What the Fuck is Content Marketing?
(hint: It’s basically journalism)
Here is a bummer truth about journalism: It comes with an expectation of low wages. As a friend of mine pointed out recently, Seattle’s average median income is about $52,000, which is higher than the national average, but still not enough to buy a home here. That is also, depending on estimates, either exactly at or slightly above what the average journalist makes — which means a lot of them earn a lot less.
According to Zillow, who estimates that the minimum wage to rent in Seattle is $44/hours, that’s also about half as much as it takes to even rent a place (though, let’s be honest, they have have a vested interest in people purchasing, rather than buying homes). And, of course, the average journalism salary is skewed by those at the top of the market who make six figures (and, are, traditionally older and white and male).
All of this is to say: For those who have debts or kids or even a desire to do anything other than barely make it, journalism is rapidly becoming less of an option. Salaries are not keeping pace with inflation, cost of living, or the cost of college (essentially a requirement in the field). So it’s not really surprising that journalists are jumping the SS Paying My Rent In Ethics Is Hard and swimming toward the Good Ship Public Relations. Because really, who wouldn’t?
But a lot of us — myself included*—have found that a.) we do not like PR, and b.) there are other ways to put our curiosity, our dogged desire for data, and our ability to string together sentences with the kind of speed usually reserved for marathoners and pickpockets to work.
We have stumbled into content marketing, which is a lot like journalism except you can actually pay your student loans with it.
Sure, people will say “but oodles of non-selfish, ok-with-scraping-by individuals make their living as journalists! Why can’t you just do that thing and be happy not making any money? You’re terrible!”
And while those are all goodish points, what I would say is:
—Student loan debt is crushing, and I don’t fault anyone for pursuing a job that can help relieve that. Plus, people are really hesitant to invest in journalism (seriously, everyone wants it for free), so in a way, journalists are being forced out.
—There is great demand for content marketing. This is a free economy. Until you can buy a house with Pride In Your Job dollars, lay off.
So content marketing. The next refuge (after PR) for journalists. You might be wondering…what even is it? What are people talking about when they talk about it? How do I do it — or get a job in it?
To which I would say: Content marketing is journalism. It’s just journalism that promotes a thing other than the story itself. And it can be really, really subtle. And it can still be great. I will give you one giant example:
Serial is content marketing for This American Life.
Consider this: This American Life used to be the undisputed champion of podcasts, even though it was technically a radio show that became a podcast by default. In the early days of iPods, it was what people talked about when they talked about podcasts. Years later, it always remained at the top of the charts.
Then they made Serial.
Serial —which is a podcast-only spin-off, mind you, and something that TAL was so worried might confuse people that they had to make instructional videos—was announced months ago. When I started following it on Twitter after I heard the announcement, there were just a few hundred other followers. And when it first rolled out, it was kind of a slow burn, with just This American Life listeners aware of it.
Then it started to pick up steam. Then, quickly, it broke download records in iTunes. Serial has become a phenomenon the likes of which TAL never was. It’s making headlines and getting tons a free publicity.
Which means, by default, there are people who got turned on to This American Life via Serial. And there are definitely people who have started tuning in to TAL because of Serial.
Serial is basically one very well-crafted, talky, smart advertisement for TAL. But, unlike the podcast your boss said you should launch “because podcasts are so big right now,” it’s executed by professionals, with an eye not on download numbers or sales, but rather, on making a cool thing.
It is doubtful that the staff at TAL started Serial because they were like “we need to make more money! We need to convert more listeners to donors! KPIs! ROI!”
Instead, the idea came from Sarah Koenig herself.
“I had been thinking for a long time about doing something separate from TAL, something I would own,” Koenig told Vulture. “And I have a mortal fear of flying, so I drive long distances to report from places that most people would fly to. I remember driving back to New York from Asheville, North Carolina, and listening to many books on tape, and it hit me that those were the audio stories I liked the best — sustained narratives that you can lose yourself in for not just minutes, but hours and hours. And I thought, Why don’t I just try to create a show that replicates the experience of a book on tape?”
So, to recap, This American Life:
—Had an employee with a good idea
—Greenlit her good idea
—Hired the right people to make it
—Sat back and watched it roll
The fact that Serial has raised questions of and spurred conversations on race, class, voyeurism, our cultural obsession with deceased teenage girls, immigrant life in America, jingoism, and basically everything else under the sun is only a good thing for TAL. It’s not, like, say, the Mike Daisy debacle, harming their brand. It’s getting people to talk about it.
This is why Serial is a great example of content marketing — because it is operating the way content marketing should operate, not the way many employers want it to.
When we talk about content marketing, we talk about making unique content that makes people aware of the thing we’re trying to market. Ok? That’s all it means. It is content that markets something else. It markets something else. It doesn’t necessarily sell something else — it just gets the word out. It raises awareness. It encourages people to check out that other thing.
This is why shitty corporate blogs are not good content marketing. This is why random hashtags in tweets that don’t actually win anyone over is shitty content marketing. This is why email newsletters that legitimately only try to sell you something is shitty content marketing. These things — whose purpose is, realistically, to try to get people to spend money—are set up to fail from the jump, because they are being asked to do what they can’t.
Great content marketing should look a lot like journalism, in that it should be honest, compelling, and well-executed. It should stand on its own, independent of the thing it’s trying to market. It should get people talking and sharing not because it’s selling something, but because it’s genuinely good.
This is why content marketing is a great fit for journalists — we come with the right factory default settings to make great content that does the job well. Our instincts are good at exactly this. And if you’re a smart employer, you’d be well served to start courting the ones who are looking for other opportunities.
Though to be fair I still try to do journalism for its own sake sometimes because completely abandoning it in a city with minimal reporting on progressive issues is irresponsible and also I love it.