Content marketing: Old wine in a new vessel

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By Francis Moran

Everywhere I turn these days, it seems that content marketing is being touted as the latest must-do for business-to-business technology marketers. And there seems to be considerable angst over how to do it properly.

Content marketing is a fairly new concept that many marketers are struggling to figure out,” said a post yesterday on business2community.com. In the post, author Rachel Foster reported on a recent survey of LinkedIn’s B2B Technology Marketer’s Group that asked, “Can you use one word to describe the biggest challenge facing B2B marketing today?” A word cloud of the more than 1,000 comments so far clearly shows ROI to be the dominant concern, followed very closely by content.

In a similar vein, in a round-up earlier this month of the biggest B2B marketing disruptions of 2011, Michael Brenner of B2B Marketing Insider said, “People have been talking about content marketing for at least a couple of years. But in 2011, it really seemed to hit its stride.”

I could cite several additional examples, but I think you get my point. According to a large swath of the B2B braintrust out there, content marketing is the greatest new thing, and we’d better all get aboard.

To which I reply, what the heck took you so long? In my world, content has been the core of everything I’ve done for 30 years now.

I started my career as a newspaper reporter. And what is a newspaper but a content-marketing platform? An audience is attracted to informative and useful expert content that, nominally at least, is not overtly selling anything. Once attracted, that audience can then be marketed to advertisers. Even in the current dismal state of the newspaper industry, the successful titles continue to be those that understand that they must maintain their investments in unique, high-quality content.

As a marketer, most of my time has been spent on the earned-media side of the equation, the side where content rules. While advertising and other paid-media tactics can buy themselves a sufficiently dominant presence to ensure that their overt sales message gets across, media relations and other similar approaches must earn their way in on the strength of the quality and utility — and, usually, the neutrality and non-promotional nature — of their content.

So crafting marketing strategies that rely heavily on content that is informative and useful rather than overtly sales-oriented is nothing new to me. What is new — and certainly what is driving many more marketers to embrace this highly effective approach to engaging with customers rather than just selling to them — is the proliferation of new channels through which good content can be put directly in the hands of customers. Actually, I should turn that around — it’s the proliferation of new channels through which customers can now seek out and access content that they want to consume rather than just the stuff we want to push at them.

I can understand how marketers raised on the milk of push messaging are having a tough time weaning themselves. In the first instance, good content is not easy to develop, and few truly understand that the definition of content covers almost everything you do on the market-facing front. It’s not just big-content pieces like white papers; it’s your web site, your collateral, your blog and the stuff you post to the countless new channels such as YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and more.

Secondly, the effectiveness of what is certainly a far more subtle form of engaging with the marketplace must appear, at first glance, to be less certain and less measurable than the old ways. (Remember that ROI was the only word that appeared more often than content in the word cloud of that LinkedIn survey I referenced at the top of this article, so measuring impact is, understandably, a critical concern.) Fortunately, the fact that most of the new channels available to marketers are digital means that metrics can quite readily be collected and analysed, making the calculation of ROI probably the simplest it has ever been. In the old days, I had to rely on anecdotal reporting or a series of intercept questions when a prospect was first added to the pipeline to identify where that lead had come from; today, I just follow the digital breadcrumbs.

The bottom line is that customers and prospects have always wanted good quality content that informs rather than sells. At the risk of turning this post from a good piece of content marketing into a more overt sales pitch, if you’re having difficulty crafting your content-marketing strategy, give us a call. We’ve been doing it for a very long time and we can show you how to prosper at it.

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