Taking a Step Back – So What Is Content Marketing?

Posted 11/4/2015 6:05 AM by Jeff Julian

I recently realized I have been talking on and on about building Agile Marketing efforts on top of a larger marketing strategy with an emphasis on Content Marketing without actually covering what Content Marketing is.  Ok, I didn’t realize it; my book editor suggested it to me.  Once she said it, I had a face palm moment.  My apologies.

One of my favorite aspects of Content Marketing is the flexibility to the term.  The execution of the approach will look completely different from company to company, but the core rules are the same.  Some folks like Ann Handley and Joe Pulizzi took some very deliberate steps into the practice by pulling from their background and applying best practices based on good historical data. 

Others like myself and some of the non-traditional marketers took the not as prescriptive way in, driven by love for a particular audience and the desire to educate others.  Then whenever we sit back and look at the models we each used, the “rules” come out and show us repeatable tactics others can use.

What Is Content Marketing?

To define Content Marketing, I like to go to the source of the term, Joe Pulizzi.  In a 2012 article, Joe defines Content Marketing as:

“Content marketing is the marketing and business process for creating and distributing relevant and valuable content to attract, acquire, and engage a clearly defined and understood target audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action.”

This definition was written in with the business as the top priority and that is on purpose.  The reason is the deeper we get into our efforts, the more we will focus on the audience, but we must know what we are tethered to so we can always trace our way back.  It is very easy to continue to burrow yourself deeper and deeper in the rabbit trail as to what an audience finds valuable.  Before too long, you will turn around and have no idea how you got there and how to get back.

So in Content Marketing, we are distributing valuable content to a clearly defined audience with the objective of driving business.  Before we move on, I will dig a little deeper into some terms:

  • Content – I have a love-hate relationship with this word.  I love that it can really mean anything.  When we talk about content, we could be referring to a blog post, infographic, video, podcast, magazine, in-person event, webinar, association meeting, the list goes on and on.  The part I hate about it is it can be anything.  The term is so squishy that you can produce just about anything and have it be content. 

    To tighten the word up a little bit, I like to look at the distribution model.  If the content is easy to gain access to by the defined audience, then it is more likely a fit for Content Marketing.  Sometimes we use other forms of content to get the word out about our Content Marketing efforts and that content is significant, but it is not Content Marketing in and of itself.  It is more like marketing or advertising for the Content Marketing.
  • Audience – An audience is simply a group of people who have gathered due to a common interest.  Since the interest is their own and based on their goals, in Content Marketing you must do your best to draw the right audience in and deliver content to hit those goals on a regular schedule.  To find out if your Content Marketing efforts have a well-defined audience, imagine standing next to a group of people and asking them what is going on.  Would their answer be,

    “We are waiting for the next insert content type from insert your name about insert your niche topic.”

    If any of these pieces are missing in their response, then it will be hard to measure success and truly drive business value.
  • Value – Is the content something that brings a smile to their face, continues their education, is an answer to a specific problem they were facing, or something that they feel was worth their time consuming?  If it is, great, you have created a valuable piece of content.  If not, bummer, you just wasted your time and the audience members time and most likely did more damage than good.  Value directly corresponds with the intentions of the audience forming. 

    It could be a well-produced piece of content, but it doesn't resonate with the audience for the reason they are currently grouped.  You will make your way to the waste basket and the audience will break apart.  Consider this example, if a number of people form a small mob around a stage for a punk music festival and the first few bands come out play country, do you think they will stick around for long?  Will they return to next year’s event or did the organizers miss the mark? 
  • Regular Distribution – An audience has to have a reason to stay together between content releases.  The best way is to find the right amount of space between and maintain a cadence that allows you to release content on that interval.  I heard this week that one a day is the most optimal content delivery schedule, but by what measurement? 

    For our audience, that would probably be like drinking from a fire hose.  For our team, we would start to look like the episode of I Love Lucy where she was the quality control operator for a chocolate factory, rather than what the audience really wanted. 

What Is Value in Content Marketing?

Buzzwords.  They are a necessary burden we all must deal with.  Content Marketing is absolutely a buzzword now and so many people are taking on the title without executing the rules laid out above.  They believe that if they have a blog and they create content in various places and try new things, they are Content Marketers.  So may actually be, but others are not. 

Most marketers just don’t take the time to sit down and write out their strategy.  I would 100% agree there, but I think the problem is deeper.  I think the real problem that plagues us and these so-called Content Marketers is a lack of understanding of the audience and what is considered valuable to them.  This comes out of a Content Strategy for sure, but it is forged in repeated surveying to find out if you have the right audience and if you valuable to them. 

According to Google, value is the regard that something is held to deserve; the importance, worth, or usefulness of something.  Importance, Worth, Usefulness, those are all great words to describe content.  Think of the last article you read before going home for the weekend.  Was it something you remember?  Can you even remember the topic?  If not, chances are you probably didn’t find it valuable. 

It might have been the quality of the piece.  Maybe it was the lack or abundance of content that drew you away.  Or quite possibly, the content was executed perfectly, but you were not the right recipient.  Whatever it was, the main take away is that you did not find it valuable for you. 

On the other hand, maybe it was valuable.  You could have printed it, sent it to your email for review on Monday, put it in a pocket account, or even shared it via social media.  This was the exact intent of the content developer, to catch you with a headline, video, or image and draw you in and entertain or educate you.

I have several articles from this weekend that I saved in several areas that I found extremely valuable.  Some I recognize the brand and immediately placed a higher value on it because of previous encounters and others that were found via search that I felt needed further review.  I am not an email subscriber to any of the content producers because I have other ways of consuming content.

What Is An Audience?

So this brings us to an interesting point, am I a member of their audience?  Maybe, maybe not. Let’s dig a little deeper into the term.

An audience is defined as the assembled spectators or listeners at a public event.  So if we look at the term in the context of Content Marketing, the meaning would be the assembled group of people who consume a series of content.  So if your goal is to build an audience, you need to have some way of assembling them together and produce content that is released regularly to keep them assembled. 

How an audience is formed and how long they stay together is up to the type of content you release and the schedule of the release.  Here are a few examples of audiences and the patterns used in formation:

  • Gather and Separate - If the content is like the podcast Serial, several folks were joined up during the regular release of the first season.  Then the audience started producing content about the content and the amplification began.  After the season ended, several new members of the audience joined, but they only experiencing the content “offline”.  There was no live interaction, but those who enjoyed it were left with the desire to experience the regular release of the second season.  Now when the producers start to release the second season, the audience will gather again around the show and stay grouped during the release. 
  • Gather Until Needs Met – Writers who introduce common topics are typically found in industry and occupational verticals.  Take this post and the occupational demographic of marketing.  If I were to continue to build my brand or the brand of AJi as a place you could go to be introduced to concepts, you would likely join when you first dig into an area.  Over time, you would start asking the 200 and 300 level questions that the content would just not address.  You will then leave this audience in search for a new audience who can meet those needs.  At some point in the future, you might look into a new area and equate the initial education with the brand and go back in search for answers.  You would understand it is temporary, but it met your need.
  • Gather and Settle – The people who read Seth Godin’s blog typically are lifers.  As long as Seth posts, we will consume.  The man has produced so much good content, those of us in his audience just hook up to his daily blog firehose.  Some days are right on target, others are off in the weeds and that is ok.  We know he has passion and he puts thought into everything he writes so being unfiltered makes him human.

It doesn’t matter what type of audience you have.  As long as you understand what they are looking for, what frequency of content they expect, and how much your team can produce to meet your maximum impact, then you will be on the right path.

Is This Content Marketing?

I want to share with you a few examples of marketing execution where the effort was labeled Content Marketing.  In each, we will go through the markers and see if it is just Branded Content or really Content Marketing.

  1. A Hardware Store Instagram Campaign – I recently sat in a workshop at a large event where three people presented their efforts and this one stood out.  It was a very delightful effort and the entire group got caught up in the creativity.  The creative showed several pieces in micro-length film that walked through some how-to on Vine that would demonstrate to the audience how to get a quick fix for some household problems. 

    The company hired a very creative agency to create each compilation and distributed them over a few months.  Since we were at an event dedicated to Content Marketing, it was weird to hear the effort referred to as a campaign.  It had the clear markers of providing value to their audience and the results reached their target demographic. 

    The program started to fizzle in April of 2015 and then returned in August after some user-generated content showed up from one of their store displays.  Is this Content Marketing?  I would say if executed on a regular basis and driven by what the audience is looking for, simple tricks, then yes.  However, the execution ended for a time and now the delivery is very infrequent.  It is hard to build an audience around an activity that doesn’t occur on a regular basis and is repeatable.  So I would say this is great interactive advertising that could be much more and the company should consider higher frequency and commitment because they are making a promise that they are not fulfilling.

    Budweiser is one of the few brands that can make a long delay promise of compelling advertising and have people look forward to it.  Their Super Bowl ads are not educational; it is purely momentary entertainment for brand recognition.
  2. A Corporate Blog from the Majority of Mid-Sized B2B Companies – Most blogs have been used as outlets for what would traditionally be considered press releases, service or product enhancements, FAQ, or corporate boasting.  Check out how awesome we are, look at our amazing product, the list of headlines goes on and on.  Others use it for very specific keyword grabs and the blog flips between different service line and product offerings.  When the feed or email blast is consumed, the audience is left bouncing around which would not be an enjoyable experience. 

    Consider a band that released a single every few weeks.  The first one was heavy metal, the next was country, then pop, and finally R&B.  How many fans do you think they will have?  Sure, if I go searching for country music and find the single and fall in love with the song, I am a fan.  But the moment I go and grab another song, I will most likely not find my interest matched and will unfollow the group. 

    Even when these efforts have the frequency down, they do not have their audience defined well.  The next problem that keeps them out of the definition of a Content Marketing effort is that the value to the audience has to outweigh the need for you to boast about yourself or sell your services. 
  3. The Average Podcast in the iTunes Directory – Let’s face it, podcasting is a great medium but it’s held back by the lack distribution outlets.  Take iTunes Podcast app for an example.  The directory of podcast is filled with shows that have not been updated in years.  Most people find it hard to believe podcasting has been a thing for over ten years now, but since it is still waiting on mass adoptions, companies like Apple control the experience with sub-par applications and no analytics for the publisher.  Hell, you can’t even pay to get your podcast listed higher in the rankings without using black hat practices that are doomed to get you in trouble. 

    These shows were clearly content, and once considered new media.  They had what it took to record show after show, but most end before the 10th episode.  These shows are like New Years’ Resolutions.  They have your focus at first but the effort is harder than the reward and after a few months, the podcaster just pushes their microphone to the back of the desk and move on to something easier. 

    Content Marketing efforts are hard and you will often want to quit.  You will see something shiny in the distance and go back to your old habits of spray and pray campaigns and wonder why you keep losing your marketing budget.  A podcast is not a podcast until it makes it past the first season, then you have yourselves a Content Marketing effort if the release is regular or the audience sticks around long enough for the next show.
  4. Finally, the Video Series of Amateur Weatherman Frankie MacDonald – If you haven’t seen these videos or haven’t read his story, I suggest you read his Wikipedia page and check out his YouTube feed.  Frankie wanted to be a weatherman from the time he was a child.  He started posting videos of various weather forecasts from around the world on his YouTube feed and continues to do so on a regular basis.  Frankie is clearly a Content Marketer.  He has found his niche, releases content on a regular basis, and has reached an audience that continues to grow.  He has been featured on several media outlets over the past few years and still puts on his coat to go outside with his camera to warn another area in the world about weather changes that are coming to their area.

Not a Content Marketer?

After reviewing some of your efforts, are you seeing you might not be practicing Content Marketing as you thought?  That’s ok.  If the strategy is defined and you have seen ROI in your efforts, maybe you are doing exactly what you need to do. 

However, if you are not seeing the results you want, maybe it is time to sit back down with the formula and look at what you are doing.  Slow down a little bit and consider documenting your strategy.  Define your audience, identify their needs and how you can help, plan a path that will let your company reach the goals they have, and start producing content that you can deliver on a regular interval to that audience. 

And finally, if you are working with an agency who is pushing their Content Marketing services, ask them to show you their own efforts.  They may have worn shoes like the kids of the cobbler and their blog is all me-me-trendy-cool-agency focused.  In this case, I would move on.  On the other hand, they may truly believe in the approach and can walk you through how they win business through Content Marketing. These guys are keepers and you should expect them to help you own the effort over time rather than have them do the work forever.