Clear as mud: content marketing in a nutshell…for my sister

“Hey, I read your blog today,” my sister said to me one day.

Stunned silence. I’ve got to admit, I was a little confused. I didn’t think anyone read my blog. I needed to clarify.

“What do you mean?” I finally asked, my in-depth investigative reporting techniques coming to the fore.

“I mean I read your blog today,” she said.

That definitely clarified things.

“What did you think?” I asked.

“It was good,” she said, as a sort-of cloudy look came across her face – the look that I took to mean, “I don’t get it – this whole content marketing thing. It’s about as clear as mud.”

And I realized that I hadn’t made the case, so to speak, for what content marketing is and why it’s a valuable marketing approach. So here, for my sister, and anyone else reading that’s still unclear about what content marketing is and why it’s valuable, is content marketing in a nutshell.

Let’s start with the environment in which we all live (and buy) in, and consider these facts:

  • some claim that the average person is exposed to more than 5,000 brand messages a day, either through print, digital, audio, or video. At this point, we’ve all become masters of filtering out ads – most of us don’t even see them anymore
  • Google search is quickly becoming the number one tool people use to solve their problems, whether the problem is finding a great restaurant, figuring out how to waste five spare minutes in an entertaining way, or learning about the different options you can have in a new car
  • “consumers” have so many products to choose from, and there’s so much messaging around them by sellers, that they’re getting burned out hearing about your product – they don’t care. What they care about is solving the problem they currently have, whether it’s an eating problem, a boredom problem, or a transportation problem

So, what these stats point to is a consumer tired of “interruption advertising” and being sold to AND who increasingly is using online means to solve their problems. How is a selling organization supposed to behave in order to align with cultural norms yet still sell stuff?

That’s where content marketing comes in to play. Content marketing is a very customer-centric approach to marketing where the customers/prospects and their problems are the centre of everything – not the organization’s products or services – and solving those problems becomes the raison d’etre of the selling organization. As a result, the selling organization doesn’t promote itself or its products, it stays focused on trying to help customers/prospects fix their problems. If done well, this will create a positive feeling in the customer’s/prospect’s mind towards the brand offering the valuable information. As well, by offering this valuable problem-solving information on a regular basis, it also keeps the brand top of mind so that when the customer/prospect is ready to buy a solution to their problem, the positively-associated, top of mind brand is automatically included in the consideration set.

As an example, think about one of the most successful brands using content marketing – Red Bull. Red Bull, for those living in a cave for the past 10 years, is an energy drink and focuses much of its marketing efforts on developing and distributing awesome videos (as in, videos that create a feeling of awe) about extreme sports. None of them mention the drink or the benefits of the drink – the leave that to other forms of marketing (like advertising). Red Bull’s content (in this case videos) is intended to create a strong and positive association between extreme athletics, a feeling of awe, and its brand so that when someone is considering buying an energy drink, they remember Red Bull’s videos and the feelings they inspired, and are inspired themselves to buy the drink over the competitors.

Or consider a small consulting business that’s trying to grow. Using the principles of content marketing, they identify a common problem in their target market that that have the capability to solve, and invite some of their clients, prospects, and subject matter experts to discuss the issue at no cost to the participants – they don’t present their products or services but only act as a normal participant. The group has a productive and engaging half day, during which someone from the consulting firm has been taking notes about what was said. The note taker later reviews the notes and packages up the most valuable points into a whitepaper that is given to the participants for free, as well as to other clients and prospects. In this way, the consulting firm has gathered valuable information that addresses a commonly shared problem and provides it to their target market at no cost. The recipients, having gained valuable knowledge, start to develop a positive association with the consulting firm, and if this process is regularly repeated, the consulting firm stays top of mind as a potential solution for the discussed problem as well as other related problems. When a prospect or existing client organization has a problem that the consulting firm has positioned itself as being able to help fix, the consulting firm gets included in the consideration set for purchase, which represents potential business that may never have presented itself without content marketing.

This same approach can be used by any company regardless of size or market to sell any product or service, regardless of B2B or B2C. There are, of course, nuances to it that vary by all these factors, but as an approach, it works equally well for all organizations.

And that, in a nutshell, is what content marketing is all about and why it’s a valuable approach.

Clear as mud, sis?

Thought leadership vs. content marketing – a difference of value(s)

Many people believe the terms “thought leadership” and “content marketing” are the same, so let me put that misunderstanding to rest right here: they’re not and it’s valuable for you to know why it’s valuable for you to know.

First, some broad definitions. Contenting marketing is a more generalized term that includes within its toolkit content approaches that not only inform, educate, and/or solve problems, but those that entertain or generally engage. Almost any form of content (as long as it’s not self-promotional or focused on the company or its products) fits this definition and it offers a flexibility in authorship that opens the door to curation and aggregation – think Red Bull and its extreme videos that engage/entertain or Amex’s Open Forum  that aggregates content to inform and educate.

Thought leadership, on the other hand, if taken literally, suggests content designed to demonstrate the leading edge thinking, capabilities, or expertise of the publisher. Red Bull’s stunning videos don’t fit that definition since they don’t create a clear connection for the audience about the benefits of buying Red Bull.  Even Amex’s Open Forum may not fit, since the content does not demonstrate Amex’s capabilities but rather the capabilities of its third-party authors. That’s not to say there’s not a positive halo-effect Amex may get from associating itself with these authors, but Amex technically can’t claim expertise in the area of helping businesses grow because the content doesn’t originate with them.

Now here’s why it’s important for you to understand this distinction. As you’re developing your content strategy, you need to think about what your goals are and what type of value you’re trying to create for your market. The answers to those questions will inform the guardrails of your strategy and help define, and manage internal expectations around, what you can and cannot do from a content perspective. A content marketing approach gives you full flexibility to pretty much publish whatever content you want (see proviso above) – it doesn’t have to be educational or solve an explicit problem, it can be purely entertaining. If that’s a better fit for your brand, as it is for Red Bull, then great. At the same time, even if you want to solve an explicit problem, the content you publish doesn’t have to originate within your organization (as with Amex) – at an almost philosophical level, providing value to your audience is the end goal, regardless of who it originates with, and this allows for the additional tools of curation and aggregation to be used.

A pure thought leadership approach, on the other hand, suggests that the content you produce must, in some way shape or form, infer an expertise or capability of your company that is deemed valuable by your audience. HSBC’s Global Connections site is a good example because the nature of its content infers the expertise HSBC has at doing business globally. As such, the content (arguably) must also originate within your company in order for it to reap the full benefits of the content’s value to the audience (this has implications for publishing survey results – without value-added commentary demonstrating your company’s expertise, the resutls wouldn’t technically be considered thought leadership since they don’t originate within your company). Third-party curated or aggregated content doesn’t generally meet that objective either, nor would purely entertaining or engaging content that doesn’t have a clear tie back to the organization’s capabilities.

Ultimately, the difference between content marketing and thought leadership comes down to your choices about how you want to provide value to your audience and about managing internal expectations about your organization’s goals (education, engagement, etc.), and the tools it can use to achieve those goals.