What Is Content Marketing?

Content marketing. Possibly the most overused buzzword in marketing today. Every company wants a content marketing program these days, just like every agency wants to say they offer content marketing services. But what is content marketing? And just as important, what is it not?

I’ve noticed that some agencies say they also do content marketing if they offer social media services. Others say they do content marketing when describing their fancy design, development and production offerings.

The latter is a whole lot closer than the former, at least in my book, but saying you do social media or video production or infographic design doesn’t mean you do content marketing.

The Content Marketing Institute describes content marketing as “a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly-defined audience — and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.”

That definition better describes content marketing as a function. Notice the keywords and key terms it includes: creating, distributing, valuable, relevant, consistent, attract, retain, clearly-defined audience, customer action. Those are all extremely important when you’re thinking about content. If you’re only doing one of those things in a silo, then you’re not doing content marketing.

When my team develops a content marketing program for clients, there’s a process we go through:

  1. Objectives development - what are we trying to accomplish with our content? Does that align with our broader marketing and business objectives? Content should be created differently based on the objective.
  2. Audience identification & prioritization - who are we trying to reach with content? And this must be specific. If a client gives me a response like millennials or IT managers, I’m going to say that’s far too broad and we need to think about our target more.
  3. Determine communication channels - what communication channels do we have at our disposal? We could be using social media channels, we could be using a blog. An event could even be the channel used. There are a lot of potential channels, and a good content marketing program uses several in conjunction, but it’s important to determine those before you ever begin producing a piece of content.
  4. Content planning - this is the most time consuming piece of the process because it combines the previous three steps of the process and it’s also when we begin thinking more tactically about content. A thought leadership platform is a needed component behind every content marketing program. And I don’t mean your company messaging; I mean what you want to tell your target audiences beyond your product. Thought leadership is how you show you’re an expert, what makes your content valuable to steal a word from the Content Marketing Institute’s definition.

During this phase, we also decide what type of content we want to be developing - owned, earned, shared or paid. It’s usually some combination of at least two of those.

Then we put it all together, matching objectives, audience, channel, thought leadership pillar and type of content. We also begin thinking about timing, assessing when it makes sense to create certain types of content.

Finally we think about the distribution mechanisms at our disposal. Simply publishing a piece of content isn’t enough. People like to say “content is king.” Well, they’re both right and completely wrong in saying it. If you have a killer piece of content, but no one knows where to find it, who’s to say it’s good? The other important factor with distribution is availability. Do you want anyone and everyone to be able to access it freely? Or do you want to put a gating mechanism in front of it so it can support lead gen efforts? That should not be done for every piece of content, but should be considered from time to time. When considering distribution, and eventually presentation as well, you must remember the wants and especially peeves of your audience.

  1. Measurement - after all of those steps, and before we actually produce any content, we think about how we measure the success. We’re doing this for a reason, after all. It’s not simply to put more content out there. When determining the appropriate ways to measure content, think back to your objectives and make sure those align. That’s the only way you’re really going to know if your program is working, as well as what changes need to be made along the way.

Finally, at the end of all that, we begin discussing specific pieces of content because now we know what’s needed for a “good” piece of content. And it’s at this point where we get really creative - but remember, that creativity has boundaries that are determined by the preceding process.

I’m sure there are people who will disagree with this process, and that’s ok. Everyone has a different way of doing things. I think there’s one thing that everyone who actually has planned, implemented and managed a content marketing program can agree on though - there’s a lot that goes into content marketing. You don’t simply start. You must think, plan, and organize.