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?
Content: Marketing's Best Hope, or More Hype?
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.
Quality comes from understanding that creating content isn't the same as PR, and it certainly isn't advertising. Seems like an obvious point, but wade through the deepening thicket of content programs and you get mixed results. For every American Express Open Forum or Red Bull Art of Flight, there are many more crap ones, graveyards.
In an-almost-too-easy example, try Citigroup's blog, almost wholly self-promotional with lots of blabbing about stuff no one cares about, like its 200th anniversary. Compare it with Mint.com, which has useful yet entertaining personal finance advice.
Mint gets posts from Contently, a startup co-founded by Shane Snow as a network of journalists who provide articles for fledgling brands.
Managing such an undertaking is a messy task that most brands don't want to add to their capacious to-do lists. Contently does it for them, working with the likes of American Express, Rackspace and Vault.
Explaining content's value has been reliant on "proxy ROI" -- "likes," "followers" and whatnot -- that may not correlate with conversions, Mr. Snow said. But that 's changing.
"PR agencies are coming to us and saying that the cost per impression of creating content and having people share it is much lower than buying StumbleUpon or clicks or ads," Mr. Snow said. "They're not closing the loop in terms of sales, but it's better than what they've seen so far."
Parker Ward, digital content manager at Weber Shandwick, said that while more work is needed to draw a straight line to sales, content represents better value than ads.
"With an effective content engine, it costs less to bring a visitor to a platform through content than display advertising," Mr. Ward said.
In addition, he said, "user behavior of opt-in referrals from "content' sources -- search, return visits, social-channel promotion, syndication partners -- encourages them to stay longer and be more engaged."
As this gets hashed out, content marketers for sexy brands might do well to look to the comparatively unglamorous business-to-business field for guidance. A whopping 90% of B2B brands play in the content-marketing space, and devote a bit more than a quarter of their overall budgets to it, according to the Content Marketing Institute. And many of them are getting real results.
Eloqua, a digital-marketing automation company, publishes guides that are free but require surrendering contact information that has allowed Chief Content Officer Joe Chernov to link the content to income. In 2010, more than $2 million in revenue could be connected to just four guides, according to a recent report by Altimeter.
In addition, Mr. Chernov has hired a former journalist, Jesse Noyes, as corporate reporter to boost content volume.
And what of Indium's 73 blogs? Though the number may sound outlandish, it came out of a search-based strategy that found that many keywords were driving people to the site. According to the same Altimeter study, by Rebecca Lieb, the blogs were responsible for a 600% lift in customer contacts in just one quarter.
Not bad when your topics are tombstoning, phase-change material and pop flux.