The Trouble With Content Marketing

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Content marketing has an identity crisis. Here's why (and how to resolve it).

Content marketing is everything. It's nothing. It's substantial like rock. It's fleeting like the wind. It's both sides of the brain in perfect harmony. It's the brand story. It's the value proposition shown, not told. In other words, it's a tactic with an identity crisis.

The Content Marketing Institute itself is proud to stack up no fewer than 21 explanations of this burgeoning field, plus six more definitions on another page on its site. I say this not to ridicule, but to highlight the confusion in the marketplace about content marketing. There's not a broadly agreed-upon definition of the field.

Content is the “what”; it should be the “why”

The trouble may be in the term itself. It comes from the software industry, not from the creatives who use it today. Software industry insiders see content is simply anything that can be put inside something else. So, in marketing, content is just the “what” of your communication.

As a creative person, that generic label rankles. It commoditizes everything we work on, slave over, and live for. In this context our immortal copy is no different than soy futures. And it's not only the writer who feels this. The researcher, the art director, the blogger, the video artist—all are lumped into the same enormous category of content creators. It's a world-view created by coders. (No offense, coders.) No wonder creative minds and others have trouble with it.

As an illustration of how vague the advertising and marketing world is about content marketing, a global chief creative officer recently said to me, as though it were an insight, “all creative is just content.” (This coming from one of us: a creative.) Yes, that's true. But it's an inadequate statement. It's like saying “advertising is advertising.”

To get a better sense of the intent of content marketing—thus, it's underlying definition—let's look at it in action.

Hunting for content marketing in the wild

In the beginning there was the classic newsletter. It's said that content marketing got its start with the John Deere Newsletter of 1895 or so. Working inside newsletter marketing, you get a real sense of the intention of a good content marketer. One newsletter for a direct marketing agency had an explicit editorial policy never to mention the name of the agency the newsletter was designed to sell. This quarterly magazine packed in as much useful marketing information, case studies, tips, and inspiration as would fit. The idea was that the agency became associated with this publication and the expertise it contained, but never became self-serving. And it worked. The newsletter was a successful channel to begin relationships—without ever overtly advertising.

Another version of journalistic content marketing often comes from Internet Security firms: the timely virus alert. For years I wrote a regular email whose goal was lead generation, but whose content was all about the monster-of-the-week virus. The emails reported on who was at risk, how the virus operated, and necessary steps to avoid costly infection. The consumer could click through the email to more information, resources, and products provided by the company. Each email gave away valuable information. Certainly an investment by the security company, but it was a successful program because it treated marketing as a value transaction. It offered the recipient needed information in exchange for 1) their email and permission to talk with them, and 2) the trust they gave the company in the exchange. These are as good as currency in content marketing. Content marketing doesn't tell about value, it demonstrates it—actually gives it away. It's lead generation using information as the free offer. 

Content marketing can be especially powerful when the product is complex and important, like insurance. The insurance marketplace has been changing dramatically in the past few years, with Obamacare and updates to Medicare. Clear, understandable information has been at a premium and the insurance company that can provide it has a powerful head start in acquiring and keeping members.

Here, the content journey is the customer journey. Insurance companies have learned that consumers are hungry for information, but not always the same kind of information. Depending on where customers are in relation to their insurance, they will engage with different levels of content. Think about the health insurance marketing you've seen. It's all selling explanation at different levels—whether it's simply a quote, or a buyer's Guide, or an online banner ad teasing a video. The focus is purely the value of the information. A tidbit of entertaining and emotionally evocative information leads to a more in-depth, but more targeted explanation (maybe a charming little video) that leads to an enrollment site. All in exchange for more and more information and engagement from the consumer.

Once consumers have invested that first level of trust in a company, the human tendency toward consistency keeps their heads nodding. Soon those consumers see that company as their go-to for information about this stuff. From the creative side, we're making all the options for a choose-your-own-adventure for the consumer with hundreds of permutations. All leading to a deeper relationship.

Sometimes, what you're selling is content. Cable and satellite TV companies, as well as streaming services like Netflix, sell access to content—often using content marketing to do so. They use reviews, clips, previews, and behind the scenes material all to engage the audience into a deeper relationship with pre-content content until finally they're ready to purchase the actual content.

See content marketing, think value marketing

Content marketing looks like and can include just about any other kind of advertising and marketing. And the creative work can look identical. The distinction is not in whether you call it content marketing, but in the intent. It's not what you do; it's why you do it that counts.

Content marketing's differentiating feature is the intentional use of valuable content to develop and nurture a relationship with the consumer. It's the value that's the key, whether that value is entertainment or information. It's no wonder there are so many definitions of the field. We see a single execution and think, “that's got content. It must be content marketing.” Not true. Without content, marketing is nothing. But without value and a broader intent, content marketing—all marketing—will not succeed. And it shouldn't.

About the author

Paul Ford has been producing creative content for over two decades on both the agency and the client-side. He's worked in just about every industry imaginable. Whether it's telecomm, insurance, non-profit, or energy, his focus is on always giving consumers something more than they expect from their marketing value exchange.


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