So what the heck is content marketing? It’s certainly a term that gets thrown around a lot lately, along with inbound marketing and its cousin, outbound marketing. The Inbound 2014 conference was just held, attracting 10,000 people.  Content Marketing World was held in early September. Entrepreneur Magazine has featured two articles about content marketing this month (here and here), while Forbes had one as well.

But what does this stuff actually mean, and does it have any relevance to design and construction firms?

Let’s begin with the inbound/outbound discussion, and work our way to content marketing.

Inbound Marketing” was coined by the website Hubspot, to essentially refer to marketing efforts to attract customers by creating content that pulls potential customers toward your company, primarily through your website. “Outbound Marketing,” on the other hand, is typically used to reference the more traditional marketing approaches like advertising, direct mail, trade shows, cold calling, telemarketing, and other techniques that push your message out there.

A lot of professional marketers view content as a subset of inbound; that is, creating educational information (content) to share with existing and potential clients. This content is usually free and freely accessible, although sometimes visitors are required to register to receive the free content. While content is often viewed as a subset of inbound, content exists offline, too. I can remember back in the early 1990s when I helped my firm create an informative booklet about the impact of changing laws on refrigerants containing CFCs. CFCs: An Issue of Prime Concern (you can blame me for the lame title) was a hit for us. Using the modern terms retroactively, we created demand for the book by outbound marketing, using letters and flyers (a.k.a., direct mail) to promote the free booklet, and then sent it to anyone who requested a copy. But the booklet itself was content marketing, and we were several years away from having a website when it was created.

Inbound and content are largely dependent on one-another. Content can be offline, and thus not inbound. But inbound can include Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and social media strategies, which are technically not content (although creating content and sharing it via social media is an SEO strategy).

Confused yet?

We’ll let the inbound marketers and content marketers fight about terminology, and just use the phrase inbound/content as a single entity with the understanding that yes, there are some differences. But at the end of the day, most of us in the A/E/C industry really don’t care!

So then what is inbound/content marketing? It is education, value, and differentiation. It includes such things as:

  • Blogs
  • Ebooks (or real books)
  • Social Media
  • Research Reports
  • White Papers
  • Webinars
  • Podcasts
  • SlideShares
  • Videos
  • Infographics
  • Newsletters (opt in, where people chose to receive)

SEO is also a critical part of the inbound/content marketing equation.

I have two other offline inbound/content tools. Purists may argue with me, but I really believe that these tried and true marketing techniques are part of the inbound/content umbrella:

  • Articles in Client/Industry Publications
  • Presentations to Client/Industry Organizations or Trade Shows

Working a booth at a trade show may be outbound marketing, but being a featured speaker at that same trade show is inbound, because you are providing content of value to your audience. This also applies to writing for periodicals.

Inbound/content is all about education and being found. It is the education that helps your firm get found by your prospective clients.

So why would you want to do this?

Perhaps most importantly, your educational content essentially becomes a virtual salesperson. A/E/C firms need to stop viewing their websites as “virtual brochures,” and instead begin viewing them as dynamic marketing tools that can generate leads and help win projects.

Inbound/content marketing drives traffic to your website. By creating informative content, you are giving clients and potential clients a reason to keep returning to your website. Sometimes they’ll just come and eat what you’re offering on that page. Other times they will show up and enjoy the buffet by checking out many other pages on your website. Sure, some of the visitors will arrive by mistake, some will be competitors checking you out, and some will be jobseekers looking for work. But a lot more will probably be there seeking knowledge. Most of them won’t actually have projects today – but they may tomorrow, or next year.

Inbound/content marketing positions your firm as a thought leader or subject matter expert (SME). Moreover, it positions your key staff members – those developing the content – as leaders and experts. Do you think your clients want to work with leaders or followers? Content generation has become a critical personal branding tool, something increasingly important as discerning clients vet the credentials and capabilities of every prospective team member on their project.

When individuals develop reputations as subject matter experts, there’s often an opportunity to go offline, as invitations to speak at meetings and conferences or write for periodicals begin coming in. This is another example of how content marketing is not limited to online activities.

Finally, inbound/content marketing builds trust and enhances credibility. When we pay for ads in client publications, work trade shows, send postcards, or make cold calls, how are we viewed? We’re often viewed as salespeople offering nothing more than unproven boasts and hyperbole. But generating content of substance is meaningful to our audiences, and gives them a chance to “sample” our product. As we generate more content, they’re increasingly likely to view us as individuals and companies that “know our stuff” – in other words, the exact kind of people that the prospects want to work with on their next project.

So What Can You Do Now? Or Tomorrow?

There’s some real basic inbound tactics you can employ immediately:

  • Link to your social profiles to your company website. Believe it or not, a lot of folks with LinkedIn profiles don’t actually include a link to their company website. If every employee would do this, the SEO for your website would be enhanced. 
  • Share company blogs and content. Marketing departments often create new content, and promote it via the company social media channels. But that content becomes more powerful, and visible, when all employees begin linking to the posts on their myriad social media channels. And Google likes that, too.
  • Use email to promote new content. Don’t believe the hype: email is not dead. A lot of firms in the A/E/C industry suffer from too little CRM activities. So when a new blog is posted, employees should send the link to their contacts – clients, prospects, vendors, and other stakeholders in their network (including media). It’s a great excuse to touch a contact, and generates website traffic. The one minute exercise can be as simple as writing, “Bob, here’s our new blog post about modular construction. Thought you might be interested. Check it out and check your calendar – can you meet for coffee next Tuesday?” Insert the link. Use the online inbound/content approach to further your relationship offline.
  • Generate content ideas. A/E/C marketing departments are dying for new stories. What lessons have you learned on projects? What new products have you specified or installed? How did you solve a client’s unique challenge? Don’t hoard the stories – share them.
  • Curate content from others. Use your social media (or email!) streams to share valuable content from others. Tweet a link to an interesting article. Post about an informative website on your LinkedIn status. Email news-to-use to a contact in your network. This is known as content curation, and it can be a very effective tool to generate name recognition.

These are all relatively simple approaches that don’t require a significant amount of time or effort on your part. But if you’re feeling a bit more aggressive, then take the next step for inbound/content marketing:

  • Create your own content. It’s one thing to come up with ideas and pass them on to others, and something else to come up with new content ideas and see them to fruition. Write a blog. Conduct a study. Create a video or SlideShare presentation. Don’t rely on others – just do it!

A/E/C marketers have a very legitimate catch-22. They are perhaps the best qualified to create content, yet they don’t have the knowledge or background to generate it. The doers in the industry – construction and project managers, engineers, architects, specialty consultants, etc. – have the knowledge base. They are out there daily, seeing what works and doesn’t work, what makes clients happy and what really ticks them off, or which new products make a lot of sense and which ones are duds. All of this is potential content for educational marketing – but it is useless until it is shared with others.

Technical professionals are often loath to sell, and yet many are being put into “doer-seller” (or “seller-doer”) roles. These people are problem solvers and filled with project anecdotes and knowledge. They know what keeps their clients awake at night. Maybe instead of timidly picking up the phone to call a total stranger – after exhausting 25 excuses of why they don’t have time to do it – they could be generating content to enhance your firm’s marketing engine. If they don’t want to be a salesperson, perhaps turning them into a virtual salesperson will generate new, quality leads for your firm.

So does inbound/content marketing make sense for design and construction firms? Absolutely. In fact, it makes a lot of sense. We’re not selling widgets. We are designing and constructing complex buildings, systems, and structures – each one unique. The sales process is highly technical, and education has always been a critical component. As clients have become more sophisticated, they’ve increasingly turned to the Internet to find and vet firms and even individuals. As members of the Millennial generation move into decision-making roles within our client organizations, this will only increase.

What about you? Are there other inbound/content tools that you’re using? What’s been effective – or ineffective?