Stephen Whyte: content is the new big thing – it’s just a pity no-one seems to know what it really is

Selecting agency partners must be a pretty daunting challenge for marketers these days.

There are traditional agencies claiming to be expert at multi-channel, multi-platform digital communications. There are media agencies with newly developed creative offerings. There are broad-based digital agencies providing everything from advertising to analytics. And then there are all the digital specialists in areas like user experience, mobile, web, social media, search and more.

All of which promise, of course, to transform a client’s brand and business like no other.

But there is no area of marketing more confused and confusing than one of the hottest and most talked about: content marketing.

There are two principal and overlapping reasons for this. Firstly, no one quite knows what it is (or isn’t) and, secondly, every agency partner, publisher, production company and media owner is a content marketing practitioner these days.

Let’s start with the issue of definition. In a couple of minutes, I came across no less than 25 different ones on the Content Marketing Institute’s website and the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) recently set up a task force in an attempt to “eliminate confusion and establish alignment”. Unfortunately, the industry seems unable to reach a single, clear and meaningful expression of what content marketing is.

The least helpful definition I’ve seen is “Content marketing is the marketing of a brand or product by the use of engaging content”. Stone me! I’d never have thought it.

Here’s another:

“Traditional marketing and advertising is telling the world you’re a rock star. Content marketing is showing the world that you are one.”

Right. Well, that’s certainly cleared that up.

And just because this is fun, here’s my favourite:

“In short, it’s the very evolution of advertising itself into something more effective, more efficient and much less odious.”

Honestly, it’s enough to make you scream.

The word ‘content’ is used to describe everything from a football match to a book or magazine. From a tweet to a roadshow. From an email or an infographic to a video of someone freefalling from the edge of space.

Which explains the other reason for all the confusion – the fact that everyone’s an expert. In its widest sense, content marketing belongs in the domain of writers, publishers, sponsorship agencies, programme producers, events companies, video production companies, social media agencies, bloggers, tweeters and PR agencies amongst others. In fact, pretty much any organization that has some creative skills. In terms of content distribution, it could be eleven players running around with Samsung on their shirts, every conceivable media and platform owner or even an email service provider.

Content marketing has been around for many years but its power has grown exponentially thanks to the scale and appeal of social media platforms. And it’s these new channels and platforms that have really given content marketing its extraordinary new power; these are where we can find some highly creative and powerful work that demonstrates a sharp understanding of its target, informs, entertains and breaks new marketing ground.

A brilliant example of this is the beautiful and compelling work for the Go Pro camera on its YouTube channel. Unilever have really demonstrated how well they understand the power of content marketing with their work for Dove. And, last but by no means least, look at the award-winning work for City Index by UK specialist Kameleon.

Each of these campaigns has really connected with and involved its target. But what really separates the wheat from the chaff in the confusing world of content marketing and what all of these examples achieved so successfully was to be of genuine value to their audiences.

The promotion of such an ill-defined expression as ‘content marketing’ isn’t helping marketers, nor is it helping the companies and specialist agencies that are really innovating to stand out.

Sponsorship, live events, print publishing, advertorials, advertiser-funded TV, PR campaigns and other marketing disciplines increasingly being categorised as content marketing are all capable of engaging and inspiring customers but none of them are new.

Perhaps it would serve the industry better to call them what we have always called them and identify the newer areas in more focused and meaningful terms.

unnamedStephen Whyte has had a long career in advertising and marketing services. He started out at Abbott Mead Vickers before moving on to Leagas Delaney, Still Price Lintas and GGT Advertising. He then became managing director and chief executive of Leo Burnett before spending five years as chief executive of McCann Erickson London. He has been a board advisor to digital agency Profero and European chief executive of Acxiom, the consumer data, data services and analytics business. He currently runs NetVenture Consulting which helps a wide variety of digital media and marketing services businesses to grow more quickly and profitably.

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