Content marketing is a discipline of dueling identities. As a society we create more content than we’ll ever be able to consume, while marketers can’t seem to produce enough of it — or at least enough that’s timely, compelling, cost-effective, and, most important of all, true to its recipients. You might say content is the atomic unit of marketing, because any creative element we use could be considered ‘content’. But that makes content marketing simultaneously universal and vague. We can’t really define content marketing just as much as we know we can’t market without it.

This paradox was highly visible at Content Marketing World 2015 (CMW), a conference whose rapid growth and diverse attendee mix highlights how extensive content marketing has become. The conference’s keynote speakers ranged from comedians and technologists to brand marketers and bloggers, while workshops covered everything from branded print magazines and lead generation to virtual reality and the future of advertising agencies.  

So what is content marketing? At CMW, one of the most optimistic definitions was put forward by consultant Jay Baer, who remarked:

Content is the emotional and informational bridge between commerce and consumer. Building that bridge requires more than a budget, editorial calendar, and vision. It requires people who care, who love content, and what it can do for people. Not just what it can do for revenue, but rather how it helps people live their lives.

Defining content marketing in abstract and aspirational terms, Baer’s definition recognizes both the challenge and the opportunity of the medium, namely, how to establish a concrete identity that gives practitioners structure, direction, and purpose.

So where does this leave us? Will content marketing be the death of advertising? Does it signal its new golden age? How do marketing departments organize for ‘content’? And how much does content marketing matter for the future of brand building in the enterprise?

Before looking ahead and searching for clarity, let’s briefly reflect on how we got here.

A Brief, Incomplete History of Content Marketing

It’s important to remember that while modern content marketing owes much of its current momentum to digital, content marketing — often synonymous with brand publishing — isn’t new.

At least as far back as the 1930’s, when advertisers underwrote early radio shows like the Colgate Comedy Hour, brands have complimented marketing messages with resources that extended the brand’s value beyond its core product or service. This richer, more altruistic (or maybe just effective) form of brand-building has taken many forms, from John Deere’s Furrow magazine and Proctor & Gamble-produced soap operas to children’s toys in Cracker Jack boxes and McDonald’s happy meals.

John Deere invents modern content marketing with The Furrow

 

In the 1980s and 90s, this practice became codified with custom publishing in print. We’ve all seen in-flight magazines offered by airlines like American and United when we travel, but branded publications are also common in hospitality (such as Marriott’s Traveler and American Express’s Departures), finance (like ING’s quarterly ing.world), and consumer products (including Tesco’s Tesco Magazine and Tesco Real Food, two of the most widely circulated magazines in the United Kingdom). Today, brand publishing has even been adopted by digital upstarts like AirBnB (Pineapple) and Uber.  

ING's Content Marketing Hub

And as much as pundits call for the death of print, physical brand publishing has legs, principally for the simple reason that while digital space is nearly infinite, full of content and storytelling competing for attention, physical spaces are finite, and — WIFI aside — it’s easier to access captive attention inside an enclosed space like an airplane, car, or hotel room.  

For example, TD Ameritrade has an estimated print circulation of over two million recipients, more than the physical circulation of well-known financial magazines like Bloomberg. If you’re a publisher, branded content that’s distributed to a pre-existing audience is also a better business; the revenue model isn’t contingent on selling advertisements, and advertising inventory itself isn’t a consideration because the brand controls the entire experience, as well as its circulation audience.   

Nonetheless, there’s no question digital — and, more specifically, social and mobile — has both democratized and transformed brand publishing over the past ten years. Rather than making brands monthly publishers on one or two channels, social has ushered in an era of always-on storytelling across dozens of channels. Today, content marketing leaders like GE and American Express have content operations that extend across print publications, owned digital content hubs, PR, branded editorial and sponsored content, and social microcontent on platforms like LinkedIn, Instagram and Snapchat.

Unsurprisingly, publishing more often on more channels means more investment, as well as higher non-working to working media costs. This year, in aggregate, brands will spend an estimated $118+ billion on content marketing as they compete for attention, share of voice, and mental availability.  

But defining content marketing simply as the output of brand publishing activities is not only imprecise but very glass half full. It is also similar to Wikipedia’s own attempt at a definition, which listlessly describes content marketing as the creation and sharing of informational media:

Content marketing is any marketing that involves the creation and sharing of media and publishing content in order to acquire and retain customers. This information can be presented in a variety of formats, including news, video, white papers, e-books, infographics, case studies, how-to guides, question and answer articles, photos, etc.

It’s broad, limited, and not particularly compelling. So what is content marketing, really?

Approaching a Definition of Content Marketing

When I was recently asked to make a prediction about content marketing’s future, I referred to it as:

advertising that delivers value to its recipient, not just [an] impression.

The purpose of effective advertising (or content marketing) is to build brand memory, and strong brand memory helps people make decisions. We see this with consumer purchasing on a daily basis: familiar, trusted brand help people select a product to continue on with their day, rather than spending hours at the store reading and comparing product packaging.  

If we all agree there’s value in saving people’s time, which is hard to argue, then content [marketing] must reinforce brand memory enough to help someone make a better or faster decision about a product or service, either today or in the future. Content marketing can — and should — provide additional value to its recipient, whether that value takes the form of entertainment, education, or both, but “minimum viable content” must distinctly represent the brand and capture subconscious — if not conscious — attention to improve the recipient’s decision-making.

Another helpful reference definition which shares the belief that content marketing must deliver value to the recipient comes from Content Marketing Institute (CMI), which describes it as:

… a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly-defined audience — and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.

Here, CMI’s definition suggests two other important attributes of content marketing — audience and business objective. Marketing needs to have a communication target, which may take into account inputs like a customer persona and the distribution channel delivering it, and the content or media that’s delivered that audience should reinforce a business objective, which could be brand awareness, direct response sales activation, both, or something else.

Next, content marketing also needs an accounting system for its raw materials, all the inputs and components that go into planning, creating, managing, distributing, and measuring it. Content must be made up of measurable units, often several that exist in different states. For example, one item of product marketing collateral for a brand’s sales team could have multiple measurable units or states:

(1) The brief that describes the business requirements and parameters for creating it [creative unit]

(2) The copy document that contains the text used on the page [creative unit]

(3) Artwork files and visual brand elements that become a final packaged, aggregate art file – the creative [creative unit]

(4) Individual distribution units that allow the content to travel to its intended audience, which in this case could take the form of .pdf files and paper print outs [distribution units]

Each unit represents a type or state that makes it clear (a) what the marketing asset is, like a product brochure for sales, in this case, and (b) what step(s) in overall marketing lifecycle did this particular unit of the content come from and where does it belong in the overall creative supply chain.

Putting all of these characteristics together, we start to arrive at a set of criteria for content marketing. At the atomic level, content marketing — or at the unit level, marketing content — is a communication system that:

(1) Develops and produces measurable creative and distribution units

(2) Operates to support one or more business objective

(3) Targets audiences (or customer personas)

(4) Represents the brand in a recognizable way

(5) Builds brand memory

(6) Allows exposed recipients to make better or faster decisions

While that might not bring us any closer to true clarity about what content marketing is, it does put some structure around how content marketing works as a process. Second, it reinforces an important truth that bears repeating: “content” isn’t just a department within marketing, it’s the lifeblood of the brand, a system that supplies all internal departments and external audiences with the business’ identity and key information.

Or we could just call it marketing.

 

This is the first part of a two-part series recapping Content Marketing World 2015. Part two will look at the current state of content marketing, highlighting key themes, learnings, and trends from our conversations and meetings during the conference.