The Four Levels of Content Marketing Mastery: Introduction

Based on the level of sophistication of their content marketing strategy, companies belong to one of the four content mastery levels: pre-content, beginners, intermediate, and advanced. In this article we explain the main differences between them and discuss why starting small and taking consistent action is the prerequisite to succeeding wit content marketing.

Last updated: May 18th 2019

(This article is part 3 of the Content Marketing Strategy for Absolute Beginners article series.)

Introduction to the four levels of content marketing mastery

In our opening article, we claim that beginners should not skip the beginner level of content marketing mastery, but they inevitably do. Because online resources aren't well-organized, beginners find it hard to find the articles best suited for their skills. The result is that beginners either bite off more than they can chew and give up, or never bite into content marketing at all.

Our Philosophy Behind the Four Levels

Good content marketing is hard because it requires uninterrupted access to resources we all have in very limited supply: inspiration, motivation, patience, commitment, resources, knowledge, and skills. When we start something new, all we seem to experience is the frustrating lack of some or most of those resources. That's why it's quite important to achieve some success as early as possible in the process. Starting on a beginner level enables us to experience success early on.

To achieve our goals more easily, we humans automate our behavior with well-rehearsed routines we call habits. Every time we try to quit smoking, lose weight, or change our lifestyle, our bad habits tend to hold us back, and good habits help us change.

Our personal and professional experience taught us that the following is true about habits:

  • Good habits are hard to adopt.
  • Bad habits are hard to unlearn.
  • Starting small is the most effective strategy for adopting new habits.
  • Rushing an underdeveloped habit usually results in failure.
  • Consistency is key.

Content Marketing Is a Habit.

Most of us know that exercise is good for us, but we like our couch more than we like a running track. Similarly, many B2B companies have heard of the value of content marketing, but it's easier to not write and to keep paying for print ads.

Hard things can be overcome with good habits. Several proverbs come to mind:

  • You must learn to crawl before you can walk. ~ Unknown
  • The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. ~ Lao Tzu
  • Do or do not; there is no try. ~ Master Yoda

This entire article series rests on the following premise: starting small and taking consistent action is your best bet for beginning anything and sticking with it long enough to make it a habit.

Here's an example of what that means for newbie content marketers:

First, pick the easiest content creation tasks possible. For example, learn to write and publish a simple news piece for your website. Don't fantasize about becoming a thought leader just yet. If a news article is too much, start with a social post on Linkedin. If a social post is too much, tweet.

Second, make the smallest commitment you can guarantee you can adhere to. For example, commit to writing one news article per month (and put off writing that 20-page ebook for much later). If one news piece per month is too much, commit to one monthly social post on Linkedin.

Are you ready to commit to a few easy, infrequent content tasks? If yes, let's get you started.

Content Marketing Mastery Scale

Our own scale for measuring content marketing mastery was inspired by the Kardashev scale. Kardashev scale measures a civilization's level of technological advancement based on the amount of energy a civilization is able to use.

Just like the original three-tiered Kardashev scale, we have established a three-tier scale for measuring a company's level of content marketing mastery:

  1. Beginner level: becoming a a publishing company
  2. Intermediate level: becoming a teaching company
  3. Advanced level: becoming a helping company

Our scale is based on the sophistication of a company's content marketing strategy which, quite fittingly, also depends on the total amount of energy and resources available to the company.

Something is missing on this scale, though. We haven't accounted for 38% of the companies still not on the beginner level yet. We couldn't just ignore more than the third of the market, so we expanded our scale with a fourth level:

  1. Pre-content level: a silent company
  2. Beginner level: a publishing company
  3. Intermediate level: a teaching company
  4. Advanced level: a helping company

(On a Kardashev scale, a notable milestone of a type-zero civilization starts 1.4 million years ago, when homo erectus discovered fire. A notable milestone in a company's life would be the discovery of content marketing.)

Which content marketing level do you belong to? Let's examine every level in closer detail.

Level Zero: Silent, Pre-Content Companies

Pre-content is the term we coined ourselves to describe companies which have no intrinsic desire to regularly publish any type of content on their business websites or elsewhere:

  • There are no news, blog posts, articles, press releases, or even job opening announcements.
  • The only content on their website are static pages such as "About Us", "Services", and "References".
  • If they exist, company's social profiles are rarely updated.

Pre-content companies lack the basic skills required to perform the simplest content marketing tasks:

  • Writing and publishing a simple corporate news piece
  • Committing to a regular or a semi-regular publishing schedule
  • Promoting their content to prospective customers

To help you remember our content marketing mastery levels more easily, we're going to use four animals as symbols for the four levels.

A symbol for a pre-content company is a hummingbird.

Hummingbird: a symbol for pre-content companies

Hummingbirds are the world's smallest birds. They try to make up for their size by flapping their wings at very high frequencies, up to 80 flaps per second, which is faster than any other bird in the world! (Well, they don't really try to make up for anything, but you get the point). However, no matter how fast they flap their wings, their presence is barely audible to a human ear: one must come very close to hear them or to distinguish them from large insects.

We compare pre-content companies to hummingbirds because no matter how beautiful and unique the are, it's hard to notice them. Hummingbird companies could very well be important market players, but unless they make themselves heard and seen, others will eventually outcompete them online with content.

Silent hummingbird companies can advance to the next level by:

  • Learning about the value of content marketing,
  • Securing support from decision makers, and
  • Deciding to adopt content marketing practices (on the beginner level).

Level One: Beginners Learning to Become a Publishing Company

If you're regularly or semi-regularly publishing basic types of content and promoting them to the audiences available to you, you are practicing content marketing on a beginner level. When we say 'basic types of content', we mean company news, sales and marketing articles, company announcements, project updates and the like.

(If you're struggling with writing blog posts for your website or simply need some inspiration, download the templates, worksheets and guides in our Products section).

In our lingo, any practice that involves creating content regularly for the purposes of generating business leads technically and practically is content marketing (although on a very rudimentary level). However, if you googled content marketing or content marketing strategy, the first hundred or so results would beg to strongly disagree to call you a content marketer. To them, you're a boring company, dumping boring corporate news on the internet. What we call content seems to be the unworthy kind of content, given our observation that basic types of content are rarely mentioned in the highest ranking articles.

In the opening article in our series, we explained why we do not accept this, and why we're bent on fixing it. Starting with the easy and the familiar - by writing news about themselves - is how most companies learn to persist long enough to advance. A huge percentage of mature companies are still on this level (50% as per our own estimate), doing their best to ascend to the higher echelons of content marketing.

Back to our animals: if beginner content marketers were marching to battle, a peacock whould be on their banner.

Peacock: a symbol for beginner companies

A peacock's main skill is courting the gentler sex by showing off his impressive tail feathers. It's always me, me, me with this guy, and he does not disappoint: a single glance at him is enough to mesmerize the most impressionable among the ladies. However, his influence is only skin-deep: below the pretty feathers, a peacock is just an ordinary chick.

We compare beginner companies to peacocks because their self-centered content really is unimpressive. From a reader's point of view, beginner companies are bragging about how great they are, without adding too much value to their customers. This is a natural beginner behavior most companies must go through to either make it or break it as content marketers.

Beginner companies learn to overcome their bragging tendencies by:

  • Developing an intricate desire to scratch more deeply with their content,
  • Mastering the basic mechanics of content writing and publishing, and wanting to do more,
  • Experiencing modest, but highly coveted results of their content marketing efforts,
  • Seeking to connect with their customers online via content, and
  • Figuring out what truly excites their customers.

Level Two: Intermediates Learning to Become a Teaching Company

If you secured enough resources to regularly publish original content which aims to educate your customers, you're on an intermediate level.

In case you wondered, this is where serious content marketing begins. On this level, content marketing is finally making good on its grand promise, which is that if you teach with content, your digital assets will generate business leads for you.

As an intermediate content marketer, you're succeeding because you're developing a solid grasp of what kind of content your customers want to consume. You're writing blog posts teaching your customers how to do their jobs using your products and services. You're publishing long-form articles, how-to ebooks, white papers and case studies. In parallel you're learning how to attract organic (non-paid) traffic from search engines and social channels, and you're enjoying modest successes.

The owl is the intermediate content marketer's spirit bird.

Owl: a symbol for intermediate, teaching companies

A symbol of knowledge and wisdom, this magnificent bird embodies human desire to teach others and help them succeed. Becoming a teaching company means that you learn to abandon the tendency to serve your own interests. Instead you focus your content creation efforts on what customers are struggling with, what they are interested in, and what excites them.

Level Three: Advanced Practitioners Learning to Become a Helping Company

If you have a dedicated content marketing team capable of producing advanced forms of content such as apps, tools, and vibrant communities, congratulations: you're winning the content marketing game! It's good to be you: the kind of struggles you're having on an advanced level is what hummingbird, peacock, and owl companies are hoping to have one day.

On an advanced level, you're learning how to become a helping company which is not satisfied to merely educate its customers anymore. You pressure yourself to go from teaching to doing, setting things in motion, and making things possible. You're devoted to building sophisticated tools which help your customers do their jobs. You're establishing unique opportunities which meet unmet needs and patch holes in your market. Empowered by vast resources to create content, you go beyond short term sales results and come up with original ways to serve the wider community and greater good.

If advanced content marketers had an official coat of arms, a dolphin would be featured on it.

Dolphin: a symbol for advanced, helping companies

Stories of dolphins helping humans and other animal species have been known for centuries. Dolphins help fishermen catch fish, save humans from sharks, guide whales away from shallow waters, and even save dogs from drowning. Dolphins are the real heroes of animal kingdom and everybody admires them.

We've chosen the dolphin to represent advanced content marketers because of their near-altruistic penchant for helping others in need, especially members of other species. Advanced content marketers stand out because they realize what content marketing is all about: if you want positive brand awareness and increased future demand for your solutions, you must find a way to help the widest community possible. You don't stop at where your market share ends: you're always looking to expand your reach and serve your customers' customers. Content is just one of the tools in an advanced content marketer's toolbox to achieve that.

Next Article in Series

Where there are levels, there will be chasms dividing the levels. In our next article, we introduce the three content marketing chasms, talk about why it's difficult to cross them, and present our estimate on how many companies successfully cross each chasm.

(Follow us on Linkedin, Twitter or Facebook if you don't want to miss the next article.)