you!

Time to start creating content

No matter what your business or service is, the ultimate aim of any content you create should be to make your customers turn to you as a valued resource and a trusted font of information in your field of expertise. It doesn’t much matter whether you are an estate agent or a software developer, whether you sell mortgages or offer business coaching – your content has to help the community you are trying to reach.

To build up this image of yourself in your customers, you need to be endlessly helpful and useful. Helping is much more important than selling. One of the best ways you can achieve that is but putting tons of valuable content out there. The kind of content that will genuinely help your customers.

This content can take the form of videos, blogs, white papers, case studies, articles, Ebooks, infographics, and more.  It doesn’t matter what form that content takes, only that you have researched the needs of your customers and that you are building your content around their needs, not your own.

Creating valuable content is hard work, but it’s worth the effort for all the reasons I’ve shown in this article. Create your content with your ideal customer in mind, and you will be on a path to success. What’s more, the more you create content that provides actual value, the more you will also be rewarded by Google, whose complex new algorithms scout out the most valuable content online and promote it (more on how you can please Google i.e. do your SEO smartly, coming soon). The more effort you put into your content, the more people will find you and benefit from you.

Time to get to work creating content!