“Content marketing” has become the hottest buzzword in marketing. Millions of organizations in the US and the UK are using content marketing to increase their profitability, thrive in times of prosperity, and survive in times of instability and recession. That includes mega-brands like Coca-Cola, Red Bull, and PG&E, as well as local small businesses, and everything in between. But a lot of confusion still exists around what exactly content marketing is and is not. This article will answer the question, “What is content marketing?”
What is content marketing?
This is the Content Marketing Institute’s excellent definition of content marketing:
“Content marketing is a marketing technique of creating and distributing valuable, relevant and consistent content to attract and acquire a clearly defined audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action.”
That’s the most concise and most technically accurate definition of content marketing I’ve ever heard. To help clarify it, here’s my expanded definition:
Content marketing is the creation and distribution of experiences—experiences made of words, images, and sounds—that consistently communicate valuable information, ideas, beliefs, feelings, and stories.
These experiences are called “content” because they’re packaged inside “containers” like:
- blog posts,
- social media posts,
- in-person events,
- white papers,
Content marketing uses these consistent and valuable content-experiences to:
- attract a relevant target audience,
- build trusting and affectionate relationships with the members of that audience (brand-friendships),
- and change or enhance that audience’s beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors in a way that is profitable to a business.
Why You Need Content Marketing
When something new and innovative becomes popular, it’s usually because the old thing it replaces has stopped working as well as it used to. Content marketing is no exception to this rule.
The marketing techniques that businesses have traditionally used to influence people to buy their products and services just do not work very well anymore. What’s more, they’re becoming less effective every year. There are three interrelated factors that are responsible for this trend.
Public Distrust of Corporations & Business
The first factor is that public trust in business is at an historic low. Thanks to a decade of recession and high-profile corporate scandals, people are extremely cynical and suspicious of everything brands say and do nowadays, especially in their advertisements and other marketing messages.
Valuable Online Content
The second factor is that thanks to the Internet, people are now less dependent on businesses for information about products and services than ever before. When consumers want help deciding which product or service to buy, they don’t turn to advertising or conventional marketing. Instead, they make purchasing decisions based on the recommendations and advice of valuable online content, which they find on search engines, blogs, and social media.
This online content is valuable because it’s useful, interesting, entertaining, and relevant. Conventional marketing—both online and offline—usually has none of these virtues.
Online content also seems less biased and manipulative than conventional marketing, which makes it seem more trustworthy.
Conventional Marketing Is Easy to Ignore
The third factor is that new technologies have made it easier than ever before for consumers to filter out and ignore conventional marketing and advertising. For instance, DVRs like TiVo enable consumers to skip TV commercials; free ad-blocking software automatically prevents online ads from being displayed; and people can listen to commercial-free podcasts in the car instead of the radio.
The consequence of these three factors is this: conventional marketing is no longer effective at influencing people to make desired purchasing decisions. Most people don’t even pay attention to it anymore. That’s because they don’t trust it, it’s not as valuable as online content, and it’s easy to ignore.
Instead, people pay attention to—and make purchasing decisions based on—valuable online content. That’s because it’s more valuable, and because it seems less biased and manipulative and therefore more trustworthy.
If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
We Americans have a proverb that says, “If you can’t beat them, join them”. Marketers have tried for years to beat, ignore, and otherwise resist the trends discussed above in order to preserve conventional marketing. We’ve failed. Content marketing is a new strategy that joins and takes advantage of those trends instead of fighting them.
A New Strategy for a New World
Most conventional marketing techniques are variations on the same old strategy. That strategy is to try to persuade consumers to buy things, even though they have no relationship with the brand. Let’s call these consumers “brand-strangers”.
Because of the trends discussed above, this strategy of persuading brand-strangers to buy doesn’t work very well anymore. Brand-strangers tend to interpret conventional marketing as biased, self-serving, and even manipulative. That leads to suboptimal sales and revenue, often at excessive cost.
Content marketing is a new marketing strategy for a world. It does not try to persuade brand-strangers to buy things. Instead, it creates what I call “brand-friendships”. Brand-friendships are positive relationships between brands and consumers that are characterized by trust, affection, and mutual benefit.
Here’s a brief overview of how content marketing creates brand-friendships:
- Content marketing attracts brand-strangers with free, valuable content.
- It earns their trust by not trying to persuade them to buy anything at first.
- It earns their trust by positioning the brand as the leading expert in its field.
- It earns their affection by publishing and sending them more free and valuable content that benefits them on a consistent basis.
That’s how content marketing converts suspicious and indifferent brand-strangers into trusting and affectionate brand-friends.
Once a brand-friendship is well-established, content marketing then makes an irresistible offer. Brand-friends see this offer as expert and mutually-beneficial advice from a friend. This makes them much more likely to convert into a paying customer, and a loyal one at that.
In essence, content marketing converts brand-strangers into brand-friends, and brand-friends into paying customers. It does this by giving before taking and serving before selling. This increases conversion rates, sales, and revenue at minimal cost.
The Psychology of Content Marketing
The fact that this “serve before selling” approach increases sales may seem paradoxical at first, but it makes perfect sense if you understand a concept from evolutionary biology and psychology called “reciprocal altruism”.
Reciprocal altruism means that when someone does something that benefits you, you start to like and trust that person. You’ll also feel motivated to return the favor by doing things that benefit them—or in technical terms, to “reciprocate” their “altruism”. Simply stated, people like, trust, and are nice to people who are nice to them.
Evolution has biologically hard-wired this instinct into the human brain on a primal level. Research shows that people show reciprocal altruism even when they are not consciously aware of doing so—and even when they are actually trying very hard not to! (That’s why it’s illegal for politicians in the US to accept gifts from lobbyists and special interest groups, since even a small gift could unduly bias a politician in favor of the giver.)
Giving people valuable content for free triggers their instinct for reciprocal altruism. Does that mean that they’re going to immediately buy from you? Not necessarily. But it does mean that the brand-friends your content marketing creates will be more likely to do nice things for your brand—to subscribe to your email list, to engage with your brand on social media, and yes, to buy things from you eventually.
The Difference Between Content Marketing and Copywriting
Copywriting is essentially the old strategy of persuading brand-strangers to buy things, specifically with written words. Copywriting isn’t very effective on its own for this reason. However, it can be very effective if it is used sparingly in the context of a larger content marketing initiative. Copywriting is most useful for leveraging the brand-friendships that content marketing creates into sales with irresistible offers.
A word of warning: beware of hiring a copywriter to do a content marketer’s job (or vice versa). Some writers are skilled at both writing styles, but most are not. I’ve heard that copywriters in particular are especially bad at content marketing.
The Difference Between Content Marketing and Digital Marketing Tools like Websites, Blogs, and Social Media Marketing
Digital marketing tools and technologies—including social media, email, SEO, SEM/PPC, websites, and blogs—are containers. They “contain” your “content” marketing and distribute it to your audience.
Without content, digital marketing tools are empty and useless. Without digital marketing tools (or some other kind of distribution platform), content cannot reach your audience. Thus, both are necessary.