Many of us know the classic content marketing strategy to a tee. You use an SEO tool like Moz or Ahrefs to identify high volume keywords, ideally with low difficulty, you write the content that satisfies the query for those search terms, and then over time, you rank for keywords, improve your search rank, and more and more people find your website organically.
But nowadays, there are tons of other ways people organically find content: YouTube videos, niche communities and social media to name a few. Growing a content-based brand is entirely possible without any SEO efforts at all. (How many TikTok creators that you follow also write a blog?)
Enter: Modern content marketing. It’s content marketing that may or may not leverage an SEO strategy. It’s not dependent on SEO. Content might ultimately live on a video channel, a social media platform, a community, or even an online learning platform. It isn’t written with the goal of ranking for a search term, but rather, it’s optimized for impressions and reach. It’s meant to be discovered and shared, often through social media. And the through line is that it’s entirely audience-centric.
Where classic content marketing relies on keyword research to satisfy a searcher’s query, modern content marketing relies on audience research to satisfy an audience’s needs, desires, concerns, or pain points.
Classic content marketing’s key distribution is SEO and works toward the goals of keyword rankings and search traffic. Modern content marketing tends to need social media as a top-of-funnel channel for distribution. It typically works toward other marketing goals, like brand awareness and affinity, engagement, audience growth, sales enablement, or some combination of these.
Both approaches have their unique challenges. Where classic content marketing is beholden to search algorithms, modern content marketing is beholden to the whims of an audience and the social media algorithms. And if a given audience has the ever-changing desires for, say, original research, deep analysis and funny memes, the perceived value of the content is more subjective than it is objective.
The best part of all? You don’t actually have to choose one way of content marketing over the other. It’s ideal if you somehow combine them.
Really good modern content marketers know exactly where their unique point of view intersects with their audience’s needs. But perhaps the most successful content marketers reconcile that point of view and audience’s needs with those high-volume keywords — they combine the best of both classic and modern content marketing worlds.
Audience Research 101: Learn Your Audience’s Interests and Needs
To create a content marketing strategy that’s grounded in understanding your audience well, you’d have to start with, well, audience research. Fortunately, there isn’t just one way to do that. You can read niche blogs, trade publications, talk to your audience, talk to your customers, run customer surveys. All of these things help you learn more about your audience. I like to think of audience research as having two parts:
- Static research: The mostly unchanging characteristics of your audience, such as firmographics and demographics. Of course, this can and will likely change over long periods of time, but rarely in weeks or months .
- Dynamic research: Things that can and do change often, like the content and topics your audience produces, consumes, discusses, and shares.
To do static research, you can use data enriching tools like Clearbit or FullContact to learn more about the folks on your email list, including the industries they work in, common job titles, what regions they’re in, and more. You can also run customer surveys, and analyze your social media following.
For your dynamic research, you can use BuzzSumo or Feedly to see what content is popular in a given audience. You can also use Similarweb to find other popular websites, see some demographic data, and you can even run some competitive analyses to learn more about your audience and your competitors. And of course, you can use a tool like SparkToro to find influential websites, social accounts, podcasts, and more. You can even see what topics people are discussing publicly online.
Ideally, you’ll create lists of sources to learn from ongoing — like podcasts to listen to, social accounts that you should follow. This regularly published content will inform what conversations change and evolve among your audience.
Hone Your Point of View (Hint: It Starts With Your Core Values)
As you keep up with your audience’s interests and needs, think about how your brand’s point of view fits in. What is your mission? What are your core values? How does all of that inform your point of view on the trends and topics in your industry?
At SparkToro, our core values are BELUX. We set healthy boundaries for our team, data and product. We’re egalitarian and aim to make audience research available and affordable to everyone. We’re long-term focused, we’re uncomplicated, and we believe in setting an example for our industry.
And yes, we think about how each of these values might shape our perception of a given marketing trend. For instance, during this past year as companies raced to become the next Twitter replacement and Meta launched Threads, it was hard not to feel like we had to give an opinion on early strategy. Yet in our healthy boundary-setting and long-term focused approach to marketing, we felt it important to say that the best early strategy for Threads was to listen and learn, rather than bullishly stating that every marketer must have a strategy.
Meanwhile, we also took a step back and surveyed our community to see who really had FOMO about Meta’s Twitter competitor. When we gathered the data, we also offered guidance on how marketing teams can start to think about strategy, including questions to ask themselves and their team leaders.
The result? A few thousand pageviews to our site, and hundreds of social media engagements. Sure, we’re not ranking in a top three spot for “Threads strategy” (at the time of this writing, we’re #9), but if we waited for publicly available data on keyword research (at the time of this writing, data on the “Threads strategy” keywords is not yet available on Moz) and then started moving, we would’ve missed the boat on timeliness — and timeliness was a core need in our audience that we aimed to fulfill.
Zero-Click Marketing: Think Distribution-First
At the forefront of every piece of content you create, you should be thinking about distribution. I like to start with zero-click marketing, as it helps me think through all of my channels or platforms, and the ways in which I would engage my audience and distribute my content natively. Rather than just the goal of sharing source content (like a blog post), I try to focus on sharing ideas or concepts. As a result, engaging with the source content becomes optional or additive to the audience’s experience. Not required.
For instance, our Threads blog posts weren’t just links that we posted across social media. We engaged with our audience to distribute the survey, source early reactions, and ultimately shape the content. This was done through a couple of social media posts where, yes, people were invited to click on the survey. But many marketers also chose to leave their two cents in the replies.
Our goals were community engagement, setting an example for our industry, and helping marketers evaluate early strategy for a new social media platform. Putting that into a framework to consider creation and distribution in the future, I’d answer the questions:
- Who do I need this content to reach? (In my Threads example, this would be all marketers who care about content and/or distribution channels.)
- Where is this audience? (For me, this was other social media platforms.)
- How can I reach them? What would resonate? Be compelling? (I made it clear what’s in it for marketers, and rallied them behind a cause.)
- Is there an engagement or feedback loop I can create? (I opened a loop with a survey call-to-action, and closed the loop with a promise for follow-up.)
- How do I make an impact or achieve a desired outcome? (I tried to make the findings interesting and the takeaways shareable so that people would read and amplify it.)
All of these questions speak to an audience’s needs, while also helping you think about how you can strategize a way to fulfill those needs. So take an audience-first approach to your content marketing. Ground it in your core values. And as you leverage zero-click principles, you’ll not only distribute your content more easily, but you’ll also create an organic flywheel that powers your ideation, engagement and distribution.