Can Content Marketing Exist In a Non-Digital Space?

By Kyle Harper on August 7, 2018

Sometimes I just need to disconnect.

Given the amount of time I spend on my computer-reading, researching, writing, scrolling around social media while pretending to do work-it's no surprise that on occasion I get a little bit screen weary. In our digital-first media landscape, the notion of going offline to experience content feels oddly out-of-date, bringing to mind billboard-plastered highways, glossy retail catalogs, and a return to the direct marketing and paper advertising campaigns of the nineties.

With all the attention given to marketing towards younger generations of digital natives and the pursuit of social media engagement, it often appears that modern content marketing is an entirely digital pursuit.

But does it have to be this way? Rather than dismiss direct marketing techniques as relics of the past, should more marketers include a mix of digital and physical marketing in their content strategy? Could there be new opportunities for content marketers to excel using physical marketing techniques?

A Home for Content

Before we dive into what physical content marketing can look like, we should address the potential challenges brands face when deciding to explore marketing outside digital-only campaigns. First comes the issue of SEO. Digital content is able to contribute to brand SEO strategy, while physical marketing does not. Driving organic traffic to a website is so often the backbone of an organization's content marketing strategy, a goal to which physical marketing is not well aligned.

We also have the questions of cost and delayed returns. Digital content marketing offers a reliable, relatively fast way for brands to create and distribute content with minimal lag time. By comparison, tactics like mailings require brands to put in the same creation efforts, from ideation to graphic design, but include additional layers like printing and mailing, which add time and complication.

These two attributes, however-the ease of creation and support for SEO-also lead to one of the most common downfalls for content-oriented brands. Supporting SEO is important, but what happens if you lose sight of your brand's story in the process? What happens when, in service to speed to publishing, we forget to actually engage visitors with an experience and story that matters?

Digital content that only serves to optimize your site for search isn't content marketing.

Story-driven content marketing, on the other hand, receives huge benefits from physical marketing techniques. Traditional collateral offers a wide range of ways to design your experience, from materials to packaging to delivery. A pop-up experience in an unexpected place, like outdoor apparel brand The North Face's recent pop-up in the Italian Alps, can create memories or stories that stick with visitors. A unique and valuable mailing can end up as a memento on a prospect's desk or a useful tool in their briefcase (looking at you, pile of mid-quality, branded pens in my satchel.)

hand holding postcard

Image attribution: Jakob Owens

Perhaps most interestingly, modern physical marketing is basically an untapped channel. While some brands have begun entering this space, most content-oriented brands have stuck to digital mediums and left the physical space to advertisers. With such a vast landscape yet to be overwhelmed by competitors, how can your brand contribute to the physical space, and what could it return for your company?

Something Old and Something New

While it's relatively new spin on the content marketing formula, there are some standout examples of physical content marketing worth taking note of.

One tried-and-true technique comes courtesy of universities: the college information and admissions packet.

Colleges have been competing for students to join their communities for decades. While statistics and academic metrics are important factors in the decision-making process, much of these conversations are actually driven by a college's brand-their prestige, their aesthetic, and the experiences and stories shared by their student communities. Towards this end, colleges have learned over time how to create interesting and useful packets that are full to the brim with stories, images, infographics, and other resources like checklists and maps to facilitate students' first experiences on campus. Take for instance these digital versions of Georgetown's and Northwestern's admissions packets.

Packets aren't the only tool at marketers' disposal either. Some content marketing brands have found ways to push the limits of the physical marketing mold with their own novel-length pursuits.

As part of Hubspot's educational arm, some of their favorite speakers are producing full-length books that provide readers an alternative to blogs or webinars. Skyword has expanded on this practice and entered into the publishing sphere with Storynomics, a book and an international seminar series that explore the intersection of storytelling and business.

Despite the availability of digital content, readers seem to still prefer paper books, which means that we could see a rise in traditional "brand publishing." Publishers have in fact already taken nods from content marketing material, with full-size, social media-sourced books becoming a popular staple for lifestyle or fashion brands. The interest in these products tells us something extremely important: Web content doesn't have to exist in a silo. The content we share digitally is still valuable to audiences in formats they're familiar with, so social or blog content doesn't have to remain confined to just those spaces.

handing off a ticket

Image attribution: Ben White

Bringing Content Marketing into the Physical Realm

Whether you're trying to write a book, create an in-person experience, or serve mail that delights, there are a few principles to keep in mind to ensure that your material effectively supports your content marketing.

Further an Experience First

The key distinction between a traditional advertisement versus content marketing is the difference between an attention grab and a unique experience. While ads aim to interrupt, remind, or entice a viewer with purchasing incentives, content works to create relationships, present experiences, or meet a need that the recipient has. If your material just serves to promote a seasonal sale, you aren't doing anything different from the 200 other mailings your audience receives.

If you don't want to end up in the junk mail pile, create materials that offer specific value. Focus on providing information, experiences, or stories in a way that you can't digitally, even if it requires extra effort or resources.

Simplify the Step to Digital

While you might be proud of all your new physical marketing materials, you should never focus just on a single channel. Your direct marketing should support, not replace, your lively digital content hub. Include QR codes, vanity URLs, or personalized URLs within the materials you distribute to make it easier for your audiences to continue a story or experience on your website. The key here is that the next step should be more useful content-not a sales pitch.

Specialize, Don't Spam

Receiving a single postcard from a friend on vacation is a novel, enjoyable experience. Receiving a postcard every two days from that friend becomes an annoyance that quickly fills your recycling bin. While digital formats offer a way to keep cadence high without sacrificing novelty, physical formats should take care to provide quality over quantity. Capitalize on formats you can't use online, invest in making the experience highly unique and valuable, and make sure each subsequent campaign is highly differentiated from those that come before it. Advertising numbs audiences with ceaseless material. Content should delight the recipient every time they discover it, receive it, or participate in it.

I'm not entirely certain what the future of physical marketing holds for content marketers as audiences become increasingly plugged-in but also hungry for respite from their screens. What is clear, however, is that there is a massive opportunity for brands that want to be creative about engaging their audiences outside of their daily web-scrolling grind.

For more stories like this, subscribe to the Content Standard newsletter.

Subscribe to the Content Standard

Featured image attribution: Scott Webb


Kyle Harper

Kyle Harper is a writer, editor, and marketer who is passionate about creative projects and the industries that support them. He is a human who writes things. He also writes about things, around things, for things, and because of things. He's worked with brands like Hasbro, Spotify, Tostitos, and the Wall Street Journal, as well as a bunch of cool startups. The hardest job he's ever taken was the best man speech for his brother's wedding. No challenge is too great or too small. No word is unimportant. Behind every project is a story. What's yours?