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07 March 2013

Content marketing needs a better name


via Behance
“Content marketing” is not exactly the most intuitive term in the marketing industry today.

It doesn't help that some agencies think there’s nothing wrong with slapping the label “content marketing” over everything they already do as an ad outfit.

It also doesn't help that consultants, who mean to clarify things, explain themselves in such prosaic, self-serving truisms:


  • "Content marketing is about engaging the audience" (And traditional advertising aims to bore the tears out of us all?)
  • "Content marketing is all about quality content" (Whereas traditional marketing is a load of crap?)
  • "Content  marketing is about the content" (Is there any such a thing as marketing without content?)
What is content marketing, exactly?

Here's my attempt at an explanation.


Content marketing is really about search

If there's any difference between traditional marketing and content marketing, it's this: unlike traditional marketing, where it's mostly about our messages or brand, content marketing is about putting information on the Internet to help buyers with their online product research. "Useful information" is all there is to content marketing.

Publishing information for potential customers is itself nothing new. Industries like college education, consumer electronics, and intellectual property (books, movies, music, video games) have long produced streams of publisher and critical reviews, writer/creator interviews, retrospectives, etc., to satisfy buyers' needs for information. The enterprise IT industry produces an extensive range of white papers, documentation, blogs, podcasts and videos, to explaining their services to an audience of widely differing technical expertise and decision-making roles.

The key difference between information-based marketing in the past and today is, of course, the dominance of Internet search engines in product research. Thanks to Google, buyers don't start their enquiry process in your office, or with your salesperson. It starts with Google.


But content marketing is not search engine optimisation. SEO is only the technical aspect of making sure you have a presence on the Internet; optimising for visibility on Google search results is just a first step. Even if SEO is correctly and successfully executed, and visitors are coming to your website, your website still may not have what is necessary to prove why buyers should choose your product over your competitor's.

Content marketing is about optimising for a specific buyer behaviour:  product research over the Internet. It's about a new consumer expectation: to be able to find information for themselves, rather than be promoted to through ads and conventional marketing.

The foundation of content marketing is text, not visuals

To extend my argument about the primary of search in content marketing, I contend that content marketing is really about text, not about images and video.

I know this sounds like marketing heresy, but hear me out.

In web usability practice, designers often distinguish between two types of user behaviour: search versus browse. Users of all websites use search or browse (or both) strategies to find information they’re looking for.

The user intent behind “browse” and “search” behaviour is different:

In “browse” behaviour,
  • Users usually start on the homepage, and click through page by page until they find something that they were looking for, or what interests them. 

In “search” behaviour,
  • Users go straight for the site search box to type in keywords. Their intent is very focused; rather than follow a website’s recommended navigation path, they’d rather spend effort to improvise a keyword vocabulary to find what they want. 
  • Search behaviour doesn’t have to start on your website’s search box. In fact, it usually starts in a search engine. A search engine shows not just results from your website, but all sites that have his keywords. And that’s the point; he’s looking for a good answer, not just the one dictated by your product or brand name.
The reason I say content marketing is text-driven lies in how people use search engines. People frame their problem in words, then type these words into search engines. They don’t frame their problems as pictures to upload to Google for answers. (Google image search is great, but that’s besides the point.)

I’m not saying that visuals (that is, pictures and video) have no role in content marketing. I’m saying that the foundation of content marketing is text because search is currently text-based. Even images and videos must be tagged correctly with keywords--text--before the search engine can index them.

(I'm also not discounting the role of visual-based social networks like Instagram and Pinterest. But I'd argue that user behaviour on those networks is primarily 'browser', not 'search', and the buyer's journey is somewhat different.)

Here's a fine opportunity to debunk an old myth that's been foisted on marketers by the web design community: the idea that people don't want to read on the Internet. Well, if people don't read, how do they expect to do product research online?

Content marketing is about your customer, not you

So, what better name can we give content marketing? "Information marketing"? "Search marketing"? "Long-form Internet marketing"?

It looks like there aren't many meaningful alternatives.

And back to the earlier question: What is content marketing, anyway? Do we have a proper definition of content marketing?

I think this recent New York Times article provides us with a very good answer: Content marketing is about answering customers’ questions. (Hat tip to +Destry Wion)

So to recap: Content marketing is not about making the sale. It's not about persuading people that our product is superior. It's really about showing our customer that we understand of his needs better than our competitors do.


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