This article is part of Inc.'s special report on How (and Where) to Make Money in 2013 (and Beyond). Read on for game-changing trends, bold predictions, and hot markets to watch next year.
These days, nearly everyone knows how to click past or block banner ads and pop-ups. Meantime, consumers are spending more time online, especially on social-media sites. Those two trends are adding up to a new way of marketing--one based on connecting to people via online content.
What is content? It could be nearly anything: blog posts, white papers, webinars, podcasts, slide shows, videos. The key is that it engage customers--and spur them to share it with others. See, for example, the action-sports videos produced by helmet-cam maker GoPro or the beauty and lifestyle-focused blog on Birchbox. Content can be equally as compelling in a B2B context: The website of HubSpot, a maker of marketing software, features case studies, videos, and podcasts about key trends in marketing.
Creating content for your own website, though, is only part of the content play. With millions of users each, social media's Big 8--Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram, LinkedIn, Google+, and YouTube--present untold opportunities to acquire and engage audiences. But you can't do it via banners, coupons, and other traditional approaches. Instead, marketers are engaging in so-called native advertising, a term you'll be hearing a lot this year.
Native advertising is simply advertising that follows the format, style, and voice of whatever platform it appears in. The goal is for someone browsing a site to see the advertising as something integral to, rather than an intrusion on, his or her overall experience of the site. It seems to work: On Facebook, for example, the average click-through rate for "sponsored story" ads in the second quarter of 2012 was 53 percent greater than that of display ads, according to TBG Digital. And online publishers such as The Atlantic and Gawker Media are offering more opportunities for sponsored posts and videos tailored to the interests of their readers.
Making the shift to content will not be easy. Unlike old methods of marketing, in which brands could keep campaigns going for months at a time, social media requires constant refreshing. "You can't leave a message in the market for nine minutes, let alone nine months," says James Gross, president of Percolate, an advertising software company in New York City. A flurry of companies is focusing on the business opportunity here, providing online tools and services that help streamline both content creation (like Contently and Percolate) and the placement of native advertising (Sharethrough).
Fortunately, a marketing campaign on Instagram, for example, can be managed by a single person with a smartphone. Or you can outsource it to customers--something that Jay Peak, a ski resort in northern Vermont, does to foster brand loyalty. The resort asks skiers to tag Instagram shots that they believe exemplify what they love about the mountain with a "Raised Jay" hash tag. "It ends up being a conversation starter," says marketing director Steve Wright, "an opportunity to open lines of communication and put a face to the business."
Something else that's new about content marketing: The content in question does not have to be slick to be effective. And therein lies another advantage for small companies, says Gross. "A lot of times, larger companies can get so focused on quality that they won't do something bold. A smaller business can be quicker to let go of quality and focus on what actually works from a content perspective."