What is Content Marketing?

Content marketing is a hot new term in the world of marketing. And, as it is when anything new and potentially revolutionary comes along, confusion and fear about this new 12-headed-beast run rampant. I’ve heard some bewildering arguments against content marketing that were based on little more than fear and some yeah-well-my-second-cousin-the-web-geek-told-me-that-xyz reactionary belligerence.

One rumor going around is that content marketing is a daring new marketing strategy wherein you give away everything you create for free and cross your fingers hoping for pity sales from your audience. I’ve also heard that content marketing is an exhausting strategy wherein a company must blog, video, and tweet about every single thing that happens every day. And, finally, I’ve read that in order for content marketing to be effective, companies must hire an army of expensive web geeks, IT nerds, blogging “divas,” and social media “gurus”—and that therefore, it isn’t worth it.

None of this is true. Content marketing is effective, proven, and scalable according to your resources. Here’s how I define content marketing:

Content Marketing is a term used to describe any marketing strategy wherein some form of content—an article, video, story, cartoon, interview, etc.—is created and shared publicly in order to prompt the positive interaction of an interested and willing audience with that shared content. The foundational idea of content marketing is that the free sharing of content with a targeted audience offers value to the individual recipients in that audience (in some way) and therefore that audience will reward the content’s creator with word-of-mouth promotion, brand awareness, loyalty, and sales.

Interruption vs. Discovery

Traditional advertising employs the interruption-mode of marketing. Interruption marketing is based on the idea that an advertisement must pull a person away from what it is he or she is currently doing in order to make its pitch—and that the most effective advertisements are the ones that can most successfully derail a person away from his or her intended path. Television advertisements interrupt your favorite shows, radio advertisements bark at you in between your favorite songs, newspapers strategically place ads for furniture amid your daily report on the state of the world, and magazines double their own weight by stuffing their pages full of pretty products on pretty people. Even Google’s deceptively-clean-looking search results pages are designed to pull you away from what it is you’re looking for, and into the web sites of the advertisers.

For too many years advertisements have been distracting us from the paths of our natural curiosity. Even the content itself has been reconstructed to make the advertisements more effective—television shows are written to create cliff-hanger scenarios every 12.75 minutes; the first half of magazines are crammed with gorgeous article openers and gorgeous ads with gorgeous people—the actual article is pushed to the back pages; radio announcers are constantly touting the amazing songs you’ll hear…just after this break!

Our attentions are bombarded. Our curiosities are diverted. Our interests are manipulated. And, for the sake of our own sanity, it has got to stop. Luckily, it can.

Content marketing is an alternative way to encourage attention that promotes content discovery—not content interruption. Humans are naturally curious. We’re born into this world with the desire to explore, grow, learn, and laugh. If given the freedom and left to our own will, we would all follow the path laid down by our own curiosities. While traveling along that path each of us would naturally—and at our own pace—discover new ideas, innovators, friends, and tools. Content marketing aims to help people along their own path of curiosity by providing valuable information in the places where those people would seek it out.

Imagine you’re a budding chef pursuing your interest for cooking. In pursuing your interest, you came across a web video series from one of the top chefs in the world. You find the chef’s lessons and teaching style to be the best available. Your interest is piqued, your enthusiasm is strong, and you want more. Luckily, the chef has also written a book, produced a set of DVDs, and even offers a subscription-based newsletter with additional instruction. You go all in—books, DVDs, and newsletter. And, in your excitement about your new discovery, you even tell a few of your budding-chef buddies.

This is content marketing. It sells products through natural discovery, not interruption, of an audience—and therefore, the audience is more receptive, and therefore, it is more effective.

The Rise of Content Marketing

There are many reasons content marketing has exploded in popularity over the last few years. The first, and most bitter, argument I can make is that traditional advertisements are horrible. They’re too loud and too flashy. They detract from our user experience of our chosen medium and distract us from the intended recipients of our attention. As a result, we, as a culture, have invented and sought out ways to block, skip, and silence advertisers. Some of the most popular services and technologies of the day have become so by providing information or entertainment while helping people avoid advertisers: Netflix, TiVo, Zite, NPR, Twitter, etc.

Content marketing is also gaining steam due to the meteoric rise of content-sharing tools and services. You know their names: Facebook, Google+, Twitter, LinkedIn, Vimeo, YouTube, Pinterest, FourSquare, Tumblr, WordPress, Meebo, and Bloopt cannot exist without content. (Yes. I made up Bloopt.) Luckily, the rise of content-creation devices has kept pace: iPhone, iPad, Android, GoPro, Flip, QuikPod, CyberShot, etc. It is now as easy to create content as it is to share content with the world.

And the final, and least cynical, argument I can make for the rise of content marketing is that people want to believe in something again. We know we’re being manipulated, and we’re rejecting it. We’ve come through a deeply-cynical and profit-driven era of robotic customer service and disappointing corporate-customer interactions. We are beaten and battle-weary. We’re looking—in a sea of faceless box stores with weary hourly employees reciting scripts handed down from overpaid executives—for companies, organizations, and real people we can meet, trust to try to do the right thing, and hold accountable. Content marketing levels the playing field and rips down ivory towers. It opens channels for honest two-way communication between company and customer, and it is therefore a welcome reprieve from our raging against untouchable CEOs.

The Goals of Content Marketing

The first goal of any marketing campaign is to increase sales. Content marketing is no different—at least over the long-term. (We all need to stay in business and we all need to feed our families.) Content marketing’s effectiveness is boosted, however, if the campaign’s initial goal is not sales. This is a long-term community-building and content discovery strategy, and therefore, the primary goal at the outset of any content marketing campaign should be to use your valuable content to find and attract a community of people interested in your topic. Once this community is established, your goal will shift from building the community to meaningful interaction with the community, and then to promotion, and then—as a result—sales will follow.

Content marketing is stunningly effective at finding or creating an audience of ideal customers. It is designed to provide them with proof of the high-quality of your content, establish your expertise, energize your audience members, and make them not only into loyal customers, but advocates for your company.

Why Content Marketing is Perfect for Content Creators

Nowhere else is content marketing so ripe with possibility than within the content-producing industries of book publishing, magazine publishing, self-publishing, cartooning, photography, painting, and so on. Content marketing is an effective strategy in any industry—as every industry creates some form of valuable content—but in the industries where content creation is part of the daily routine, content marketing is much easier. Here are a few reasons why:

1. The tools and processes needed to create compelling content are already in place.

2. The content used in the marketing campaigns IS the product being sold. A shoe company can use essays to sell shoes, but it’s much easier to use quality essays to sell quality essays—as a paperback, PDF, eBook, app, blog, etc. If people find value in what is it you’re offering, they’ll buy more.

3. Most content can be sold digitally—allowing for instant sales. Selling is more effective when a person has the ability purchase an item in the exact moment he has been convinced it’s valuable. The informational nature of books, magazines, photos, and the rest makes these products naturally-suited for instant purchase online. This eliminates the hurdle present in any industry that requires the shipment of a physical item. Content producers also have the luxury of infinite reproduction.

The Fear of Free

The last obstacle I encounter when teaching content-producing companies how to use content marketing is the fear of free. This fear of releasing high-quality content out into the winds of the Internet without any fee or restrictions is perfectly understandable. This content has been curated from its inception. It is expensive and it is valuable. Thankfully, content marketing does not require the release of all of your content.

Content marketing isn’t about “free.” It exists as a better way to introduce people to paid products. It’s about placing some of the high-quality content you’ve created into the streams in which people are looking for this information—so that they can sample it, share it, and buy more.

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