Content marketing lessons for the present from the past


“Content is king”. Now content marketing is being embraced by virtually every marketer, it’s an (old) adage that pops up on the Web every single day. Some use it to say content has become king in nearly everything we do. Others use it to say not content is king but something else is; for instance, context. And some use it to spread the word about content marketing.

Where does that “content is king” adagio come from, even if we can drop it? Well, there is a historic context and you’ll notice history can teach us very relevant content marketing strategy lessons as I tried to summarize some in this blog. And wasn’t that why history matters to begin with? To learn from that past?

Online content is king: the portal way

Bill Gates was the first to use the saying ‘content is king’ online in a 1996 article. Using the WayBack Machine (an online site that is an archive of the Web), you can still read that article by Gates, called ‘Content is King‘.

In it, Gates said content is where he expected the real money would be made on the Internet. Part of the article could certainly be used in a content marketing context. Most is about the monetization of content on the Web, however. Interesting phrase: ‘those who succeed will propel the Internet forward as a marketplace of ideas, experiences, and products-a marketplace of content‘. Note the word experiences and think customer experience.

You should know that in those days portals, such as Microsoft’s MSN, became “hot”. It’s not a coincidence that Gates wrote the article in 1996 and that MSN, originally known as The Microsoft Network, was launched in 1995 along with Windows 95.

The evolution of MSN
The evolution of MSN

Gates didn’t want to teach anyone on the importance of content marketing, he was not really trying to predict the future, he was also selling.

In the beginning MSN was a website, linking to various Microsoft services that were becoming available online. Later more links and content were added and this continued, always with links to Microsoft products/services, ever more content partners and since the beginning with personalization possibilities. The site, however, looked busier and busier each year with some topical structuring after 2005. In the image above: MSN end 1996 (left), mid 1999 (middle) and mid 2007 (right).

Literally hundreds of local and global portal sites where striking deals with small and sometimes big content ‘producers’ and online publishers/media to become one-stop-destinations for the Internet user. They were sometimes initiated by companies such as Microsoft, sometimes as private and stand-alone initiatives and often by ISP’s (Internet Service Providers). I think no telco offering Internet services in those days, didn’t have a portal at some time. I know as I was once one of the many content ‘producers’ and publishers that worked with MSN but I also worked with and a while for several portals by ISPs who were eager for content and also for a few private ones, essentially selling them content (and in one case doing community management). Finally, for a few years I was involved with MSN, not the portal, the advertising community.

Content is king as an online advertising adagio

The reason why all those companies started looking more at content and portals: they wanted to capitalize on the traffic and customers they had through content and by becoming big online media that could serve online ads, thus getting Madison Street budgets.

That’s also where the IAB (Interactive Advertising Bureau) found its’ roots and is still a lot about today: getting advertisers and the different intermediaries such as media agencies, ad agencies and of course advertisers to spend more on online media, whereby portals were the big favorites and smaller online publishers, including yours truly, could make some money by working with portals (and because they didn’t really have too much choice in many cases) or on themselves.

It’s not a coincidence the IAB was launched in…1996 as well and that still today the IAB primarily defends the interests of its traditional ecosystem and quickly jumps on new phenomena, trying to use them for online advertising budgets and campaigns. Indeed, make no mistake: the IAB – and they won’t deny it – is still mainly an online advertising lobby group with a strong campaign focus and in this online world also acting as a voice of Madison Street. Look at what they focus on most in social media: advertising, one of the reasons why many brands now say ‘social media doesn’t work’.

Everyone who looked at social media in a more customer-centric, integrated and behavioral context, knew that online ads as they were used in social networks such as Facebook wouldn’t work too well because the usage context of those networks demanded non-traditional approaches. Yes, ads can work well on social networks and media. No, they don’t work too well if they don’t take into account the usage context and are approached from the classic online ad viewpoint as they still too often are.

The same thing is happening in content marketing by the way. The IAB was relatively fast – depending on your viewpoint – to look at native advertising, one of those term we often see in content marketing anno 2013. Recently, the association announced a native advertising workforce.

While some call native advertising content marketing, I don’t. It’s advertising. And, by the way, you increasingly see people misinforming readers about content marketing as they define it as advertising. Just look at the reasoning in some recent articles, based on definitions ignoring the historic reality of content marketing, that lead to wrong perceptions. Content marketing is not advertising and never claimed to be that. It’s also not just about promoting a brand. Advertising using lots of content is still advertising just as PR using lots of content is still PR.

Content is king the Google way

Back to the portals. The one-stop-portal efforts were well-intended and for many even made sense. Portals got advertising budgets but the model was hard to maintain and monetize. The focus on content, services, links, directories and whatnot made some giants utterly fail because they forgot the essence.

This even contributed to the success of Google, launched two years after Gates his article. Google is the search engine that never tried to become a portal. What happened next is probably known by younger readers too: Google de facto became a synonym for search and for a while (and for many less experiences Internet users) even became a synonym for the Web, essentially until social media popped up and started booming.

In the evolution of the Google homepage we see (except for the first 3-4 months) that eternal attempt to focus on ease-of-use and user goals. When new tabs got added they quickly dissapeared from the center of the page again to move to the top main navigation of the page as very simple links.

Evolution of the Google homepage
Evolution of the Google homepage (screenshots 1999, 2005 and 2010)

It’s the exact opposite of what portals such as Yahoo and MSN did as you could see in the MSN screenshot. The search engine didn’t succeed by aggregating and offering as much content as possibly…possible. It didn’t think about online display ads yet, it didn’t offer rich home pages, fancy looking images and videos, news, portal features, messaging (yet) and so much more when Google just started.

With its nearly ridiculously simple interface Google focused on helping people finding content. Nothing more, nothing less. Offering a gateaway to answers and help is the very lifeblood of search engines but also the essence of most content marketing strategies that are built with a continuous, customer-centric, connected and consistent approach in mind. This doesn’t mean other aspects such as branding or spreading information for other reasons isn’t important as well. However, relevance starts with contextual and relational usefulness, whereby the context is defined by the target audiences, brand, business goals and so much more contextual elements, up until the personal level. For the less young readers: in that sense Google de facto seemed to turn the clock back to the days where for many of us the World Wide Web looked like the ‘old’ AltaVista (in fact, it looked even simpler as the WayBackMachine screenshot from 1996 below shows). And in a sense it’s ironic Google is now eating most of the online advertising budgets.

AltaVista in 1996
AltaVista in 1996

Content marketing lessons to remember

Are there any content marketing lessons to be learned here? There sure are.

Content marketing lessons on content-centricity

Lesson number one: it’s not because you have power and build it, that ‘they’ come. The success of Google, on top of the search engine itself, was a lot about Internet users expressing their preference for ease-of-use, focus and ‘people-centric’ design over cluttered pages that distracted them from fulfilling their main goals at a specific point in time, in this case: searching for relevant information. Relevance was (and is) the keyword.

While the portal model seemed attractive (and was expensive) and while Gates – and many others – wanted to push content and convince partners to work with them for portals, truth is that 1) experienced Internet users simply didn’t want to be forced (depending on their operating system or ISP, for instance) to go to a one-stop-content-and-services environment and 2) the portal model was too easy to replicate (if you had the money or were smarter than the other one).

Think about that in today’s content marketing context and ask yourself if that nifty newsroom model with RSS feeds, curated content and personalized content from various sources, including social interaction, mobile stuff and all kinds of nifty apps, whistles and bells, which you may be building is really worth the big bucks. Do your customers/audiences want it? If they say “sure, we want it”, are you sure their answers correspond with what they’ll actually do and will do once it’s there? Do you know the ROI? Are you sure it won’t be provided by seventeen competitors before it’s even live? Do you have the resources to focus on what really matters in such branded content models and branded communities relying heavily on content, such as…community, relationship building and in the end driving business? Do you add so many features and content to your so-called ‘content marketing projects’, people will run away from it and go to where they can find what they want more easily like they did with Google?

Do you have a common-sense and no-nonsense content strategy? It’s just one example really but be real before using any nifty new content marketing whatever. There’s nothing wrong with content curation and newsrooms and whatnot but if you use it in the wrong context for the wrong reasons and wrong audiences you’re dead.

Content marketing lessons on context and a holistic approach

Another content marketing lesson based on my small historic overview: of course, content wasn’t really king and it isn’t today either.

It’s important and always has been but there are many more ‘kings’ (and in the end it doesn’t even matter what we call king or not). What Google, for instance, showed is that convenience, context, the preferences of Internet users and the purpose of the ‘user’ as we called him back then is far more important than the content/services businesses think they should offer. It also showed who was really in control over the ‘experience’. If you look at more “recent” phenomena such as Twitter, Pinterest or Instagram you’ll see that even today big media/brands are not in control over the online behavior of people in the end. This doesn’t mean they can’t influence it, on the contrary.

What people also showed is that they use the channels they want. In other words: the online journey of information gathering, seeking fun or finding pre-buying information or online support has always been multi-channel, contextual and customer-driven. And so is REAL content marketing.

Real content marketing is an ongoing, consistent, continuous and integrated approach. In that sense, it’s sad to see so many marketers still working in silos. Of course, you need specialisms and of course content is becoming more important in various forms of marketing (and always has been important) but maybe it now is clear why I’ve always been a strong defender of an integrated and holistic marketing view: because nothing is disconnected and people use whatever they want to use. It’s also why I sometimes rant about the overusage of the word content marketing. It’s not the new this or that. Content marketing cannot be everything to everyone starting to finally see the CUSTOMER and BUSINESS value of content.

If your business focuses too much on the new shiny thing or just one aspect of the customer and Internet user journey, you miss out on important opportunities and realities. You need a holistic view that overlaps everything, you need good generalists and if you have specialist-generalists on top of your specialists you can really start adapting to the customer reality.

Content marketing is content marketing and nothing else

This is where the final lesson from the described historic evolutions, especially regarding search engine marketing, comes in. The adagio ‘content is king’ nowadays is often used in an SEO (Search Engine Optimization) context as since recent algorithm updates by Google, there is far more attention from search engine marketers for content marketing, leading some to even claim content marketing is the new SEO. That’s not true as 1) everyone who has paid attention knows that search engine such as Google have from the very beginning have said that the relevance of the content that shows as a result of a search query is essential and this will only continue to be so and 2) search engine optimization is about more than using content.

Furthermore, the view of the use of content in search engine marketing is often not about content marketing but about using content in SEO. Definitions matters as I already described and will continue to do in follow-up posts. And here is another reason for a more holistic approach in digital marketing: email marketers have been seeing and reporting the importance of interaction with content and the relevance of content since many years now. Among many others, Google’s own Gmail, for instance, as well as the email deliverability mechanisms of ISPs, have been determining the inbox placement of email based on the relevance of content.

Speaking the same content marketing language

As said above regarding advertising and PR: search engine marketing (and email marketing) using lots of content is still search engine marketing (and email marketing). It’s not content marketing. We need to speak a common language and be intellectually honest in this regard.

If we’re not intellectually honest and speak a different language here’s what happens: someone is asked to define an integrated approach of, let’s say social media marketing and content marketing for specific general business goals, and the proposed strategy gets killed by managers having an entirely different understanding of content marketing and social media marketing. It’s one of the reasons I recommend you not to use terms such as content marketing but to work with precise goals when making the case for the bosses/C-suite if you can. I also recommend you to look at the background of a company you consider working with for content marketing as literally thousands of search engine marketing agencies, PR firms, copywriting shops, advertising firms and whatnot are now calling themselves content marketing experts. Don’t expect them (or most of them) to connect the dots and help you build a content marketing strategy that’s integrated and customer-centric as it really should be.

If content is king, then so are…

To people that say content is king because they think content marketing is all that matters and don’t connect the customer-centric and holistic dots of channels, formats, individual contact moments (touchpoints), the business, etc., here is a list of more ‘kings’ that you shouldn’t ignore, all in hopefully easy-to-memorize C’s. It’s up to you to see what is king as in the end it’s a debate (really, it’s often a debate) that makes no sense. But then let’s at least be complete. Complete at will:

  • Context is king.
  • Customer experience is king.
  • Convenience is king.
  • Community is king.
  • Customer journey is king.
  • Cross-channel is king.
  • Customer-centricity is king.
  • Continuity is king.
  • Consideration is king.
  • Common sense is king.
  • Collaboration is king.
  • Choice is king.
  • Comprehension is king.
  • Connection is king.
  • Conversation is king.
  • Connection is king.
  • Circle of trust is king.
  • Consistency is king.
  • Contact moment is king.
  • Conversion is king.

And for marketers that want to keep their job: in the end, cash-flow is king.

Don’t agree with our definition of content marketing and how we look at it? Feel free to add your thoughts or check out more content marketing definitions.

Content is king by Bill Gates in 1996 – via WayBackMachine

Images purchased under license from Shutterstock