Marcus Sheridan is one of three owners of River Pools and Spas, which installs swimming pools and hot tubs throughout Maryland and Virginia. Since joining the business in 2002, Sheridan has spearheaded tremendous growth at the company–despite years of record rainfall, a housing slump and a flagging economy.
A big reason for that growth, Sheridan says, is how his company presents itself. “I used to see my company as a ‘pool company.’ We installed lots of swimming pools, and therefore we were a pool company,” he told me when I interviewed him for my book, Content Rules.
“In hindsight, though, this mentality was all wrong,” he says. “Today, I see my business as a content marketing company. My entire goal is to give more valuable, helpful and remarkable content to consumers than anyone else in my field, which will in turn lead to more sales.”
Search engines love people like Sheridan. Those who produce keyword-rich online content, including YouTube videos, blog posts, articles and so on, consistently show up on the first page of search results for their targeted keywords.
But Sheridan sees the content he produces as more than that: He views it as a competitive advantage that expands and deepens his relationships with would-be customers. In other words, his customers might find him organically through search, but they do business with him because of the no-BS nature of the content he’s producing: His willingness to talk about problems and pitfalls to avoid, which builds trust and credibility and, ultimately, rabid fan loyalty.
What I love about Sheridan’s story is the way it clearly demonstrates that any company–even a swimming pool company–can find tremendous success with content at the lead-gen stage and throughout the entire sales path, from generating interest to converting browsers into buyers by educating them and by serving as a resource for referrals after the sale.
So what kind of content is being used to start and nurture relationships with prospects? According to a study from Focus Research, companies use a mix of content types to attract customers, depending on the kind of business they do: from blog posts, white papers, webinars and other virtual events (especially business-to-business operations) to research papers (particularly businesses that sell to consumers).
And then there’s the kind of content that can more effectively help you build trust with your prospects. Here are some examples:
Competitive comparisons (yes, really).
Create a downloadable document that offers a feature comparison of your product to your competitors’ products, or that reviews pricing details of the products. TechTarget’s 2009 Media Consumption Benchmark Report found that a majority of technology companies want content comparing a vendor’s offering to the competition as they get further along in the decision process. Yet few companies put out competitive comparisons for public consumption.
But doing so is important, because so often the content you publish is your first line of defense. In other words, it’s information your sales reps would have handed over during initial meetings with prospects in the past. In a world where most buyers start their searches on the web–either by Googling or asking for advice on Twitter or LinkedIn–you need to deliver this information online. If you don’t offer it but your competitors do, guess who’ll make the short list of potential vendors?
Consider the approach of a company based in Vancouver, British Columbia. RitchieWiki is a collaborative website created and maintained by Ritchie Bros. Auctioneers as the go-to source for industrial equipment specs and everything else anyone could ever want to know about heavy machinery–its manufacturers, uses, projects, history and more. Ritchie Bros. curates information for its industry and makes it available in a central, accessible location.
So how might you become a go-to resource for your industry, including your would-be customers?
A more nuanced approach to case studies.
Use case studies–or, as I prefer to call them, customer success stories–for more than just demonstrating the value of your product. Rather, position them to overcome objections early in the buying cycle.
First, understand why your customers might initially be skeptical of your offering. Maybe your company sells document-management software, and during interviews, you discover that many of your customers hesitate because your solution is offered via a software-as-a-service model. They may be wondering about users without internet connections. How will they access the electronic files?
If you hear that concern from several sources, you might pre-empt the objection before it scares off other potential customers. Present a story that highlights one customer’s concern with this issue and why your offering ultimately won that customer over.
So instead of producing a case study titled “Our Awesome Company Helps XYZ Corporation Locate Records in Half the Time,” you might instead publish “Assessing Your Document Management Options: Why All Software-as-a-Service Offerings Are Not Created Equal.”
Address the elephant in the room.
The frequently asked questions (FAQ) pages are the unsung heroes of your company website. Often unappreciated and undervalued, they can help easily and succinctly communicate your brand value to would-be buyers, enticing them to take a closer look at what you have to offer. Done right, they can function as an online customer service center, cutting down on repetitive inquiries by anticipating the questions your visitors might have. So create a list of the common questions and answers that will allow your would-be buyers to find answers to their questions on their own.
But here’s the thing: Most businesses seem to go out of their way not to address certain questions for fear they’ll open themselves up to criticism or other negative feedback. But on FAQ pages (as in life), it’s better to address the elephant in the room.
For example, the vintage timepieces sold at Chicago-based Father Time Antiques are a little more expensive than you might find elsewhere, and the company takes the opportunity, on its FAQ page, to address exactly why:
Q: How do you price your watches?
A: Our prices may be slightly higher than other watches you may find on the internet, but this is due to our exhaustive restoration process. When one of our master watchmakers finishes with the restoration of an individual piece, it is timed to within factory specs, or better, in all original, rated positions for that particular timepiece. … We also warranty our watches for one full year without an extra charge that some other dealers charge. Included in our price is a good quality watchband at no extra charge.
What we are really talking about here, of course, is creating content people will find useful. Done right, the content you create will position your company not just as a seller of stuff but as a reliable and consistent source of information. And that, Marcus Sheridan says, is “the ultimate gift that keeps on giving.”This article was originally published in the January 2012 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Why Content Is Still King.