E-marketing Strategy: The Rise and Meaning of Content Marketing
Content marketing is the hot new term in the world of marketing. As it is when anything new and potentially revolutionary comes along, confusion and fear about this new 12-headed beast are running rampant. I've heard some bewildering arguments against content marketing that were based on little more than fear and "yeah, well, my second cousin the web geek told me xyz" reactionary belligerence.
One rumor going around is that content marketing is a daring new marketing strategy wherein you give away everything you create for free and cross your fingers hoping for pity sales from your audience. I've also heard that content marketing is an exhausting strategy wherein a company must blog, video and Tweet about every single thing that happens every day. And, finally, I've read that in order for content marketing to be effective, companies must hire an army of expensive web geeks, IT nerds, blogging "divas" and social media "gurus"—and that therefore, it isn't worth it.
None of this is true. Content marketing is effective, proven and scalable according to your company's resources. Here is the best academic answer I can muster:
Content Marketing describes any marketing strategy wherein some form of content—a book, an article, a video, a story, a cartoon, an interview, etc.—is created and shared publicly in order to engage the interest of a willing audience. The foundational idea supporting content marketing is that the free sharing of valuable content with an interested and targeted audience will result in the content's creator being rewarded with word-of-mouth promotion, loyalty and sales from that audience.
Interruption vs. Discovery
Traditional advertising employs the interruption mode of marketing. Interruption marketing is based on the idea that an advertisement must pull a person away from what it is he or she is currently doing in order to make a pitch—and that the most effective advertisements are the ones that can most successfully derail a person from his or her intended path. Television advertisements interrupt your favorite shows, radio advertisements bark at you between your favorite songs, newspapers strategically place ads for furniture amid your daily report on the state of the world, and magazines double their own weight by stuffing their pages full of pretty products on pretty people. Even Google's deceptively clean-looking search results pages are designed to pull you away from what you're looking for, and onto the web sites of the advertisers.
For too many years advertisements have been designed to distract us from the path of our natural curiosity. Even the surrounding content itself has been reconstructed to make the advertisements more effective—television shows are written to create cliff-hanger scenarios every 12.75 minutes; the first half of magazines are crammed with gorgeous article openers and gorgeous ads featuring gorgeous people—the actual articles are pushed to the back pages; radio announcers are constantly touting the amazing songs you'll hear… just after this break!
Our attention is bombarded. Our curiosities are diverted. Our interests are manipulated. And, for the sake of our own sanity, it has to stop. Luckily, it can.
Content marketing is a more evolved promotional approach that promotes content discovery—not content interruption. Humans are naturally curious. We're born into this world with the desire to explore, grow, learn and laugh. If given the freedom and left to our own will, we would all follow the path laid down by our own curiosities. While traveling along that path, each of us would naturally—and at our own pace—discover new ideas, innovators, friends and tools. Content marketing aims to help people along their own path of curiosity by providing valuable information in the places where those people seek it out.
Imagine you're a budding chef pursing your interest in cooking. In following your bliss, you've discovered an interruption- and advertisement-free web video series from one of the top chefs in the world. You find the chef's lessons and teaching style to be the best available. Your interest is piqued, your enthusiasm is strong, and you want more. Luckily, the chef has also written a book, produced a set of DVDs, and even offers a subscription-based newsletter with additional instruction. You go all in—books, DVDs and newsletter. And, in your excitement about your new discovery, you even tell a few of your budding-chef buddies.
This is content marketing. It sells products through natural discovery, not interruption, of an audience—the audience is more receptive, and therefore, it is more effective.
There are many reasons why content marketing has exploded in popularity over the last few years. The first, and most bitter, argument I can make is that traditional advertisements are horrible. They're too loud and too flashy. They detract from the user experience of our chosen medium and distract us from the intended recipients of our attention. As a result, we, as a culture, have invented and sought out ways to block, skip and silence advertisers. Some of the most popular services and technologies of the day have become so by providing information or entertainment while helping people avoid advertisers: Netflix, TiVo, Zite, Roku, NPR, HBO, Twitter, etc.
Content marketing is also gaining steam due to the meteoric rise of content-sharing tools and services. You know their names: Facebook, Google+, Twitter, LinkedIn, Vimeo, YouTube, Pinterest, Foursquare, Tumblr, WordPress, Meebo and Bloopt cannot exist without content. (Yes. I made up Bloopt.) Luckily, the rise of content-creation devices has kept pace: iPhone, iPad, Android, GoPro, Flip, Quik Pod, Cybershot, etc. It is now as easy to create content as it is to share it with—literally—the world.
And the final, and least cynical, argument I can make for the rise of content marketing is that people want to believe in something again. We know we're being manipulated, and we're rejecting it. We've come through a deeply cynical and profit-driven era of robotic customer service and disappointing corporate-customer interactions. We are beaten and battle-weary. We're looking—in a sea of faceless box stores with weary hourly employees reciting scripts handed down by overpaid executives—for companies, organizations, and real people we can meet, trust to try to do the right thing, and hold accountable. Content marketing levels the playing field and rips down ivory towers. It opens channels for honest two-way communication between company and customer, and it is, therefore, a welcome reprieve from our raging against untouchable CEOs.
Content Marketing is also most powerful when used by companies whose primary job is producing quality content. Book publishers have a powerful opportunity to grasp the concept of content marketing, learn the tools and begin flooding the digital channels with their quality content. This quality content is the best kind of loss-leader: It proves quality, helps the recipient, and sells more content. BB
J. S. McDougall cofounded and recently sold web design and marketing firm Catalyst Webworks, a web design and marketing firm specializing in the book industry. He is the author of six books about conducting business online, including "#tweetsmart,""Start Your Own Blogging Business" and "Content Marketing." He lives in Vermont.