Positioning and the Ultimate Power of Content Marketing

December 1st, 2014 by

I was a PR guy when I started working with tech and startup companies in the first dot-com wave more than 15 years ago. Those were good times, because PR was seen as a magic bullet. CEOs and marketing people believed that “getting ink” was the answer to building brand awareness and getting customers (and burnishing their credentials with investors). Appearing on a still young CNBC or getting a story in The Industry Standard, or later Techcrunch, was the equivalent of arrival.

Fast forward, and the appetite for content marketing has reached the same pitch. Marketers are chasing a unicorn that they believe will bestow credibility as it helps them build their business. Publish content. Drive traffic. Get customers.

If only it were that easy.

Positioning and content marketing strategy

If content marketing has a claim on being the new PR, the problem with the vast majority of content out there is that it’s missing a foundational element that makes PR effective.

First, let’s get beyond the hype. The Content Marketing Institute’s most recent survey of B2B marketers finds that a whopping 86 percent claim to have a content marketing strategy (pardon us if we’re a little skeptical). Unsurprisingly, only a third say they’re doing it effectively. What does “effective” mean? It’s often defined as:

  • Website traffic, including visitors and pageviews
  • Creativity, or “awesome” individual pieces of content that go viral
  • “Telling a great story” — whatever that means

We need to dig a little deeper into what makes content marketing effective. First of all, you need to publish a lot of content to get traction. As in, at least once a week. Publishing quality stuff consistently and frequently is a hurdle most companies fail to get over. And even if you adhere to content marketing best practices — meaning you consistently publish quality content that speaks to the right audience, and you promote that content via social media and email — there is a strong likelihood your efforts are still going nowhere.

The same goes for striving to be a “thought leader.” Yes, expert content that explains, demonstrates and analyzes is the best content because it’s the most sought after. It establishes trust and credibility. The question, though, is does that expert content resonate? What are you telling people, aside from the fact that you’re an expert?

If there’s one thing about the dynamics of PR that holds true, it’s that one great article does not success make. Nor is it necessarily generating a lot of articles. It’s the need to generate a lot of articles, consistently, around a core message, that has a core set of repeating themes and topics. All of that together creates impact. And while a lot of folks understand that one great eBook or video is not going to do it for them, they ignore or simply fail to identify a unifying thread that binds their content together and creates a meaningful context for the brand.

Content marketers need to start thinking bigger. We need to elevate beyond just the standard shibboleth of “being a thought leader.” We need to help brands become leaders. Period.

At its best, public relations emphasizes the idea that the stuff you’re putting out there must resonate with a core message or idea. And the more stuff you put out there, the more you reinforce your brand’s association with that message or idea.

Some folks call this your differentiator. Others have called it your “purple cow.” It’s bigger than those, and was named some time ago. It’s called your position.

The Classic Case for Positioning

Decades ago, Al Ries and Jack Trout surveyed the marketing landscape, and found it littered with “me too” advertising that failed to resonate and increase sales. The problem was, and is, that the average human mind is bombarded with so many marketing messages on a daily basis that even the most creative ads fail to gain any kind of traction (and keep in mind, they were writing in the 70’s and 80’s, well before the World Wide Web).

Too much advertising content. Too little space and not enough time for the mind to consume it. Sound familiar?

Ries and Trout wrote the classic “Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind” to explain how the most successful companies use positioning to break away from the pack and become leaders in their industries.

Blueprint for content strategy

What they brilliantly explain, and what is still relevant for us today, is that marketers need to get away from focusing on the product. To stop using the conventional brag and boast approach to touting a product or service, and focus instead on the buyer, which is certainly not a foreign concept to content marketers. It’s really about how the marketplace perceives your offering. To put it another way, it’s how you break into the mind of the consumer or buyer and own real estate there. What does your brand mean in the heads of your prospective customers?

The central motivation behind building on a position is the essential quest of grabbing market share and turning a brand into a clear-cut market leader. As Ries and Trout observe, a market leader owns a position in the marketplace because they own a position in the prospect’s mind. A human mind that is bombarded every day with information and craves simplicity and easy-to-embrace concepts.

And simplicity is the key. Successful positioning happens when a brand or product is deeply, irrevocably associated with a core message or concept in the mind. “In communications as in architecture,” they write, “Less is more.” If you want people to buy your stuff, create a direct association between your brand and an idea. That idea could be a need, a service or a product. It could be laundry detergent (Tide) or CRM software (Salesforce). Success is when your brand or product becomes shorthand for the thing itself. The classic examples are Kleenex and Xerox, but I don’t know how often I’ve heard the expression, “Just put it in your Salesforce.” They actually mean your CRM, but you get the idea.

Companies seize market leadership by tying a product to a clear position, being the first to lay claim to that position, and then crafting brand creative and content to consistently hammer that position home.

Owning a position is a place of unrivaled strength. A position can be summed up in no more than a word or two. To look at a few classic examples in automotive, for instance:

BMW = performance

Mercedes = engineering

Volvo = safety

In the tech world, they include:

Google = search

Microsoft = business software

Apple = personal computer

Note these last two examples. I am not saying these brands are staked to these positions any longer, although they once clearly were. They are both much larger companies from their beginnings (although I would argue that Apple owns a few positions, having added smartphones and music devices to its ownership of personal computers). The key for Ries and Trout is that the most successful brands use a clearly articulated position to achieve market dominance, which is certainly what Apple and Microsoft did in the 80’s and 90’s, respectively. Successful brands also don’t muddy up their position with brand extensions and fuzzy product strategy — which is compelling given what happened to Microsoft in this century, and Apple in the 90’s.

Why is Positioning Important for Content Marketing?

The critical thing here is that a position is a simple, easy thing for the mind to grasp. It’s clear. It’s intuitive.

Framework for content marketing strategy

Getting there isn’t easy. Staking a brand to a clear idea or concept is something PR folks and brand strategists have done or tried to do for years. If a brand is an expression of everything about a company, from its product to its customer experience to the message of its marketing content, getting all of those parts to work in unison around a clear position is no easy thing. The brands that do it right are leaders in their industries or market categories.

Publishing original content should revolve around the same principle. Your content needs to hang together along a consistent thread.

You are going to need to publish a lot of content, and it should reflect your brand’s position. Think of it this way: more than likely someone is not going to buy after the first impression, even if it’s a really great blog post or video. It usually takes several attempts, over time, to get into people’s heads and get them to take action.

If getting people to buy takes consistency, getting people to buy consistently comes down to establishing market leadership. To emphasize what I mentioned before: Companies seize leadership… by consistently and relentlessly hammering their position home. You want to embed your brand or product in the minds of potential buyers so that they instantly identify it and what it means.

This is where content marketing becomes more than driving leads or establishing thought leadership, and gets into the realm of brand building.

If content marketing is publishing quality content on a consistent basis, targeted to the right buyer, it must also come from an ongoing and consistent focus on the one thing the brand can truly own — or, to get back into the mind of your buyer, what the brand means. Content marketing, done well, must have a focus that goes narrow but deep.

Find the Opening, and Get There First

Classic positioning strategy is not about looking into the inherent traits of your product, although that’s certainly a consideration. It’s about claiming territory in the one place that is going to determine your success or failure: the mind of your customer, or future customer.

Ideally, the territory you are claiming is new. Any company can identify a position, but if you want to be a leader, you need to be there first. Or, in their words, “first is better than best.” Ries and Trout bring up some memorable examples. Most of us can name the first person to fly across the Atlantic, or the first person to walk on the moon.

Can you name the second person to accomplish either of these feats?

Companies can’t create content as if “the other guy” doesn’t exist. As we’ve preached to clients for years: It’s not about the technology. Everyone has “great” technology, or claims to. It’s not about a “Unique Selling Proposition,” either. Everyone’s got one of those, too. It’s really about having a purified and simple message that you can own first.

Again, to quote Ries and Trout, “Be there firstest with the mostest.” It’s not about being the best.

How important is being first? Despite America’s growing obsession with craft beer, and the proliferation of beer brands, keep in mind that Bud Light and Budweiser are still the Kings of market share. That’s because Anheuser-Busch was the first to mass market and successfully own the beer position in American minds. Other brands are left to find openings they can own in related categories (Guinness = stout) or regional focus (Schlafly here in St. Louis).

Staking Out a Position

Your response may be, but what if I can’t get there first?

Staking Out Content Strategy

In staking out a position, the first step is to distinguish between a “category” and a “position.” If you can’t own a category, an effective content marketing strategy can help you to own a position within your category.

If you are a law firm, for example, even a very large and successful one, you likely won’t “own” the category of personal injury. The field is too diverse, and there are too many lawyers laying claim to it.

You have to stake out a position within the category. For one law firm we worked with, that position was “medical malpractice,” and more specifically, “brain injury litigation.”

For a company creating new cyber-defense technology, their category is “cybercrime,” a huge and growing problem. But their position is centered around the increasing need to defend against zero-day threats from hackers. So their position is “live attack intelligence.”

A wholesale distributor of industrial tools is probably not going to own the category of industrial supplies and parts. It’s a mature category with a lot of players. Rather, the company sees its crucial role as ensuring that assembly lines stay up and running. Consequently, it seeks to stake out a position around the need for supply chain resilience.

Your position aligns with what you sell, but it’s not just about your product. As another content strategist puts it, it “should be designed around the intersection of your company’s strengths in relation to your customers’ needs.” Think of your position as the “walled garden” you want to inhabit in your industry or product category. Nobody else should be as identified with it as you. Again, to quote Ries and Trout, “it’s better to be a big fish in a small pond (and then increase the size of that pond) than to be a small fish in a big pond.”

Your content should fortify your position. The more specific your position, the better you can defend it. The more you can keep your overall content in line with your position, the greater clarity and strength of recognition your brand will have in the mind of your buyer — and the overall market.

It’s About OWNING a Position, Not Just Having One

Think of owning a position in your category or marketplace as if you were the captain of your high school debate team. You have a position, and your job is to claim it and defend it come hell or high water.

Here are three examples of companies that have effectively positioned themselves through content marketing. Beyond publishing quality content on a frequent (if not daily) basis, they offer lessons in the art of defining a position.

Mint is one of the best examples of how content marketing around a position is incredibly powerful. The company certainly did not pioneer the space for personal finance software. In fact, the field was already crowded with big names like Intuit and Microsoft when Mint founder Aaron Patzer decided he could build a better personal finance solution. Mint was one of the first free online personal finance tools, and the foundation of Mint’s positioning was making personal finance management easier and more accessible to everyone, especially for professional millennials. Mint had some significant advantages, including strong PR. However, the company made a very deliberate early investment in content marketing to build an audience for its product, and began blogging months before its beta launch. The company’s “MintLife” blog was, as Mashable notes, a “core part of its operation” and helped the company acquire thousands of email addresses for its beta. And positioning? On Quora, early Mint employee Jason Purtorti explained that the company conducted “extensive PR-backed positioning research” in putting its plan together. In other words, the company found an opening it could exploit. Mint was only two years old when it got acquired by Intuit.

LogMyCalls embarked on an experiment that tested the conventional wisdom about the importance of frequency in content marketing. The company set out to publish 150 blogs posts in 50 days. That’s three posts per day. And the experiment worked. Site traffic doubled, and the company saw a jump in the metrics that matter most, including a 4x increase in leads in a single quarter. When you look at LogMyCalls’ blog content, it is explicitly focused on the vital role that phone calls have in turning leads into customers. Their position? The role of the sales call, or why you still need to use the phone to close a sale. It’s a counterintuitive position to take at a time when marketing folks like to talk about how the “cold call” is dead. LogMyCalls, which provides call analytics software, turns this assumption on its head by showing that phone calls play a vitally important role in the sales and marketing process, even if that role is often no longer at the front of the sales funnel.

Groove is a company that makes help desk software. The company plays in the category of customer support, which can include anything from live chat solutions to CRM systems, depending on how expansive your definition is. Groove, however, has a differentiating focus: enabling high-quality personal support for small teams, and raising the lowly customer support function from an after-thought to vital capability. Groove followed a unique path to prominence by blogging about its journey as a startup — and being completely open and honest about that journey, chronicling failures as well as successes. One of those failures was launching a “customer support academy” blog that didn’t have the proper focus or resources. Having scored success with content marketing, Groove resurrected that original blog. Its title? The Customer Support blog. Everything in it directly addresses best practices for customer service. All of the blog’s content is directly related to Groove’s position in that particular space. Groove is hardly the first to write about customer support, or for that matter sell customer support software, but the company’s unique voice and aggressive, creative approach give it a real shot to own that position for small businesses.

Think of perhaps a better known example. Hubspot didn’t invent the term “inbound marketing.” But the company staked a claim to that position early and fortified it by consistently publishing a lot of great content about inbound marketing over the years, including the well-known State of Inbound Marketing report. The result? Fast growth, identification as a category leader, and an IPO.

Being first in a position, and having a viewpoint from that position, are what it’s all about. It’s even more powerful when your position can plug into current trends like cybercrime or marketing technology. Doing so ensures that your content appeals to other content producers like traditional media and other bloggers. Content with a clear position can actually help to drive your PR.

Staking Your Claim

If you have a revolutionary or categorically new product, defining a position may be relatively easy. For the majority of companies looking to break through in an already defined product category or market segment, it’s about looking for opportunities. It is possible, and sometimes necessary, to be the strong #2 in a market segment. But you still need a unique position. Doing so will sustain you in an era where relentless competition is the new normal and the battle for market share never ends.

Content Marketing Team

To identify a position, it’s important to establish context. What are the media writing about? What are the trending topics on social media? Talk to your customers to understand their needs now…. and, if you can, years from now. Also, seek to understand the essential benefit of your product or service in your customers’ eyes. Simple, right? Yet it’s a step so many companies skip.

The idea of positioning is simple, but as Mr. Jobs noted, getting to simple is hard. It takes strategic thinking, dialogue and effort — and sometimes going as far as addressing the business model itself. The whole question of positioning reaches up to the executive suite and impacts the entire organization. Developing a positioning strategy for content marketing needs buy-in and input from company leadership.

The bottom line is that content marketers can no longer ignore the core issue of positioning or leave it to PR. It’s an investment with a return too big to ignore.

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3 Responses

  1. Great article, Brian, it helps me to focus on our what we need to do in our company. I have shared it with my marketing team. Laura (CEO)

    • Brian Posnanski says:

      Thanks, Laura. Glad you liked it. You can also check out the related worksheet, Content Sketching, as it helps to illuminate how this looks on paper: traffic-prm.com/content-sketching

  2. David Butler says:

    Great article Brian. We share a common passion for positioning. I built a company and cloud application to help marketing design positioning and create, publish, and score social stories based on a positioning approach. Check our blog out at: http://ipositioning.com/#blog.

    My advice is: Your Story is Your Positioning.

    Thanks for the advice!

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