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It's common wisdom among marketers that most long-form content should be, at most, mildly promotional.

The goal is to help the reader or prospect. Then, prospects will gradually come to see the company as expert at solving their problems, and they'll sign up for a demo or reach out for a discovery call. That is how long-form content grows businesses.

But not all marketing content should be nonpromotional. The question is, then, How promotional should each marketing content asset be? How do companies figure out the proper level of promotion across their content marketing mix?

When determining how promotional marketing content should be, consider three principles:

  1. The channel
  2. The stage of the customer journey to which the asset speaks
  3. The overall mix of your company's content.

1. Adapt the marketing content's level of promotion to the channel it appears on

The most common reason editors reject thought leadership bylines is that they are overly promotional. In those cases, companies or their marketing agencies write the byline—which is supposed to be a vendor-neutral op-ed that advances the ideas in an industry—like an ad, and the editor rightly rejects it.

Why? Because the point of an op-ed in a third-party media publication is not to sell a solution; it's to educate readers about industry best-practices. Promotional byline writers have jumped the gun.

The first principle for gauging the appropriate level of self-promotion in marketing content is to adapt your content's level of promotion to a specific channel, or choose a channel for a content asset based on its level of promotion.

  • Thought leadership guest bylines should be, at most, minimally promotional.
  • Blog posts are owned assets, so they can be as promotional as you like.
  • Social media content should be a mix: Some self-promotion is fine, but too much and you'll risk alienating the audience you're striving to build by being helpful.

2. Write marketing content with the customer journey in mind

A common question asked by startup founders and others new to marketing: "Why shouldn't all our content be about us—our solutions, the exact problems we solve, and why we're good at solving them? Isn't the point of marketing content to tell our customers how we can help them?"

Fair questions. The problem is that those questions do not account for multiple stages of the customer journey.

For example, if you have bottom-of-funnel readers who already know they have a specific problem, who are familiar with the solutions available to solve that problem, and who even know you're among the companies that can solve it, explaining why you're the best fit to solve the problem is appropriate. Bottom-of-funnel blog posts that prove your effectiveness, compare you with your competitors, and describe your approach or features are proper ways to speak to the "BoFu" reader.

But what if a prospect has never heard of you? What if you're a contextual advertising company and the prospect doesn't even know what contextual advertising is? Do you want to tell that person why you're so great at contextual advertising, or do you want to educate first about what contextual advertising is and what best-practices are?

When prospects have become interested and basically informed, you can tell them about various solutions and how yours is different.

That's what it means to write with the customer journey in mind.

3. Consider your overall context mix

You may be thinking, "OK. I understand why all content shouldn't be sales-y. But how do I know how much sales-y content and how much vendor-neutral thought leadership to produce? How many blog posts, bylines, and LinkedIn posts do I need?"

You want a mix of top-of-funnel, middle-of-funnel, and bottom-of-funnel content. The first kind speaks to the problems you solve, the second to solutions you offer and the differences among those solutions, and the third to the specific (and superior) results of your solving those problems.

If you're just starting a content program, begin with bottom-of-funnel content. That's the low-hanging fruit and an opportunity to equip your sales team with content that advances and closes deals. Then you can work your way up the funnel so eventually you're not only advancing deals but also generating demand by bringing in prospects who otherwise wouldn't know you exist or who need a solution to the problem you solve.

Finally, the exact mix of your content and the channels to which you allocate that content will depend on the resources at your disposal. Blog writers who describe your solution will need less industry-specific expertise and journalistic knowledge, for example, than thought leadership writers who are going to craft consensus-shifting arguments worthy of your industry's top trade publications.

Plus, to maximize the value of blogs, you'll likely need an SEO expert. To make bylines work, you'll need a media relations professional. So, the exact sort of content you prioritize will depend on the talent available to produce that content.

* * *

By writing for specific channels, tailoring content to audiences at certain stages of the customer journey, and considering the place of an asset in your overall mix, you'll be able to determine how promotional a content asset should be.

But no matter how promotional it is, if you focus on helping readers do their job better, you'll give yourself a chance at gaining their attention.

More Resources on How Much Marketing Content Should Be Promotional

The 7 Deadly Sins of B2B Content: GoToWebinar's Daniel Waas on Marketing Smarts [Podcast]

Five Guest-Posting Mistakes to Avoid If You Want to Get Published

Five of the Most Common Content Marketing Mistakes—And What to Do Instead

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image of Joe Zappa

Joe Zappa is the principal and founder of Sharp Pen Media, a content marketing agency. He is also the editor of the martech publication Street Fight.

LinkedIn: Joe Zappa