What is Content marketing?

Content marketing has existed for a long, long time. Some date it back to the first issue of John Deere’s The Furrow magazine, which blew the minds of the farmers back in 1895. Older examples likely exist, but you get the point. It’s old, established, and it’s awesome for creating connections with today’s research-heavy shoppers and businesses. Yet, we see so many people misuse the terminology and practice of true-blue content marketing.

It’s not polite to wag fingers, but in this case we need to call a timeout and set some things straight. As much fun as it is to be innovative or put some new twist on marketing, sometimes being loose with terminology and buzzwords creates more confusion than anything else – especially for people not in marketing.

We’re going to take the hit to our cool points and play hall monitor on this topic for the greater good of setting the record straight.

Fine I’ll bite. Why is content marketing misunderstood?

The simplest of explanations is that people confuse “content marketing” with “marketing with content.” It’s an honest mistake. Afterall, the root of most marketing strategies is the collateral and creative behind the campaigns and tactics. If you’re a product marketer and you just finished a brochure for the new product you’re launching next quarter, you’re using content for marketing. If you’re supporting sales by providing customer case studies, you’re using content as a marketing tool. These tactics may be perfectly fine for lead generation or sales enablement, but they’re not content marketing. 

So what is content marketing then, smartypants? 

Content marketing is a marketing concept or strategy all its own – just like product marketing or paid advertising. We didn’t invent content marketing, so you’ll find plenty of definitions out there. CMI has a good breakdown of content marketing, for example. Here’s our definition:

“Content marketing is the strategic publishing of content, focused on audience needs, to encourage desired outcomes that benefit your business.”

It’s difficult to explain an entire marketing ethos in a sentence, but there you have it. And just so we’re not adding confusion to the topic ourselves, we’ll unpack the key nuances underneath our definition to get to the bottom of what content marketing is (and isn’t). 

  • Strategic publishing of content: Content marketing won’t be effective without a strategy. There needs to be a cohesive, planned effort behind everything published. Without a strategy, it’s just about impossible to expect results or improve your content marketing over time. The strategy should build stacks of information that help your key audience solve challenges while giving them clear paths to continue learning or “convert” (which we’ll cover in the third bullet below).
  • Focused on audience needs: Audience is the heart of content marketing. The key difference of content marketing versus other types of marketing collateral is that there’s rarely (if ever) mention of a product or promotion. It’s all about a topic,need – much like how solution selling starts off by identifying a challenge before prescribing a solution. With content marketing, you’re helping someone get informed rather than trying to hard close a sale. This in turn builds trust between your reader and your brand.
  • Encourage desired outcomes: Trust is not revenue, but it is currency. What can brands do with trust? Anything. When you build trust through great content (that doesn’t push an agenda), converting a cold audience to a warm prospect or loyal customer becomes easier. No matter the business goal – more website traffic, bigger shopping carts, opt-ins to a newsletter, or anything else – where you build trust you’ll find opportunity. 

There it is, plain and simple: The three pillars of content marketing – strategy, audience, and business goals. 

Does content marketing really work?

It’s hard for some people to believe in the value of content marketing – mainly because it doesn’t push products. But, when was the last time you liked a pushy salesman? Today, people are empowered to do product and partner research on their own and most of the purchasing decisions are made well before wallets come out. It’s easy to tune out the “buy now” or “latest and greatest” marketing speak. 

In short, people want answers without agenda  – at least that’s the theory. Thankfully, there’s lots of data to back that theory up …

In a CMI benchmarking report covering content marketing success, 76% were able to increase trust with their brand (up 10% from the prior year) and 55% built a subscribership following (up from 38% the prior year). This shows us that content marketing does a good job at the top of the funnel to give you opportunities to a growing audience. 

But, what about actual revenue? You know, the currency that most businesses really care about? In the same CMI report, 54% of businesses attributed sales and revenue to content marketing initiatives. Also, 52% directly correlate content marketing with demand or lead generation. 

Ready to give content marketing a chance?

Now that you know more about content marketing – real content marketing – we hope you’re open to exploring the possibilities of this audience-building strategy. And the next time you hear someone mention content marketing, maybe you can check if they’re talking about content marketing or marketing with content. That’s right! You’re now officially a content marketer hall monitor. It’s an exclusive club … we’re working out the secret handshake and decoder ring. 

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