What's actually behind the term content marketing?

From Buzzfeed to YouTube-influencers: 2016 made clear that content marketing is still a mystery for most people.

Content marketing: lots of buzz, hardly any marketing

For many marketers, „content marketing“ is either a buzzword that overstayed its welcome or a true hindrance for daily marketing activities. Even though more and more content assets get produced, they never comes together in a clear strategy. But without a strategy, there’s no way to use the content efficiently. Where there’s no buyer personas, no touchpoints, no customer journeys and no KPIs, there’s no possibility to map and place your content so it reaches the right audience at the right moment.

But marketers blame the shortcomings of this approach on the type of content. In recent years, newsletters, landing pages, blogs and even infographics were declared „over“. The new trends even lean towards content that seems to shy away of being connected to marketing and advertising.

Influencer Marketing: now you see me, now you don’t

An unpleasant example of how the use of content marketing gets confused with manipulation tactics is the so-called „influencer marketing“ (testimonials by people who have a social impact such as celebrities, scientists, etc.). Especially influencers on YouTube, communicating with young people and advertising lifestyle products without the usual marketing language are reaching tens of thousands,  even millions of new fresh-faced customers. Unfortunately, it gets more and more difficult for the audience to separate the marketing from the neutral content. Few YouTube personalities actually announce paid or sponsored videos as such and therefore create a lack of transparency that gives content marketing a bad reputation (and in countries like Germany, also legal troubles).

Furthermore, as long as these tactics gain more customers and reach more people, marketers will continue to ask themselves whether content marketing is just a means of hiding advertisement in external blog articles, videos, etc. to „blind“ the customer by the entertainment value. Platforms like Buzzfeed and the term „native advertising“ (marketing content that looks just like journalistic content) perpetrate the notion that advertisement is bad and needs to be hidden under layers of smart content, so the customer has no idea what he or she sees, reads or watches.

However, from the customer’s point of view, this approach will backfire, as a recent study by Contently proved. More than 66% of all participants said that they felt betrayed after finding out that unmarked sponsored content was actually marketing. And betrayal does not lead to loyal, happy customers.

Content marketing doesn’t need to hide

As a content marketer myself, I am usually surprised that this need to obfuscate and manipulate is actually an accepted means just because marketers believe that customers don’t want marketing, even if customers continue to prove otherwise. How else can you explain the viral spread of openly branded advertisement that is informative, funny or entertaining in some way or another?

IKEA ads are usually immediately recognizable as advertisement, yet this single video got more than 9 million views. The same goes for well-crafted newsletters (especially in the B2C market) and good blogs.

Content marketing is the customer-centric production of marketing content. That means that the customer gets the information relevant for his or her life. Content marketing is not one single form of content but can take on different forms. Native advertising is one form but not necessarily the best.

This, in conclusion, means that it’s not about the form or how well it is hidden amongst all the other content in the world wide web but how relevant it is for your target audience (which, by the way, doesn’t care if it is marketing or not as long as it is interesting). And to achieve that, you need to know your customers and you need to know when and where you can address them.

There’s no content marketing without a strategy

Imagine a library without a system. All the knowledge of the world and no one can use it because it sits in bookshelves without any order or overview. This “nightmare library” is synonymous with the content marketing of many companies. They create white papers, newsletters, blog posts, infographics, videos and more without any idea for whom, for what channels and for what outcome.

But content marketing needs the context of a structured customer journey, a clear image of buyer personas and a target outcome (like more leads, more reach, more conversions).

Don’t believe „experts“ that want to tell you that you need to basically con your customer into reading, watching or listening to your content. The real basics for an efficient marketing strategy are much more simple: transparency, relevance and strategy.

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