It goes by many names: custom publishing, custom media, private media, branded content, brand journalism and inbound marketing to name a few. Joe Pulizzi, founder of the Content Marketing Institute, defines it this way:
"The marketing and business process for creating and distributing valuable and compelling content to attract, acquire and engage a clearly defined and understood target audience — with the objective of driving profitable customer action.” What we talk about when we talk about content marketing."
It’s no secret that we encounter marketing messages at every turn. Depending upon what study you believe, it’s between 300 and 20,000 messages per day. But the total number is irrelevant.
As Michael Brenner, Vice President of Marketing and Content Strategy at enterprise application software provider SAP, states, “As marketing tactics have become less and less effective, businesses have responded by creating more and more promotional content that no one wants, no one likes, and no one responds to.”
It stands to reason, then, that Brenner would be the last person to encourage companies to create more content, yet that’s exactly what he recommends. The key, he says, is to fill the gap between promotional content that gets ignored and useful content that addresses potential customers’ top questions and search terms.
“The only way to reach your audience in today’s information-drenched, content-saturated world is through Epic Content Marketing that emotionally connects with the people you are trying to reach,” Brenner states in his introduction to a book by the same name written by Joe Pulizzi.
Content is produced by a number of sources across a company org chart. The challenge becomes instilling this message among that wide variety of sources. It’s no longer just marketing, but also communications and public relations, sales support, customer service, product development and technical engineers.
“We have found that the biggest obstacle is in the ‘why?’ – helping our teams to understand that if we think and act like a publisher, we will create more of the content our customers are looking for. And less of the content they ignore,” Brenner says. “One of the biggest challenges in content marketing is to put the needs of our customers ahead of our own and to tell stories that connect with people.”
It’s all about connecting
When we set out to write this issue’s cover story, the mission, with apologies to Raymond Carver, was to discover what we talk about when we talk about content marketing. The answer kept coming back to connecting emotionally with customers’ challenges. In other words, stop giving them what you want and start giving them what they need.
That seems intuitive, but promoting oneself, it turns out, is a difficult thing for marketers to stop doing. Content marketing is the art of communicating with your customers and prospects without selling. It is interesting information that customers are passionate about, yet content that also accomplishes your own business goals — i.e., customer retention or, more commonly, lead generation.
It doesn’t replace sales collateral, feature and benefit marketing, and customer testimonials about why you’re so awesome. It works alongside all of that. In fact, it often opens the door for you to present all of that.
“When brands make the decision to use content (and really, social media’s already made that decision for them), they need to forget about being marketers and worry about being publishers,” states Sam Slaughter, Vice President of Content for Contently (Contently.com), a custom content provider.
In a recent guest blog for Adweek, Slaughter states, “A great story told on behalf of a brand isn’t really any different than a story told on behalf of anyone. It has a beginning, a middle and an end.
It has characters and a plot, heroes and villains. And in the end, the brands that tell consistent, compelling stories about themselves and their products are the ones who build real brand affinity and equity with their customers.”
Like Brenner, Slaughter equates content marketing to publishing. In fact, he prefers the term “brand publishing” over “content marketing.”
“The term ‘content marketing’ is so ill-defined that anyone with a keyword generator and seventh-grade English can claim to be a content creator without challenge,” he says. “In my office, we have a swear jar for anyone who uses the term ‘content marketing’ — it insinuates that the content exists to sell you a product, when in reality great content exists to tell a story.”
Like publishers, brands need to make sure that each piece of content is valuable to their customers and maps back to a greater narrative, Slaughter says. “Cutting corners here creates a cheap brand publishing, makes for a lousy story and, by extension, the perception of a brand that doesn’t care.”
There’s doing it, and then there’s doing it right
The problem isn’t that brands haven’t accepted this mission as much as it is that they have taken in on with great zeal — but in a fashion that can best be described as willy-nilly. Content marketing is going through a crisis of conscience, Slaughter says.
“As a medium, it’s come so far and so fast that it’s outstripped any guidelines or definitions — and as such risks descending into a sort of perilous non-state, where unscrupulous hucksters and bad actors take control and ruin the fun for everyone.”
Indeed, according to the 2014 B2B Content Marketing Benchmarks, Budgets and Trends-North America, a whopping 93 percent of B2B marketers say they use content marketing and 73 percent of B2B organizations have someone in place to oversee a content marketing strategy.
Yet less than half — 42 percent — say they are effective at content marketing, which is up from 36 percent in 2012. And 44 percent of B2B marketers who responded to the survey say they have a documented content strategy.
The survey was sponsored and conducted by the Content Marketing Institute, MarketingProfs and Brightcove in July and August 2013. A total of 1,217 credible respondents participated.
Converting content to sales
Clearly, companies are still figuring out their content marketing strategy. But the next evolution — or one that needs to occur sooner rather than later in order for the concept to continue to be funded — is content selling, says Kurt Anderson, Executive Vice President of Sales Enablement and Marketing at SAVO (savogroup.com), makers of sales enablement software.
Not surprisingly, companies want to see a return on their investment. Once prospects raise their hand and show an interest in a company’s content, a salesperson needs to be deployed to “put a personality” with the content.
When a content marketing strategy is working well, Anderson argues, it should provide the salesperson a much clearer picture of the prospect’s needs. That’s sales lead gold in a business environment where studies indicate that 80 percent of leads that marketing generates go unconverted and only 7 percent of all initial sales calls produce a follow-up meeting.
“Right now, we haven’t equipped the salesperson to have an effective conversation,” he says. “If I’ve got somebody who has been nurtured along because of my website, my content, and I’ve done the right stuff at the top of the funnel, that sales rep is going to do a pretty damn good job. The conversion rates for marketing will go way up. That’s the notion of content selling.”
Anderson adds, “When marketing can tell your salespeople not only who that person is, but what their business problems are, it can lead to a sales conversation that goes, ‘Mr. XYZ, I understand that you have an interest in our freight consolidation solutions. We’re seeing companies like yours do this, this and this…’ Now your prospects are saying, ‘I need to know more!’ ”
B2B marketers use an average of 13 content marketing tactics.
B2B Content Marketing Usage (by Tactic)
© Tactic usage has remained relatively consistent when compared with 2012.
© Infographics has seen the largest year-
over-year increase in usage. Last year, 38% of B2B marketers were using infographics, compared with 51% this year.
Source: 2014 B2B Content Marketing Trends—North America: Content Marketing Institute/MarketingProfs