You’re probably only reading this because the title short-circuited your brain a bit, and you’re likely planning to hang around just long enough to find out if I’m insane. So to get that out of the way, I’m going to kick this off with the mother of all case studies: what are the top 10 most popular sites on the web? And according to Alexa (yeah, I know, Alexa), these are the top 10 English language sites on the web:

  1. Google
  2. Facebook
  3. YouTube
  4. Yahoo
  5. Wikipedia
  6. Windows Live (Outlook)
  7. Amazon
  8. Blogger
  9. Twitter
  10. LinkedIn

Take a close look at these sites. Does it seem like something’s missing? It should. Because most of these sites can’t really be thought of as sources of content. Not what we traditionally consider content, anyway. Not blog posts or infographics or how-to guides or most of the other kinds of content we’re used to talking about.

Instead, what we see are tools and communities. Nearly all the content on these sites is user generated. (And people go to Yahoo to check their mail, not to see their content).

It’s true that not all of us can become the next Facebook or Google, but we can certainly learn from them, and the takeaway should be clear by now. If the most successful sites on the web are tools and communities, then content marketing is about building tools and communities, not about attracting pageviews with content.

Not for Content’s Sake

We love content marketing (we even wrote an in-depth guide on the subject), but it’s not for content’s sake. And no, I’m not stating the obvious facts that profit and business longevity are the end goals of content marketing. Instead, I’m taking the heretical position that content (as we think of it) isn’t really king. Not when you look at the most successful sites on the web.

The top sites on the web offer an entirely different kind of value: a place. Google is a place to search the entire web. Facebook is a place to keep in touch with your friends. Amazon is a place you can trust for unbiased customer reviews about products you can buy there. Wikipedia is a place you can find (more or less) scholarly information on just about any subject. YouTube is a place to find videos to comment on and share. Blogger is a place to explore your own creativity by writing in a public arena.

The difference between a place and content? Something to do. Notice that every one of these sites gives its core users something to do. That is why they keep coming back. They are not passively absorbing, they are actively doing.

This is important not just because it keeps users coming back, but because it puts them in an active mindset. In an active mindset, users are, well, more likely to take an action. This change in mindset changes the effectiveness of a call to action, provided it makes sense in context, giving you the power to create financial and social conversions.

Then What is the Purpose of Content Marketing?

The goal of content marketing is to transition a user from passive content absorption to action. Most of us already understand that content is a lead into social sharing, subscriptions, and sales. It is also the voice of your brand, a voice that should be relatable to your core audience and set the expectations for every interaction they have with you in the future.

I think most of us content marketers know more than we need to about the art of content. There’s always more to learn, and it never hurts (as long as you’re putting it to work), but maybe it’s time we start shifting some of our efforts. Maybe we should take a break from thinking about how to create content that grabs attention, and think more about the actions we want users to take. And I’m not talking about conversion rates. I’m talking about the actions themselves.

What if social sharing, subscriptions, and sales don’t make up the holy trifecta of S’s we think they do? What if there are other actions users can take that have stronger, longer lasting impacts? After all, there’s some evidence to suggest that social shares don’t correlate so well with repeat visits, and that clicks aren’t the major source of sales, let alone repeat sales. Most of us are already also well aware that a single sell tells us nothing about customer retention.

Since there’s very little research on the matter, I can only turn to what reality tells us seems to work best, by taking another look at the most successful sites on the web.

Unavoidable Tools

When we look at Google, Facebook, YouTube, or Amazon, we can easily see that what makes those sites so ubiquitous is the success of their tools. Tools certainly can be thought of as content (and Google certainly agrees), but we don’t typically think of them that way as content marketers, or as digital marketers in general.

What would Google be without its search engine? What would Facebook be without its sharing technology? Would Amazon be the king of e-retail without its customer review tools? These businesses would literally be nothing without their tools. That’s a fact worth paying attention to.

As content marketers, we know that priority number one is to solve problems for the user. But sometimes the best solution for your user isn’t what we would typically think of as content. A home shopper who wants to learn more about loans can probably learn just as much or more from a mortgage calculator as from a blog post.

Think about how you or your client’s website can be useful not just as a content source, but as a tool. Use content to spread awareness about the tool, and to build a consistent brand message, not just as a way to lock users into your content.

Be careful, though. Approach tools the way you would infographics. Is the best solution to your user’s problem really a tool? Does the increased usefulness of the tool over traditional content justify the costs of development? Does somebody already have essentially the same tool?

Inescapable Communities

Where would Wikipedia be without its community of volunteer editors? How about Blogger, or any social network or forum anywhere on the net? Once again, these businesses and organizations would literally be nothing if it weren’t for their enthusiastic communities.

Community building is a bit harder for content marketers to think about. At least tools go through a similar design and research phase when compared with traditional content like infographics and blog posts. But communities? How do you build those? Don’t you just keep producing great content until your audience is big enough to become a community?

Well…yes, but you can certainly help things along. Sure, we all understand how helpful it can be to encourage blog comments, but there’s so much more we could be doing to improve our online communities.

For starters, any site that has a reasonable amount of traffic should probably set up a forum right away. Forums may seem a bit web 1.0 in this day and age, but tell that to Reddit’s 37 billion pageviews per year, or 4chan’s 600 million monthly page views from Google alone. A well-moderated forum can become an incredible source of user-generated content, entertainment, and interaction for your business.

But building a forum isn’t just about setting up the tool. You’ll need to have very clear moderation guidelines in place in order to keep the culture of the forum in line with the expectations of newcomers, and you’ll need to make sure the moderators understand all of this. You’ll also need to be doing most of the work yourself in the early days, or visitors won’t have much to see when they visit your forum. You’ll need to get your workforce and existing customers on the forum in order to make sure a conversation exists at all, and, of course, you’ll need to promote it through content marketing channels.

Whether it’s a forum or blog comments, you’ll need to make sure your communication technology is conducive to actual discussion. It should be easy for users to identify who they’re responding to, and this should be clear to readers as well.

Up-votes (and perhaps down-votes) can also allow the community to self-moderate on some level, so that distracting comments are pushed aside, and the most enjoyable comments take center stage. Even when using this kind of tech, though, it will take moderation to set the appropriate tone. (If you’ve ever actually been to reddit or 4chan, it’s probably obvious that your brand image could be damaged by the crude culture of the internet, depending on your niche of course).

The more capabilities you give your users, the better. (Assuming the capabilities don’t ruin the interface, of course). If they can post images or make their own memes, they’re going to have a more engaging experience. As long as it’s all properly moderated and the interface is intuitive, the more you give your users to do, the more success you’ll have.

So how does content become the lead-in to tools and community? Well, you can start by learning how any topic can be made incredibly interesting as long as you answer the right questions about it. Second, you can leverage your community as a source of content; not just by crowdsourcing, but by responding to questions and mentioning community members in the content itself. When content and community become one, your online presence becomes whole.

Tools, on the other hand, should be treated a bit more like products. You want to mention the tools in your content, but you don’t want to push them or be too aggressive. If you can include the tool directly on the content page, rather than forcing them to click through, odds are you’ll get much more use out of it as well.

So what’s your take? Have I overstepped my bounds by saying that content (as we think of it) isn’t really king? Are communities and tools just more distractions from sales, and do they really encourage repeat visits? Let’s hear your thoughts. Thanks for reading.