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Devin J. Shepherd
My name is Devin Shepherd and this is my blog--a mixture of things that others have made that inspire me, and content I have created that I hope will inspire you.

 I wrote this paper for a Boston University branding class last April. I think anyone who is wondering what content marketing is will find this a useful introduction.

Content Marketing: The Future of Consumer Engagement

            In recent years, brands have been looking for new ways to capture the attention of their increasingly fickle and disinterested audiences, who through the internet have been inundated with all sorts of media, but especially marketing messages. As was the case with every prior new media, marketing for the burgeoning web took cues from previous means of advertising such as print and television—essentially, using interruptive spots to try to deliver a message. However, the web posed unique challenges to marketers, among them the problem of a no-longer captive audience. For one thing, web pages are easier to navigate away from than flipping through channels during commercials on television. Furthermore, many browser-based ad-blockers prevent some ads from appearing at all—and of course the internet provides infinite possibilities for information sharing and consuming, so figuring out how to sell space that seemed infinite and out of control has been difficult. Fortunately, in recent years the web has become less mysterious and more orderly, with entities like the World Wide Web Consortium and the Interactive Advertising Bureau setting web standards. Companies such as Google, which  has made advertising much more efficient and targetable through search, and MailChimp, which provides accessible email marketing solutions to the less technically apt, have also contributed to the ordering of the landscape of the web. That being said, marketing on the web still has a long way to go. The web continues to be a vast place where individuals have little patience for irrelevant content, especially when there are already too many other “good” options to choose from. Just because marketing messages are now capable of reaching a more targeted audience does not mean that the intended audience will spend time paying attention, and hopefully paying money for products as a result.

            An additional, related problem with the web is one that was initially seen as a boon to marketers: it is an incredibly inexpensive means of potentially reaching a huge number of people, the problem being that when everyone talks, nobody can really hear anything; plus, while it is free to distribute, it is also largely free to consumers to consume almost anything and thus they are no longer forced to pay for some high quality and tons of low quality content. This, along with the aforementioned marketing problems that have been acknowledged since the web began, has led to an investigation by more mainstream companies into a nascent marketing strategy, which has been dubbed “content marketing.” Also known as native advertising, brand publishing, and permission or inbound marketing, content marketing takes an old idea and flips it around for compatibility with the web.1 Basically, instead of sending out messages at inopportune moments—such as before a Youtube video in the form of a pre-roll or as a banner ad in the middle of an interesting article—content marketing attempts to integrate publishing with advertising, creating a situation where the intended audience actually seeks out the marketing content because it is actually valuable to them in some way. This is not an entirely new idea: it was popularized by Seth Godin, a veteran internet marketer who wrote a book called Permission Marketing about how this strategy could be used specifically for the web back in 1999.4 In some cases, content marketing brings up ethical issues, though: Gawker, a publication based in New York City, was one of the first to implement paid articles into its regular stream of news, causing controversy at first and raising questions about journalistic integrity.2 That was in 2007 and since then, publishers from the Atlantic to the Washington Post to, more recently, the New York Times have set guidelines for implementing native advertising. Fledgling companies such as Contently and NewsCred are growing fast because of this phenomenon, too, as their business is connecting brands with journalists who can write high-quality articles for the purposes of native advertising. Advertorials are hardly the only form of content marketing, however; even among publishers. Gawker and the Onion, both popular with a younger demographic and mostly online-based, each have created off-shoot advertising agencies within their offices to create video spots for companies looking for professional content creators that have experience catering to a certain demographic.

            Content marketing has not only developed as a means of propping up traditional media and brands that have lost touch with their consumers, however. In recent years, some new companies have emerged as a direct result of the slow disintegration of traditional advertising methods. In 2007, Monocle was founded in London on the idea that advertising and journalism could work in tandem to create a particular kind of lifestyle magazine that people would pay for and allow themselves to be marketed to simultaneously.5 With its print edition, as well as podcasts, a 24/7 online radio station, and a blog, Monocle merged traditional and new media with native advertising to create a global-minded, luxury-slanted publication.6 Although Monocle has been criticized for its eschewing of the “separation of church and state” that has been the standard relationship for advertising and journalism since time began—or at least since the mid-20th century, that’s another story— Monocle is in many ways being more transparent in its holistic approach to native advertising than the more established publications that have recently folded native advertising into their traditional formats. Inspired by Monocle, the start-up Huckberry set out in April of 2011 to create an experimental model of retail that would integrate content with a sales proposition.7 Unlike an established brand that creates a blog to attract customers with content, Huckberry is first and foremost a digital magazine in the form of a free weekly email that sells curated, ever-changing content like a boutique would. Because Huckberry targets a specific demographic, and its founders fall into that demographic and are also passionate about what they sell, the magazine works the way retail experiences used to. As more and more people shop online, the personal touch of brick and mortar stores—which before the Global Financial Crisis were generally employing passionate salespeople—has been lost, leaving a void that Huckberry hopes to fill by earning a place in its customers’ inboxes.8 Huckberry’s business model works because it knows its audience, respects it by only emailing content that is interesting—which also includes product descriptions precisely because that is content in itself to the target audience—and its focus is on long-term relationships rather than short-term sales or promotional tricks.10

            Content marketing is also being championed for burgeoning and small businesses for the purposes of marketing the “long-tail” of consumer demand. In Sonja Jefferson and Sharon Tanton’s book, Valuable Content Marketing: Why Quality Content is Key to Business Success, they cite a Roper Poll that shows the following: “77 per cent of people understand that the purpose of an organization’s content is to sell them something, but are OK with it as long as it provides value” and that “61 per cent say valuable content makes them feel closer to the company that delivers it and are more likely to buy from that company.”9 As it becomes clearer that the internet is ideally suited to brands becoming publishers for the purpose of bolstering their sales, more and more companies are jumping on the content marketing bandwagon. That being said, many brands are not internally set up for publishing—it’s one thing for Gawker to spawn an ad agency that has one degree of separation from its publishing arm, but quite another for a mom-and-pop store to start creating viral web content having never produced anything for the web before. As a result of the lack of understanding surrounding content marketing and the assistance many smaller companies require to produce meaningful content, the new field of content strategy has emerged,11 and companies like HubSpot and KissMetrics provide marketing tools that help to manage and describe analytically to a company which potential customers are interacting with a brand’s digital content.12

CMO of HubSpot Mike Volpe has said:

…if you compare…inbound leads vs outbound, or paid, the types of things where you’re annoying people and kind of getting in their face…the comparison between the two of those, the conversion rate is more than double…for the organic leads, or the inbound leads.13

So while that might be true for the successful HubSpot and its customers, the question arises: how much content is too much? A new adage has developed among SEO people and content marketing bloggers, which says having “no content is better than bad content,” and yet anyone who has experience with marketing today will say that a blog is a must when it comes to marketing in the digital age. Regardless of tools, experience, etc. content marketing can only be successful when it is valuable to a specific audience; even then, content has such a short shelf-life that it can be overwhelming to try to keep pace with everything that is being produced. In a recent post on the Harvard Business Journal blog, award-winning digital marketer Mitch Joel takes on the question of content creation and its future role in marketing. While some might claim that there is too much clutter and that quality and quantity are largely mutually exclusive, Joel posits that content based on a sound strategy, produced regularly, and backed up by measured learning will be positioned to cut through the clutter to reach the intended audience, creating an economically beneficial situation for any brand that does so.14 In other words, brands are not going to stop producing lots of content, and it is in the best interest of any brand looking to get ahead to make sure they are reaching their audience as often as they can, with content that is meaningful, to maximize engagement and produce positive value for everyone involved.

Notes

  1. Sam Slaughter, “Can Content Marketing Save Journalism?”Mashable, Last modified March 19, 2013. http://mashable.com/2013/03/18/content-marketing-journalism/.
  2. Slaughter, “Can Content Marketing Save Journalism?”  http://mashable.com/2013/03/18/content-marketing-journalism/.
  3. Slaughter, “Can Content Marketing Save Journalism?” http://mashable.com/2013/03/18/content-marketing-journalism/.
  4. Seth Godin, “Permission Marketing,” Seth’s Blog, January 31, 2008. http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2008/01/permission-mark.html.
  5. David Carr, “Monocle: A Magazine, an Attitude,” The New York Times, August 23, 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/24/business/media/24carr.html?pagewanted=all.
  6. Monocle. “About Monocle.” http://monocle.com/about/.
  7. Matthew Carroll, “How Huckberry is kicking Warby Parker’s Ass in Transforming the Future of E-Commerce - PART 1,” Quora. http://retail-analytics.quora.com/Best-of-the-Best-How-Huckberry-is-kicking-Warby-Parkers-Ass-in-Transforming-the-Future-of-E-Commerce-PART-1.
  8. Matthew Carroll, “Giving You a Reason to Buy,” Quora. http://retail-analytics.quora.com/Best-of-the-Best-Huckberry-Part-2-Giving-You-a-Reason-to-Buy.
  9. Carroll, “How Huckberry.” http://retail-analytics.quora.com/Best-of-the-Best-How-Huckberry-is-kicking-Warby-Parkers-Ass-in-Transforming-the-Future-of-E-Commerce-PART-1.
  10. Sonja Jefferson, Sharon Tanton, Valuable Content Marketing: How to Make Quality Content to Key to Business Success, (Kogan Page Publishers, 3 Jan 2013), 20. http://books.google.com/books?id=kOG2iyeVNRcC&printsec=frontcover&dq=valuable+content+marketing+why+quality+content+is+key+to+business+success&hl=en&sa=X&ei=MoEvU4SkCqSb0AG83YF4&ved=0CDYQ6AEwAA#v=snippet&q=what%20is%20valuable%20content&f=false.
  11. Erin Kissane, The Elements of Content Strategy, (A Book Apart, 8 Mar 2011).
  12. Zach Bulygo, “How HubSpot Approaches Inbound Marketing, Culture and Sales,” KISSmetrics: A Blog About Analytics, Marketing and Testing.  https://blog.kissmetrics.com/hubspot-marketing-culture-sales/.
  13. Bulygo, “How HubSpot.”https://blog.kissmetrics.com/hubspot-marketing-culture-sales/.
  14. Mitch Joel, “Marketers Are Not Publishing Enough Content,” Harvard Business Review Blog Network, June 13 2013. http://blogs.hbr.org/2013/06/quality-and-quantity-tripling/.

In a couple of ways, storytelling isn’t about “telling” at all.

1. In the digital age, the proliferation and democratization of media has provided everyone with a virtual microphone: we are immersed in story-conversation. Sharing and social dissemination takes precedent over the entity producing the “spark” for the conversation. More often, too, stories are told using pictures, providing more instantaneous punch-lines, morals, and information. A great example of this—which follows the theory of semiotics—is of course Tumblr. 

2. Storytelling has also been a slightly off-kilter word for what we do incessantly, every day as human beings for another reason: because the act has been and as far as is predictable always will be more about the audience, the story-listener, than the person “telling” the story. A person who tells a story is nothing without the participation of others—i.e. if a story is told and no one ever hears it, is it still a story? Yes, but not really. More often, there is an audience, but the message falls on deaf ears because the teller doesn’t know who he or she is talking to.

For example, I bet somebody out there has an uncle Doug or the equivalent who can tell a mean family story—better than your mom, or brother, or cousins. But the reason he is so good at it is because he knows his audience. He in some way has participated with the audience in making the stories he tells—in a broader context the ideal storyteller gains credibility as a participant in an event, as an observer of an event, or simply by existing within a particular culture or demographic—and is an authentic communicator of the meaning therein. You buy uncle Doug’s ethos; he is credible within the family context. People outside the family probably couldn’t care less about Doug’s family stories, but for them, he would tell a different kind of story—he would have to tell it differently or maybe choose tell a different story all together if he wanted to hold them captivated in the same way. The embodied context of the story is the meaning that it is given by the person and place the story is being told in. Therefore, whether it’s a brand, a celebrity, or a family member, the audience will always be the judge of authenticity and the quality of resonance the story provides at a given time because they are also participating in what the story means at the end of the day. In this way, storytelling is more about a shared experience than an individual event, the telling of an event, the people listening to a re-telling of that event, and it is especially not singularly about the person who performs the story.

Never has this been more true than in the gatekeeper-less digital age.

It could be that we just don’t have a better word for it right now, but until we do, keep in mind that storytelling is more than just a broadcast, a one-way message, or a back-and-forth between an entity and its audience—and except for a brief time in human history known as the 20th century, this was pretty much always true. Nowadays, storytellers are more obsessed with gaining attention than producing valuable content (e.g. advertisers) but the reality is, attention is once again something you have to earn. Smart storytellers know that their craft depends on knowing their audience and medium, but masterful storytellers do it without thinking. And guess what? That’s why people come back again and again to hear how this person or organization will engage them in a story-experience.