What Is Content Marketing?
Better Yet, What Should It Be?

Examining a phrase disrupting the marketing industry

David Germano
Aug 12, 2015 · 13 min read

By David Germano
Illustrations by Tim Engel


Over the past few years, marketing analysts and trade journals have been reporting an acceleration in content marketing’s adoption. But is their reporting accurate? There is a strong case to be made for pragmatism. In an effort to aggressively capitalize on its growing appeal, many marketing and media organizations are loosely applying the phrase content marketing to classify a very broad spectrum of content initiatives.

Consequently, the marketing industry has, by and large, inconsistently defined content marketing. It doesn’t help that the very phrase that is now being applied so broadly is as ambiguous as they come.

Yes, the phrase was intended to represent something different than the marketing brands have been focused on for the last 50 years. But much of what is being referenced as such doesn’t appear to be so. And even worse, some of this is just really convoluted advertising.

The market for content marketing is bifurcating. On one end you have marketers applying content marketing with the same mindset they’ve approached advertising, looking only to improve their engagement with consumers. On the other end you have marketers genuinely looking to deliver a wholly different level of value to their audiences. Unfortunately, the latter kind of content marketing is still in the minority.

Consequently, content marketing is getting commoditized, and this can be attributed in large part to a poorly planned, poorly articulated and inconsistently applied label and definition. A good portion of its application doesn’t reflect the innovation and progress the industry is acclaiming. This poses a threat to content marketing, as it is at risk of blending into the mainstream of marketing communications.

“Content marketing is getting commoditized. This can be attributed to a poorly planned, poorly articulated and inconsistently applied label and definition.”

Why Do We Define Things?

Maybe the better question here is why do we see the need to define things over and over again? Isn’t one simple definition enough? Of course not. This would imply that our world is quite simple. … When we already know that it is not. Meanings change as contexts change. The exercise of defining or redefining something is often less about the “thing” and is more about re-examining the environment in which that thing now exists.

The marketing industry is in a state of accelerating change. That much is clear. More and more channels and platforms are emerging for marketers to connect and do business with audiences. Audiences have a glut of programming choices. And there is much more data available to marketers that reveals audiences’ intentions and preferences. New partners with highly specialized skills have emerged to assist marketers in improving marketing effectiveness across a very fragmented landscape. The process of marketing things has gotten very complex, and the incumbent system for managing it all is in need of a serious overhaul.

Organizations are embracing this need for change differently. Some are deliberately looking to lag, while some want to ride the crest of the wave. How organizations choose to define things has much to do with how they view or approach change. This inherently leads to inconsistency, which can undermine progress. Regardless, if there is agreement that our industry is experiencing dramatic change, then it should stand to reason that the application of the term content marketing should evolve as well. But how?

The phrase itself has become a part of the common marketing vernacular, but both its meaning and application are far from uniform. This is both great and problematic for content marketing. From digital marketing, SEO and social media practitioners, to creative agencies, PR and media agencies, custom publishers and emerging publisher-based content studios, very different players across the communications industry, with very different perspectives, are referencing content marketing to represent quite different approaches in execution.

illustration by tim engel

Should we be more definitive in explaining content marketing, to serve as a beacon to guide the industry through accelerating change? Or, should we be less so, allowing for more open-source interpretation by a diverse set of marketing practitioners to promote broader adoption, albeit a more relaxed, or prolonged, pace of change? It appears to me that the industry has arrived at a crossroads, and how we answer this will have a real impact on content marketing’s efficacy and future.

Words That Do Not Help

One of the challenges the phrase poses is born of combining two of the most ambiguous terms in the business world.

The American Marketing Association defines marketing as “the activity, set of institutions and processes for creating, communicating, delivering and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners and society at large.” That is fairly definitive. However, we know through experience that this definition is insufficient in helping a broader audience understand something so complex, yet so specific in its application by different businesses.

Explaining marketing requires context and anecdotal evidence of its application to truly understand. Case in point, marketing used to be explained with only four “P’s”: Product, Price, Place, Promotion. Now it requires six, People and Process, and sometimes seven, Physical Environment, for appropriate explanation.

But being additive in our approach to defining marketing hasn’t made it easier to understand. This helps illustrate the conundrum. We can choose to add rich anecdotal details, or we can choose to oversimplify how we define things. For example, we can explain marketing in simpler terms as “the business of business.” Either means is still subject to individual interpretation. It still requires context, and lots of it.

And then there’s the word “content,” which is even more problematic. From Merriam Webster we get the contemporary definition: the principal substance offered by a World Wide Web site. And here are 40 more anecdotal perspectives, as well as flat-out capitulations, widely inconsistent in their attempts to provide some meaningful insight into what content really is. My personal favorite comes from Olivier Blanchard: “… it’s just vague enough to mean everything and anything, which is to say it doesn’t mean anything at all. … It could be photos, video, marketing copy, thorough analysis, poetry, farts, vacuous nonsense, cat hair or cheese cubes. … Ironically, the word itself is a vessel for more content: Here’s an empty word. Now fill it with meaning.”

Precisely! The word content doesn’t mean anything. It needs sufficient context to really be meaningful. When it is followed by a complex word like marketing, you have a phrase that could mean almost anything. Herein lies the problem.

From Ambiguity to Commodity

The industry is quickly getting comfortable with this language. Is it not too late to choose a better phrase? Indeed, the phrase may actually be exacerbating the confusion surrounding the alleged increase in investment marketers are seemingly making. The data tell a conflicted story — more content investment, but not more impact. And more marketers come away from initial tactical forays into content marketing feeling the need for a strategy. More is not a strategy.

Do we honestly believe a meaningless word like “content,” applied in a way to modify a word marketers so intimately associate with, is sufficient in representing something meant to be so substantively innovative? Most marketers just hear [something] marketing. … Like digital marketing or direct marketing. … It’s marketing, only with a special concentration. … You know, like marketing, just with more content. … It’s not meaningfully different.

“Most marketers hear [SOMETHING] marketing — like DIGITAL marketing
or DIRECT marketing. This is marketing, only with a special concentration.
You know, like marketing, just with more content.”

Content marketers have now developed supplemental phrasing to help explain content marketing. Phrases like “offering utility to an audience,” or “looks like editorial,” or worse, “it’s the opposite of advertising” do not help. Not only are they insufficient, these phrases can appear as gimmickry and may be hard to take seriously. We need phrasing that forces marketers to think critically about content marketing.

There are very real consequences — marketers are applying content marketing too tactically, with limited effectiveness. For example, many marketers struggle with even having their work identified as content marketing. A London-based agency asked a group of consumers if they’d ever seen a piece of branded content. Forty-one percent said they hadn’t. Consumers aren’t engaging with the content. One study found the amount of content produced from 2013 to 2014 increased 78 percent, but the engagement with that content dropped 60 percent.

We’re experiencing a tremendous glut of meaningless “substance” across the Interwebs, and it is wasting an ever-increasing portion of the audience’s time. That’s bad for business.

In Search of True North

How do we solve for the ambiguity and provide better guidance? We redesign. Sometimes the best way to approach redesigning something is to go back to a certain point when the criteria we were using to design something was clearer or simpler in nature.

Looking back, a significant portion of contemporary content marketers came from two big segments of the communications industry — publishing and interactive marketing. Remember interactive marketing? This is because these two related fields apply a similar principle that remains the foundation for what is now a complex and diverse publishing industry. This principle essentially forms the core foundation of content marketing as well.

Publishers and interactive marketers create content focused on earning and sustaining the audience’s permission for various commercial reasons. Publishers create content predominantly for indirect monetization — they offer their product, in this case content, for free and profit from providing a third party access to the audience they have derived from this, typically in the form of advertising. Interactive marketers create content to support direct monetization — they offer content for free to influence the selling of their goods or services.

illustration by tim engel

The audience’s perception of the content’s quality, or the perceived value of what the publisher or marketer is offering, is highly correlated with the marketer’s or publisher’s ability to effectively commercialize the publishing experience, whether for direct or indirect monetization purposes. Creating content to earn and sustain the audience’s permission for indirect monetization is its most evolved state.

Sustaining profit off of the exploitation of the audience’s permission requires not just really, really good content, it also requires a highly adaptive system for sustaining the creation of really, really good content.

Some interactive marketers have done such a good job of cultivating the audience’s permission that they now have created opportunities for indirect monetization, and some are acting on this in earnest.

Case in point, we use the phrase to describe what Red Bull, an energy drink company turned media conglomerate, is doing with Red Bull Media House. It has developed content capabilities and indirect monetization opportunities on par with those we would associate with a publishing entity like Condé Nast.

But publishers like Condé Nast do not use the phrase content marketing to explain their core business. Although, Condé Nast has certainly recognized marketing’s mushrooming demand for publisher-grade content and is following the lead of many well-established publishers in providing “content marketing services” in the form of “content studios.” Condé Nast is now looking to directly monetize its publishing capabilities to marketers.

The phrase is being used by content creators of all sorts in an attempt to enlighten marketers about the potential impact this new approach to content can have on marketing. Marketers practicing content marketing may refer to media companies like Condé Nast as content marketers, but they’re doing so to help explain to other marketers the concept of content marketing. I find it hugely ironic that the marketing industry implicitly understands the value and expertise the publishing industry possesses, but it has chosen language so ambiguous that this simple value proposition is getting lost.

“I find it hugely ironic that the marketing industry implicitly understands the value and expertise the publishing industry possesses, but it has chosen language so ambiguous that this simple value proposition is getting lost.”

Compare Red Bull’s application of content with another similarly classified content application, as Digiday has recently done to explain what a brand like Oreo is doing with its Red Velvet Oreo series.

Many experienced content practitioners would probably dismiss the Oreo example as not being fully representative of content marketing. Regardless, the Oreo execution has become reflective of a kind of content execution that more and more is being referenced as content marketing by trade journals like Digiday, along with other experienced and credentialed marketing professionals looking to exploit content marketing’s emerging popularity.

When we apply the phrase, content marketing to classify the kind of marketer Red Bull has become, we’re doing so to explain how a product or service marketer has adopted the publisher’s playbook. Well, aren’t we doing the same when we refer to what Oreo is doing for its audience?

The problem stems from how poorly the moniker “content marketing” explains the vast differences that exist between what Red Bull and Oreo are doing with content. Red Bull has been granted a much greater degree of permission from its audience to commercialize its publishing experience for indirect monetary gain. Oreo hasn’t earned this opportunity yet.

Yes, Oreo has adopted the publisher’s playbook, but to a much lesser degree that only affords it the permissions to commercialize its publishing experience for direct monetary gain. Yes, its content offers “utility” in the form of entertainment. It would be nonsensical to argue against that. But does Oreo’s application of content have the potential to transform the organization’s marketing, or value creation, in the same manner that Red Bull’s has? Defined in those terms, the answer would be a categorical no.

How Should It Be Defined?

This contrast helps reveal the conundrum content marketing faces. Should it be defined or illustrated for broader application, or should it serve as a beacon?

The real value in relabeling and better explaining content marketing lies in helping the marketer understand:

1. The new limits to which the centuries-old publishing playbook can be utilized to achieve marketing innovation, along with a state of scaled efficiency and effectiveness;

2. The commitment required to achieve that state.

In other words, content marketing is not simply about content, it’s about the extent to which you can create value by influencing an audience’s content consumption behavior.

By default, Red Bull, along with a few other examples, represents where that potential lies. However, our limited examination of Red Bull’s highly evolved commitment to content severely underrepresents all of the strategic and executional decisions Red Bull had to make, along with the shear effort it took to earn the requisite audience permission and develop the “physical environment” needed for indirect monetization. The phrase content marketing does not do this effort justice.

Red Bull has made a strategic commitment to content that is equivalent to its strategic commitment to its beverage business. It’s not just another channel or component of the media mix. Red Bull has built a marketing operation around its publishing like it has with its energy drink. Red Bull has made a commitment to “marketing content,” a much more appropriate phrase that better explains to other marketers what Red Bull has also opted to do and what the publishing industry has been doing.

“Red Bull has made a commitment to ‘marketing content.’ This is a much more appropriate phrase that better explains to marketers the significance of what
Red Bull has opted to do.”

The phrase “content marketing” relegates the effort to being an innovation around a tactical execution (content creation) to support the existing marketing process. We may feel like it is accelerating the pace of change, but in reality, it has compromised it by commoditizing the approach to content creation and ultimately the effectiveness marketers are finding with it.

The phrase “marketing content” substantiates the effort by leading with the word marketers understand best and by being deliberate with the strategic process that is needed for a more significant business innovation.

Marketing initiatives like Red Bull Media House, American Express’ Open Forum and Delta’s Sky Magazine — along with many of Procter & Gamble Entertainment’s past and current initiatives, including Petside.com and the People’s Choice Awards — should be used to illustrate the requisite commitment for marketing content, not campaigns with limited duration in market that struggle to sustain audience engagement over time. Those are more reflective of advertising.

It’s the Marketing of Marketing

At its core, marketing is an exchange of offerings that have value. Not that you would need to, but if you could indirectly monetize a publishing initiative (sell the audience you’ve developed to someone else), then you would have effectively created a higher-order value exchange with your content efforts. Had Red Bull never made the decision to indirectly monetize its content experiences, would we still use the publisher’s measuring stick to assess its content efforts? That’s impossible to tell for sure. But what is for sure is that indirect monetization has offered it a clear and definitive way to understand the scale potential around direct engagement with its audience, and how effective that marketing model can be.

In today’s highly competitive marketing landscape, where the barriers to disruption are being reduced to virtually zero, creating value is the critical role of marketing.

illustration by tim engel

There are a number of benefits to adopting the phrase marketing content to serve as a beacon:

1. It puts the emphasis back on the term “marketing,” where it should be, and allows the marketer to focus on mastering and applying one process.

2. It focuses marketers on innovating around value creation, not simply around the form and function of content.

3. It forces marketers to be more deliberate in their commitments. In some cases a “No, we’re not going to market content” would be better for the communications industry.

4. It better guides the communications industry in the inevitable transformation to a direct-to-consumer subscription model — it’s coming and will be here before we know it.

5. It sets the content quality bar much higher, drives innovation in publishing and ultimately makes the world better for the end consumer.

Marketers’ use of the publishing playbook was resurrected based on the insight that the digital age would continue to offer new opportunities for marketers to enhance the value exchange with consumers.

Advising marketers that applying the process of marketing to content is a much better way to think about where the potential lies in value creation. Now the question becomes: What do we do with this phrase “content marketing”?

David Germano

Written by

I am a digital marketing veteran, focused on helping brands navigate the constantly shifting digital landscape to achieve their marketing objectives.

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