From my experience, there seem to be three main ways to use content marketing for your business. I offer the same piece of advice to pretty much everyone I talk to about content marketing, which is: work out why you're using content marketing and what your goals are. Then you can choose the method that suits you best.
If you don't know why you're doing something, you can't measure whether it's working or not.
Method one: driving traffic
Driving traffic is the most broad of these three methods. Using content marketing to drive traffic would force you to focus on things like click-worthy headlines, trending or popular topics, having your articles republished or guest posting to get links back to your blog and making your articles easy to share.
Each method of content marketing will force you to focus on different areas, which is why I advocate knowing which method you're using. You don't want to realise after months of hard work that you've been focusing on the wrong things.
Because driving traffic is such a broad method, it means that you're going after eyeballs on your content—any eyeballs. You'll focus a lot less on reaching the "right" people, and just go after anyone who will click. In the past this method has often seen me trying to push a blog post on Hacker News because that's where the traffic is, regardless of whether the topic was appropriate or not.
It's not necessarily a bad method, though. It's a bit like throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks; the more traffic you can get to your blog, the more people you'll find who love what you do and want more of it.
One thing to keep in mind about this method is that traffic will often spike due to unknown causes or uncontrollable reasons. For instance, maybe a high-profile blogger links to one of your articles, or you get something republished on a popular blog with lots of traffic. Or sometimes it's just that a post you write will go nuts on your own blog—everyone will be scrambling to read it while the similar post you wrote last week withers away in your archives. It's just the way of content marketing that you'll see spikes of traffic sometimes which are impossible to systematically replicate.
Because of that, I like to focus on baseline traffic as a measurable goal. If your average traffic has been increasing month over month for the past year, you're probably doing something right. When you look at those numbers, it won't matter that you had a week where your traffic dipped, or a particularly huge day three months ago.
Method two: building familiarity and trust
This method is inspired by Rand Fishkin from Moz. Rand put together a slide deck years ago that explained how to use content marketing and I've been leaning on it heavily ever since I came across it.
Rand argues against using content to directly gain leads or conversions, and instead focus on building familiarity, likeability and trust with your audience. He also points out that this is a broad content strategy. When you're building a rapport with your audience, you can create content that's not only relevant to current or potential customers, but to anyone who knows them. An introduction to your content by a trusted friend is surely a quality lead to what may become a strong relationship in time.
Relationships are a lot harder to quantify than clicks or signups. The intangibility of content marketing results is often a turnoff, but there are a few things you can look at to see whether this method is working. Return visitors, followers on social media and mentions of your brand on blogs, social media posts and forums all point to a strong community that feels engaged with you.
If this is your aim with content marketing, you'll focus less on "any content people will click on" and more on content that is useful, credible, high-quality and unique. When most people start out with content marketing, they don't have many resources to work with. This often leads to a choice between creating high-quality content less often or maintaining a very regular publishing schedule of lower-quality content. If you're building a relationship with your audience, trust is paramount. Putting out exceptional work less often than you'd like is the compromise I'd suggest, versus losing (or never gaining in the first place) your readers' trust by producing mediocre content they don't care about.
Method three: driving conversions
The most specific of these three methods is to drive conversions. The goal in this case is generally to get readers to sign up for something: your product, your mailing list or buying a book or other secondary product. Just like you would with a landing page, this method calls for optimising the flow from entrance to signup (or purchase).
Of all three methods this is my least favourite, and the one I'd be least likely to recommend using content marketing for. Conversions are a short-term, optimisation area of marketing, whereas content marketing is a long game that draws customers in slowly.
This doesn't mean you can't use content for conversions, though. It just means your focus will be a lot smaller. You'll be writing specifically for current and potential customers so your topic pool will be smaller, your social outreach will be more targeted and you'll spend a lot of time focusing on how well your content converts, and editing things like your blog layout and calls-to-action about your product. This is kind of like the advertorial of content marketing: it's ostensibly content, but you care more about sales than writing a good post.
Choosing your own method
You may use a mixture of these methods, but knowing which one is your main goal can help you focus and make decisions about your content strategy. It also makes it easier to choose which metrics to focus on so you can measure your progress.