Is content marketing the 'only marketing' in B2B?
Is content marketing strategic? Or is it merely a marketing tactic? Alex Clarke presents two experts' opposing views
'Content marketing is the only marketing left’, says Seth Godin. His infamous quote often sparks debate between marketers, at worst leaving otherwise respectable senior leaders clawing at each other in a bout of petulant fury. On a more professional level, the quote raises the questions: is content marketing actually a thing? Should it be treated as strategic, or is it just a tactic that's part of the wider marketing strategy?
There's no such thing
Heidi Taylor believes content marketing is one of the biggest hoaxes in B2B. Here, the author of B2B Marketing Strategy: Differentiate, develop and deliver lasting customer engagement, blogger, speaker and B2B marketing consultant, explains why she feels this way.
I have a real problem with the phrases ‘content marketing’ and ‘content marketing strategy’. There really is no such thing. We have marketing strategy, to which your content should align and fulfil. But content alone is not strategic.
Don’t get me wrong. Marketing is all about content. Essentially everything we do as marketers is based on it. But, unfortunately, ‘content marketing’ has become a catch-all for content. Too many B2B marketers purely focus on the creation of it, ignoring the wider marketing strategy and whether that content delivers on its objectives.
I’m not saying it can’t be successful on its own, but make no mistake, content’s a short-term tactic, not a long-term strategy.
Lack of understanding
First, content marketing implies a tactical choice or decision before even looking at what marketing is trying to achieve with its customers. Also, I suspect if you asked any marketer for their definition of content marketing, you would get wildly different answers.
There’s a lack of clarity on what it is, even among its biggest proponents. Take the Content Marketing Institute (CMI), which has changed its definition over the years to better align with what it’s actually seeing in the marketplace. The harsh reality is, CMI’s surveys have shown content marketing is not effective.
Marketing is never about one thing and one thing only. The best marketing is an integration of tasks and activities across channels, because our customers don’t communicate, consume or engage in a single way.
As consumers, we’ll use our smartphones to read the newspaper, we’ll watch television at home, access our desktop at work and our tablet before we go to bed. Our B2B marketing customers operate the same. Anyone who concentrates on a single tactic is going to be in trouble – a single tactic does not make a marketer.
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts
Content is important, but don’t mistake its creation with marketing. It’s a single part of the overall marketing mix.
At a former company, one of the senior business execs approached me about a piece of thought leadership they’d written and wanted me to publish. How many of us would automatically publish the piece, create some form of campaign around the article and leave it at that?
Instead, I sat down with the c-suite and asked them exactly what they wanted to achieve. During that discussion, it became pretty clear to both the business (c-suite) and marketing (me), that we were never going to achieve what the company wanted with a single piece of thought leadership.
So, we re-thought our approach. At this time, the company was entering a relatively new marketplace, with zero visibility and really low credibility. It needed to engage with a completely different type of customer. That meant doing some very different things, which content alone would not have achieved.
Has the war against content marketing been lost?
Until a year or two ago, ‘content marketing’ would probably still generate some decent results. The thing is, there’s now so much out there that it’s almost impossible to make your content organically discoverable, which means you still have to carry out traditional push marketing – the principles of marketing haven’t changed.
It’s really tough to influence these attitudes, and I’m really wondering if we’ve lost the war. The language is just too ingrained – which is bad, because the term ‘content marketing’ has essentially become meaningless.
Good content marketing
has always been strategic
Ready for round two? Fighting his case for content marketing – and why it should be seen as a strategy, not just a tactic – is Jason Miller, global content marketing leader at LinkedIn.
Being a pioneering marketer with a gift for a great one-liner puts you in a spot of danger. You’re liable to be quoted so often, and so widely, that you become mind-bendingly misinterpreted. That’s exactly what’s happened to Seth Godin and his famous statement that “content marketing is the only marketing left”. I know this because I heard it from the man himself as part of our interview on LinkedIn’s Sophisticated Marketer’s Podcast.
The point Seth was trying to make was not that brands should cut all advertising and start churning out an endless stream of blog posts instead. He argued that brands should put content and authenticity at the heart of their strategy, because people will be drawn to a compelling, relevant story far more than by a bombardment of ads.
It’s ironic, and frustrating, that so many attacks on content marketing start from an assumption that there can’t possibly be a strategy along these lines. Some are determined to portray content as nothing more than a faddy distraction from established tactics such as advertising. That’s why people interpret Seth Godin’s comment in the way they do.
They’re wrong. Serious content marketing has always been a strategy. If your approach to content doesn’t have this essential strategic underpinning then it can only produce very limited returns. If you treat content marketing as a new and disposable form of advertising, then guess what? You won’t derive any benefit from it beyond what you gained from advertising.
Content: A strategy, not a tactic
What do I mean by treating content as a strategy rather than just a tactic? I mean starting with the conviction that the best way to build a brand is for your communications team to deliver equal value to your business as they do to your audience. I mean identifying clear, relevant outcomes with KPIs that reflect the need to deliver mutual value. And, I mean investing in the particular skills that enable you to produce and distribute this content effectively.
Once you accept that content marketing is a strategy, it quickly becomes clear that it requires a very specific skillset. Besides copywriting, strategy and creativity, content marketers also need applied technical skills such as data analysis, an understanding of different social platforms and SEO, not to mention the ability to work cross-functionally within an organisation. These are the ultimate hybrid marketers, guardians of a content strategy with the wherewithal to ensure that every piece of content has a valid purpose and plan.
More than a one-off punt
When marketers treat content as a tactic that they can pick up and put down whenever suits them, they tend to end up producing content as one-off punts for audience attention. It’s like advertising but with less editing, less budget, less consistency and less sense of an objective. It’s no wonder that these random pieces of content fail.
Those who knock content marketing are fond of quoting the stat (from a survey by Beckon about a year ago) that 5% of brand content delivers 90% of engagement. They claim this shows content marketing is overhyped nonsense and an inherently flawed strategy. Of course, what it really shows is that 5% of content is very effective indeed, and that much of the remaining 95% could do with a proper content strategy.
Of course, content marketing isn’t just about delivering engagement at scale; that’s another inherent misunderstanding. Content marketing isn’t “the only marketing left” because it’s the only way of reaching a mass audience. It’s because it’s the only way to ensure that a relevant, high-value audience sees equal value in your brand and engages with it willingly. It’s not about blasting out a message; it’s about aligning the content of your brand with the value sought by your audience and the bottom-line interests of your business. It’s a strategy. And it doesn’t make sense any other way.