Matt Williams: blurred lines – what’s the difference between content and old-style ads?

Oh God, another blog about content. I know, you can’t log on to any marketing website without stumbling upon a column debating the ‘buzzword.’

And yes, there are still a lot of questions around the area. How do you define it? What does it really mean? What are good examples of it?

I wanted to wade in for a couple of reasons. Firstly, you’ll probably be able to gather from my job title that I’m fairly passionate about the evolution of content in the marketing communications industry.

And secondly, it seems to me that 90 per cent of the blogs on content – even by bloggers and industry luminaries that I hugely respect – seem to be doing a hell of a lot of moaning but not much resolving.

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At the very most, they offer an alternative word or series of phrases to replace content. Or just hark back to the old days when ads were ads and no agency dared get involved with other parts of a client’s business.

The issue for most boils down to the adage that ‘content is everything,’ which effectively makes it impossible to truly assess, mould, judge, strategise or charge for. The fact it becomes a ‘catch all’ ends up making it worthless, they say. Just another tool we can use to confuse (and ultimately squeeze more money out of) our clients.

I’ll be the first to admit that the current definition(s) we have for content aren’t ideal. I mean, the fact that the Content Marketing Institute’s website is filled with a wide variety of separate definitions is problematic enough.

But while yes, content can technically be anything, that doesn’t automatically make it a valuable asset. People moan that using the term content is bullshit because it can be applied to both a George Orwell novel and an Instagram picture of a cat, but I think they’re missing the point. They’re having the wrong debate. Instead of moaning about the terminology of content, they should be arguing over what makes effective content.

Effective content is part of a connected ecosystem. It is valued by the people who use it because it exists to fulfill a need or desire. And content marketing is about creating useful, engaging information that your clearly defined target audience is passionate about, so that they actually pay attention to you.

Where do agencies fit in to all that, and how does it differ from what they’ve been doing for years? Partly I’d argue that the very best agencies have been doing it before now – perhaps under the guise of innovative digital projects, as part of robust long-term brand strategies, or through elements of ‘integrated’ advertising campaigns.

There’s just not been the technological capabilities, client desire or connected, customer-focused thinking that has allowed agencies to regularly get involved, be creative and – dare I say – monetize this space.

And partly I’d argue that the difference between the ‘content we create now’ and the ‘advertising we created back then’ boils down to customer intention. Content marketing focuses on the brand assets that people genuinely want to seek out – whether that’s because they want to be entertained, require information, share an idea, or even complain.

Advertising is work created by a company with the primary intention of interrupting a customer’s day, infiltrating their usual media consumption in the hope that the creative is strong enough to make that person take notice and feel better about said brand.

Naturally lines will still be blurred. That’s why there are still so many issues with it. And it makes ‘advertising’ seem even more cynical an industry than ever. But again, the very best agencies have recognised and embraced that, using their creativity to produce work that may be pushed upon people, but does so in a way that is attractive, engaging and appealing.

This is not the end of the debate. I’m by no means claiming to have come up with the definitive definition for content, and I’m sure people will take great joy in picking holes in my argument.

But what I would love is for people to stop moaning about the definition and start discussing the validity of effective content. When a customer seeks out a piece of brand content, does what they find help build a meaningful and profitable relationship?

The industry is undergoing a seismic shift. People consume brand assets in ever more fragmented and personalised ways, across a myriad of devices, touchpoints and timeframes. The power of choice is in their hands. Pulling the disparate strands of content together in a way that benefits the customer is presenting brands with a very exciting opportunity.

Let’s devote our time and effort to look at how and where brands can take advantage of that, rather than still be stropping over the definition of a word.

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About Matt Williams

Matt Williams
Matt Williams is head of content at Partners Andrews Aldridge.