Few types of marketing are as misunderstood as content marketing. The past few years in particular have seen the term muddied, bloated and mangled with dozens of competing meanings, as agencies and brands vie to jump on the bandwagon. It is the responsibility of the industry to decide on a single definition.

The term ‘content marketing’ has been hijacked. Though it dates back at least a century (Benjamin Franklin cracked it first, says CMI), its upswell of popularity over the past few years have seen agencies and brands across the board claiming they’re well across it. Yet whether through opportunism or misunderstanding, much of what proclaims to be content marketing is just masquerading as such. In the most common scenario, brands will often decide to give content marketing a go, only to give up when the first few content items they publish don’t cause an uptick in sales.

Urgently, the industry needs to purify the semantic waters – to achieve clarity of purpose so that best practice can prevail. We need to hit the reset button, and reclaim the term before its meaning grows so ambiguous as to be lost.

There is a slew of definitions out there, and while we’re far from throwing all of them out as false, we stake our brand (and make our business) on this one:

Content marketing is a long-term marketing practice and business strategy. At its core is the consistent production and distribution of quality, relevant, useful and non-brand-centric content that establishes and nurtures a relationship between brand and customer over time.

There’s quite a lot going on there. For a breakdown: read on.

Customer-centric, not brand-centric

The unique hallmark of content marketing is that, as a matter of hygiene, it’s self-effacing. It doesn’t immediately talk brand, product or service. It doesn’t immediately exhort readers to buy anything.

Instead, the driving goal of content marketing is to provide genuine value to target audiences across all points of the buyer journey. Quite literally, it is nothing if not useful. Pairing empathy with creativity, it strives to inform, educate, entertain and engage. In doing so, it succeeds in telling the story of itself – building trust from which meaningful, long-term relationships can flourish and endure.

It’s a counterintuitive approach, but it’s powerful. Audiences nowadays are fickle and exhausted by an overwhelming sea of choice. When a brand goes in aggressively for the sell, their cynicism levels spike, and the brand/audience exchange grows sour.

Rather than demand any dollars or indulge in vainglorious self-praise, content marketing invests itself in an attitude of care. Shaping everything it does around the customer as number one, it creates relationships between customers and brands, built on trust and the knowledge that the brand is always adding value for the customer – sales teams can then recommend relevant solutions to customers’ challenges and needs. Predatory tactics are swapped up for sincerity instead.

Finely targeted for relevance

Irrelevant content marketing? You’ll find that’s a contradiction in terms. Through an inbuilt feedback loop, content marketers will conduct thorough research on target audiences, working to ensure that the right content is put in front of the right audiences, at the right time. Tossing aside presumption, good content marketers ask before they answer. What media does their target audiences like to consume? Why, and at what time? What are their values and preferences, their habits and needs? What are the gaps in their understanding they want to see filled? How can a content experience be useful for them, in an utterly original way?

If it is to engage deeply, the team behind content marketing must listen deeply. And it must do so as part of an ongoing conversation, where target audiences find resonance in what content marketers create.

A business strategy

The content marketing mission shouldn’t be carried out by a single battalion of a department, lone champions of the cause. It should be a practical philosophy embedded into a company’s DNA. Instituted as a culture, it delivers a wrecking ball to silos, uniting the company in the vision to add value.

Content marketing, then, is most successful if it is implemented as a total business strategy. And this doesn’t stop at cross-department buy-in. It requires ongoing, across-the-board input too.

Planned and documented

Chucking stuff out in the hope that something sticks is as slapdash as it sounds. Content marketing, subsequently, abhors the ad hoc. It follows a strategic plan, knowing when and how to nimbly deviate from the path to respond to new challenges, opportunities and events. Agile and adaptable, it doesn’t see the editorial calendar as a totalitarian fixture, but a decision-making guide. In a fast-changing world, it has evolved to think with two minds: one for the present, and one for the future.

What’s more, for content marketing to work – and for you to know it’s working, as a legitimate, attributed approach – it has to be documented. Content marketers will hence deliberate which custom metrics are best to measure success (and these will differ every time), using them to track progress, optimise distribution and refine their technique.

Amplified

Content marketing doesn’t speak from just one place. Though its tone is consistent and recognisable everywhere it exists, it spreads itself strategically across channels, going to where its audiences are and engaging them in a platform-appropriate form.

After all, producing good content is only half the journey. If it doesn’t reach the customer, all that effort goes to waste, and neither you nor your audience benefits as you and they should. To put it as we have previously, publishing editorial content “without care of placement is like leaving a beautifully written article on the Higgs boson particle on a table in the food court at Westfield and hoping a nuclear physicist picks it up.”

Consistent and ongoing

Perhaps the central tenet of content marketing – and the point of most misunderstanding – is that it takes time. As is iterated at almost every conference by every leader of the field, content marketing is not a sprint but a marathon.

It’s not about bangs and whistles then, or shiny new campaigns that explode only to fizzle out moments after from brand and audience memory alike. Instead, it works diligently to produce original content under a long-term vision, prioritising quality over quantity every time.

Sure, this requires no small amount of stamina. But overall, it’s less exhausting. Where other marketing efforts strain themselves in the frenzy to come up with better, bigger, flashier ideas to grab audiences’ increasingly hard-won attention, content marketing coolly jogs along beside its audience. Sure of what it is, and where it’s going, it continues on without a break in its stride.

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