Recently I caught up with an old business acquaintance that I had not seen for about 17 years. He was interested in how I ended up in the world of Content Marketing, which he thought was a hot emerging marketing segment.
As I told my story, I increasingly realized that “emerging” was in fact a total mischaracterisation, given that Content Marketing was all I had done for the past 17 years. In different shapes and forms, mind you, but all with the common essence—an inherent value imparted on quality content by consumers looking for inspiration, entertainment, solutions and information.
The following is a synopsis of my experience and view on the evolution of how content gets used:
In my early years of promotional marketing, the focus was on premium incentives, i.e. “gift with purchase” or “purchase with purchase” to motivate a transaction. Our niche: giving away or deeply discounting content. Yes—content! Books that delivered on consumers’ needs, albeit totally disconnected from the context of the brands that supported the promotion. That was my first exposure to how consumers really love and value content.
Given the resulting sales uplift driven by gifting content, the value to the consumer was clear to me as was the value to the brand. But a few years later, I discovered a UK-based company, Redwood, that had bridged the gap and was delivering content in context of the host brand, i.e. valuable inspiration, entertainment, solutions and information that was totally immersed in the brand experience, its products and services, yet still steeped in value to the consumer. That’s where in my view, Content Marketing has extended its utility from promotion to brand engagement in the form of custom publishing.
As I reflect on “emerging” again, I would describe today’s scenario as the digital and social media explosion dumping massive amounts of fuel on an already existing fire. Why? In the proliferation of technology leading to consumer control, brands are challenged to “reach” consumers and engage them—500-channel televisions, PVR, search engines, cell phones, etc have taken care of that. Brands are increasingly aware of the need to be “discoverable” anywhere. In my view, this means communication that has inherent value encapsulated in the content forms mentioned above. Of course, content is no longer limited to custom magazines, but extended to websites, email, blogs, tweets, friends and so on. That is the price of permission to engage with the immersive brand experience always understood by custom publishers. But given that discoverability is nowadays usually via technology, engaging content means sensitivity to technology filters, i.e. content is the prize at the end of a search string, delivered through great SEO and journalistic craftsmanship.
Where to now, you ask? My instinct tells me that we might be on the cusp of closing the loop. Think back to my start. Content as a promotional tool. Yes, a loop back from the focus around “brand engagement” to now create linkage and context between inspiration, entertainment, solutions, information and promotion or even better, transaction. Visualize the value given to a consumer by offering up recipes from a host supermarket that recognizes that their customers’ problem is not necessarily related to shopping, but rather cooking—low skills, no ideas and children to feed. So we know how to offer that up in a brand experience, but digital allows us to cross reference recipe to ingredients to products, their prices and availability and for some, a link to e-commerce.
We can take the reverse route for some brands, given that we are now living in more cost conscious times, and scanning for deals is getting easier and easier thanks to technology. So a “discovered” product at a great price can only be more powerful when set in context of inspired usage. What good is that cauliflower if you don’t deliver a tasty and foolproof recipe care of the brand that can be lovingly tweeted to friends? That’s engagement, transaction and advocacy all rolled up into Content Marketing 3.0.