Content marketing means many things to many people. How we’re asking the wrong questions.

A few years ago I wrote a piece on the commoditization of content (marketing) in a social jungle. In 2012 I took it a step further with a blog post on the ‘big content marketing fail’. I was pleasantly surprised to see that many people using content for marketing purposes (as I do) wrote similar posts taking a critical look at the evolutions in content marketing.

I like these attempts to ‘look beyond the obvious’. It forces us to ask the right questions. Of course, all these opinions and posts haven’t changed the world. There is too much noise for that. Many people still use content marketing without a clear purpose or just for the sake of it, usually influenced by someone who says that without content marketing you’re nothing. The same phenomenon happened and still happens in social media (marketing) and other domains of marketing and business.

The role of content and social media: everyone is right (and no one is)

umbrellaIt’s hard to believe there are still so many views on the role of content and social media for marketing and business purposes. It’s about PR, reputation and social capital. No, no, it’s about sales and lead generation. OK, but what about engagement and conversations? Hey, did anyone look at customer service? Social sharing, inbound traffic, branding, the customer experience,…

Same thing in content marketing: it’s about storytelling. Oh, no, it’s about giving buyers the information they’re looking for. Yeah, but what about traffic, links and SEO, we need traffic, right? And isn’t social often about traffic too? Well, if it wasn’t, then why would we share all the time? Just because we’re so empathic and caring? I don’t think so. Did I mention sales enablement yet? Branding? Retention?

Why this confusion? Who is right and who is wrong? The easy answer: everyone is right. The whole fight over what exactly is the role of content and social media for marketing and business goals has nothing to do with what you – and your colleagues, customers, connections and networks – can actually achieve with content and social.

Content marketing beyond the umbrella

It has a lot to do with the fact that both content marketing and social media marketing (and many other “forms” of marketing and even of business) are umbrella terms that by definition can be used for a broad variety of goals. And the big debates simply happen because many different people with many different backgrounds, experiences and roles are active in those very broadly defined fields (and now and then because it serves other, hidden, goals). umbrella cocktailUmbrellas are meaningless without the context: rain and the people carrying them to stay dry. Protecting from the rain is your business challenge and marketing goal, the people under the umbrellas are you and your customers/workers. But at least everyone knows what an umbrella is, which can’t be said about umbrella terms as they are not tangible realities. On top of that, some people in some countries carry umbrellas to protect themselves from the sun or just look nice. Those are other goals. And, guess what: umbrellas come in all colors and shapes too because everyone has different preferences and tastes. Did we talk about those very small umbrellas we use to make our cocktails look better yet? I hope you understand the little analogy. I guess even umbrellas can mean many things too, imagine umbrella terms.

Content is crucial in marketing and in digital and human interaction in the broadest possible sense.

I don’t know who ‘coined’ the term social media marketing nor do I care knowing. I know who coined the term ‘content marketing’ however: Joe Pulizzi. When we first met, after an interview early 2010 and at a round table I organized later that year where it became clear Joe had similar views (and which would result in my helping with the launch of the European version of Chief Content officer magazine), Joe explained how he “saw” content marketing. It was not the same as it has evolved into what we see happening now.

Joe also told the story of the term ‘content marketing’ as such and how at the time he was trying it out along with many others to give a name to what was undervalued for so long. And everyone who was long enough in the business knew it: a systematic and consistent use of bloody relevant content for customers, prospects, workers, partners and everyone in the business ecosystem, in a digital context starting with decent content on websites so visitors at least didn’t have to waste days to find what they were looking for. Content marketing turned out to be the most popular term (it could have been something like customer publishing as well) so that’s what it was going to be. Why do I mention this small story? Because we’re far away from what content marketing was supposed to mean and since virtually everyone started using it for their own benefit and siloed activities instead of in an integrated context as it was meant.

Oh, and did I say Joe in those days mainly saw content marketing as a B2B thing? The term became so popular however that it has gone far beyond viral and gradually lost significance. Content marketing, as we see it, hasn’t though. It’s understandable that the content marketing cash cow needs to be milked. After all, HubSpot did the same by capturing a piece of the evolving marketing evolutions and calling it inbound marketing. That’s normal, it’s marketing and it’s what you get when you work hard to capture a reality, think about it, write about it and advocate it. Besides, those terms have a certain meaning but then again, they make us lose focus over and over again.

Content marketing: who’s involved?

So, let’s take a look at content marketing and the same silo effects we always see happening just because they are there, whatever form of marketing or business we talk about. Who is using content for marketing and business purposes? And who has always been using it? A few examples:

  • Demand generation and sales people.
  • Conversion optimization experts.
  • Brand marketers.
  • Campaign builders.
  • Bloggers.
  • PR people.
  • The website folks.
  • Social media teams.
  • Custom publishers.
  • Community marketers and managers.
  • Support & service crews.
  • Community & relationship marketers.
  • Product marketers.
  • Email marketers.
  • Social business practitioners.
  • Copywriters and content producers.
  • Search engine experts.
  • Sales people.
  • Advertising folks (yes, even the IAB started joining the debate with this reinvention of the wheel, called native advertising).

The list goes on. Content is crucial in marketing and in digital and human interaction in the broadest possible sense. Content plays a role in the work of all these people as far as it improves what they do – and thus to which degree the goal is achieved. You need manuals to support customers. You need brochures to inform prospects. You need papers, eBooks and other content (be original please) for each important touchpoint. But you also need good content to turn visitors into customers. You need it as a social object in social media. And you need a good narrative and storytelling (not the same as telling stories) for branding. Without a decent content plan, marketing automation is doomed to fail. Finally, without some good personalized content, there is not much to email or tweet, is there? Furthermore, content marketing is not just about online nor about media. It requires focus and prioritization. Too many businesses create content to “attract” while their websites don’t even offer the essential content they need. Using content for various business purposes is not new. Looking at it from an integrated perspective is. And debating about it, among marketers, seems popular too.

The problem? Navel gazers and silos

The problem is that most of these different people don’t speak the same language and don’t understand each other. Someone who is specialized in direct response marketing or website optimization is not per se a branding expert or good at community marketing. And, in case you doubt, branding still matters a lot, even if it’s mainly about experiences and perception.

Many of the similar fights and debates in the area of social media marketing can be brought back to the same – human – challenges. Bloggers with a PR or media background are no sales experts. Customer service people don’t necessarily understand what the branding impact of a good ongoing story via a mix of social and other channels can be. And setting up loyalty programs is entirely different from acquisition campaigns.

So, again, who is right? Everyone. Except if they start defending “their” views on the role of social media or content in marketing because of their backgrounds and personal context (industry, expertise, prior experiences, etc.) instead of their goals.

Who else is wrong? Everyone having an opinion about the role of social or content as it is approached from the perspective of the “other side”, a side he or she doesn’t know. The navel gazers that can’t get out of their specific niche activity. You can’t expect everyone to be a generalist-specialist. But you can respect the expertise of the ‘other’. If you don’t know branding or PR, don’t say social is just good for sales. If you have no experience in demand generation or sales, don’t say social is just good for brand- and relationship-focused goals. You can find a gazillion more examples yourself.

Asking the questions that matter

The really sad thing? The ongoing debates show that there are still way too many silos standing in the way of a collaborative, customer-centric and properly planned and integrated approach. That’s really sad. The navel-gazing and lack of focus on overall goals, taking into account what can be achieved by a mix of efforts revolving around the customer and purpose instead of the own island of expertise and division.

The value of content and social nor their role are defined by what you do for a living or in which department you sit.

We know we have to move away from a channel-centric perspective to a customer-centric one, we know that for ages. But isn’t it about time we also move away from heralding the virtues of what de facto are umbrella terms such as content marketing and social media marketing? Isn’t it time we stop asking questions about what their value is in very general terms? Isn’t it time that we realize that content marketing, social media marketing, email marketing, branding etc. all overlap so much that in the end for many business goals they are just about achieving a marketing/business goal USING content and social etc. instead of deploying a specific form of marketing and putting it into a silo we created by focusing on the terms in the first place?

To be honest, I don’t care about content marketing (even if we launched a blog on the topic and on content and information management in general). I care about good marketing and it goes without saying that content more often than not plays a crucial role in it. It also goes without saying that good marketing revolves around the customer and is by default connect and integrated. How obvious is that? So, let’s focus on marketing goals instead of on evolutions regarding terms that mean different things to different people. Yes, let’s focus on good marketing. On integrated marketing and the customer experience. On business. Obviously, we keep using those terms as they are ‘popular’ and promoted by people who make lots of money by hyping them (I have nothing against making money).

The truth, however, is that we can’t talk about the benefits of this or that “form” of marketing in general ways. The questions that really matter are business questions and customer-oriented questions.How can I improve retention in this or that business line in this or that region and how can I possibly use content, social media, email and whatnot to make it happen?” Those are the questions to solve in a so-called content marketing strategy. Not “what are the benefits of content marketing”. The term is too vague as it is used now , the reality behind it is too diverse and the business goals and companies using “it” (assuming “it” means the same thing for everyone, which it doesn’t) all have their very individual context, challenges and ecosystems where there is no ‘best practice’ answer.

Smart decisions are easy

The value of content and social nor their role are defined by what you do for a living or in which department you sit. It’s defined by 1) goals, 2) ‘target group’ and 3) results. So, use content and social where it makes sense. And don’t use it when it doesn’t make sense and is just done for the sake of it.

A recent flagrant example I saw was the launch of a website/blog filled with tips on healthy eating by a local yoghurt brand. They even mentioned it in their TV ad. Nice, I bet many people will look for healthy eating advice there, especially as there is just content and nothing more. It’s just another useless ‘content platform’ that serves no purpose, isn’t updated, follows the pure campaign mentality and has been oversold by an agency saying how cool content marketing is. I’m sure it will sell lots of yoghurt.  How hard is it to make a smart decision?

Purpose, customer focus and common sense, that’s all it takes, whatever umbrella term is concerned.