Your Brand Must Stand for Something: Vision and Values in Content Marketing

Yes, content. Right.

We talk about it a lot these days. Big content. Starting small. Maturing formats and increased competition.

While our work is still “SEO” in the sense that we’re focused on increasing audience and business through organic search, getting there is more about creating and promoting something compelling every day.

Content marketing is what we do once we’ve ensured a strong technical platform, targeted on-page content and a rich user experience, because authority signals become the winning KPIs - and even though links are still a core signal, “link building” is a terrible term for the work of building authority. (Let's forget we ever called it that.)

Your content is your brand is your content

Unless the work you do and products you build are so intrinsically beautiful or innovative that they drive the market through sheer remarkability, whatever your business model, your content is your flagship product. It is your best opportunity to stand out for the right reasons, to build attention and fans and the kind of authority signals that portals like Google reward.

And like every effort to build an audience, it starts with getting to know yourself.

Articulating your Values

Good news: your company already has values.

They're at the core of why you do what you do, and how you do it, but chances are you haven't pinned them to the cork board yet.

Here's an exercise that may help:

  1. List your products/services
  2. Translate these into the benefits they deliver to your customers
  3. Now look at those benefits - which are uniquely observed in your work compared with that of your competition? (honestly)
  4. For each unique benefit, write down a correlating principle - a why - that makes this integral to your work
Your values are already driving your business decisions, you probably just have not articulated them yet.

Hint: maximizing profits or stakeholder value are not principles that build trust in your audience.

moz-tagfeeMoz's TAGFEE code is a perfect example of guiding values, articulated and declared:

  • Transparent & Authentic
  • Generous
  • Fun
  • Empathetic
  • Exceptional
Rand and co did not define and declare these until years into the game, but when they did they rang true for the audience - because they were already driving the decisions the Moz team made along the way (such as Rand's radical transparency with finances, personal struggles and their efforts to raise capital).

Articulating and sharing these values gives concrete definition to the manner in which Moz conducts their work, including their impressive content engine - the drive of their remarkable success in building and retaining an audience.

Honing your Vision

Following your values along to their ultimate conclusion - what the world would be like if these values were espoused by all - can feel like an exercise in idealism, and it should. Believing you can save the world in however small a way is audacious.

Apple's classic '1984' commercial, aired during the third quarter of Super Bowl XVIII (in 1984 of course), was over-the-topic in invoking the oppression of the personal computing establishment. In no uncertain symbolism, Apple cast themselves as the rebellious heroes here to save the working world from the uninspired, dreadfully-gray paradigm perpetuated by stale business computing manufacturers.

Apple's mission statement back then (~1980):

To make a contribution to the world by making tools for the mind that advance humankind.
Back when Apple had only a sliver of the personal computing market, they already had rabid fans - because they had a vision that told a compelling story about changing the world.

teslaMaybe the most exciting entrepreneur in a post-Jobs world, Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk has shared his company's vision, and it has a similar direct emphasis on disrupting paradigms for the betterment of mankind:

Move from a mine-and-burn hydrocarbon economy towards a sustainable, solar electric economy.
Straightforward and, yes, idealistic. That's the point of a mission statement: it paints the picture of how you want to make the world better. This statement tells us what Tesla are about, who their friends (and enemies) are. While they don’t talk much about why the status quo of the hydrocarbon economy needs to change, we're all familiar enough with the implications by now that they don’t have to (climate change, ice age, mass starvation, Thunderdome, etc).

I'm not about to argue that you need to have a world-changing vision before you can find some success in content marketing, but clarifying what is wrong with the status quo and how your organization is out to fix it goes a long way to building a brand people trust.

To be sure, organizations without grandiose vision/value statements can still find success through content.

Take BuzzFeed, for example. It is questionable how long they'll be in the black with their ads-that-aren't-really-ads business model, but they are arguably a shining light of a what a relatively small, data-driven team can do, traffic wise:

buzzfeed-quantcast Source: Quantcast

What’s the mission statement of BuzzFeed? The closest thing I was able to find is this snippet from their About page:

...intensely focused on delivering high-quality original reporting, insight, and viral content across a rapidly expanding array of subject areas
A bit broad, no? Doesn't give you that same "let's change the world" feeling.

But BuzzFeed is onto something. They have optimized the formula of sharable content: the listicle (now with more cats). They're profitable (for now), and they have the team and technology to improve this model over time.

This kind of broad topic, hyper-agile approach to content takes talent and tools curated with a laser-like focus on generating pageviews. Good luck competing on this front, if you're game.

The good news: you don't have to.

The Seed of Community

The beginning of this community is already alive inside your business. Open it up.

Connecting with the right community is not about identifying them and then blasting them with offers. It's about building trust over time by consistently adding value to ongoing conversations, making people's lives easier, serving up some inspiration and doing it all with your beliefs embroidered on both sleeves.

Getting clear on your own beliefs and making them public has a few key benefits:

  • Your brand gets a story - about us vs. them, the right way vs. the wrong way, the rebels vs. the establishment, etc
  • Builds trust with your audience - because they know where you stand and why
  • Attracts allies - who cultivate robust communities of their own
When you open up about why you are in business and do things the way you do, your audience defines itself. They recognize shared beliefs. They find they can embrace your vision for the world. In subtle but powerful ways, this vision becomes their own.

If you want to build trust with an audience, your brand, and your content as an extension of it, has to stand for something. Make something awesome.

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