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Does content marketing exist? And why are we here? Existential angst at the B2B Marketing Conference

For a marketing discipline whose very existence is open to question, content marketing certainly attracts a lot of attention. That’s my conclusion having attended B2B Marketing’s Annual Conference yesterday, this year entitled ‘The Content Avalanche’. The event was designed show keen B2B content marketers to raise their game and help them ensure their content stands out against their competitors. Just under 200 B2B marketers from all sectors and at all levels were in attendance to hear from a host of speakers with a wealth of expertise on all things content related.

Dave Stevens, marketing director of EY, kicked off the event in somewhat controversial fashion, questioning whether content is indeed a distinct discipline (or whether it was all ‘just marketing’) and whether buyers really are facing an avalanche of content from vendors and service providers. (You can read a copy of his speach on his blog.)

It’s certainly not the first time I’ve heard this accusation levelled at content marketing – and I’m confident that it won’t be the last. Marketers, point out the sceptics, have always produced content. Whilst this is undeniably true, the difference between the role of content today and ten or twenty years ago is that Google puts the buyer in control of what information they want to receive and when – they are no longer waiting for outbound marketing messages to stimulate interest and drive conversion. In my mind, that’s a profound change.

Whilst it’s great to have your ideas questioned, I was still relieved that the speakers who followed Dave Stevens were less questioning of the legitimacy of the term content marketing… otherwise it would have been a fractious event. But a further question cropped up in the keynotes that didn’t get a satisfactory resolution: namely, is the sales funnel finally dead? Drew Nicholson of DNX revealed that the concept of the sales funnel was invented way back in 1898, and the wealth of content which is now available as and when required by potential customers means that buyers may make contact at any stage of the decision making process, and not easily be slotted in to particular stage of the funnel. This makes building a coherent or logical process sales conversion or lead nurturing process extremely difficult – if not impossible. Dave Chaffey of Smart Insights countered by saying he believes the funnel is alive and well, if updated for the 21st century and to align with the new landscape. The jury is clearly still out.

The rest of the event proved less controversial, with some highly candid presentations from client side marketers and some highly entertaining ones from content specialist agencies. The day rounded off with a ‘content clinic’ panel discussion, featuring marketers from BT, IBM, Getty Images and Cushman & Wakefield. The closing keynote was from the irrepressible Rory Sutherland of Ogilvy – who well and truly lived up to his billing, focusing on his specialist subject of behavioural economics and why much marketing theory is either wrong or downright dangerous… and how marketers can fight back against the tyranny of the CFO’s demands for ROI. Okay, so it wasn’t directly related to content marketing, but that clearly didn’t bother the audience, who listened intently until way after the conference was supposed to close.

So, does content marketing exist? Or is it just part of the overall business of marketing? Well, in my view, yes it does exist, but yes it is also just part of marketing. There are definitely new skills and disciplines that need to be employed to utilise content in the modern world effectively, but at the same time, the overall objectives are the same and ultimately it will all become part of the mainstream agenda, and the overall strategy. In the final analysis, however, this argument about terminology and origins is really just academic: the most important questions for marketers is how to make your content as good as possible, to reap the best possible rewards and benefits. On that, at least, all speakers were agreed.