It feels like we've all been talking a lot about content marketing for the last two years, even though the concept isn't really new. We just used to call ads that looked like content "advertorials," but what we're seeing today is a lot more than that.
What has changed, and in dramatic fashion, is how brands are thinking about content creation. It's become very aspirational. Until recently, the notion that brands should try to think like publishers was counterintuitive. Either you were a legacy media company and had a publishing platform, or you didn't. And if you didn't, your only way onto the platform with the right set of eyeballs was to buy your way in via display ads or to insert yourself into stories with a smart PR campaign.
For the marketers that have invested in hiring writers and editors to tell company stories, on their own sites or via platforms like the New York Times, Buzzfeed, Mashable, Sharethrough
However, while content marketing has passed its first set of tests and delivered strong results for many marketers, especially in the b-to-b category, it's not yet a tactic that all brands and agencies must adopt, and it's by no means certain that it ever will be. Serious questions have been raised about whether it's a fad that has reached its tipping point and whether it delivers strong ROI for marketers.
I've been in the business for a long time and have seen some fads come and go while others take root, like social media. I believe content marketing in the aspirational form it takes today belongs in the second category, though of course I have a vested interest. But I have a very practical reason for thinking that way.
From what we've seen, brands that are struggling with content creation are those not fully committing to the concept; content marketing is really an all-in proposition. Some marketers aren't completely in touch with their audience, so they can be tone-deaf. These marketers push content with the intent of making a sale, not helping their target audience with material that's actually useful. Others have a haphazard approach, stopping and starting their content efforts at random intervals. It's hard to succeed this way, since consistency is the key to building up a following.
To engage your target audiences, you need a consistent flow of content backed by investment in resources. That means creating a newsroom and hiring experienced writers, editors and producers to bring content to life, though we've also seen brands be successful when they outsource the writing or are working with content management companies to help them with their presence.
My prediction is that the content marketing revolution will come in waves, and the next phase is the realization that this practice is not a one-size-fits-all undertaking. To date, some companies have had wild success, while others have faltered. And that's in no small measure because content marketing, when done the right way, combines the science of targeting with real art.
We've seen numerous examples of companies you wouldn't expect getting great at storytelling. I'm talking about b-to-b companies like VistaVu Solutions and Bankers Healthcare Group, which don't work with big creative agencies or normally make a splash at Cannes, but have done amazingly cool, creative things and vaulted themselves onto our list of the top Sponsored Updates of 2014.
While content marketing will probably continue to be called out as a practice whose days are numbered, just as SEO, email and banners have been, its relevance will endure for the brands that crack the code. And we think just about any company can.