Content marketing, alleged industry savior for publishers, advertisers and marketers alike, is going through a bit of a crisis of conscience. 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 nonstate, where unscrupulous hucksters and bad actors take control and ruin the fun for everyone.
Moreover, brand marketers are faced with a dizzying array of content marketing solutions. Where once the question was to market with content or not, the crux now is how it’s best done.
So if the most clichéd of media pronouncements is in fact true and content is truly king, then nascent and unchecked content marketing risks being labeled the joker, endlessly performing the same knock-knock gags and cat listicles to the general opprobrium of the court while beautifully crafted yet ineffective banner ad campaigns remain the coin of the realm.
What, then, to do? A set of universal standards for content marketing won’t work. One of its central problems is that the term “content” is so ill-defined that anyone with a keyword generator and seventh-grade English can claim to be a content creator without challenge.
The first step is to switch the language and change the content marketing moniker to brand publishing.
A valuable piece of brand content doesn’t exist in a vacuum, despite what some publishers would have you believe. In fact, content is an effective medium for brands because it maps back to a broader narrative—the story a brand is telling about itself.
Which is why 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.
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.
Another key learning is determining exactly what kind of content is most effective in accomplishing a brand’s goals. But wait, you say, every brand’s goals are different. After all, we can hardly expect American Express to have the same content objectives as, say, Pepsi.
But broken down to their core elements, every brand’s content aim is actually the same: creating positive connections with its customers and potential customers. And accomplishing that is deceptively simple —give the user something compelling and of value that they can associate with the brand. Whether that’s a story that informs and helps drive decisions, or simply something that brings them delight.
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 publishers, brands need to make sure that each piece of content—Facebook update, tweet, sponsored story, Pinterest board and microsite—is valuable to their customers, and maps back to a greater narrative. Cutting corners here creates cheap brand publishing, makes for a lousy story and, by extension, the perception of a brand that doesn’t care.
And so those of us with a vested interest in brand publishing—startups, vendors, agencies, freelance creatives and senior decision makers at brands—are at a crossroads. Are we about creating content to check that box on our media plans, or are we going to thoughtfully invest the time and energy to craft compelling narratives for brands that are desperate to reach clients in an increasingly fragmented and disrupted media landscape?
How we navigate these murky waters could be the difference between brand publishing being seen as a real trump card in the marketing deck of cards, or the joker, which has no real value and is quickly lost in the shuffle.
Illustration: Gonçalo Viana