10 Content Marketing Best Practices from Top Brands

When it comes to content marketing, there are some universal best practices. Whether you’re a B2B or B2C brand, those tactics will set you up for success.

It’s often helpful to see how other brands execute them. If you’re a seasoned content marketer, you can glean new ideas from seeing different approaches – and potentially be inspired to shake up your own strategy. And if you’re new to content marketing, it’s valuable to see how others bring those practices to life.

Here, we take a look at the creative ways the 50 Best Content Marketing Brands incorporate those best practices into their strategies.

1. Deliver Value at Every Interaction (Without Talking about Yourself)

The golden rule of content marketing is to provide users with value at every interaction.

These days, people seek out content from brands to be educated, inspired, informed, or entertained. In fact, 84% of people expect brands to create content.

However, the same survey found that 60% of all content that brands create is ineffective.

This discrepancy shows that brands need to be hyper-focused on who their target audiences are, and what they expect from them. 

Ideally, most of your content should not be self-promotional. Think of it from a user-perspective: No one wants to be sold to constantly. 

Top content marketers follow this practice of creating and sharing content that adds value to users’ lives – without asking for anything in return. This allows them to build large bases of brand loyalists.

Whole Foods Market has more than 1.9 million Instagram followers, but their posts rarely advertise deals or urge people to shop in their stores. Instead, they share beautiful images of food, knowing that they’ll inspire people to cook – and purchase ingredients at their local Whole Foods.

2. Create Content Specifically for Your Target Audience

As content marketers, our goal is to use content to drive business results. This means that everything we create should work towards building brand awareness and equity, driving sales, and retaining customers.

We need to focus on reaching our target audiences – and not the largest audience possible. Rather than trying to rack up pageviews and impressions, we need to ensure that our content is resonating with the people who will eventually become customers.

Lucky Peach, for example, is the print magazine and website associated with the Momofuku restaurant group. Its target audience is relatively niche: young, affluent, mostly city-dwelling people who are passionate about cooking, eating out, traveling, and trying different cuisines. 

When compared to global corporations, Lucky Peach’s metrics may appear underwhelming: The magazine has a circulation of 100K and the website gets 550K monthly uniques. But delving into their data illustrates how successful Lucky Peach is at reaching the right people.

Lucky Peach readers are highly engaged. They spend 3 to 4 hours reading each magazine issue. The average Lucky Peach reader earns an average household income of $127K, 96% cook at home regularly, and 98% eat at a restaurant at least once every two weeks. Forty-one percent of Lucky Peach website visitors fall between the ages of 25 and 39.

3. Have a Distribution Plan that Leverages Your Key Channels

Even if you’re creating amazing content specifically targeted to your audience, they’re unlikely to find it unless you bring it to them. That’s why a content distribution strategy is so important.

Four Seasons, the luxury hotel brand, is one company that’s evolved its distribution strategy over time.

The Four Seasons Magazine used to be an exclusive in-room perk for guests who stayed at the hotels. Over time, the company saw an opportunity to use the magazine and its content to recruit new guests and engage with existing guests in between stays. Now, in addition to being that special in-room perk, the magazine also has a website and newsletter. Four Seasons promotes that digital content on social media.

4. Focus on Conversions

We say that the content journey is the customer journey. And that journey rarely happens overnight.

Instead, content marketing works by building relationships with people over time. Our average prospect reads 20 pieces of content before becoming a customer.

Given that, it’s important that brands engage with people on an regular basis. One key way to measure that is through conversions. 

A conversion is any action that a user takes that’s desirable to your business and allows you to build a stronger relationship with that person. Common conversions are when someone fills out a form to receive a newsletter, read a whitepaper, or watch a webinar.

The best content marketers seek to convert users and transform them from anonymous prospects to actual people with whom they can build relationships.

Most top content marketers have calls-to-action on their sites that urge people to sign up for that higher-value content.  

5. Sell Subtly

While content marketers should avoid giving users a hard sell at every interaction, it’s often in brands’ best interests to discreetly provide some sales information for interested parties.

Many fashion brands do this well.

Mr Porter‘s website features in-depth editorial, including interviews with celebrities like John Legend and Devendra Banhart (below), accompanied by beautiful photography. Each story, however, also includes expandable sections that allow interested readers to click and shop the products featured in photos. Those who just want to read can do so, uninterrupted.

J.Crew is another brand that has a subtle click-to-shop experience on its blog. In addition, J.Crew is super-active on Instagram, posting daily. It has more than 1.7 million followers who want to see the latest products and how to style them. Many users are just interested in receiving fashion inspiration. But for those looking to make a purchase, J.Crew has a link in its bio that lets users shop its feed.

6. Leverage User-Generated Content (UGC) to Engage + Reward Users

UGC is a fantastic asset for building your brand and engaging users. It’s often free for brands to leverage. (But check with your legal department on any procedures you may need to follow.) And because UGC is usually unsolicited, it shows how people are engaging with your brand in a truly authentic way.

Many brands use UGC to build engagement and reward users.

Anthropologie, for example, will often regram user photos on Instagram to show others how stylish users are wearing its clothing. It also hosts photo contests where they ask people to submit photos around a specific criteria (e.g. holiday cookies or gift wrapping) for a chance to win a gift card.

7. Experiment with Different Content Formats

The term “content marketing” can admittedly be misleading. While we often think of “content” as written pieces, like blog posts and articles, it’s important to remember that content can take many forms. “Content” can be videos, motion graphics, infographics, podcasts, audio content, events, and more.

While most top content marketing brands have stellar blogs, many also create standout content in various formats.

Morgan Stanley, for example, recently launched the “Morgan Stanley Ideas” podcast. The first episode is “Why Do Pro Athletes Go Broke?” and features Antoine Walker, a former NBA star who made millions but still went bankrupt. The second episode tackles gender in the workplace and delves into the impact that gender diversity can have on a company’s bottom line.

GE is also in the podcast game. In the past two years, they’ve released two fictional series: “The Message,” about cryptographers trying to decipher alien transmissions, and “LifeAfter,” about an FBI employee who’s able to communicate with his deceased wife.

In addition, GE has started distributing content through connected devices. The podcasts are available on Amazon’s Echo via Alexa. GE has made its “Labracadabra” home science experiments available on the device, as well.

8. Personalize Content for Users

Most content marketers are looking for ways to personalize at scale. And it’s not a wonder why. Consumers increasingly expect brands to offer content that’s ultra-relevant to their lives.

Marketing technology is improving to the point where it can serve up content in websites and emails personalized to users’ demographic profiles and browsing habits. But it’s not yet widely adopted. Right now, implementing that technology is on most marketers’ wish lists – and only the most advanced content marketers are currently using it.

IBM, for example, is using Watson to power its THINK Marketing site. The cognitive computing systems analyzes the articles people read and suggests relevant content, all in real-time.

9. Solicit Feedback from Users

We content marketers have many metrics at our disposal to ensure that our work resonates with users. 

But sometimes, all we have to do is ask. Some content marketers actively solicit feedback.

Santander Bank has a content hub, Prosper and Thrive, that’s highly targeted to millennials. It features articles like “How Much Should You Give as a Wedding Gift?” At the end of each article, there’s a “Was this helpful?” question with the option to select a thumbs up or a thumbs down. 

The response will take the reader a mere second to answer and provide the Prosper and Thrive team with helpful insights.

10. Continuously Optimize Your Strategy and Try New Tactics

We like to say that the best content marketers are never satisfied. They’re always looking for ways to optimize their existing strategy and experiment with new initiatives.

Airbnb has been a best-in-class content marketer practically since its inception, and that’s helped the company reach a $30 billion valuation. It’s also been interesting to watch Airbnb’s strategy evolve over the years.

The company recently pivoted from being a vacation rental site to an experiential travel company/global community. To support its new mission with authentic content from around the world, Airbnb is turning to UGC: the videos and photos hosts create to showcase their homes, plus their personal stories. Besides being distributed on Airbnb’s website and social media channels, that content will also be packaged into the new, print Airbnb Magazine.

While Airbnb’s content strategy has always involved UGC, this new strategy will completely revolve it.

While the content marketing space is always evolving, these 10 tactics have been time-tested to drive business results. By experimenting, testing, measuring, and optimizing, you’ll find the most effective ways to integrate them into your overall strategy.

By Heather Eng