What I’ve Learned Running a Content Marketing Business for Eight Years

on January 2, 2015

This Sunday, January 4th, will mark the eighth anniversary of my business, Spark Media Solutions. My original plan was to put up a tepid post that said, “Happy Birthday to US!” but then realized no one would care to read that, including me. I then started to think about what I had learned in my business over those past eight years.

A year and a half ago I wrote a piece entitled “27 of the Most Important Lessons I’ve Learned Since Starting My Own Business.” The advice in that article pertains to any solopreneur or small business. In this post, I wanted to look at what I learned specifically about the industry of content marketing, or brand journalism as I prefer to call it. Here’s what I’ve learned about the business:

I must use the term “content marketing” begrudgingly

I hate the term content marketingI hate the term content marketing for a number of reasons, but most importantly because the title sounds like you’re trying to pull a fast one on the reader (“Here’s some content that you’ll like, but I’ve really got a hidden agenda.”). We prefer to refer to ourselves as brand journalists because that’s the most apt description of our work. We behave completely as journalists (I’ve been a tech journalist for 20 years in more than 30 traditional media outlets). It’s just the companies paying us are company brands and not traditional media outlets.

I use the term “content marketing” solely because it’s a term everyone in the industry understands and it doesn’t require any explanation. For that reason, I must use the term “content marketing” for SEO purposes as well.

Produce content for more than just marketing purposes

Content can actually activate an entire stack of services such as influencer relations, product development, marketing research, and recruiting. If you don’t have those other business services in mind when you’re producing content, you’ll be selling yourself short and will only be seen as a content “marketer” and not a brand that has an editorial voice for your industry.

Products and solutions sell the business, not services

If you identify yourself as providing a service (e.g., video production, writing, photography) you will be immediately marginalized with the hundreds if not thousands of excellent competitors. Instead, understand a specific industry (ours is hi-tech B2B) and create products and solutions that serve that market. That way you won’t have any obvious direct competition and more importantly you’ll be providing solutions for specific needs and that moves you up the development stack. If you’re just a photographer, cameraman, or writer you have to sit around and wait for potential customers to call and let you know when they need a photographer, cameraman, or writer.

Examples and stories of past work sell future work

The best advice I ever got was from a former boss, and serial entrepreneur, was to not to worry about money at the beginning, and just get the stories. When he started his business he would do jobs for extremely cut rate, or often for free, just to get the story. To say “I can produce a video for you” or even show a video you’ve produced has extremely limited success because it’s just showing that you can deliver a “service.” In reality, you want to show your product and solutions. You do that by telling a story of another company’s problems and how you worked with them to come up with a solution.

Media empires don’t become successful from just one piece of content

Time Warner didn't become successful with one piece of contentI spend a lot of time trying to explain to clients that they need to produce a lot of content. Too often I get clients coming to me saying they want to produce a single video or a single article, and that is the end of their content effort. They mistakenly believe that the floodgates of traffic will open up after this one piece of content. If it doesn’t, which is likely, it means it was a failure and therefore all investment in content should be killed.

While there are many examples of individuals becoming successful from a single movie or book, that doesn’t translate to a brand or media outlet. You must produce a lot of content.

Content plans must also include investment in distribution

Must pay for distribution of contentWhile it would be nice if all our content just took off by the quality of the content, that’s simply a misnomer. The same article I would write in Mashable will get a lot more attention than an article I published on my personal blog. It’s the same content. It’s just that Mashable has the distribution channel that my personal blog does not have. Far too many people believe they can just create some content and it will take off on its own. That simply doesn’t happen. You must have budget for distribution of content. Last year, our client Juniper Networks paid for distribution for a few of our videos. Because of the excellent timing of the production and advertising, a couple of our videos (here’s one, here’s another) received 100,000 views each, which is huge for a B2B tech video.

My content resolution for 2015

Got a content resolution for 2015? Ours is to focus on our biggest clients and think of more products and solutions we can deliver.


Creative Commons photo attributions to Marta Wlusek, Pete and Brook, fabfotophotography, and prayitno.

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