Op-Ed: Content marketing: 2014 top business trend or smoke and mirrors?

Posted Feb 1, 2014 by Jenna Cyprus
Content is king -- we hear that from every corner of the Internet. But how powerful is the king in 2014 and what changes will it bring to the digital business world?
A Google logo is seen through windows of Moscone Center in San Francisco  during Google s annual dev...
A Google logo is seen through windows of Moscone Center in San Francisco, during Google's annual developer conference, in San Francisco, California
Kimihiro Hoshino, AFP/File
At the start of every year, you find numerous commentators trying to predict which business trends will have greatest impact over the next 12 months. This year there seems to be a particularly high level of hype surrounding content marketing. The question many are asking is whether they're looking at another short-lived Internet marketing sensation or something that really can deliver tangible benefits to any business.
The invisible interface
While many experts are happy to concentrate on somewhat safe bets, such as the rising importance of the mobile customer, a few are calling 2014 the year of the invisible interface: the computer, phone or tablet is nothing more than a tool. Across all age ranges, the customer is comfortable with the technology and thus is focused on what's actually being delivered.
They also have considerable experience of the online environment. They are not easily impressed. They expect more. Retailers need to not only have stock for fast delivery but must offer options to customize or personalize the purchase. Service providers are expected to individualize the consumer experience -- or at least appear to do so.
Content marketing, in a nutshell, is providing content that responds to the exacting demands of these customers. The gimmicks and tricks some online marketers have been using are now perceived as transparent at best, deceptive at worst.
The elements that increase visitor involvement are frequently the same ones that have made social media so popular. In a recent report on effective content, B2B marketing specialist Holger Schulze highlights elements such as customer testimonials, case studies and articles as ingredients most likely to provoke a positive response.
Marketers who have been around a while might well respond, "told you so." It may be a modern environment, but the basic principles of benefit-driven copy, third-party endorsement and exceptional customer service are once again to the fore.
The purpose of content
Perceived wisdom states that content has to serve two purposes: it has to appeal to the prospective customer (more so now than ever) and it has to appeal to the search engines, all as a means to increase visibility and traffic. SEO is touted as some kind of holy grail for every business, regardless of size or vertical. Ranking well in Google can define whether a company succeeds or fails.
Yet as pointed out in an excellent piece on Google's latest algorithm changes by Drew Hendricks, putting all your eggs in the search engine giant's basket is risky. Marketers need to pay attention to analytics from other search engines, too.
Attraction and retention - a more balanced approach
Rather than pinning all their hopes on appealing to Google, or being Liked or Tweeted in sufficient numbers, smart businesses are taking a more balanced approach. Buying visitors has once again become a valuable ingredient in the marketing mix.
In reality, it's a tactic that never went away. After all, pay-per-click and other forms of online advertising are,simply different methods of achieving the same end.
So, what more cost-effective and immediate way to increase your website traffic than by going directly to specialist providers? While these are services that have been criticized in the past for providing unqualified leads, it's an area that has undergone something of a revolution. It's now possible to buy tens of thousands of leads, qualified by vertical, geographical or other factors.
More than a trend
Content marketing is more than a trend. It's likely to be central to any business growth strategy, at least for the foreseeable future. Great content turns visitors into customers -- even evangelists.
But even the best content can't generate visitors by itself. In order to create the cascade of interest, first you have to reach the influencers.
Businesses can do it through their own online presence and the various elements of social media - but there's also a strong argument for buying visitors, particularly for specific campaigns and certainly if undertaking testing. Analysis of customer acquisition costs frequently provides interesting -- and often unexpected -- results.