As soon as content marketing took off as an industry term, so appeared the naysayers.
Headlines like “Content Marketing Is Dead,” “The Content Lie,” and “Content Marketing Doesn’t Work” peppered favorite thought-provoking advertising industry publications, each one juicier than the last.
But give these pieces more than a glance, and you’ll often see the writer’s got their content marketing definition all wrong. Many mouthpieces blame content marketing for an advertising campaign’s failure. Or for the inevitable fizzling out of a mediocre magazine. Or even for a content brand that sadly didn’t have time to get off the ground.
In most cases, content marketing isn’t what failed. The problem, instead, is that many brands still haven’t nailed down and agreed upon the definition of content marketing. Had the commentators been on the same page in defining the practice, they’d be better prepared to critique non-starters.
As a marketing practitioner, the fight might not seem like yours, but anyone vying for the budget to deliver altruistic, piquant stories to an audience (regularly) should take note. After all, if someone on your team thinks content marketing is nothing more than a one-time stunt that pours semi-qualified leads into the top of some funnel, for example, better to straighten it out now than to wait until the finger-pointing starts.
So let’s get to the bottom of it.
Here’s what successful content marketing is not.
A Google search of the question “what is content marketing?” turns up a ton of results. But the featured snippet (at the time of this writing), the one most users see, is faulty: “. . . the creation and sharing of online material . . .” it claims, which leaves out print magazines, episodic books, in-person events, and feature films.
This online-only definition also omits the origins of commercial broadcast content marketing. Initiatives like the Lucky Strike hour radio show of the 1930s. Or the soap operas of the ’40s and ’50s. First funded by soap maker Procter & Gamble, serial dramas were sponsored programming meant to entertain housewives as they folded laundry and cared for youngsters. Still today, some of the best content marketing examples are real-life, theatric, in-person, or analog experiences.
In 2014, Verizon launched Sugarstring, a tech, culture, and politics publication that immediately ran into trouble for allegedly choosing not to cover net neutrality, surveillance, or cybersecurity. The public pushed back, accusing the brand of everything from hypocrisy to deceit for avoiding such important topics. Within just a few weeks of going live, the content brand shut down. “Content Marketing Grapples With Growing Pains,” moaned PRWire at the time.
But here’s the thing: Verizon was the one grappling with growing pains, not content marketing. According to the Content Marketing Institute’s definition, this particular content brand had tried too hard to appeal to all readers, instead of a clearly defined niche. Subsequently, leadership flinched when confronted by those outside their target audience.
It doesn’t matter whether the publication’s critics had a case. In fact, they were probably right to expect Verizon to be more objective. But when a brand backs away from controversy, content marketing is not to blame.
A successful content marketing approach will target and serve a clearly defined audience, ignoring the cacophony of those outside that sphere.
Not long ago, the corporate blog or publication was everyone’s idea of content marketing. And for many industries, the written word is still the best way to connect. However, creative brands have demonstrated many innovative ways to build an addressable audience. Today, a fun mobile app can be just as addictive as an educational content destination. Toy makers are creating feature films. Business audit, tax, and advisory firm Grant Thornton releases the North Carolina 100 awards annually to honor and celebrate innovative local businesses, a generous content marketing initiative their audience anticipates every year. A good read is always welcome, yes, but imagine (as a customer) receiving a trophy. Or taking in a movie with the family. Many of the most creative content marketing examples go beyond text.
Not long ago, Gary Vaynerchuk, a vocal evangelist of content marketing, told the world that the best way to get started building an audience is to begin documenting normal, everyday life. While the advice may work for an aspiring YouTube celebrity, established enterprises need a strategy. And a strategy starts with a business goal. Documenting daily life or processes may end up being part of your content marketing strategy, sure, but getting started for the sake of generating momentum is not content marketing.
Last year, digital marketing agency Digital Current published a thing called “Worst Marketing Campaigns: When Content Marketing Goes Wrong.” The only problem? The article listed a handful of stunts, experiments, and campaigns that failed. No true content marketing examples were critiqued.
When will commentators learn? Content marketing is not a stunt, an experiment, or a campaign.
So when a movement falters, check for a strategy before blaming the methodology. What was the goal? Just to get started? Experiments have their place in marketing. So do campaigns. The content marketing strategy, however, is neither.
Some of the best examples of content marketing have been unbranded content destinations that audiences seek out. Dollar Shave Club, for example, maintains MELMagazine.com, one of the best NSFW sites for men in the world, but their logo is nowhere to be found.
When news broke of the cessation of Casper’s unbranded sleep-focused media property Van Winkle’s, critics were quick to blame content marketing for the failure. “Casper’s shutdown of Van Winkle’s shows limits of ‘brand journalism,‘” whined Digiday. In skeptics’ minds, here was another opportunity to prove an underwritten beat publication can’t drive revenue. But just because the site shuttered doesn’t mean goals were not achieved. The brand has repeatedly said driving sales was not the primary objective. The publication came at a crucial time—Arianna Huffington was writing The Sleep Revolution, sleep pods appeared in corporate offices, and Oprah launched online courses dedicated to teaching her audience the importance of a solid snooze. Clearly, the masses had begun seeing the link between wellness and a good night’s rest. People wanted more on the topic.
And look, instead of ditching the altruistic practice of content marketing, the mattress maker has instead pivoted to focus on its paid print magazine. This is hardly what you’d call exhibit “A” of the “. . . limits of brand journalism.”
It seems some commentators assume the content marketing definition is “a sponsored-but-unbranded publication,” and nothing else. As though corporations are trying to give readers the slip by sneaking an agenda into otherwise objective reporting. But often, that’s just not the case.
For example, Bosch Professional Power Tools facilitates an active, safe Q&A forum community for professionals in the artisanal craftsmanship, electrical, commercial building, and construction industries. The forum isn’t unbranded, but the moderators don’t push products and services, either. The brand strikes a comfortable balance that serves the audience over time. And one of the business benefits is a thriving data sciences operation that springs from the many friendly peer-to-peer discussion threads.
Mark Higginson, a contributor for econsultancy.com, penned a bitter “Why the ‘brands as publishers’ trend is utter nonsense” piece that made the rounds last year. In it, he used impressions, clicks, and social “likes” to gauge the success of many of the most famous, oft-cited content marketing examples out there. The only problem? Accomplished content marketing initiatives are rarely—if ever—measured internally the same way conventional advertisements are.
In fact, Linda Boff, GE’s CMO and AdWeek‘s 2017 Brand Genius of the Year, said at Business Insider‘s Ignition conference, “I never need to see an ‘impression’ number again, never. I’d be fine without it.” Internally, her team calls vanity metrics “success theater,” a term that well sums up the facade of accomplishment that Higginson seems to value.
If you judge a content brand by the same ruler you use to measure an ad, well, sure, you’ll probably be disillusioned. But if your goal is to gain addressability for the more relevant, loyal, curious, evangelistic followers out there, you may find the sole reliance on conventional advertising is what’s utter nonsense. Not content marketing.
Image attribution: Daria Shevtsova
Content marketing, then, is the strategic creation of an ongoing valuable experience for the purpose of building a distinct audience that can later be addressed to achieve a business goal.
If you’ve ever seen a “Content Marketing Doesn’t Work” article, then you’ve likely witnessed a faulty use of the term. Most rational marketers would agree that a healthy back-and-forth or devil’s advocate approach can strengthen a marketing methodology. But when content marketing is blamed for the failure of a stunt, a campaign, or worst of all, an interrupt ad, only the clarification of an agreed-upon content marketing definition can save the conversation.
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