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Much like training your dog to make your morning cup o’ joe, talking about the stages of a content marketing funnel and executing them are two very different things. I have no usable advice regarding the coffee/canine issue (I’m still making my own), but here are some notable companies that are nailing content output at every stage of the funnel. Ready, set, learn!
Awareness (sweetgreen and Apple)
A smaller brand rocking the awareness stage of the sales funnel is sweetgreen. I first hit up a sweetgreen in Boston while attending the INBOUND conference last September and wow – one mouthful and I was instantly catapulted into gastronomic bliss. This fast-casual food chain caters to consumers who want affordable, convenient food options that are also sustainably sourced, organic and healthy. It’s a McDonald’s alternative for the GOOP-y Gwyneth Paltrow set but without the pretension or stylist-approved wardrobe.
Sweetgreen has wholeheartedly embraced a people-based approach to content marketing, telling stories, highlighting farmers, and educating customers about ingredients. Obviously, sweetgreen doesn’t command the type of inherent platform corporate entities like Apple can, which is why it turned to Medium, delivering much of its content via a hub called Passion + Purpose.
The lesson here? Smaller brands don’t have to rely solely on in-house resources such as their own website to gain awareness. Still skeptical? Unfurl your overworked brow and run over to Medium, and you’ll see oodles of examples from companies that are rocking content marketing in an epic Axl-Rose-in-his-heyday kind of way.
Apple is a marketing behemoth. Any company that inspires people to camp out for days just to score a new release worthy of admiration and their content marketing is no exception. The company has their brand recognition down pat. Its ability to turn its users into walking awareness campaigns is unparalleled, and they have the products to back it all up. They’re the McDreamy of the tech world, but why?
One of the things that makes Apple successful is that the company is adept at connecting its products and services with emotions and narratives that work across broad demographic swaths. Yes, Apple is a corporate giant of gargantuan proportions, but its content marketing and culture still ticks humanistic boxes.
Its phones aren’t cold metal rectangles; they’re little talk boxes that allow us to poke, swipe, and emoji our way into more personalized communication. Apple is bringing people into the product, and their two-minute video Dillan’s Voice showcases that beautifully.
Consideration (J.Crew and Simply Business)
Once you have a platform or plan for getting the word out and attracting attention for your brand, you need content that makes it easy for people to slide into your consumer base like a thirsty dude on Tinder sliding into your DMs. A lot of companies skip this step as they assume awareness alone will lead to an instant purchase, but that’s a mistake. You won’t score a date without a pithy tagline and catchy profile, and no one will consider your product until you position yourself as an expert.
Fashion brand J. Crew makes use of story-based and social shopping to convert awareness content into consideration content, advancing the funnel without seeming pushy or pretentious. It’s another one of my favorite companies, too – are you sensing a theme? The J. Crew Instagram profile is chock full of snap-worthy apparel pics with fun questions and captions, and users can shop directly from the Instagram links should they feel so inspired.
The brand uses similar tactics on its blog, delving into the stories behind the fashions and photo shoots and presenting fashion the way it’s meant to be lived: live, in vivid color, nestled artfully into the universally recognizable hustle and bustle of daily life. Integrated seamlessly into narratives, fun facts and even recipe posts are links to related products from the J. Crew catalog.
Simply Business, a UK insurance broker for businesses, handles the consideration stage of the funnel in a slightly different way. Unlike J. Crew, Simply Business doesn’t have a fun product to tout. No, it sells a service that’s required by law — nothing sexy about that — so it doesn’t need to convince businesses to invest in insurance. This isn’t romance, it’s a mandatory meeting with no snacks or escape hatch, so Simply Business has to up the amour and work that much harder to convince people it’s the right company to work with.
It does this by positioning itself as a go-to expert for the target audience — even if that means posting content that’s not 100 percent relevant to the insurance itself. Simply Business woos the masses by posting content guides on other business needs, including email marketing and creating a blog, and in the process has increased its ranking on insurance-based keywords while building audience trust.
How to Develop Buyer Personas to Create Powerful Content
The decision stage of the funnel is the chocolatey souffle everyone wants to stick their face in before the appetizer is even on the table. Here’s the problem: soufflé is earned, not given, and getting a masterpiece out of a bowl of simple ingredients requires patience and planning. Rush it, and you’ve got scrambled egg. Take your time to whip up some awareness and carefully fold in your consideration, and you might actually get to sample a sweet little snack.
Your soufflé is a sale but you have to work for it. Brands have to present content that thoughtfully and purposefully takes raw material and shapes into something that reaches audiences on an emotional level and then they need to switch gears to help users make the right purchase. There’s a ton of potential stumbling blocks along the way, the biggest being the tendency to list stale feature/benefit lists with little flavor, but the brands that slay decision-state content marketing keep their personality alight throughout the process.
Airbnb launched its brand on the premise that almost anyone can offer accommodation, and it brings that same people-friendly approach to the content used in the decision stage of its funnel. The brand has long collected content from followers — both providers and customers alike — using reviews and user-submitted photographs and videos as fodder for social content.
In late 2016, Airbnb announced it was pushing that crowdsourcing even further: it was working with every provider to develop short videos and content that could be leveraged as individual marketing for the decision stage or together as comprehensive branding elements. Partnering with others for content creation is like powering gasoline on a smoldering fire; it’s fuel for a bigger, brighter flame and it works during any stage of the funnel. Bonus: all that input from a variety of sources helps build trust, something that a potential buyer appreciates.
How to Create a Content Strategy That Drives Results
Retention (Equinox and Patagonia)
Retention is the phase in which you desperately try to keep customers around by tiptoeing on eggshells so they don’t pack up all their video games and underwear and leave you for someone else. If you’re doing the retention stage right, you’re using content marketing to make it all work, but there are a lot of brands that are missing out.
Content can help you keep existing customers engaged and coming back for more, which boosts your marketing ROI and helps create stable, long-term success. How you use content marketing for the retention stage of the funnel is as personal as the patterns on that underwear you’re trying to keep in the drawer. It all depends heavily on your brand, brand culture, and on the consumer, and there are two companies that are using engagement to keep everyone right where they want them to be.
Equinox is a lifestyle and fitness company with historically strong success in content marketing. They already have gold stars in the “nailing this” column, so they did what every brand with a strength should do: capitalize on it. In 2011, Equinox launched a blog designed to appeal to its existing audience, garnering a million unique visitors every month, with up to 400,000 of those hits coming from current customers.
Five years later, it launched a digital magazine called Furthermore. Ultimately, Equinox wants to make the magazine a self-sustaining branch funded via advertising, expanding the brand’s reach and cementing it across all stages of the funnel as a leader in the industry.
Another company championing better retention through the fine art of content marketing is Patagonia. Like Apple, the little-known tech company we discussed above, Patagonia is big on culture. Its inspirational and socially responsible platform resonates well with its target audience, and Patagonia makes use of social media, its own blog, and other distribution channels to spread an environmental message.
As a result, like-minded individuals eagerly spread the message – does “going viral” ring a bell? – and, subsequently, become customers and act as influencers bridging the gap between the corporation and the community.
What works best at each stage of the funnel is unique for each brand, and trying to force a fit is like shoving a toddler’s wiggly foot into a stiff, patent-leather shoe. Disaster is imminent. But there is a theme that weaves all of these success stories together: robust, captivating content that speaks to your message and invites your audience to come along for the ride. Let your inner glitter and dog memes fly, keep it authentic and don’t, for the love of content, skip any stages.
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