FIRST READ COMMENTARY: Providing valuable, credible information can be the foundation of a sound business model, something the earliest online business learned in a hurry.

Take Autobytel, for example. The web’s first car-buying website launched in 1995, supplying consumers with information they’d never before had access to: how much automotive dealers paid for new cars. “The dealers hated it,” recalls Thomas Heshion, a former executive.

Autobytel will always be remembered as the first dot-com to advertise on the Super Bowl, but it’s thriving more than a decade later because it supplies information that helps car buyers better understand what they’re buying, and how much they should pay for it.

What about when marketing something that’s not as simple to understand as car info? Like Architectural services. Engineering. Building restoration. HVAC systems. Computing. None of these are off-the-shelf purchases.

The purchase cycle may be long. The considerations around the value proposition and product offerings are dizzying and complex. Ads create awareness but often more is required. Much more. Potential consumers must be educated about the products and services. The intimidation factor must be removed. Particularly in B2B environments, buying decisions are often a collaborative process involving groups of people and multiple business units.

The solution? A content marketing strategy focused on information and education. When looking at examples of how a wide variety of companies—from mom ’n’ pops to multinational corporate giants—are leveraging educational and informative digital content to help consumers navigate their products and buying process. Rather than sell, companies are sharing: knowledge, expertise, and how-to.

Corning produced a corporate video for shareholders extolling the near-future of high tech consumer products made of glass. Entitled “A Day Made of Glass,” the six-minute video (that’s a very long running time on the internet!) was shown in early 2011 at an investor event. Less than six weeks later, it was the most-watched corporate video of all time, with 8 million YouTube views and climbing. (

"It breaks all the rules when you think about it," a spokesman from Corning’s agency, Doremus, told the media. "It's six minutes long; it's not funny, it doesn't have celebrities in it, it's not intended to be sent around to your friends." But it is a simple and well-told story, filled with imagination and engaging performances.

IBM distilled their product and services offerings down to a single concept: A Smarter Planet ( Launched as a symposium in Barcelona in which 600 organizations participated (let’s not forget ive events are a form of content marketing, too), A Smarter Planet is now a robust editorial website dedicated to delivering content on a very broad mandate of a topic: “How we use data. How industries collaborate. How we make a smarter planet.

Doesn’t sound very bite-sized, does it? IBM is perfectly well aware of that. That’s why all the content on the site is organized into carefully designated industry vertical buckets, e.g. cloud computing, water, food, transportation systems, healthcare, etc., all segments the company serves. Content offerings are a robust mix of articles, research, video, statistics and opportunities to attend live events. Much - but not all - of the site content is bylined by top executives at the company, which helps put faces on, let’s face it, a rather monolithic entity.

GE’s Ecoimagination is a similar content marketing initiative. It promotes not only the company’s own green initiatives in light rail, wind farms and the like but also leverages community much in the vein of American Express’ Members Project in which participants can submit, discuss and vote for the best ideas in green, sustainable projects.

Examples of companies that provide digital information to their customers and prospects are nearly endless. Google publishes some 110 blogs, each corresponding to a different product or business unit. Almost all are updated several times per week. Even the US Post Office, that stalwart of paper-based marketing, has put its magazine for direct-mail marketers, "Deliver," online.