One thing is for sure, we marketers love a good debate, and there are few so adept at lighting the touch paper as Marketing Week columnist Mark Ritson. The magazine’s resident marketing professor is well known for his outspoken approach and controversial views on everything from the need for marketing professionals to have relevant qualifications to the hype and hyperbole of social media.

It was only a matter of time before the subject of content marketing strayed into Mr Ritson’s sights, and once that happened he opened fire with both barrels. It turns out that he believes content marketing is little more than traditional marketing communications masquerading under another name, making it undeserving, in his opinion, of the time and attention it currently receives from many advocates.

The nature of content marketing is something I spent more time considering than is possibly healthy while recently completing an MSc in marketing communications. There is a glaring gap in the academic literature when it comes to content. You certainly won’t find any reference to it within the marketing communications mix.

There is a glaring gap in the academic literature when it comes to content

Engagement and the journey

The few mentions content does receive in marketing textbooks tend to focus on the role it plays in stimulating engagement, with little mention of the value that can be delivered at various points throughout the customer journey. So I set about trying to work out where I think content fits within existing models and frameworks based on conversations with my lecturers and my own experience.

One thing you hear time and again is that the main aim of content marketing is to position the commentator as a trusted authority on a given subject, thereby encouraging people to think favourably about the author and associated organisation. What we’re essentially talking about here is reputation creation and management, which to my mind places this most closely in the ballpark of public relations

Having come from a PR background, I know first-hand that content often forms part of a successful campaign. I was producing guides and white papers for clients – distributed via media relations – long before content marketing became recognised in its own right. So in that sense, I agree with Mr Ritson that content isn’t anything new per se. However, as with any debate, the truth of the matter is far more nuanced than the hardliners on either side would like to admit.

A function of PR?

Yes, content has been around for years. At the same time, the rise of digital technology has meant that creating and sharing high quality collateral has become immeasurably easier. With that ease has come a new focus on the ability of well-crafted materials to assist and influence a wide variety of stakeholders throughout the decision-making process.

These digital advancements have led to a noticeable evolution in the way marketers think about and utilise content, so to suggest that nothing has changed is to dismiss a distinct shift in the way businesses communicate with their target audience.

What’s not clear is whether content marketing is an element of public relations, sitting alongside other PR–related activities like media relations, or if it can be seen as a marketing communications tool in its right. I think it could be argued either way, if one were inclined to spend the time doing so. In reality, it doesn’t really matter whether content is a separate activity or part of another discipline, as long as it is being conducted in a strategic and integrated manner to ensure it is delivering the right messages at the right time and in the right way.

It’s also important to acknowledge that the lines between the various mar comms tools can be pretty blurred. For example, a company that produces an ebook is likely to distribute and promote that piece of content using a variety of methods and channels. As a starting point, it will almost certainly be published on the firm’s website. The marketing team will also probably share it via the company’s social media pages. If budget is available, then paid social promotion and broader online advertising might be brought into the mix. A smart organisation would let prospects and customers know about the ebook’s existence by email, and may also speak to journalists to create opportunities for the content to be referenced in the media.

Digital advancements have led to a noticeable evolution in the way marketers think about and utilise content

Content that always performs

Whatever the distribution plan, the starting point is a piece of marketing material that has been (or at least should have been) designed to play a certain role in the customer journey, whether that’s creating awareness, generating leads or engendering loyalty. The content is at the heart of that process, making it worthy of attention and respect.

This leads me on to another of Ritson’s points that I feel compelled to address. He states that “content marketers…seem to think that their reason for existence is to create content, rather than communicate with clients and sell stuff”. I, along with various other content professionals, find this comment genuinely baffling. Certainly none of my clients would be happy for me to create material for the sake of it, and nor would I want to.

As a marketing professional, I want to know how content is performing against agreed goals, with the intention of adapting the strategy to maximise return on investment. That’s not always a simple job in today’s hyper-connected world. You only have to look at the discussions taking place about attribution in the field of online advertising to understand that measuring the impact of marketing activity can be challenging. But any content marketer worth their salt (and there are plenty of them out there) will do their best to assess the value of the work they are doing and adjust accordingly.

Whether I agree with Mark Ritson or not, he has done a good job of getting people talking about the role of content and its place within the marketing communications mix, and that’s no bad thing in my eyes. It will be interesting to see where this goes next, both within practice and academia.