Perhaps nothing in marketing has generated more buzz over the last few years than content marketing. It’s been all the rage and the great majority of companies and agencies have jumped on the bandwagon with gusto. But how do they define content marketing?

Will the Real Content Marketing Please Stand Up?

Content marketing defined

The Content Marketing Institute defines content marketing as “a marketing technique of creating and distributing relevant and valuable content to attract, acquire, and engage a clearly defined and understood target audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action.” So it’s critical to understand that content marketing is, at the end of the day, all about the customer and at the same time, all about driving profit through attracting and retaining customers using helpful content. And that’s where the marketing comes in.

Common misconceptions abound

Content marketing isn’t a tactic; it’s more than a strategy and it’s not an entirely new concept—but it does represent a fundamental shift in how companies market to their audience. Rather than the traditional company-centric approach, content marketing is all about the customer, placing their needs and interests ahead of promoting a product or service.

But along with any “new” buzzword, misconceptions persist and the term takes on different meanings depending on whom you talk to. For SEO firms, it’s all about increasing search rankings and driving web traffic. For public relations companies, it’s simply another form of “storytelling” and brand communications. For content strategists, it’s creating content for content’s sake without having a real strategy in place. And for some, it’s just a fancy new word for marketing as usual.

Here are a few thoughts on some of the most common misconceptions:

Content marketing is not an aimless tactic

Endless (and pointless) debates surround the topic of content strategy versus content marketing, and most recently, context marketing versus content marketing. But any company practicing content marketing in the true sense of the term should have strategy and context at the center. Content marketing involves so much more than just crafting the right message and publishing it in the right format. It starts with strategy: defining personas, mapping content to the stages of the customer life cycle and then promoting through the proper channels at the right time using the right formats. Simply put, there is no content marketing without strategy and context — only content.

Content marketing is not the new SEO

Perhaps the most common misconception about content marketing is that it’s synonymous with SEO. Yes it’s true that Google’s latest algorithms place an enormous emphasis on rewarding publishers of high quality and relevant content. And yes, with Google’s never-ending quest to close loopholes in their algorithms that unintentionally reward those who try to game the system and gain higher rankings based more on savvy and less on merit, SEO has had to evolve. Content marketing done right can and will increase search rankings and drive web traffic, but that’s not the goal and purpose. SEO is simply a means, not an end.

Content marketing is not PR

Some practitioners argue that content marketing is the new PR, with brands becoming publishers in today’s digital landscape. But while there is overlap, content marketing and PR are not the same. Both disciplines are concerned with communications between organizations and their audiences, but while PR is often aimed at building awareness and goodwill, the ultimate goal of content marketing is to generate leads and increase sales.

Content marketing is a marketing strategy aimed at reaching a target audience throughout the various stages of the customer lifecycle, with a goal of customer acquisition and retention. For content marketing to move the needle, it needs to be closely aligned with a company’s sales and business development efforts and should play a significant role in both demand and lead generation.

Content marketing is not just a fancy new term for creating content

It’s true; companies have been creating content to market their businesses for centuries. But the difference is that most content has been entirely promotional and focused on the company’s own products, services, accolades, features and benefits—not the customer or the information in which they are most interested.

Consumers are not looking for a sales pitch and content marketing doesn’t give them one. Instead of selling, it shares insight, answers questions, solves challenges, educates and entertains. It provides information that prospects will not only find valuable, but also relevant to what they are searching for online. And this represents a fundamental shift in thinking for many marketers and companies accustomed to selling at every touch point.

Content marketing is not a “get rich quick” scheme

Anyone who jumps on the content marketing bandwagon and expects to see immediate, overnight results is likely to be disappointed. Yes, content marketing is a powerful component of demand and lead generation and does drive results. But content marketing is best viewed as a marathon, not a sprint. It’s not a quick fix to boost sales in the short term or something that you can just jump into and out of and expect to get any real return. It takes time, strategy, planning, hard work, patience and commitment.

Content marketing can and should be an invaluable component of your company’s marketing program. But it’s important to understand what it is and what it isn’t, and then identify how it fits into your company’s overall marketing plan.