No brand can exist in a vacuum. To thrive and grow, it needs a constant influx of supporters who buy into its perspectives, points, and purposes, and customers who purchase its products.
Of course, this is why marketing was invented – to draw interest by disseminating information about a brand’s favorable attributes, building desire for its products and services, and providing a clear pathway to make a purchase.
The content marketing your business creates can certainly help further all of these goals on its own; but with the high volume of noise and distractions competing for attention online, organic reach on social media in sharp decline, and search trends and algorithm changes complicating the playing field, it’s time to face a tough truth: If you want your content to get discovered by the right audience at a scale that will help further your business purpose, you’re going to need to amplify its power by incorporating paid promotion into your content marketing strategy.
I’m sure you’re familiar with the standard formats used in paid advertising – banner ads, sponsorship deals, paid product placement, and the like – and you can certainly use these techniques to promote your content just as you would a product or service. But content marketers can also take advantage of more strategic, subtle, and authentic means of getting their high-quality content efforts in front of the right consumers and helping drive them to take action.
Below is an overview of some paid promotion opportunities content marketers should be considering, along with some helpful guidance on how to get the most value from those efforts.
What it is: To paraphrase CMI founder Joe Pulizzi‘s definition, native advertising is an in-stream, pay-to-play technique that enables brands to display their credible, information-based content on relevant third-party sites. Rather than disrupting the editorial experience, the content used in native advertising campaigns is designed to align with the tone, format, and topical focus of the articles a reader would normally expect to find on that publisher’s site.
Why it works: Native advertising enables your business to extend its reach beyond its owned media channels, placing your content in front of new audiences who might be interested but unaware of your business or who operate outside your usual sphere of influence. Content promoted through this technique is positioned as useful, relevant information, which makes it less subject to ad blockers and “banner blindness” and more likely to be trusted.
How to work it: To benefit from native advertising’s traffic-boosting effect, select the content and the sites where you place it carefully.
Before you enter into a native advertising agreement, research carefully to make sure the audience who will see your content displayed will be complementary to your own – why pay to reach the same audience twice or to engage people who aren’t likely to share your brand’s interests, or recognize its value? This goes for working with publishers individually, as well as native advertising networks – where your content might show up on several publishers’ sites at once. And, as Ural Cebeci reminds us, just like your owned and earned media, native content needs to be held to a high standard. It needs to speak to people’s pain points, not to go for the hard sell, so it will be recognized as valuable and not overlooked as useless fluff.
You also need to consider transparency issues and make sure your content is clearly labeled as sponsored content to ensure that your native efforts don’t fall afoul of the U.S. FTC guidelines. It’s also the right thing to do, from an ethical standpoint – you don’t want your brand to be accused of propagating “fake news,” do you?
What it is: Search engine marketing (SEM) or paid search involves purchasing ads or sponsored listings that appear on search engine results pages (SERP) when consumers search for information relevant to your content. While it may seem like a simple, straightforward concept, it’s a deceptively complicated technique to master, owing to the complex nature of keyword targeting, platform-specific display variations, ongoing algorithm changes, and a highly noisy and competitive marketplace for popular keyword terms.
Why it works: Virtually everyone uses search engines to discover content and information – often dozens of times a day (why do you think “Google It” has become the ubiquitous term for looking up a piece of information?). And with the number of organic links on a Google SERP decreasing to an average 8.5, and HubSpot research finding that 75% of users never scroll past the first page of results, it makes sense to boost your content’s chances of getting in front of eager searchers.
How to work it: The paid text-based listings function gets bumped to the top of the SERP and includes a small tag that denotes that it’s a paid spot.
Google’s search ads run on a pay-per-click (PPC) basis, using an auction-based system to determine when and how often your ad is displayed alongside the keywords you target. When it comes to managing your paid search campaigns, a working knowledge of Google’s AdWords tool is key. Through AdWords, content marketers can choose a campaign type; create their ad copy, landing page URL, and calls to action; select target keywords and audience segments; and set a budget, goals, and bid strategy for each campaign.
By setting a budget and maximum cost per click, you are bidding on how much you are willing to pay for each click your ad receives. From there, Google’s algorithm evaluates your campaign against competitors looking to target the same keyword, and determines when and how often to display your ad.
Of course, success with this technique can be elusive and fleeting. For example, according to Search Engine Land research shared on the HubSpot blog, up to 80% of people ignore Google-sponsored ads. This means it’s critical that content marketers do the homework before venturing into the wonderful world of the AdWords auction process (or the similar ad-buying processes offered by Bing and other search engines). (More info on this can be found in the additional tips section below.)
What it is: Influencer marketing programs enlist the assistance of strong voices in your industry – i.e., people who have the ear of your target audience – to help bring your content to their attention. Influencer involvement can be something simple, like regularly re-tweeting your content to their communities, or more involved, like co-producing content for collaborative publication. This technique can be leveraged on a non-paid basis. But if you are looking to engage high-profile influencers or celebrities or want to establish a consistent, long-term partnership, you will likely have to support your program with some dollars.
Why it works: Influencers have a pre-established audience receptive to their ideas and recommendations. They are well positioned to amplify reach and awareness, which, in turn, helps your content get found and consumed by the right audience. They can also lend credibility to a particular piece of content as their endorsement trades on the trust they have earned over time from their followers.
How to work it: The many approaches to using the technique all require some logistical legwork to get your influencer program off the ground. Here’s a rundown of the basic process:
- Become familiar with the notable voices in your industry and related social communities to identify influencers who may be well positioned to speak on your content’s behalf.
- Vet potential partners to identify those who align well with your brand values, voice, and content topics, and who offer the best potential to help further your promotion goals.
- Negotiate terms, fees, and deliverables for the engagement.
- Seed, track, and manage their efforts on an ongoing basis.
Additional tips: If you are considering this form of content promotion, I highly recommend checking out CMI’s complete influencer marketing guidebook, which goes into great detail on all the steps involved in leveraging influencers (both paid and unpaid) and provides customizable templates to make the process more manageable. In the meantime, these quick tips will help you navigate the process more smoothly:
- Use search to discover viable candidates: Try typing [your industry] + “blog” (or “site”) into a search field, then, use advanced search operators to expand or narrow your results.
- Clearly outline the terms of engagement: There are myriad ways to use influencers in your content promotion efforts, with varying levels of involvement on their part. Before you enlist their participation, have a clear idea of what you are asking them to do, the results you want to achieve, and what you will offer them in return for their assistance.
- Spend smartly: Just because your budget is tight doesn’t mean you can’t engage big-name influencer talent. Consider negotiating on terms, such as lowering the number of actions the influencer is required to take during a given time, to make their partnership more affordable. Alternately, you may find a well-known influencer who already shares your brand’s passions and might be willing to reduce the going rate to partner with you.
- Go beyond the usual suspects: You don’t necessarily have to impress a big-name industry “guru” or hire an internet celebrity to get value from influencer marketing. For example, if your aim is greater awareness and/or reach, consider working with popular bloggers or other relevant influencers who have something to gain themselves from helping to increase your share of voice. Or, if your content is focused on sustaining loyalty, incentivizing current customers to serve in an influencer capacity may hold more sway over audiences than hiring a neutral third party.
Paid social media promotion
Last, but not least, is social media – by far the most complex playing field when it comes to paid promotion. Yet, it’s also arguably the most impactful promotional channel given how many people rely on it to stay connected to the people, products, and ideas that matter to them.
What it is: Like search ads, native ads, and plain old advertising, this technique is straightforward: You pay a fee – either on a pay-per-click (PPC) or cost-per-impression (PPM) basis – to increase your content’s chances of getting in front of your target audience. The difference mainly lies in where, when, and how the campaigns are deployed – and how much control your business has over the process.
As social platforms have grown sophisticated in their data collection practices and targeting capabilities, and more focused on serving business clients, they have expanded their ad offerings to provide a wider suite of promotional options – from simply boosting distribution on a single platform, to complex, content-driven campaigns that can be segmented, customized, and delivered across a network of third-party websites and social channels.
Why it works: While there is something to be said for the good old organic engagement that happens when a brand shares social media posts with its fans, the sheer volume of activities happening on most social channels today means it’s not always possible for those messages to make it into the news feeds of the target audience, let alone grab their attention, without some extra support.
Paid campaigns can be deployed on nearly every social platform – and the big ones like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Snapchat offer multiple ad formats, with dozens of configuration options for content marketers to choose from – enticing viewers with sound, video, interactivity, and more.
How to work it: Providing thorough, explicit coverage of every social channel’s paid promotion offerings is a Herculean task that would far exceed the scope of a single article. But fear not: To help you pursue the most appropriate opportunities from a more informed standpoint, I’ve compiled a summary of the top platforms, the opportunities they offer, and some tips for getting the most out of your investment.
Facebook: Facebook offers multiple formats, and a wide range of configuration, audience targeting, and distribution options, making it one of the most robust social platforms for promoting your content.
- Pins: The simplest way to promote a piece of content is to post it on your business’s Facebook page and pin it – this keeps your post at the top of the page’s timeline, making it the first thing users will see when they visit your page. It’s free, easy to do (though you need to be a page admin or editor to pin posts), and lasts for seven days – great for adding a little extra oomph to a piece of content already getting good traffic on your owned media channels.
- Boosts: Boost your organic post by paying to extend its reach beyond the people who already like your page and receive your content in their news feeds. This technique also allows you to segment your recipients by age, location, lifestyle interests, and more.
- Ads: Moving beyond the page-level options, Facebook also offers solutions to promote content in the same way you would advertise a product or service. For example, you can create simple text- and image-based ads that feature the content you already share on Facebook, as well as link ads, which click through to a designated landing page or lead form. You can get more creative by incorporating video content, carousels (a single spot that displays multiple images or videos), or by purchasing Canvas ads – interactive multimedia showpieces that are optimized for mobile viewing.
Regardless of the format you choose, your ad campaigns can be configured through Facebook’s Power Editor tools or its Ads Manager interface – an auction-based system, which enables you to set a budget and maximum bid amount, choose your goals and audience-targeting details, integrate your creative assets, and deploy the ad across Facebook. As a bonus, the campaigns you configure on Facebook can be deployed on Instagram, as well as across third-party apps and websites that partner with Facebook through its Audience Network program.
Instagram: Instagram offers both the option to purchase promoted posts and to display ads within Instagram’s regular content feed. In addition, you can promote your content by placing ads within Instagram Stories – which displays your campaigns in between the image- and video-centric Stories that users click on to view. However, to promote your content on Instagram, you first need to create a business profile on the site and link your account to a Facebook page on which you are a page admin.
Twitter: Though Twitter does not display ads in the traditional sense, marketers can both link to and embed their content assets into their tweets, then leverage Twitter’s paid solutions to make it more likely that followers and other Twitter users will see those messages. For example, you can pay to promote regular tweets or the video content embedded in a tweet itself with a Video Views campaign. Twitter also offers Tweet Engagements – use these when you have media or videos on third-party platforms (like YouTube) that you want your Twitter audience to see. Or you can create a followers campaign, which helps build your content’s influence (both on and off the Twitter platform) – by amplifying its reach among specific audience segments – including users who are not following your business.
Snapchat: Snapchat offers three main ad formats: Snap Ads, Filters, and Lenses. While Filters and Lenses are powerful techniques for directly promoting your brand’s products and services to the Snapchat audience, content (particularly B2B content) might be a harder sell, given the entertainment-focused and highly personal nature of the typical Snapchat conversation. Nevertheless, if your content has something of value to share with this deeply engaged audience, your best option might be to start with Snap Ads.
Snap Ads are full-screen, video-centric ad units that can include text overlays, GIF-like motion graphics, sound (including voiceovers), cinemagraphs, slideshows, still images, and interactivity, as well as calls to action. You can also include Web View attachments in your campaigns, which add the ability to swipe up to view a web page that loads instantly – ideal for quickly teasing your content, then driving viewers to your site for further engagement.
LinkedIn: Over 500 million business professionals are active on LinkedIn, making the platform ideal for B2B and B2C brands looking to reach audiences in a business-focused frame of mind.
The most obvious (and cost-free) way to promote your content on LinkedIn is to post it or link to it as an update on your company page, and share it in the conversations you participate in on relevant LinkedIn groups. But LinkedIn also offers several paid options for boosting your content’s reach among its members who may be outside your brand’s network and communities.
In addition to standard text-and-image ads that display on users’ profile pages, and dynamically generated personalized ads, content marketers can take advantage of two types of content sponsorships:
- Sponsored content is LinkedIn’s native advertising solution, enabling targeted delivery of your content updates to new audiences, and providing enhanced lead generation, conversion tracking, and message testing capabilities.
- Sponsored in-mail: Similar to Sponsored Content, Sponsored InMail lets marketers deliver content directly to specific users, along with a personalized greeting, using LinkedIn Messenger.
YouTube: Since YouTube is a media property owned by Google, its promotional options can be managed using the same Google AdWords interface used for paid search ads. Naturally, given Google’s overall domination of the advertising landscape, YouTube offers an array of highly configurable ad formats that content marketers (particularly those with video content to share) can take great advantage of. These include True View ads, bumper ads, and interactive video ads.
- True View units: These ad units require you to host your content on the YouTube platform, but enable you to extend your reach beyond the platform through distribution across the Google Display network. These units come in two forms: True View in-stream ads play before, during, or after the video a user has selected – ideal for getting your video content in front of video-loving consumers. On the other hand, True View discovery ads get served in other areas – such as next to related YouTube videos, as part of a YouTube search result, or on the YouTube mobile home page.
- Six-second bumpers: Ideally suited for mobile viewing, use this format to reach viewers broadly with a short, memorable message (that can’t be skipped) rather than sharing a full video asset.
- Interactive video ads: These units add interactivity to the standard video spot, and offer greater customization than True View units. Not only does this option allow you to tailor your ads to achieve specific content goals (like driving app installs or visits to your website), they also enable viewers to engage with your content on a deeper level.
Regardless of the formats and platforms you work with, the ultimate goal of paid promotion should be to drive audiences to your website, blog, or other owned media channels – where they can learn more about your business, deepen their engagement with your content, and move closer to conversion. Here are some best-practice tips to increase your chances of making that happen:
- Know your goals and target audience: Most paid promotion solutions provide some form of audience segmentation – helping you get your content in front of the right consumers not just more. If you don’t have a clear view of who those consumers are and what you want them to do after seeing your ad, you won’t be able to configure your campaigns to achieve those goals.
- Put your best content forward: In general, the best course of action when it comes to paid content promotion is to focus on amplifying the assets already performing well organically – i.e., those that perform well on search, get above-average page views, and/or achieve strong conversion rates. Since these are the content pieces resonating with your target audience, you can focus your energy on optimizing your ad messages and placements rather than wondering whether your content itself might hinder your campaign success.
- Research your keywords carefully: This is particularly relevant when it comes to paid search, though it applies to any promotional technique where keywords play a part in where and when your ad spot is displayed. Look to include relevant terms that receive a decent amount of search traffic but aren’t too competitive – especially when working with auction-based placements.
- Craft your creative thoughtfully: Creative real estate is often limited when it comes to paid promotion spots, so get to the point quickly and compellingly. The text and images should work cohesively to communicate the value your content offers; and don’t forget to include a clear call to action so your audience members know what to expect once they click.
- Optimize your landing pages: Speaking of clicking, take care to ensure that once the users arrive on your site, they find it to be a worthwhile experience. Make it easy for them to access the content promoted in your ad, and provide a clear navigational path to help them discover additional, contextually relevant content.
- Take advantage of retargeting capabilities: Aaron Agius points out that you can also craft your PPC campaigns to retarget people who have expressed an interest in your brand’s content but failed to take action the first time around. For example, by adding a Facebook pixel (a small line of code inserted into your site pages), you can track how Facebook users have interacted with your brand, and use those insights to retarget them with a contextually relevant asset.
While content marketing is a powerful technique on its own, just imagine what your efforts can achieve with the right paid promotion campaigns working to amplify and expedite your success.
Got a great tip for getting better results from your investment in paid search, social media advertising, native advertising, or influencer marketing? Why not share it with your fellow marketers in the comments?
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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute