A couple weeks ago, I came across this post and it really stuck in my craw.
The author, Samuel Scott, states his opinion right in the title, “Apples are not oranges – and ‘content marketing’ means nothing.”
Now, to be fair, even though I have had a “Director of Content Strategy” title for many years and have essentially made my living since 2009 doing things related to “content marketing,” I am actually sympathetic to his main point: The hype has been outrageous ever since content marketing became a thing and the word “content” is so generic that it can mean anything.
Case in point: I was part of a team that offered online courses and we had hired someone to put together a course on “content strategy.” I was imagining something that would focus on audience research, definition of content topics, approaches to content creation, planning for content distribution, and so on.
When the consultant submitted her course outline, it was clear that what she meant by content was anything written that would be part of an application interface.
In the same vein, the CEO of the company I was working for at the time essentially thought of web copy as “content.”
The word “content” is not very useful. But can the same be said about the phrase “content marketing”?
Does confusion about something mean it doesn’t exist?
In a nutshell, Scott believes that content marketing is simply marketing promotion or marketing communications or even direct response advertising. Here’s how he frames the issue:
The Content Marketing Institute (CMI) defines “content marketing” in this way:
“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.”
But is that something truly separate and distinctive? Let’s go back to one of the basic elements of marketing theory. Here’s the definition of “marketing communications” (from my old textbook ‘Principles of Marketing‘ by Philip T. Kotler and Gary Armstrong):
“A company’s total promotion mix – also called its marketing communications mix –consists of the specific blend of advertising, public relations, personal selling, sales promotion, and direct-marketing tools that the company uses to persuasively communicate customer value and build customer relationships.”
In the end, both “marketing communications” and “content marketing” are merely the creation and transmission of marketing collateral over channels to an audience. “Marketing communications” came before the “content marketing,” so by definition the latter is merely a buzzword for the former.
Scott uses a kind of rhetorical sleight-of-hand to dismiss content marketing outright in this passage, specifically in the last paragraph when the reduces “content” to “marketing collateral,” a term that does not appear in the cited CMI definition.
Furthermore, even though he cites Kotler, he ignores the fact that in the latter’s definition of the marketing communications mix there is not a single reference to the type of content that the CMI definition is referring to.
What is content marketing content?
When I try to explain the difference between content marketing content and, say, marketing collateral, I use a couple of examples.
First, I reach back to 1904 and cite Jell-O. As the story goes, Jell-O was new on the market so the company began distributing recipes for tasty treats that relied on this cheap and magical product.
As you can see in the image above (credit), the content that Jell-O was distributing does not easily fit into any of Kotler’s marketing mix categories, although the goal, quite obviously, was to promote the use of Jell-O.
Next, I point to examples of companies taking a more journalistic approach to the content they create.
One example is Adobe’s CMO.com, which, admittedly, does explicitly promote Adobe events through banner ads, for example, but also features plenty of articles that are of more general interest to their intended audience.
Another example of this approach is GE Reports, which publishes stories on industries in which GE plays a role but also covers things like the Standard Model in physics.
Finally, I try to point to some of the content marketing projects in which I have been involved. For my purposes here, and since Scott works for a company focused on log management, I’ll share a site (now defunct) called LogManagementCentral.com that I helped the folks at Novell create.
As you can see, we covered a lot of material related to log management. At the same time, we did feature a promotional piece – a log management tool buying guide – which was marketing collateral, to be sure, but also a useful checklist that buyers of log management tools could use whether they were buying from Novell or not. (Not to toot my own horn, because this was a group effort, but we were at the top of search results for “log management” ninety days after launch.)
In other words, I don’t believe that any of these examples (or others I could adduce) can be reduced to marketing communications or marketing collateral.
Indeed I believe that they fit more neatly under the rubric “content marketing” than “advertising, public relations, personal selling, sales promotion, and direct-marketing tools .”
What are words for?
Interestingly, Scott’s argument hinges on a certain philosophy of language, one that relegates meaning to agreed upon and defensible definitions:
Definitions exist for a reason. Definitions explain what something is and is not. A definition is a boundary between something and everything else in the world.
An “apple” is a sweet, pomaceous fruit that has a moderate amount of fibre. An “orange” is a citrus fruit that is an excellent source of vitamin C. If I say that I am eating an “apple,” I am communicating that I am eating an “apple” and not an “orange.”
Professional disciplines have agreed-upon definitions of terms because they provide a common vocabulary and framework within which people in the field can discuss relevant topics.
Having come of age in the era of deconstruction and post-structuralism, I am less comfortable with this theory of meaning. That is, I believe that definitions, even in professional contexts, are perpetually contested. At the same time, I also believe that language acquisition is more pragmatic than academic.
Putting it another way, I go with Wittgenstein, who said, “The meaning of a word is its use in the language.”
What I’m getting at is this. Yes, in the usage of the word “content,” as I indicated above, there can be a lot of ambiguity. Scott is right to point this out.
When it comes to “content marketing,” however, I believe that when people use that phrase, there is a general consensus in terms of what that refers to: blogs, videos, how-to guides, white papers, infographics, etc.
I also think that people understand that the content produced for content marketing purposes is (or should be) different from straight-ahead marketing or sales enablement collateral.
Does content marketing fit into a general marketing communications mix? Of course. Does content marketing have a relationship with PR, for example? Sure.
Is it indistinguishable from advertising or promotional materials? I believe it can be distinguished from those things.
Is the phrase “content marketing” utterly without meaning? I don’t see how a reasonable person could say that.