Content marketing – new age advertising or jargon-gimmick

Content marketing – new age advertising or jargon-gimmick

Tuesday September 05, 2017,

7 min Read

Most brands employ content marketing today, but is it traditional advertising newly repackaged, or does it serve a purpose that goes beyond traditional advertising?


Content marketing has been at the receiving end of a lot of bad press, with most articles labelling it as a buzz phrase, and something that has essentially been practiced in advertising for long.

There are also those who say it is the product of practitioners thriving on throwing jargon, and that most of what passes off as content marketing is noise without adding much value to a brand by way of sales.

To begin with, one might ask what is content? In 1996, Bill Gates wrote an essay ‘Content is King’ where he stated:

“When it comes to an interactive network, such as the Internet, the definition of ‘content’ becomes very wide. For example, computer software is a form of content - an extremely important one, and the one that for Microsoft will remain by far the most important. But the broad opportunities for most companies involve supplying information or entertainment. No company is too small to participate.”

Since then, the phrase ‘content is king’ has been used in the context of information or entertainment – largely to do with broadcast or internet media. Over the last few years, however, the word ‘content’ has come to be associated with brands which resulted in ‘branded content’ as a phrase, usually referring to paid-for, sponsored content.

Thus, now, ‘content’ has come to encompass TV commercials, web-only films, blog posts, tweets, social media posts – basically any form of communication put out by a brand.

Content marketing, which is a combination of creation and distribution, is defined differently by many:

One definition says Content marketing is the creation of content with the intention of distributing it, to engage with highly targeted audiences, and attract new customers (and backlinks) in the process. 

CMI defines it as:

Content marketing is a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly-defined audience — and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.

Mostly, content marketing – at least in the B2B context -- is about driving traffic to one’s own content (as mentioned here) by:

– Increasing visibility.

– Encouraging backlinks for SEO, and social shares.

– Optimising the website for long tail keywords that are harder to target through the website’s static pages.

– Generating new customers, or clients, or whatever a brand’s end goal is 

In my words, it would be:

'The art of creating and distributing communication among the right audience, resulting in positive impact for a brand, either in terms of enhancing reputation or moving a prospect closer to sale'.

That sounds pretty much like advertising, doesn’t it? So, is content marketing fundamentally like advertising? In my view, yes.

However, having said that, it is also an invented term, a buzz phrase as it were, but that’s to be expected with changing times. Digital Marketing as a term would have meant nothing a decade ago whereas Direct Mail was a common term for decades. The principles that operated in Direct Mail have only taken a new avatar in the context of today’s marketing.

Reader’s Digest was a major practitioner of direct response advertising, specifically direct mail, to sell anything from subscriptions to books to sweepstakes. The techniques used were studied, commented upon and hailed as best practices back in the day.

Cut to 2017 and one can see many brands practise the same principles, albeit on a different platform (email) using algorithms to send similar offers. They may be labelled spam, but the principle is the same as in traditional marketing.

Both with classic direct mail marketing and modern email marketing, the success factors are the same: tailoring the right ‘offer’ and message (creative elements) to the right person. The success rate, though, is low. In classic direct mail, success rate was defined by the response taken – be it a phone call made, a coupon cut & mailed or a cheque written (for subscriptions and donations). In today’s context, the parameters have changed to open rates and CTRs.

Reader’s Digest also sent reminder mailers to those who did not take action towards an offer the first time around. In traditional direct mail marketing that would have been celebrated as a best practice, but today, such reminder emailers or newsletters are called a drip campaign or ‘nurturing’, which is laughed at.

Another common point about content marketing is that much of it is said to be noise. I wholeheartedly agree – especially in the B2B segment where the urge to come across as a ‘thought leader’ drives companies to push out plain-vanilla, boring, aggregated content masquerading as ‘educational content’. Every domain in B2B is filled with ‘How to’ and ‘7 Reasons Why’ articles which are put together by content writers with Google searches or Wikipedia as their source. The end result is a sea of sameness with a small percentage shining through as remarkable, memorable, entertaining or useful content. However, this is not something only content marketing is plagued with. The same is true of movies, music, books, journalism – every aspect of popular culture.

‘Ninety percent of everything is crap’.

– Sturgeon’s law

As every B2B brand turns to content marketing, we’re about to be hit by a deluge of crap, said Velocity Partners (a B2B content agency I respect) in…2013.

Advertising as a discipline (and here the emphasis is on traditional channels like television) is considered important in the marketing mix and effective in building brand equity, and driving sales. This, despite most of advertising going unnoticed as it is too boring to grab attention. So why is the ‘noise quotient’ of content marketing singled out? In my view, the tendency to ‘jargon-ise’ and turn everything into a number-driven or template driven process (for e.g in disciplines like SEO) evokes ridicule. Moreover, the obsession over meaningless vanity metrics (likes, shares, views) takes away the focus from sales (by creating likability) – which should be the primary focus of any advertising activity. We as an industry forget that content marketing is advertising after all, and advertising is persuasion – an art. Some of the practitioners of content marketing are attempting to turn it into a science, a process driven by ‘techniques’ in keyword search, SEO, on-page optimisation and so on – trying to appeal to a Google search rather than to a human being. For many marketers, their brand is what Google defines it to be. So, driven by fear of losing out in the SERP game, content is ‘gamed’ to rank high in keyword searches and score well on page rank, domain authority etc. In such a scenario, creating content is rarely driven by expertise on a subject or an obsession to charm the audience. Naturally, the goal is quantity and not quality.

Are there content marketing campaigns that have delivered? Here are a few (see more here):

Blendtec: The ‘Will It Blend?‘ series of videos from Blendtec represent the best of what marketing is all about in this new media age.

Volvo: the series of web-only films (including the famous ‘Epic Split’) demonstrated the various features of Volvo trucks in an engaging, entertaining manner.

GE: to me, the hallmark of GE’s approach to content marketing has been its usage of each platform to its advantage.

Openview Partners: this VC firm consistently shares insights that would be relevant and useful to entrepreneurs. The focus is sharp: ‘insights, actionable advice & founder interviews aimed at helping you grow your expansion stage software company’.

What’s common to these?

– Content which respects the intelligence of the audience

– Avoiding run of the mill, ‘average’ content and striving to create engaging, entertaining, useful stuff

– Focusing on quality rather than quantity

– Creating content best suited for the platform

– Employing strategies to ensure that the content is discovered and shared (effective distribution)

I am guessing all these have delivered on business results too as the brand owner is unlikely to invest in such content if it does not generate good ROI. To sum, I would say new advertising is old advertising at heart. And just as we don’t brush all advertising with one stroke we should not paint all of ‘content marketing’ as useless.

Look forward to your views.

This article was originally published here.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)