Imagine a billboard encouraging you to buy a new data plan for your mobile phone. Just pay 9.99 and enjoy unlimited gigabytes, no strings attached. All you need to do is call a toll free number displayed on the billboard and place your order. The billboard campaign is brilliantly executed — the poster is designed clearly, the number perfectly visible and the billboards themselves are placed in carefully selected spots.

If you were a business analyst and was to estimate the ROI (Return on Investment) of this campaign, what would you say? You would be inclined to admit it’s a good campaign, right?

Problem is, the company forgot to connect their call center to the toll-free number displayed on the billboard. After you’ve dialed it you hear only No such number message. If you were to judge the ROI of the campaign now, your assessment would be devastating.

The discussion whether social media actually sell or not is based — in my opinion — on the wrong assumption. Many companies position social media as separate entity, bound to generate income all by itself. But the truth is social media channels are just like that billboard — even though beautifully designed it will bring profits to the company only if treated as a part of a larger system.

Social media are part of a system we call content marketing, which in turn is a part of something we call attention economy. Briefly: a huge flow of information renders the information itself worthless. Attention of the consumer becomes the sought-for resource. The effect? We tend to be more choosy in what information we consume, we also are becoming better and better in omitting (filtering) the information we don’t deem worthy.

With such balance of power (the consumer totally prepared to omit the ads he or she does not want to see), a worthy information is the reason your customers are going to look for you. The transaction (the most important element of the puzzle) is a derivative of communication: interesting content forces the customer to find you, trust you and think of you when he’s ready to buy.

The content marketing system consists of the following parts.

Your own, unique and valuable content

Content marketing cannot exist without… well… content. It’s the most important and most expensive element of the system. Creating valuable content is costly but you get a bang for your buck. The customers will pay you back with their attention and it’s up to you to convert this attention to money.

But – you may say – my company is producing steel valves. There’s nothing sexy in them, nothing interesting. How do I create a valuable content? A couple of hints:

  • Explain how it was created. If your valves are of higher quality than those of your competition, your customer deserves to know. The way you’ve invented them, produced them may be a great story it it’s well told. Who does it best? Apple. Just look at sir Jony Ive describing the new keyboard in their laptops!
  • Think what your customer wants to know. If he’s using these valves to renew his bathroom, a how-to-renovate-bathroom video is a great idea. Google describes these searches as micro-moments and I’ve written an entire article on the topic.
  • Help them save time or save money. These are two universal currencies that people are willing to exchange not only for their attention, but also for money. Give a hint on how to effectively measure the pipes needed, how to mount them, what to look for when hiring a crew…
  • Don’t forget to ask for subscription! The customer buys when he or she is ready to buy, not when you are willing to sell. There is a big difference between reading on renovating the bathroom, preparing for it and actually buying the pipes and valves. Attach the customer to the flow of content using a newsletter subscription, RSS channel, don’t let them forget.

Free

Free is a powerful magnet. In his book, Free (describing business models based on zero price) Chris Anderson writes about young people who were given a choice between exclusive candy priced at 20 cents and regular chocolate at 10 cents. The majority chose the exclusive ones, because at 20 cents they were still cheaper compared to their store price. But when both prices were cut down by 10 cents (i.e. expensive ones cost 10 cents but the regular ones are free), the vast majority went for the free ones.

When you give away for free something of value, it is a great way to tell the world about your product, company or service. And no, I don’t want you to give your valves away for free. Instead, give away something the valve buyers find interesting. A directory of proven renovation crews for each city you’re present in. Your content will circulate among people who perhaps are not going to buy from you today, but they will subscribe to your content, they will recommend you to their friends in need.

Content graph

The stupidest thing you may do with your valuable content is to keep it locked within your web properties. Suppose you’ve started a blog filled with articles for people interested in your valves. How many readers will you be able to gain after two weeks? A hundred? If you’re lucky and promote it intensively, perhaps. Yet there are many blogs out there with not only similar profile, but a large base of readers, sometimes measured in thousands. Why not give your valuable content to them? Because it’s your content? Well, it’s time to dial down on pride and think about your business. The value of your content grows when more people see it. It’s like writing a play and agreeing to show it only in author’s home. It’s stupid. Go where your audience is!

Since 2010 I’ve been guest writing for Spider’s Web, Antyweb, Virtual Media or The Daily Interactive. They have large audience, part of which is coming for more to my blog.

Social media

The last element of this puzzle is to use the potential of interpersonal relations for promoting your content. Building a community around what you have to say. Keep in mind that I did not say community around your blog or Facebook fan page or any other channel. Community should be build around your Big Idea.

Remember: by what you have to say I don’t mean only what you actually said. Your channels should not be only about your own content. Remember what I said at the beginning? Creating content that is valuable and unique is expensive. If you don’t hire an army of copywriters, you cannot afford to engage your community with your unique articles each and every day.

The solution? Find and circulate valuable content coming from somewhere else. People will be grateful to you for both: something you’ve actually created and something you’ve found for them. If somebody else has already written a guide for buying valves for bathroom redecoration, just share it with your community. It’s much quicker than trying to copy the guide (and when you’re labeled copycat you lose hard-earned trust), and the gratitude of the people will be the same as if you wrote it yourself!

So, think carefully in what channels you are going to build your online (and offline) presence. This means answering the question: where is your audience? You don’t need to be on Facebook if your customers don’t go there very often. Perhaps a YouTube channel would be a better solution?

Plus, you have to come up with a way of converting your fans (community) into customers. Don’t be afraid of some advertising in your channels. But only when all the pieces of the above puzzle are in place can we talk about efficiency of such system.