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Is branded content giving content marketing a bad name?

It’s difficult to put an exact figure on how much is spent on content marketing annually, not least because it depends on whether you’re talking about work being produced on behalf of brands or what they create in-house. According to PQ Media, the combined figure works out at US$144bn globally and is set to grow to US$313bn by the end of the decade.

What’s not clear is whether that forecast includes what many of the international advertising award festivals categorise as Branded Content & Entertainment (BC&E), however Joe Pulizzi of the Content Marketing Institute (CMI) would rather we stopped using the term ‘branded content’ altogether. He thinks that branded content is giving content marketing a bad name:

“It’s a word created by the world of paid media … by advertisers, agencies, and media planners.”

That hasn’t stopped Joe from including native advertising and other descriptors from the world of paid media in the 75 entry categories of the CMI’s Content Marketing Awards.

Regardless, if you scratch the surface of Joe’s deliberate provocation, there’s actually a more serious point being made. In short, all marketing is increasingly becoming based around content, so why bother sticking the word ‘content’ in front of ‘marketing’ now, unless it explains how what you are doing is different from other brand-funded content forms?

For Joe, the type of work that gets entered in the BC&E category at Cannes Lions and other similar contests is still basically advertising rather than content marketing, because he considers it to be mostly campaign-based rather than “ongoing editorial products serving an audience”. This distinction seems to suggest that Joe sees content marketing as a publishing model, which might explain why he champions John Deere’s The Furrow print and digital magazine as a great example of the discipline.

What I find disappointing about Joe’s take on this is that he both frames content marketing as a form of publishing and puts it on a pedestal. In doing so, he writes off the really exciting space where the advertising and entertainment worlds are colliding. This includes scheduled programming with some great work like the Farmed and Dangerous sitcom for Chipotle by Piro that aired on Hulu, and The Office-like Brändärit (Buy This) sitcom on MTV in Finland by TBWA\Helsinki and Fremantle Media – about an ad agency where spoof ads created as part of the show were then aired in the breaks.

Interestingly, Joe endorses the term ‘content brands’ that Andrew Davis, author of Brandscaping and Town Inc., has been promoting instead of ‘branded content’.

Andrew recently challenged me to a branded content vs. content brands debate on Blab where we ended up violently agreeing. Unlike Joe, Andrew doesn’t hold that content marketing is necessarily always better than other content-based tactics and solutions, only that we’ve reached the point where content marketing has to be more clearly defined in order to explain what’s different about it and why. He’ll be writing about this in more detail soon, but his work in progress definition is as follows:

“Good content marketing is regularly scheduled programming delivered to build a valuable audience in order to increase demand for the product or service you sell.”

This definition explains not only what Andrew thinks content marketing is, but also what you need to do with it and why, i.e. the business problem it helps solve and how. It’s the scheduling of content that sets what Andrew sees as ‘good’ content marketing apart from other approaches, and this allows for both editorial-style periodical publishing and TV-like scheduled programming. Perhaps more significantly, Andrew sees scheduling as a means to an audience-building end, where people tuning in or subscribing to regular output can be valued in terms of the ROI they generate through product or service sales.

The problem I have with Andrew’s definition is that it attempts to describe retrospectively an existing set of practices that are, in reality, much less clearly defined. Put simply, he's talking about what he thinks something should be, rather than what a large number of other practitioners already think it is. You only have to look at the 75 categories in the CMI’s Content Marketing Awards to get an idea of just how broad the space is.

In a world that’s becoming increasingly on-demand, I’m also not sure why Andrew places so much importance on the scheduling of content. I’ve no doubt he’s correct that the ROI of an audience can be quantified, but I would be interested to understand how the scheduling of content makes that audience any more or less valuable.

What is clear is that there’s an increasing need for a new lexicon to describe the different areas of marketing, now that content is at the heart of them all. And what I like a lot about Andrew’s definition of content marketing is that it at least provides a starting place by describing a particular activity or category, and one that some people believe is better delivered by those with editorial publishing and TV programming backgrounds than those who specialise in crafting messages in 30-second executions.

In the meantime, the likes of Cannes still set the industry standard by which all content work is judged. In the end, it’s likely to be new ways of measuring the value of these different approaches that prove their efficacy, rather than debates about what you call them, however provocative.

Justin Kirby is vice-president of strategic content marketing at Tenthwave and founder and curator at BOBCM

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