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The Evolution of Content Marketing: a Personal View

Sonja Jefferson is the author of the Valuable Content Marketing book and MD of Valuable Content, a long-established, UK-based content marketing consultancy. She started her company over a decade ago, way before “content” and “content marketing” became the buzzwords they are today. We wondered how she’s seen content marketing grow and evolve over those years, so we asked her if she’d be interested in writing a post for our blog. Here is Sonja’s personal journey and the changes she’s noticed in content-land along the way.

Selling with Valuable “Content” in the 1990s

Sharing valuable content as a marketing technique is not a new thing. I stumbled upon it back in the 1990s whilst working as a salesperson for consultancy firms across Europe. Even then, advertising was pretty ineffectual and seriously expensive. So what was the best way to generate leads and sales?

The firms I worked for paid a pretty penny to PR companies to get thought leadership articles published in the specialist press. This grew awareness, but people often needed a nudge to turn awareness into opportunities. I’d photocopy these articles and send them to potential clients, alongside a well-crafted letter — a ‘saw this and thought of you’-type approach that turned out to be very effective in opening doors and building the relationships that lead to sales.

Leading with ideas in this way built people’s trust and proved expertise without shouting about it: far, far more effective than sending a brochure or hitting them with a sales pitch from the get-go, because it was useful. I set up my own sales consultancy to help others get success from this approach.

The Advent of Blogs, Social Media and “Content Marketing”

The content light switched on for me around 2006 with my discovery of blogging. Hallelujah! We no longer had to rely on PR companies and the specialist press to get ideas published! I found Twitter in 2008 — a whole new way to spread ideas and connect with like-minded people (it’s how I came across the brilliant team at Newfangled). And to top it off, search engines like Google were rewarding the valuable stuff and penalizing black-hat techniques.

With blogs, social media, SEO and increasingly simple email marketing options, business developers now had a raft of exciting new tools to reach out, get found, add value, and build relationships. I happened upon David Meerman Scott’s groundbreaking book, The New Rules of Marketing and PR, and realized he was right — the web had changed everything.

And so the term “content marketing” arose, made popular by Joe Pulizzi and his Content Marketing Institute. Content marketing became a recognized thing and businesses started to catch on. We published our own book on the subject a couple of years ago to make the approach accessible to small businesses. The take-up has been unbelievable. Content marketing has definitely arrived.

Fighting for Space Amongst the Madding Content Hoards

The web was a pretty uncrowded space for early adopters of the content marketing approach. It’s very different now. Now everyone’s at it, so it seems. How do you get your content heard above the roar?

In 2014, it’s hard to stand out. And not everyone is finding success. The conversation has changed. Questions are being asked — with some doomsayers even calling the end to the content party. I don’t hold much truck with that, but I do think it’s time for content marketers to get really smart.

How to Get Your Content Heard Above the Roar

Where does content marketing go from here? Here are five opportunities I see if you want success in a crowded content world:

  • Tell a better story. In a transparent world, there’s nowhere to hide. Good businesses — those who understand and care about their customers and communicate with heart — are the ones whose content will always hit home.
  • Reach for a niche. Early adopters could get away with general; now, if you want to get heard, it’s a no-brainer to get niche. Read more on this point from Doug Kessler in “Why your content marketing must get more granular.” Important post.
  • Think strategically. No more willy-nilly content. Pinpoint the sweet spot between your clients’ needs and your business aims and align all your content efforts to meet those goals. In 2014, content without strategy just adds to the noise.
  • Connect content with smart automation — and think wider when it comes to your lead development system, as Newfangled’s Chris and Mark so wisely advise. The insights their system will give you will help you get ahead of the game. Powerful stuff.
  • Turn your whole company outside-in. At its heart, content marketing is pretty simple — it’s about looking at your business from the customer’s perspective and giving them the information they actually want. Simple to say, hard to do. It’s a strategy that now more than ever takes serious thought and has to be lead from the top. Every department is involved (and sales — that means you too!).

Selling with Valuable Content in 2014

So here we are, 20 years down the line, and in some ways we have come full circle. Sharing valuable content is still the best way to open doors and generate good leads, in my view.

The good news is that the valuable stuff is still a real differentiator. Yes, it’s a noisy, crowded world, and we’re all bombarded with more messages than we could ever read, but the genuinely helpful, niche, entertaining, human stuff still cuts through.

We business developers have new tools available to us — ways of communicating that we could not have even imagined two decades ago. Content marketing has grown up and stands in a whole new world of possibility — with the promise of communicating with millions in seconds. But just because we can doesn’t mean that we should. It’s important to continue developing and using these new tools in ways that puts our customers at the heart of everything we do.  Do that, and the future looks bright for content marketing.

You can find Sonja on Twitter at, and vote for the VCM book in the Small Business Book awards, too!

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