If you're like most middle market leaders, you're inundated with unwanted marketing messages - endless radio and television ads, spam email, junk flyers in your mailbox, and more. The same is true for our customers, and that's why traditional brand marketing approaches are quickly losing their effectiveness, says Joe Pulizzi, founder of the Content Marketing Institute and author of the new book Epic Content Marketing.

"Our customers are being inundated with over 13,000 messages a day, so how are we supposed to get their attention with our products and services?" he asks. "We may think we need to amplify [our advertising], to get more products and service in front of them." But in the TiVo and smartphone era, he says, that's a losing battle: "They can completely ignore us. If you want to cut through the clutter, you have to give them something useful, meaningful, and entertaining."

That means an entirely new approach: "We have to stop marketing the way we've always marketed," he says. "I'm not an advertising or traditional marketing hater; it can still be effective, but it's just not nearly as effective as it used to be, especially if you don't have millions of dollars on hand."

The answer, he says, is a new kind of brand marketing: creating content on an ongoing basis that customers will voluntarily seek out. First, he says, you should seek out "a niche where you can position yourself as a leading information provider." He points to the example of River Pools and Spas, a middle market company based in Virginia that has excelled by providing useful and detailed information that can help customers make better buying decisions (What type of lining should I get for my pool? When's the best time of year to do an installation?). Pulizzi says of them, "Nobody was answering customer questions, so they said, 'Let's answer every one of them.' And now they dominate the marketplace."

Pulizzi also cites the Indium Corporation, a middle market company that develops and manufactures products used in electronics assembly. "They have 17 of their engineers blogging on a regular basis because they understood that engineers like to buy from other engineers," he says. 

If you want to develop your own strategy for content marketing, it's essential to figure out which channel to focus on. "Everybody says, 'I've got to be on Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn and have a blog,'" says Pulizzi, "and I say, 'No, you don't! Become an expert and dominate one niche with one channel.'" In other words, choose a strategy - blogging, podcasting, tweeting, etc. - and focus your efforts. That doesn't mean you should avoid other social networks, but you should principally think of them as ways to drive traffic to your primary channel. For instance, if you have a podcast, use your blog to promote it rather than developing an entirely separate blog strategy - at least at first. "Your blog might be show notes [from the podcast], or five links to things we talked about, or backstage video we caught, but the [main] content is on the podcast," says Pulizzi.

For companies that want to get started with content marketing, here are five questions to consider up front: 

  • What channel (such as videos, a blog, a print magazine) will allow our company to truly shine? 
  • Who will take primary responsibility for creating the content? Will others contribute as well? 
  • What customer questions can we answer? 
  • How frequently can we commit to producing content (since consistency is key)? 
  • What are our metrics for monitoring progress? Is it the number of followers, likes, or shares? Increased customer inquiries?

Dorie Clark is an NCMM contributor and marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. Learn more about her new book Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press). Follow her on Twitter.