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Over the past few years, online content marketing has taken over the digital marketing space. Whether marketers are putting brands on blog posts, YouTube videos, photos on Instagram or funny graphics on Snapchat, they’ve experienced a return on their investment by creating relevant content for their audiences.

Now is the time, marketing experts say, for small businesses to pursue content marketing strategies and make an impact of their own.

What is content marketing for small businesses?

Content marketing is a form of inbound marketing. A company will put up content such as blog posts, videos, pictures, and infographics to their own social media accounts, blogs, email newsletters and anywhere else they have an online presence. They do this to draw customers in and engage in a dialogue with them. A hardware emporium with practical information about do-it-yourself projects, a clothing store with pictures of the latest fashion line, an antiques books business with displays of marquee items – all of these are examples of online content marketing strategies. All offer unique content and encourage direct communication between customers and sales operations.

It’s the opposite of outbound marketing such as advertising, where the goal is to encourage the customer to buy a product. While advertising and other traditional forms of promotion are still critical to a small business’ success, content marketing has proven to have significant sales benefits as well.

“Investing in content marketing as a small business is a way of connecting with customers through education and storytelling, which can reap results in a few areas,” says Brian Honigman, CEO of Honigman Media. “An investment in content marketing can help a small business with limited resources stand out in their marketplace and begin to provide value to customers across every touch point.”

Online content marketing has many upsides, but the following are some of the most prominent:

Content marketing can be more effective than advertising

People have become increasingly resistant to advertising. According to the Goo Online Advertising Survey and MediaPost, 82% of Americans ignore ads online, and 37% don’t pay attention to commercials.

Small business owners may not have thousands of dollars to spend on ads. Instead, they can invest in content that will be more likely to attract the attention of their audience.

“Advertising is certainly not dead, but consumers are becoming more effective at blocking and ignoring it, which requires a new approach that offers value in order to get past a person's advertising filter,” says Honigman. “This approach is appealing content, shown at the right time and in the right place, to the audience.”

Content marketing helps establish customer relationships at a lower cost

Instead of just telling customers to buy from them, small businesses can encourage their leads to make purchases by engaging with them in meaningful ways.

“Content marketing is the best way to build trust and relationships with customers or potential customers,” says Amber van Moessner, director of content at Livestream. “It's also really efficient compared to more traditional advertising, so it can be more cost effective for small businesses.”

Growth marketer and entrepreneur Sujan Patel says that small business owners “are experts in their field and usually very passionate about their business and their industry. This gives them the insight they need to produce content that’s actually useful to their target audience, and build trust with that audience.”

Content marketing is great for finding leads

When small businesses create content, they have the chance to increase their Google ranking, which impacts where they’ll appear in Google search results. When that happens, leads will notice them and be more likely to make a purchase from them.

“People nowadays use search engines to find immediate answers to all of their questions, with more and more specific questions being asked all the time,” says Patel. “You can drive a significant amount of visitors to your site if you target the right question-based keywords, and this can help with your overall rankings in Google, which is important for customer acquisition.”

As long as the content contains keywords that make sense for a company, that company is going to be successful with its ranking strategy. For example, a kids’ clothing shop in Baltimore would create content with such keywords as “kids clothing store,” “kids clothing store Baltimore,” “Baltimore kids apparel,” etc.

It’s apparent that effective small business content marketing is a powerful way to get the word out about a company. Here are seven tips for small business owners on how to go about getting started with online content marketing:

1. Schedule times to work on content marketing

Online content marketing is not a one-time effort or something that businesses can put on the back burner. If you're going to make a real investment in it, you have to go all the way.

“They need to find the time and resources to do it,” says Jeff Bullas, an entrepreneur and marketer. “A lot of businesses don’t see the value in content creation because they can’t see immediate rewards. But it’s a marathon, not a sprint. They need to give it at least six to 12 months.”

2. Come up with a strategy

Content marketing isn’t as simple as writing and posting a blog to a small business’ website. Instead, businesses must have a strategy in place to help reach their customers and ultimately make more sales.

“Create a documented content strategy to focus your research, company goals and timeline into one place for all team members to review and collaborate from,” says Honigman.” Without a plan, succeeding with content is far less likely. A plan directs your company's attention to a few areas of content, maybe video and blogging for example, to ensure your efforts aren't spread too thin allowing for a consistent investment to see what works and what doesn't.”

3. Create content that fits your niche

Some of the types of content out there include blog posts, pre-recorded and live videos, infographics, photos, tweets and white papers. When figuring out what type of content to produce, no one size fits all, according to Bullas. What is effective for one type of small business may not work for another. For example, a clothing retailer could post images of the items they’re selling on Instagram, while a B2B company may create instructional whitepapers for their clients.

“It varies by industry,” says Bullas. Small businesses need to "see what skills they have. But they shouldn’t try to do it all. They should focus on three types of content, tops.”

4. Hone in on your expertise

If a small business is successful, that means it is excellent at what it does. It can use its knowledge about its industry to guide content creation.

“A best practice, whatever your resources, is to think about how you can answer your customer's questions with content marketing,” says van Moessner. “Even if you don't have the budget to hire an agency or a new team to create content, people across your company can still share their industry or institutional knowledge through blogs or webinars and leverage that to help customers.”

5. Reach out to influencers

Small businesses may not have the money for big online content marketing campaigns, but they can ask influencers in their industries to lend them a hand. “Don’t be afraid of reaching out to people who can help you distribute your content,” says Patel. “Identify and speak to influencers who can let others know about your content.”

To follow through with this, businesses can look at who has a lot of followers on Twitter, likes on Facebook, or a big blog and see if they’d like to be interviewed or collaborate.

6. Repurpose the content

One long-form blog post, infographic or video can take hours of work to complete. It’s not realistic to post content once and expect it to blow up. Also, it’s not a good use of a small business’ time and resources. Once they create content, they should find ways to repurpose it in order to get the most bang for their buck.

“The most important thing to remember is to try to repackage and reuse each piece of content as much as possible to get the most leads or sales for your investment and time,” says van Moessner.

7. Consider hiring a content marketing firm

Small business owners have a lot going on and may not have the energy to dedicate to content marketing.

“If you’re struggling for time because you’re being stretched too thin across all areas of your business, then maybe a content marketing agency is what you need,” says Patel. “Remember that an agency will have all kinds of knowledge about what works well in different industries, and they’ll have time to keep abreast of innovations and new trends in content marketing. They’re also likely to have more resources -- like designers -- available to take your content to the next level.”

Not all small business content marketing firms are created equal. Before hiring one, businesses should look at what the firm has done for other clients. “Just remember that you get what you pay for, and the cheapest solutions are not always the ones that are going to get you the best return on investment,” says Patel.

Content marketing isn’t going anywhere. As more marketing messages are being thrown at customers, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to be heard. By taking the time to create content with a unique voice or point of view, small businesses can increase their chances of not only standing out from the crowd but improving their bottom line.

For more tips to help your company succeed, visit the small business section in the Nationwide Learning Center.

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