Nearly all content marketing advice is broken out into one of two trains of thought.
First there is the tactical advice. These are things like best practices, optimization and anything else that deals with improvements at the micro-level.
Zooming out one step is strategic advice. These are the considerations that help to guide and organize our tactics. They deal more with things like how content marketing can be used to build your online presence and SEO.
Both of these are important and rely on each other, but there is a missing third category that is rarely considered when talking about content marketing success.
Beyond strategy and tactics, it's necessary to have a clear purpose that informs all of your content decisions. This purposeful element is a crucial component of any cohesive and effective content marketing effort.
Purpose Provides Direction
As I've gone over countless times, the organizations that create truly compelling brands are the ones that have a clear set of beliefs that fuel their decision-making.
In a few other articles I've argued the importance of starting with 'why', as highlighted by Simon Sinek's "Golden Circle" methodology. It just so happens that the hierarchy of purpose then strategy then tactics aligns perfectly to the Golden Circle framework.
In much the same way that purpose driven organizations can shift nimbly between various products and processes, purpose-driven content efforts can embrace a varied and complicated set of strategies and still remain cogent. Not only do purpose-driven organizations tell powerful stories, but these stories tend to fit naturally together when they all fall along the same general lines.
Previously, I've mentioned how the online design-tool Canva has built a sophisticated yet coherent content strategy by being purpose driven. Despite the fact that their content mix is fairly diverse, the broad mix works. Since their message (we want to make design accessible) is so clear, their story remains consistent regardless of what strategic or tactical choices they make with their content.
Purpose Trickles Down
Often times you see companies or organizations that are just starting out with social or content marketing and they quickly get very frustrated by their lack of results. And this is not for lack of effort either.
Typically, the small business owner might have read up on all the tactical advice she could get her hands, and may have even started delving into strategic elements, yet is still struggling to make an impact with their efforts.
Even if you know that a 100-character tweet sent out on a Wednesday at 3:00 is ideal, that still won't mean that you have anything to actually fill those 100 characters with. And what ends up happening more often than not is that when in doubt businesses tend to simply promote themselves.
Content marketing is almost never good at purely promoting your product or service. You've got to earn that right to promote, and typically the way you do that is by providing value based off of consumer insights.
Purpose is one of the most surefire ways to make sure that you consistently have great content that all aligns to a specific story.
In other words, purpose will fuel strategy which will then be improved via tactics.
Content is Great at Communicating Purpose
Not only is purpose great at inspiring content and aligning your efforts, but content itself (when approached this way) will clearly communicate your purpose and help build your audience around that cause or story.
In this sense, content and purpose are uniquely symbiotic with one another - content helps communicate purpose and purpose helps drive content creation, strategy and implementation.
This exact sentiment is expressed powerfully by digital marketing legend Neil Patel. When I asked him for his thoughts on why purpose is crucial for content marketing, this is how he responded:
"It's very important to have purpose behind your marketing efforts. If you can market your business based on helping other companies and individuals you're much more likely to be successful, compared to if you just marketed based on monetary reasons.
For example, marketing by creating content that educates is a great way to help other people and generate signups at the same time."
The essence of Patel's advice (a core idea that has proven itself in driving his own massive success) is that really great content marketing doesn't just communicate a marketing message, it reinforces that key belief - the brand purpose - through the value the content itself delivers.
In other words, not only does purpose enhance content marketing, but great content marketing will, in turn, solidify your purpose and build your brand.
Below are three examples of brand's succeeding at content marketing by embracing this principle.
Bonobos Entertains as it Promotes
Bonobos is one of the fastest growing e-commerce fashion brands, and they've blurred the lines between e-commerce and content creation.
The story they tell is that they believe that shopping is a pain for young professional guys and that it should be fun, easy, and you should still look great and shop smart.
Every asset they produce, whether it's promotional or not, aligns with this fundamentally simple story.
While Bonobos is actually fairly reliant on promotional messaging, their approach is so refreshing and generous (and aligns so strongly with their brand purpose) that it rarely feels like promotion at all.
One example that made waves through the digital marketing world earlier this year was a seemingly regular email with the curious subject line "=VLOOKUP(Your boss is behind you)."
Attached to this otherwise normal looking email was a spreadsheet that opened to reveal a full Bonobos shopping experience executed entirely in a seemingly banal looking Excel format.
The idea - communicated brilliantly - was that for the young guy at work this would be the perfect incognito way to shop.
Sure, the spreadsheet was full of calls to action and promotional messaging, but the packaging of these messages was so creative and aligned so strongly with the brand's purpose (to make it easy and fun for young urban professionals to shop) that the promotion was a rousing success.
Refinery29 is Entirely Content-Driven
Even more so than Bonobos, Refinery29 is a pure hybrid of content and commerce
They occupy some middle ground between magazine, curator and ecommerce and whatever it is they're doing is working perfectly.
Just like Bonobos, their story is simple - they believe that great fashion is something everyone should enjoy, but that the old fashion guard was stodgy, non-inclusive and didn't speak to the millennial generation in a way they understood.
Refinery29 started with this purpose and then began building their brand with content that fit this story. Starting in a small apartment with $5,000 and putting out just one article a week, they exploded into one of the fastest growing media companies with over 1,800 articles now being published each month.
What Refinery29 does so well is that they've built an audience that's willing to receive them, whether they're delivering content or promotional material. They're so receptive to this content because they buy into Refinery29's purpose.
To make this point even clearer, Refinery29 doesn't even brand itself an e-commerce store. They're much more of an editorial-driven company with the shopping feature (it's the menu option farthest to the right as if to suggest it's lack of emphasis) as more of a value-add than anything.
Imagine if Vogue's glossy adds and chic write-ups had a click-to-buy option. Nevertheless, this melding of brand, purpose and content has transformed Refinery29 into a fashion commerce juggernaut.
Chipotle Gives Fast-Food Soul Through Creative Content
In 2015, Fortune released its oft-quoted list of the "Most Admired Brands". While some on the list didn't shock anyone, there was one newcomer that beat out a giant.
That company was Chipotle, and they came in at #44, two spots above none other than industry titan McDonald's.
From a standing start in 1993, Chipotle had done in 22 years what McDonald's couldn't do with billions of marketing dollars and accrued brand equity stretching over half-a-century. Chipotle has built a successful, profitable, efficient fast-food brand with real soul.
In a time where every move the fast-food industry makes is coming under fire, Chipotle seems to be cementing a position as the antithesis of this negative press.
While a lot of this owes to Chipotle's policies, management and commitments; all of these wouldn't have the same marketing power if it weren't communicated brilliantly.
Whether Chipotle is releasing an elegant video soundtracked by Willie Nelson commenting on the state of the farming industry, or a full-fledged mini-series mocking the fast-food industry, Chipotle masters content marketing at every turn.
It's telling that the aforementioned series, Farmed and Dangerous is (to quote IMDB) "[a] satire of the length a corporation will go to create a positive image." This stands in stark contrast to the authenticity and truth to which Chipotle sticks to their core purpose and uses content marketing to spearhead the communication of these efforts.
This is perhaps the most literal example of purpose informing your content. Chipotle has proven itself the master of this technique, but any brand (big or small) can take a page from them, Neil Patel, Refinery29 or Bonobos.
In order to succeed at building a brand with purpose, content marketing is a great place to start, and the very act of following this strategy will go great lengths towards cementing your organization's core purpose and beliefs.
This post originally appeared on the Honigman Media blog