I resisted "content marketing" as long as I could. Maybe longer.
First, I ignored it as banal new jargon for an age-old practice (wasn't this just another term for public relations?). Then I dismissed it as a fad that would never last (cautious corporations, as compelling publishers? bah!). Then I resented it as a threat to the public trust (will we soon be getting our news from The Wal-Mart Journal?)
I still have misgivings about content marketing, but such misgivings seem increasingly impotent and irrelevant. Still, whenever I run into a person who actually self-identifies as an expert or consultant in "content marketing," I give the guru a good going over.
Especially if they are as smart and warm and honest as Russell Sparkman, a guy I've worked with a little bit this year (he served as senior judge in our Strategic Video Awards, which I chair) and with whom I'd like to work more in the future.
January 26 and 27, Sparkman's company, FusionSpark Media, is hosting an intimate, intensive Content Marketing Retreat, the second in an annual event at the cozy Langley Center for New Media, located on Whidbey Island, near Seattle. I can't make it this year—but on behalf of Writing Boots readers who may be having a similiar struggle with this concept, I thought I'd give Sparkman my last best punches, just to see what kind of chin he has.
Writing Boots in boldface, Sparkman in plain type.
Content marketing: define it as concisely as you can.
Stripped down to its essence, Content Marketing is the investment of both human and financial resources in the strategic creation, curation and distribution of relevant, educational and/or fun content as the basis of building awareness, generating leads, closing sales and providing customer support.
Content Marketing requires the company or non-profit to “think like marketers, and act like publishers or broadcasters” in order to leverage content as the basis of engagement.
Content Marketing is an important concept to grasp today because content is now mission critical to almost all other flavors of marketing talked about today, from Social Media to Agile, from Inbound to Word-of-Mouth.
Now, using that definition. As a man of taste, of creative ability and vibrant soul, why is that activity worthy of your life's work? Is there something lasting and good that comes out of successful content marketing?
I didn’t wake up one morning and say “hey, I’m going to become a Content Marketing evangelist” in hopes that the legacy on my tombstone would say “He Did Content.”
Rather, in 1997, I was a photographer who proposed a concept for original online storytelling, called One World Journeys, that fits the definition today of brand storytelling.
This work began as a vision for using original online content and storytelling as part of Cause Marketing related initiatives, partnering the Corporate Social Responsibility interests of business with the needs of Non-profits to promote awareness and support of environmental issues.
Out of this experience grew our appreciation for what we viewed as a better way for businesses, non-profits and even government agencies to meet their communications objectives by creating and sharing online content that had deeper meaning and utility than the more typical marketing and advertising fare you’re used to seeing.
When done well, enterprises that give of themselves by producing really great content in support of their product, their service or their causes really do build deeper relationships with their customers and constituents, which in turn leads to new business, new opportunities.
It’s this aspect of the content marketing approach that truly gets me excited, especially when we’ve experienced directly how it’s helped a small business client build a bigger client base, or a non-profit client succeed in their goals of increasing public awareness or raising funds, and so on.
In an earlier interview with me a few months ago you said that a reason content marketing is growing in credibility is that institutional communication we actually used to trust—e.g., the mass media.—is losing credibility. "I don't think anybody holds the key to the truth anymore," you said. And you said it with a sanguine air that I must challenge. Do we really want to live in a world where Exxon "content" is as trusted as a New York Times article (and a Starbucks environmental video is in an even he-said-she-said with an Ann Coulter book)?
As a local elected official in recent years I experienced first hand how truly biased a journalistic institution such as a local newspaper can be.
Specifically, I witnessed a local editor’s blatant disregard for best practices such as confirming facts from multiple sources or seeking corroboration of claims because doing so would compromise the story he wanted to tell. This experience, coinciding with my thinking about content marketing, awakened me to this reality that “no one holds the key to the truth anymore” in media.
The reality is that our mainstream media are corporations and businesses just like any other corporation or business. And just like any other corporation or business, some will adhere to a certain ethos of honesty, objectivity, transparency and fairness more than others.
Additionally, the audience for one news corporation may be totally different than the audience of another. Audiences hold very different belief systems and values, therefore they judge “truth” through very different filters. Look at the dichotomy of the Fox News and the CNN audiences, for example.
So, I’ll put a stake in the ground that yes, even an Exxon can “tell the truth” through their own publishing (as a very extreme example, perhaps), but that truth will not only be in the eye of the beholder, but it will also be subject to being only one or two clicks away from being called out as total bullshit.
And whether we want to accept this or like this situation is moot.
The train has left the station, in terms of any corporate entity being able to function and act like a publisher or broadcaster to share their side of the story directly, unfiltered, with an audience. And just like traditional corporate media, some will be capable of doing this better than others, in terms of fairness, objectivity, honesty and transparency.
Quite literally, corporations that do move into more content marketing-like communications have no choice but to approach it as credibly as possible. The power of the consumer to organize online and override attempts to mislead, misguide or profiteer has just become too strong, and is getting even stronger.
I think that there’s a certain Yin-Yang poetry here.
Just as the corporate world is becoming more adept at telling their story directly, the consumer is becoming more adept at scrutinizing and reacting to its claims.
I believe the part of the corporate and non-profit world that truly gets this is the part that will be rewarded the most in terms of new business opportunities, investment, donations and so on.
Readers, what do you think? Let me know: Or better yet, treat yourself to the Content Marketing Retreat, and give Sparkman a piece of your mind in person.