Apples are not oranges – and ‘content marketing’ means nothing

The Promotion Fix is a​n ​exclusive biweekly column for The Drum from Samuel Scott, a global keynote marketing speaker who is a former journalist, newspaper editor, and director of marketing and communications in the high-tech industry. Follow him @samueljscott.

The moment that you slap a call-to-action on any piece of marketing collateral, it becomes direct-response advertising.

More on that after a story.

When I was a journalist in Boston, the staff once spent 30 minutes debating the definition of a word. I was writing an article about the city’s efforts to reduce accidents on Storrow Drive, and I wanted to use “collision” to refer to the sides of two cars hitting each other (as was a common occurrence). We argued over whether “collision” means only two things running directly head-on into each other or if it can refer to two things hitting each other in any way.

Journalists are pedantic because we aim to use the words that are the most accurate, neutral and fair. My first career in journalism is why I now have a pathological aversion to buzzwords and bullshit when I write about the marketing industry.

Definitions exist for a reason. Definitions explain what something is and is not. A definition is a boundary between something and everything else in the world.

An “apple” is a sweet, pomaceous fruit that has a moderate amount of fibre. An “orange” is a citrus fruit that is an excellent source of vitamin C. If I say that I am eating an “apple,” I am communicating that I am eating an “apple” and not an “orange.”

Professional disciplines have agreed-upon definitions of terms because they provide a common vocabulary and framework within which people in the field can discuss relevant topics. In marketing, for example, “direct marketing” and “public relations” are two parts of the promotion mix, and each refer to specific practices and have their own specific goals and performance metrics.

If I decide to focus only on “direct marketing” in a marketing strategy, I am choosing to do “direct marketing” and not “public relations”. (Or vice versa.) In the professional marketing world, every marketing tactic has a very precise meaning that explains what it is and is not.

Does “content marketing” really exist?

Over the next few weeks, thousands of marketers will gather at two major events called the Intelligent Content Conference in Las Vegas and the Content Marketing Conference. But will they truly be learning a separate and distinct thing? Let’s look at some definitions.

The Content Marketing Institute (CMI) defines “content marketing” in this way:

"Content marketing is a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly-defined audience – and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action."

But is that something truly separate and distinctive? Let’s go back to one of the basic elements of marketing theory. Here’s the definition of “marketing communications” (from my old textbook 'Principles of Marketing' by Philip T. Kotler and Gary Armstrong):

"A company’s total promotion mix – also called its marketing communications mix –consists of the specific blend of advertising, public relations, personal selling, sales promotion, and direct-marketing tools that the company uses to persuasively communicate customer value and build customer relationships."

In the end, both “marketing communications” and “content marketing” are merely the creation and transmission of marketing collateral over channels to an audience. “Marketing communications” came before the “content marketing,” so by definition the latter is merely a buzzword for the former.

Still, CMI does put an emphasis on the “valuable” and “relevant” parts of its definition to claim that “content marketing” is something distinctive. But is that true?

Advertising is always advertising

David Ogilvy once said that this direct-response advertisement was his best work:

It’s informative, “valuable,” and “relevant” – and it would likely be called “content marketing” today. Just take a look at this:

On the left, Ogilvy’s ad. On the right, one common layout of a blog post. Except for the changes in the placements of page elements, the two are exactly the same. And what do both usually contain? Informative, valuable text and graphics with a call to action at the end.

Such “content marketing” is essentially just direct-response advertising. Proof of that fact is that people on the Internet increasingly despise “blogspam” because they hate the sales pitches in advertisements that masquerade as pure information. It’s the same reaction people generally have to direct-response marketing. Even when marketers claim that they are “providing useful information,” the goal is always merely to sell something.

But the issue still goes further.

The word “content” is the problem

The word “content” is defined as whatever is inside of something. The content of a wine glass. The content of a university course. The content of the Kremlin’s blackmail dossier on Donald Trump. It’s a catch-all term that means nothing precise or useful. If a word means everything, it means nothing.

And it call goes back to Bill Gates’ 1996 essay 'Content is King':

“I expect societies will see intense competition-and ample failure as well as success-in all categories of popular content-not just software and news, but also games, entertainment, sports programming, directories, classified advertising, and on-line communities devoted to major interests.”

In his piece, Gates essentially said that the most successful websites will be those that contain the best “content” for a specific audience. Well, duh.

The internet is another medium in which websites compete with all other websites just as TV stations and radio channels and print publications all compete with each other for an audience. Marketing has not changed; there are merely more available online and offline channels today.

With such a vague definition, “content” has come to refer to anything and everything that is placed online. But that definition is useless from a strategic perspective. The word is now being used to refer to everything under the marketing sun:

  • A Kissmetrics post by Chuck Liu refers to both Amazon’s product recommendations, which is sales copy, and The New York Times’ articles, which is journalism, as “content”
  • Netflix calls its online catalogue of TV shows and movies, the company’s product, “content”
  • A Spin Sucks PR blog post by Blake Davies says that publicity collateral is “content”
  • A speaker at Social Media Week said that “visual content” is the future of advertising – as though TV ads, graphical print ads, and online video ads have never existed
  • On Medium, Susan Su said that “everything we can read, see, hear, watch, or experience live” is “content”
  • Kelsey Libert of the Frac.tl content marketing agency referred to standard publicity campaigns as “content marketing”
  • Andrew Warren-Payner at Econsultancy referred to the Red Bull Stratos jump, a publicity stunt, as “content marketing”
  • A blogger said this brand advertising spot from AT&T is “content marketing”

If a word means everything, it means nothing.

Why is it that an advertisement on TV is “advertising,” but the same advertisement placed on a website somehow becomes “content”? I have a guess. Digital marketers are ashamed to use the word “advertisement” – particularly when referring to brand advertisements – because so-called “inbound marketing” was supposed to kill advertising and the internet was supposed to lead to an entirely different type of marketing.

That did not happen.

By definition, the same term should be used for the same marketing collateral regardless of the online or offline medium over which it is transmitted.

Fix the promotion mix

If you say that you are writing an opinion column for The Drum, I know what you mean. If you say that you are sending an email newsletter as part of a direct-response campaign, I know what you mean. If you say that you are doing a study as part of a publicity campaign, I know what you mean. If you say that you are creating a commercial for a brand advertising TV spot, I know what you mean. If you say that you are creating informational material as part of an SEO campaign to rank highly in Google search results, I know what you mean.

If you say that you are going to produce a piece of “content,” I have no idea what you mean.

Marketers utter the phrase “content is king” and the word is the inspiration for countless cliched headlines and conferences talks, but I still maintain that there is almost always a better and more precise word to use.

It’s time to fix the promotion mix by getting rid of the useless word “content” and using the same terms when discussing online and offline marketing activity. If one is doing marketing communications, then it is already assumed that one is creating and transmitting marketing collateral of some sort. After all, CMI itself states that “quality content is part of all forms of marketing.” So-called “content teams” are simply doing what creative teams have always done.

As I stated in a keynote talk last last year at the Lithuanian Marketing Association, the “promotion” part of marketing communications (one of the four Ps) has always been the creation of a message, the insertion of that message into a piece of collateral (or “content”), and the transmission of that collateral over a channel to an audience:

That process occurs within one of the five frameworks of brand advertising, direct-response marketing, public relations, sales promotion, or personal selling. (Today, I would also add SEO to that list.) The internet is just a new set of channels over which collateral can be transmitted to an audience.

The beauty of this classic paradigm is that each framework has accepted best practices as well as strategic times when to use and not use them. Merely throwing around the word “content” around does little to help marketers. At worst, as Doc Searls puts it, “content” minimizes the creative process and reduces journalism and marketing communications to the mass production of “widgets” that are thrown online with the goal of spending as little as possible. (Just ask the content farm that tried to sell my company crap 1,000-word blog posts at $60 a pop.)

Martin Bryant says it perfectly:

“‘Content’ is a word for people who don’t really care what’s produced as long as they can sell it, or put ads against it, or use it as part of their marketing strategy. I wince every time I catch myself using it. In too many cases, artists have been downgraded to the status of mere ‘content creators.’”

The marketing world needs to accept that the internet did not change marketing that much. The internet is just a collection of new channels. A brand advertisement is brand advertising regardless of whether it appears in a newspaper or YouTube. A publicity stunt is publicity regardless of whether it is done at a live event, broadcast on TV, or spread by a Facebook video. Direct-response marketing can occur over postal mail, email, or PPC ads.

Digital marketers need to stop using the word “content,” be completely honest about what we are doing, and use the correct terminology when creating strategies. Only then can we use the best practices within marketing communications that have been developed over the past century. Only then will we do our best work.

I’ll leave you with these words from Greg Satell:

“We never call anything that’s good “content.” Nobody walks out of a movie they loved and says, “Wow! What great content!” Nobody listens to “content” on their way to work in the morning. Do you think anybody ever called Ernest Hemingway a “content creator”? If they did, I bet he would punch ‘em in the nose.”

The Promotion Fix is a new, exclusive biweekly column for The Drum contributed by Samuel Scott, director of marketing and communications for AI-powered log analysis software platform Logz.io and a marketing speaker on integrated traditional and digital marketing. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Scott is based out of Tel Aviv, Israel.

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