About 18 months ago, the term “Content Marketing” started showing up in earnest  in Marketing discussions as The Next Big Thing.  This “new” field of marketing isn’t so much a new field, though, as much as it is putting structure around something that those of us who have been in content-producing long-format digital marketing disciplines (blogging, e-books, social media, video) have, already, been doing for years.

What is Content Marketing?

The Content Marketing Institute has a great article that goes over content marketing at a high level.  Here’s what they have to say:

Content marketing is a marketing technique of creating and distributing relevant and valuable content to attract, acquire, and engage a clearly defined and understood target audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action.

Content marketing’s purpose is to attract and retain customers by consistently creating and curating relevant and valuable content with the intention of changing or enhancing consumer behavior. It is an ongoing process that is best integrated into your overall marketing strategy, and it focuses on owning media, not renting it.

Basically, content marketing is the art of communicating with your customers and prospects without selling. It is non-interruption marketing. Instead of pitching your products or services, you are delivering information that makes your buyer more intelligent. The essence of this content strategy is the belief that if we, as businesses, deliver consistent, ongoing valuable information to buyers, they ultimately reward us with their business and loyalty.

Another way to put this: content marketing is the mashup of digital marketing metrics and non-direct-marketing creative content.  It’s putting strategy, structure and KPI’s around a piece of creative content before it’s produced, and having a marketing plan for it after it’s produced.  Rather than creative being produced as marketing support for another company initiative, this creative is the marketing initiative – and a good content marketing plan will then have smaller pieces of creative (including direct marketing pieces) planned to market the marketing.

“Content Marketing” is the bucket into social media marketing falls (good social media marketing is just good content marketing on a social media channel), and as we consumers continue to consume more and more content online, the discipline itself will continue to grow.  I won’t be surprised if, 5 years from now, traditional “creative departments” are part of the business strategy team.


What Isn’t Content Marketing?

Content marketing is a relationship marketing discipline, not a direct marketing discipline.  You are not trying to sell something to someone Right This Second.  You are producing content that’s useful, funny or otherwise engaging for a target social community, with the understanding that people develop brand loyalty when they’re given something for free that they truly need, want or enjoy.

Good Content Marketing Leads to Engagement

Content marketing is, at its core, a relationship marketing discipline whose success depends on sparking engagement with its audience.  On social media channels, content marketing services a viral marketing strategy: incite the share.  (If you’re wondering why that’s so crucial, you might check out this article on social media word of mouth.)

I’ve written a lot lately about the democratization of content marketing and the rise of the citizen editor with Web 2.1.  The current trend is toward the everyman being a content marketer simply by virtue of using Facebook, Twitter, Medium, and other content publishing platforms that are giving the everyman both the tools and analytics that we digital marketers have been using to measure our success for years.

The good news here is that, as people inadvertenty find themselves getting better at sparking engagement on their own personal networks, the content that we as marketers put out has a better chance of being seen – and shared.  The challenge here is that the bar for creative content becomes ever higher, but perhaps we can all agree that we can use less slapped-together marketing and more creative, thoughtful work that shows that the folks who produced it did a little social listening to figure out what was going to work.

As the waters rise on content and the bar rises on quality, online influencer strategy becomes more important than ever.  Engage your influencers: they have the megaphone, and inciting brand advocacy among influencers is one of the most crucial keys to success in a good content marketing strategy.


Content Marketing Engagement Leads to Earned Media and Advocates

The note about content marketing owned as opposed to rented media in the Content Marketing Institute’s article simply means that we’re using our own social channels and other real estate (blogs, main sites, sub-domains, email lists) to publish our content.

And publishing our content is great.  But the goal of that content is engagement, and one of the biggest upsides to that engagement is the earned media we get when other people share our content on their personal networks.  (For more on this, check out this article on brand advocacy and earned social media.)

So, while I’ll agree that content marketing isn’t about renting media, I’m of the opinion that earning media from an engaged social community is a goal of any piece of content, even if it’s not the primary goal.  Owning the media is like owning the building in which you operate your restaurant: it’s great to own the building, but if nobody’s coming in the door and nobody’s telling their friends about it, your real estate isn’t doing much for your business.


Content Marketing KPI’s: How Do We Measure?

At the end of the day, it’s up to you to decide what your content goals are.   Some of these goals will be channel-specific: social media content should be measured in engagement with shares, likes, etc.  If you want to follow customers through a purchase funnel, you can either track them with gated content and cookies, or you can pay an analyst to do some mathematical and formulaic gymnastics to back into what a “share” and this sort of engagement is actually worth to your company.

The success of gated content like e-books is easy to measure: signups are, obviously, tracked.  But are you following those people?  Have you put them into a nuturing queue?

Don’t get too fancy if you’re short on resources: measure what you can with easily available analytics, do some social listening to make sure that your content is resonating, and don’t be afraid to tweak your content consistently to refine your message.


Content Marketing Strategy & Leftover Turkey

People will consume your content differently depending on who they are, what format your content takes, and on what channel it resides.  What this means is that an e-book servicing a lead capture goal can be broken down into blog posts for your own blog, tweets, Facebook posts, memes, e-cards, webinars, Power Point presentations: you name it, and you can probably create it from what you already have if your core long-format content has enough meat to it.

When it comes to planning your content marketing strategy, think about how the piece of content you’re creating might be recycled like leftover turkey to engage as many people as possible with as little re-creation as possible.


One Final Note on Content Marketing

If you’ve been in a soft marketing discipline before (PR, Social Media), these sorts of KPI’s and the overall marketing strategy should sound pretty familiar.  Content marketing is a storytelling discipline, and telling your story well means telling it to people in a way that they can (and want to) understand.  It means telling your story in different ways to different people, but having a solid foundation as to what you’re saying and why.

Content marketing as a buzzword will continue to grow as businesses realize the power of good content to inspire brand advocates, and what those advocates do for the bottom line.  If your boss doubts the value of social media or content marketing, you might send along the article about Social Media ROI and some of the others mentioned here – or, come up with a piece of killer content that leads to equally killer engagement.  After all, action is also worth 1000 words.