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As I planned out my weekly workload and deadlines this past Monday, I blocked out this afternoon to write this month’s newsletter article on content marketing. And then this morning, my LinkedIn updates email included postings from two of my LinkedIn connections on … you guessed it, content marketing.

Yea, I guess you could say content marketing is a hot topic right now!

I last touched on content marketing over a year ago with a couple of articles that explained what it is and how it can be a useful marketing tool. To briefly recap: Content marketing is “the art of communicating with your customers and prospects without selling,” according to the Content Marketing Institute. “It is non-interruption marketing.”

Not Really New

To me, “content marketing” is fancy new lingo to describe a concept that has been around for 30-plus years. This goes back at least to the 1980s when print newsletters were a popular vehicle to distribute relevant and valuable content to customers and prospects without giving them a hard sell.

But the Internet has allowed content marketing to really explode — because the Internet has changed the way most things are bought and sold. The vast majority of customers today start the buying process on the Internet: 92 percent of buying cycles now start online. Companies that want to capture buyers need some kind of strategy for attracting them to their website (i.e., search engine optimization) and then delivering value-added content when the get there.

While nine out of 10 buying cycles start on the Internet, more than 90 percent of people who are browsing online are not ready to buy right away. However, 70 percent will buy eventually. And perhaps most tellingly, 65 percent of the buying cycle will be over by the time the prospect actually engages with a sales rep.

This indicates is that the buying process for many products and services today is largely self-directed. The first thing most people do before buying something is go online to research it, find out where they can buy it (and for how much) and then find out as much as they can about companies that are selling it.

This is especially true in the complex B2B buying cycle. A prospect may access white papers, case studies, product reviews, eBooks and webinars before engaging a live salesperson. For less-complex B2C purchases, most prospects will at least read a few blog posts or product reviews — or see what their Facebook or Twitter friends have to say about it — before clicking the “buy” button or talking to a sales rep.

What Does All This Mean?

Simple: Companies today must have a serious strategy for how they will create and deliver content that helps guide people through the modern buying cycle — from curious browser to interested prospect, paying customer, and loyal repeat buyer and referral source.

Such a strategy goes way beyond just building a website and making sure that it’s organized and the copy is well-written (though this is extremely important). It involves determining specifically how your customers buy — and the best ways for you to engage them at each step of the buying cycle.

But let’s start at the beginning — with your website’s basic architecture and your on-page content. When prospects land on your home page:

• Is it immediately apparent exactly what your company does? Or is there some self-serving, gobblety-gook mission statement front and center about how your company “is an industry leader that delivers the highest value blah-blah-blah…”

• Is it easy to quickly figure out how to navigate your site to find the product or service information they’re looking for? Or do they have to guess what the tabs mean and click through multiple layers, and back and forth from multiple dead ends?

• Are your product and service descriptions clear, concise and written in plain English? Or do they contain lots of confusing jargon and corporate-speak that is hard to understand?

• Is the copy describing your products and services written with a benefit orientation? In other words, does it describe how customers will benefit from using them? Or does it just go on and on about how great the products and your company are? Hint: Count how many times “we” and “us” are used in your copy, compared to “you” and “your.”

Once you have addressed these basics with regard to your website organization and copy, you can begin to create a true content marketing strategy. We’ll dig into this in more detail in the next couple of articles.