You’ve probably heard the term “content marketing” used a lot lately. It’s been a heavily discussed industry topic in recent years. However, not all marketers have been able to get on the same page. There are many misconceptions floating around about content marketing, and there is confusion about what it actually is and how it works. The purpose of this article is to shed some light on the topic, clear up some of the confusion and separate fact from fiction.
So what is content marketing? According to Content Marketing Institute, content marketing is the practice of creating relevant and compelling content in a consistent fashion to a targeted buyer, focusing on all stages of the buyer’s journey, from brand awareness through brand evangelism. Now, let’s break it down a little further.
History of Content Marketing
Because content marketing has become a buzzword recently, people assume it is a hot, new concept that was recently developed to challenge the long-established big three of print, radio and TV. However, the mass media marketing paradigm is actually younger than content marketing. The misconception came about as a result of the domination of the big three from roughly the 1950s through the rise of the internet. Marketers came to the conclusion that mass media marketing was the only way to reach consumers, and marketing became all about who could be the loudest and catch attention the quickest.
Content marketing existed well before the 20th century, and there are several examples of companies that were successful utilizing it. To illustrate, Content Marketing Institute created a detailed infographic about the history of content marketing.
Content marketing isn’t new. It’s just been reborn and come full circle. This is due to a change in the buyer’s journey. The internet has made product and service information readily available from thousands of sources that can be accessed from anywhere. People now turn to their computers and smartphones first when researching rather than mass media.
Marketing used to be about how many people your company could reach. Now, it’s more about who you reach. The modern marketing approach is to be more efficient and get better ROI by targeting small groups of the best possible prospects. One of the best ways to resonate with those prospects is content marketing — providing them with valuable, relevant content. You can initiate a conversation with them by giving them content they want that speaks about their lives and their businesses.
The second wave of content marketing is so young that there is still a lot of confusion about it. To make matters worse, some media companies are making it even more confusing by blurring the lines between mass media and content marketing. This has happened as a result of their lost market share and the generation of people who are “unplugging.” By unplugging, we mean consuming content on the various digital channels that now exist rather than mass media. For example, many people now watch TV shows on Netflix instead of the network channels, get their news from Buzzfeed rather than subscribing to a newspaper, or listen to Pandora rather than the local stations.
As a result, advertising dollars in mass media have gone down, and the mass media companies are trying to rebound. However, they responded by applying the old marketing model to the new platform. For example, the traditional newspaper model is to place advertisements among the articles. When they began to move their content onto the internet, they continued the practice of placing ads next to articles or even right in front of them. Remember pop-up ads? How could you forget their annoyance? The intrusion on content was media’s way of selling attention until pop-up blockers remedied the issue.
Now, instead of intruding on content, companies are disguising advertisements as content. Examples include native advertising and sponsored content. These practices have caused confusion for consumers to the degree that the TV show South Park satirized the situation in a 2015 episode.
Native Advertising – Not a Content Marketing Strategy
Have you ever been reading a newspaper or magazine article thinking it was written by a staffer only to realize that it was actually submitted by a company to advertise? That’s called native advertising, and it’s a sneaky attempt to make an advertisement pass as content. Sharethrough defines native advertising as a form of paid media where the ad experience follows the natural form and function of the user experience in which it is placed. Native ads look and feel like content, even though they’re really not. You may know native ads as their other name advertorials.
Sponsored Content — Not a Content Marketing Strategy
Sponsored content is what it sounds like — content that is sponsored by a brand. Part of the plot of the holiday classic A Christmas Story revolved around sponsored content. The main character, Ralphie, listened to the radio program Little Orphan Annie, which was sponsored by Ovaltine. The program included many references to Ovaltine, and the plot of the movie even included Ralphie using his Little Orphan Annie decoder pin to decode a “secret message” that was another advertisement, “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine.”
Product placement and sponsored content are still occurring today. You can access entire websites of content that are sponsored by a single company.
Content Hooks — Content Marketing Gray Area
Content hooks are hybrids that aren’t really advertisements, but they also don’t completely fit under the content marketing umbrella. Utilizing content hooks isn’t a full commitment to content marketing because even though the white papers, how-to videos, etc. are content that a niche audience might want, you are using it as bait to bring them to you. There’s a catch, however small, that the audience must deal with to get the information they want.
An example of a content hook is an attention-grabbing social media post that promises a free white paper that provides information about improving business efficiency. When prospects click on the link, they are directed to a landing page where they need to submit their contact information in order to download the white paper.
Pure Content Marketing
So what is pure content marketing? It’s when a brand decides to create an audience by providing them with valuable, relevant content to hold their attention and have a conversation with them with no strings attached. It’s so audience-centric that promoting products and services is only the secondary goal. With content marketing, the content you produce doesn’t necessarily mention your products or services. It’s focused on topics that will interest the people who utilize products or services in your industry.
The goal of pure content marketing is to attract an audience with unbiased content focused on them and build their trust. You can then take what you learn about them to develop personas, apply them to their hypothetical buyer’s journeys and determine the ways you can influence their purchase decisions. If you do that, the monetization will eventually come. If done correctly, you can attract customers on your own and won’t need to utilize media companies.
One example of a well-executed content marketing program is Johnson & Johnson’s BabyCenter. It’s become the go-to resource for couples trying to get pregnant, women who are pregnant and new parents, and you can’t even tell it’s owned by Johnson & Johnson — there’s not a single mention of the company on the site!
Johnson & Johnson uses BabyCenter to attract their target audience and harvest their information. They use the data gathered from site visitors to continually develop relevant content and to create products and services that will appeal to that audience. The site has grown to the point where it’s now acting like a media company, and it even features ads from other companies like Target.
Content Marketing or Inbound Marketing
You may think content marketing sounds a lot like inbound marketing. The two are similar, but don’t confuse them as interchangeable names for the same thing — they are different. In Content Marketing Institute’s article The 7 Business Goals of Content Marketing: Inbound Marketing Isn’t Enough, Joe Pulizzi pointed out that the goal of inbound marketing is getting found online by prospects. However, it only addresses the Attract phase of marketing and nothing else. Content marketing goes beyond attracting prospects and is designed to engage and nurture prospects until they become customers and eventually evangelists of your company.
Content Marketing Works
Even though the revival of content marketing is in its infancy, its power cannot be understated. Companies that understand the changes in the modern marketplace and embrace the advantages of content marketing will have a much better chance of experiencing success. Take a look at these statistics:
- 67% of the typical B2B buyer’s journey is now done digitally, and 9 out of 10 B2B buyers say online content has a moderate to major effect on their purchasing decisions. (Lenati)
- 80% of business decision-makers prefer to get company information in a series of articles versus an advertisement. (Stratabeat)
- 90% of consumers find custom content useful, and 78% believe that organizations providing custom content are interested in building good relationships with them. (CMO Council)
In addition, good content marketing provides the benefit of better search engine optimization (SEO). Search engines are all about relevant content. The more relevant content you produce and the more focused it is on relevant keywords, the better your ranking will be. If you produce good content, you’re going to get found.
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