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For every marketing expert who touts the importance and value of content marketing, there’s another who decries it as yet another industry buzzword. For every success statistic related to the concept, there’s a case study and examples why content marketing is ultimately doomed to fail. Both sides are represented by industry thought leaders on credible sites like Forbes, so what are you to believe? It’s the eternal conundrum of content marketing, and one that by the end of this blog post, you’ll be able to solve.

What is Content Marketing?

If you’re expecting a definition of content marketing in this paragraph, we’re sorry to disappoint you. Because ultimately, the debate we mentioned in the introduction boils down to one simple question: what, exactly, is content marketing? Sure, we could go with the often-used definition from the Content Marketing Institute:

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 really, how much does that tell us? Once you boil the definition down to its individual parts, it says nothing more than “content marketing means marketing content in a way that helps sales.” It’s a logical fallacy, a circular definition.

Add to that the fact that even the most traditional “push” marketing includes some type of content, and we’ll go out on a limb to say that vague definitions like the above play a large part in the fundamental disagreement about the success or failure of content marketing.

Why Does Content Marketing Work?

And yet, companies engaging in content marketing undoubtedly are successful. Over 40 percent of them report a positive ROI, which is even more impressive considering the fact that a vague concept like content marketing can be difficult to measure.

One of the largest marketing-related businesses in the world, HubSpot, has grown to its size in large part due to content marketing, and as a result has become one of the biggest proponents of the concept. A simple Google search for “content marketing success statistics” spits out over 37 million results, all quantifying just how much content marketing can do for a business’s web visits, lead generation and ROI.

So how can these businesses say with certainty that a concept as vague as content marketing has improved their marketing? Perhaps it’s because they all implicitly go further in their definition of the concept than the one we provided above.

The “True” Content Marketing

Let’s recap what we know about the two sides on the battle for content marketing success: one believes that focusing on content can significantly help a business, while the other dismisses it as a “buzzword” that really doesn’t mean much more than “marketing,” which always includes content of some shape or form. And at this point, we believe to know just where the sides differ, and how they can come back together:

Ultimately, “content marketing” is clearly too vague of a definition to ever bring an end to the rift between marketers on both sides of the coin. That means that if we can pin down the implicit definition of content marketing used by those marketers who have successfully implemented it, we can learn about its true secret of success for application in our own strategy.

What, truly, is content marketing? We believe that it’s more than just an emphasis on content in your traditional marketing strategy. Instead, it’s an entirely new philosophy that actually has almost as much in common with public relations than traditional marketing. The idea is to put out content so good that you don’t need to spend your budget in order to distribute it to your audience: if you can make your content interesting and relevant enough, your audience can come to you.

Marketers with a PR background will find this concept familiar: it’s the idea behind media placement, writing a story about your company that’s interesting enough for newspapers to pick it up on their editorial sections. The benefit goes beyond not having to spend money on ads: as any public relations professional can tell you, the greater credibility associated with appearing in the editorial section is worth as much as the lack of budget needed.

Content marketing in the 21st century is similar, but with a focus on the digital realm instead. You may not focus on getting media placements for your brand, but you are looking to create content that is interesting and relevant for your audience to seek it out and share it among their peers.

That content can come in many forms, from webinars to blog posts and social media presences. But it all has something in common: to be truly successful (and become a part of all of those fancy success statistics), you have to focus on organic content marketing. By finding ways to weave interesting and relevant content into the digital channels that your target audience inhabits, you subtly markets your company without pushing a promotional message or spending your budget on its distribution.

Just how to do that is a subject for a different blog post. For now, the most important takeaway from this blog post is this: to solve the eternal conundrum between the success or failure of content marketing, knowing understanding its similarities with public relations that go beyond the common definitions of the concept is absolutely crucial.