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Content: Marketing's Best Hope, or More Hype?

Done Right, It Can Work Wonders. But Too Many Confuse 'Content Marketing' With PR or Advertising

By Published on . 22

What does it mean that Indium Corp., which makes soldering supplies, publishes 73 blogs on its website? Or that Red Bull, producer of late nights, operates a site where you can pay for the rights to its photos and videos? Or that American Express, L'Oréal, General Electric and other blue chips either directly or indirectly employ hundreds of journalists whose Pulitzer dreams have been transformed into groping for brand engagement and return on investment?

American Express gives customers content they want, rather than self-promotional garbage.
American Express gives customers content they want, rather than self-promotional garbage.
Content marketing, an idea that 's been kicking around since companies started firing up Movable Type blogs, is in the full flush of its industrial revolution.

Corporations are pushing out news stories, infographics and documentary-style videos as if they were run by a Frankenstein combo of Henrys Ford and Luce. Forget press releases and ads. What matters is straightforward, practical, even nonpromotional information that plays well on social networks.

Whether content marketing can emerge from the current noise as a central part of the marketing mix is a matter for debate. By all rights, this should be a breeze. Online advertising isn't exactly winning hearts and minds, even though it might show up occasionally at the right time with the right offer.

Overall, good, propaganda-free information is too easily available on the internet for controlled messages to triumph. And the traditional informational middlemen, the news media, are hurting. What's left is a free-for-all where the best (and best-placed) content will win.

The marketing business is responding to that reality.

Dedicated content roles are popping up at agencies and in marketing organizations. A startup scene is blooming. Spending has increased, anecdotally. Even if it's hard to tell by how much, survey after survey shows marketers' rising interest in content programs. But the era of Big Content has yielded big questions -- about effectiveness, about clutter and, perhaps most dreaded, about bubbles.

"I do think we're in the early stages of a "content bubble,' which is being inflated by the idea that brands should be publishers," said Kyle Monson, content-strategy director at JWT, New York. "It's a good idea, but now we've got a rush of people calling themselves "content strategists,' though they may not have any idea how to create compelling, strategic content."

Mr. Monson identified two things that almost everyone agrees must be present for content marketing to gain clout: quality and accountability.

"There are a few really great content campaigns out there, and loads of terrible ones," he said. "The balance is such that , eventually, CMOs might not want to hear about clever content campaigns anymore, because they've traveled that road before and didn't see the ROI. That's how bubbles pop."

The other perspective is that this is just the beginning of solid investment that can drive business. As experimentation gives way to systematization, the metrics -- soft now -- will firm up.

Toby Murdock, CEO of Kapost, a startup that supplies a publishing platform for brands including Nokia and Verizon Communications, calls it the shift to "real content marketing."

It's "a transformation in which brands truly become publishers," Mr. Murdock said. "They produce substantial volumes of content -- a minimum of five pieces a week -- that are not about their own products but about the interests of their customers. Only such substantial operations can produce real results."

The "not about their own products" part is key to content marketing success.

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