Content marketing is clearly the trending topic in B2B marketing today. Every second day, a new study proclaims that more and more B2B marketers are taking to content marketing. The hype around it is huge; the expectations immense.
Yet, beyond some basic understanding, there is no clear consensus about what exactly is content marketing, how it differs from any other form of marketing and why there is so much of hype around it now. After all, haven’t all marketing efforts in the past – be it old-fashioned display ads or e-mailers, roadshows or webinars – been about some kind of content?
Wikipedia defines content marketing as “any marketing format that involves the creation and sharing of media and publishing content in order to acquire customers”. Content marketing’s basic premise is to, it says, “provide some valuable information or entertainment – content – that stops short of a direct sales pitch or call to action, but which seeks to positively influence a customer in some way”.
At a conceptual level, that is a fairly good explanation. But I think it fails somewhere as a definition because it doesn’t clearly define the boundaries and hence, can be extended to include virtually any kind of marketing, including advertising.
I tend to agree more with the definition provided by the Content Marketing Institute – content marketing is owning, as opposed to renting media. It’s a marketing process to attract and retain customers by consistently creating and curating content in order to change or enhance consumer behaviour.
When you say content marketing is owning, as opposed to renting media, it is a shift – a shift in the way marketing has worked in the past. Traditionally, marketers have been riding on the platform of third party content creators to drive their marketing message. This model, borrowed from B2C marketing, has worked in the past, but is increasingly becoming inefficient and ineffective in B2B marketing, as both marketers and publishers are realising.
Content marketing is an experimentation by some marketers that seeks to break away from that old model by directly attracting the audience to a platform owned by the brands, populated by content, controlled by, but not necessarily created by, them.
That is why content marketing is often described as brands turning publishers. In the traditional media world, the editorial department of the publishers controlled the content. The demarcation between the marketing message and the editorial content was fairly clear.
To have a realistic expectation from content marketing, it is imperative that we understand the reason behind the shift, the underlying assumptions and the important questions that must be asked to make the strategy successful.
Ironically, much as the name may suggest otherwise, the shift to content marketing by B2B brands has happened not because the marketers think brands can create better content than the third party publishers, but because they believe that they can create comparable quality of content far more efficiently than the publishers and can be far more responsive to market changes than a third party publisher. So, strange as it may sound, the real reasons behind the shift to content marketing is not content per se, but efficiency and responsiveness.
Anyone embarking on a content marketing journey must keep this basic truth in mind.
However, content quality is important. And there are bound to be questions. While the jury is still out on many questions raised here, it is important that every marketer planning content marketing at least examines these questions.
Typically, the adjectives that we hear while describing quality content are informative, engaging, educating, interesting/ exciting/ entertaining, credible and neutral. Out of this, there is no reason to believe – at least theoretically – that the content created by a brand would be inferior to a third party editorial content in any of these attributes other than neutrality. Since the objective is to get the audience interested in the brand and sell a product/ service, it cannot be neutral, by definition.
Assuming that the brand is serious about the content part of the content marketing, we have just one question to examine. Is neutrality such a big differentiator? Does the audience really care about neutrality if the content is informative, engaging, entertaining, educative?
There is a big tendency to say ‘No’. Today, most audience would ignore the neutrality part if the content has one or more of the other attributes. Normally, I would tend to agree with that conclusion, but there’s one doubt that I would like to raise here.
Content neutrality is like air. You notice it when it is not there. All said and done, a basic minimum neutrality is taken for granted by the audience from an independent media platform. I am not too sure if they will still feel the same if that minimum assurance is not there.
Further, the assumption that neutrality does not matter as much as other attributes of quality may be predominantly true about B2C audience. But content marketing is more for B2B marketers and I do not think we can just assume that blindly.
Also, ensuring that your content has credibility without explicit lack of neutrality is possible, but an extremely lofty goal. Content marketers need to be extremely disciplined and have to absorb some editorial practices to make that happen. It is easier said than done.
But I believe it is not impossible.
That is because good content creators are no more all attached to publishers. Good content creators (journalists and non-journalists alike) have built their own following over the years. These people have credibility and competence and are now leveraging the new media to reach out directly to their audience, without having the need to bank on a big media house’s name. That was not possible a few years back.
This army of good content creators can be leveraged to create quality content for the brands directly. Or brands could curate that content in a meaningful way. That is already happening.
The traditional publishers have built rigid structures around themselves where content creation cost is just a fraction of their overall operating cost and the rest is around inefficient support and supply chain layers. Smart marketers, instead of paying for those huge inefficiencies, are tying up with good content creators directly and are building their own platforms to attract their target audience, which is far well defined and smaller in number, unlike in the case of B2C brands.
These three – smart marketers, good content creators and new media – are coming together in an interesting way. And that is what the phenomenon of content marketing is all about.
It is a disruptive force that is challenging the existing order. Like most disruptive forces, it is trying to remove an inefficient layer and make the whole ecosystem far more efficient.
The author is Director and Head, Business Research at Juxt