Here is my definition of content marketing:

A plan to grow and engage your customer base that is built around discovering what you can do for someone else, developing and delivering related content, and then measuring the results.

I like to think of content marketing as the Buddhist philosophy approach to attracting customers. Each piece you create and give freely to others is a deposit in the karma bank.

You don’t expect an immediate transaction with that person, but you expect the positive energy will return to you over time.

Or we can take an analogy from western religion. As in Luke 6:38, “Give, and it shall be given to you.” Hopefully before the end of the fiscal year.

If these analogies make it sound like content marketing relies too much on wishful thinking, I draw your attention to the word plan and the phrase measuring the results in my definition. Without these, we’re talking about content production, not real marketing. The distinguishing characteristic of content marketing is to give without expectation of a transaction, but that doesn’t mean you don’t keep count.

I crib my definition of content marketing in part from Darcy Rezac’s book The Frog and Prince: Secrets of Positive Networking to Change Your Life, which defines networking as “discovering what you can do for someone else.”

A good networker concentrates on being genuinely helpful instead of manufacturing uncomfortable encounters with strangers and vague business associates, hoping to somehow magically convert yourself into sparkling extrovert and them into clients.

The same approach is at the core of content marketing. Utility is its watchword. In fact, one of the thought leaders in this area, Jay Baer, titled his book on the subject Youtility: Why Smart Marketing Is About Help Not Hype.

Being helpful to others usually means developing and sharing valuable information and analysis, which you then distribute where your target customers can discover it.

Over time, this leads these potential customers to see you as a trustworthy authority on their concerns and interests. And that should lead them to engage with you more, which leads to them indicating an interest in your product, and you’re on your way to a sale.

This rough sketch probably makes it sound almost too easy, because it doesn’t account for all the messiness of how this gets done.

To excel at content marketing, you have to pay attention to search engine positioning, optimizing for mobile, landing pages, lead forms, social media marketing and probably some new factors that are gaining influence as I write.

But those things aren’t what define content marketing. Those are craft issues. In fact . . . .

A definition of content marketing should focus on the function before the form

Sometimes people confuse content marketing with a channel, format or medium. But just because it’s on the blog section of a website doesn’t make it content marketing. Ditto social media profiles and YouTube accounts.

And some common formats recently include slide presentations, infographics, podcasts, webinars and “ebooks” (which are usually just pamphlets in downloadable form.)

These channels and formats can and should be used to share content that centers on what you can do for someone else. But they also can and should be used for other tactics like promotion and company announcements.

The channel isn’t what makes it content marketing. The definition of content marketing is based on its function, not its form.

Really, we should all probably assume that formats will come and go. Holograms might replace pop up forms or something. Or maybe artisanal small-batch cassette tapes delivered by drones will replace podcasting. Who knows? Trend watching is harmless but building your content strategy around a format trend is a mistake. We can keep an eye out for those trends and test them when they emerge, but we can’t control them.

Being helpful to your customers is in your control and will always be valuable no matter what channels they move through or what formats become popular.

Most definitions of content marketing describe what it isn’t

As a former English teacher, I have an allergy to definitions that depend on describing what something isn’t. But as a practical matter, it helps to emphasize what you should leave out of your content marketing project, because that can make all the difference.

Some of the no-go areas in the definition of content marketing include:

  • Your usual messaging.
  • Boilerplate.
  • Advertising of any kind.
  • Press releases, company news, announcements.
  • Anything “salesy.” (Sorry sales teams. No offense intended. We love what you do.)

I often ask my clients, “Would this piece make sense and be useful to your readers if your company name was scrubbed out of it?” If not, then it’s probably really something else like an ad, a press release or a product description.

Other things that you may consider including, with caution, include calls to action or information about you and your products or services, but tread very carefully here.

On the one hand, as soon as you start referencing yourself and the terrific things you do, the target reader’s antenna start to tingle, and the trust you are trying to establish with them is in jeopardy.

On the other hand, you need to start converting these visitors into leads and ultimately into sales, right?

A good content marketing strategist will help you identify where in the sales funnel to ask a visitor to indicate a deeper interest, such as by signing up for a newsletter.

Check out these content strategy and planning tools


No one is saying ads are bad. Well, some people are, but that’s not the point.

So, now we all agree that there should be a bright line between content marketing materials and traditional marketing tactics like ads, press releases, product pages and promotional emails. Right?

That isn’t necessarily a value judgement. Traditional promotion methods still have a place in your overall marketing plan.

But I’m also not going to pretend that no one else is making a value judgement about those things. A lot of people who work in content marketing argue that this or that traditional tactic is a dead end . . . morally dubious.

For example, you often hear the term “interruption marketing” to describe advertising, and I don’t think they mean it in a nice way.

People make a case against traditional advertising that is worth considering, and you definitely should regularly evaluate the value you are getting out of each tactic in your overall mix.

But a definition of content marketing based on being helpful to others doesn’t inherently rule out the benefits of traditional marketing tools. And you shouldn’t assume that embracing this approach necessarily means giving up other approaches.

In short, don’t let the “don’t be salesy” attitude in content marketing circles nudge you into an either/or way of thinking. You can still do both.

No one is saying ads are bad. Well, some are, but that’s not the point.

It’s not what it sounds like

Between you and me, I don’t like the term content marketing. I don’t think it captures the distinguishing characteristic of helpfulness or utility. It tempts people into thinking that all content is content marketing.

Press releases are content. Ads are content. Tweets are content. A cellphone video of the CEO’s impromptu speech at the office Christmas party is highly entertaining content.

But just because you put that content out in the world doesn’t make it helpful. This is basically reducing the definition of content marketing to “stuff,” which is lazy thinking. Any time you hear someone say, “We’ve always done content marketing” and then point to all the stuff they generated, you’re talking to someone who doesn’t want to think strategically or about how the marketing landscape is changing.

I wish there was a term in common currency that better captured the distinction between this new thing and traditional approaches like advertising, public relations and internal communications. Or how it fits in with new marketing disciplines that are emerging like demand generation, product marketing and business development, none of which are easy to define themselves.

Again, the core characteristic that I believe you have to keep in mind is a plan to grow through content that’s helpful to others. Maybe it would be better if we called it help-based marketing. But content is the term that has caught on, so we seem stuck with it.

Characteristics of good content marketing

Just because it’s content, doesn’t mean it’s any good. I rely on a definition of content marketing based on helpfulness because it acts as a built-in quality standard. If it’s going to be helpful, then it’s necessarily going to have some of the following characteristics:

  • It says something new. To be useful, content marketing necessarily has to say something your customer didn’t already know, right? I always tell my writers, find the most shared articles on this subject from the most reputable sources, and use that as the plateau from which to start your ascent. We want to figure out what hasn’t yet been said on this subject and to provide that.
  • Rigorously informed. The best content marketing stands out by getting beyond a superficial treatment of a subject to provide in-depth information.
  • Valuable. Really great content brands aren’t afraid to give away the goods for free. They start with what they know that customers can’t find anywhere else, and they find ways to share it. You want to put out information, analysis or commentary that customers value because it solves their problems or helps them understand an issue better.
  • Customer-centric, natch. How useful (and trustworthy) will it be if it puts your company first? That’s why content marketing is defined often as “not salesy.” Sales is company centric. Helpul means putting the customer’s needs first.
  • Authentic. Phony does not equal helpful. Great content marketing builds relationships and builds trust by letting customers hear a different kind of voice — often multiple voices if you get lots of stakeholders involved in creating the content. You don’t want to do anything to undermine your carefully cultivated brand messaging, of course. But your content marketing project is a great opportunity to set aside the sales mode and just share your company’s spirit and values directly.
  • It explores as much as it argues. Providing answers isn’t the only way to be helpful. Great insight often emerges after a period of exploring and wrestling with problems. Outlining the complexity of a problem and then putting your finger on what about it nobody has yet mastered — including you — can be helpful to readers. And it goes a long way to demonstrating authenticity.

Content should be focused on others, up to a point

The goal of thoughtful content marketing is to grow your business through helping others, so it needs to be strategic. Simply “starting a blog” is creating content, but it’s not marketing. For it to succeed, it should be:

  • planned with different points in the sales funnel in mind. You want a mix of content that appeals to lurkers, MQLs, SQLs and current customers. (Yes, people who have already passed through the sales funnel should be part of your content marketing plans. Engagement helps with renewals and upsells.) A good managing editor who also understands marketing will help ensure that your editorial calendar is hitting all those points.

definition of content marketing

Characteristics of bad content marketing

You’ve seen it cluttering up company blogs and social media streams. If you have a Google alert set up on a subject you’re interested in, you probably know what I mean . . . every day you get a digest of 10 new articles, 9 of which tell you what you already knew about that subject or otherwise insult your intelligence. Not helpful!

Companies jumping on the content marketing bandwagon are flooding social media with these quick hit articles, but I doubt they’re doing much for their brand over the long term.

Clickbait — headlines optimized for maximum seduction — gets a bad rap, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that in and of itself.

The underlying problem is what I call the clickbait-and-switch headline that doesn’t follow through. The reader gets there and finds the same old junk.

Bad content marketing over-promises and under-delivers.

It’s shallow or derivative of earlier material. It doesn’t use the existing conversation as a plateau to ascend from but as something that can be reconstituted into a format that hopefully gets more shares. This stuff is giving content marketing a bad name, so it’s natural to be skeptical about this trend.

You know you’re reading bad content marketing when you it’s stating the blindingly obvious. For example, an article with a headline promising 5 steps to plan a particular business solution will start off by explaining in a roundabout way that step 1 is to develop a plan.

Usually these articles are written by entry-level marketing associates, which would be fine if they had guidance from an skilled editor holding them to a high standard. But the strategy a lot of companies are following is built around affordable and efficient volume (i.e. low-paid and inexperienced writers) rather than around developing high-value material for customers.

Where is the content marketing trend coming from?

The main driver of this trend is a change in buyer behaviors. We all trust less, tune out sales messages more and do a ton of information gathering before ever letting a company know we are interested in them.

You see lots of figures thrown around saying that X% of the buyer’s decision is made before they ever make contact with their first choice provider.

One calculation of this trend in enterprise sales is from CEB, which finds that 52% of the average B2B purchase decision journey is over before the seller hears from the buyer.

Content marketing is about influencing that first 52% of the journey.

If you consider your own buying behavior and how it has probably changed from 15 years ago, you’ll see what I mean.

Suppose you are in the market for retirement planning advice. Now compare what you would do today versus what you might have done before ubiquitous internet access.

I know the first time that I needed to roll over a 401k into an IRA, I looked in the yellow pages for investment advisors, called the place with the best designed ad, made an appointment at their downtown office and bought the mutual fund of the first glossy brochure that was unfolded in front of me. (Don’t ask how it worked out. The late nineties market is a sore point with a lot of people.)

It would be almost impossible to be that naive today. Most people read dozens of blog posts before they even look for a contact page. But whose contact page they look for — and whose they avoid — is likely to be influenced by those dozens of articles.

Trust or distrust is being built up before the investment advisor is even aware that there’s a prospect out there in the market.

Content marketing is basically a response to this trend in buying behaviors. It may seem scary that the balance of power has shifted toward consumers. But smart companies are seizing on the opportunity to establish a relationship early in the buying journey by providing high quality, trustworthy and valuable information and analysis.

Sounds like a lot of work? What’s the upside?

The advantages of content marketing are numerous and are worth a longer discussion. But briefly for now, companies are investing more and more into this tactic because:

  • You own it. Most traditional marketing involves renting time or space on someone else’s platform. Your own website may not have as a big an audience as a broadcast medium, but you can control your own fate more at a lower cost.
  • You can measure content marketing. Even if it’s a total bomb, you can know that, learn from it and adjust, whereas the real impact of traditional marketing tactics remain a mystery.
  • It works. Good content marketing projects aren’t a total bomb, as numerous studies have shown. Hubspot’s State of Inbound 2014 report, for example, found that website visitor conversion rates can double from 6% to 12%, that it saves 13% on cost per lead and that it delivers 54% more leads to the marketing funnel. (Updated: The State of Inbound 2016 report is out. tl;dr — Customers have more power over ads than marketers do.)
  • It retains value. I like to think of content marketing as asset building like paying a mortgage. When you send a rent check, that’s a cost you can’t recoup. When you pay the mortgage, part of the cost also helps build equity. With content marketing, each piece brings your site more links and more traffic, which brings more attention to older pieces, which go on getting shared, steadily growing the equity you hold.
  • It grows in value. Like a home you have equity in, you can make improvements to your content assets by going back to old pieces, identifying the greater potential they have, sprucing them up, clearing out the gutters, adding on a new patio and publishing them again.

Definition of content marketing - an asset that grows like a home mortgage

And the downside?

I can think of just three downsides to content marketing, and, believe me, these are not small issues. For all the advantages of content marketing that I’m arguing above, I don’t want to give the impression that it’s simple.

  • First, you can measure content marketing, but it’s not a snap. It takes some patience to get the tools in place and to use them so that you have meaningful outcomes data.
  • Second, the work that bookends the actual content creation takes more attention than many people count on. Hiring writers is the easy part compared to content strategy, crafting good assignments for writers, editing, formatting and optimizing, illustrating, distribution and promotion. Someone needs to own all these pieces or the writing will get stuck in a bottleneck.
  • Third, it takes some patience. An ad buy can give a quick lift, but building traffic and sustaining it through trust and authority takes more time, so it can be challenging for an organization with a lot of competing interests to keep up the commitment while waiting to see results.

Content marketing is about turning a challenge into opportunity

Some might feel another downside is how crowded and noisy the space is already. But I believe the noise can be used as a competitive advantage. Other brands are out there setting a low standard that you can stay above. The more the others scream and shout with junky content, the more the confident authority of your content will stand out.

Related reading: Hiring a Ghostwriter: Because Your CEO Has Big Ideas and Very Little Time

When customers tune out the noise, what they hear will be that much sweeter.

Anybody can compete in this space, but not everyone will have the follow through to do it well. You can do it, though, if you remember all the parts of the definition of content marketing I offered above. Skimping on any part makes it less than a real content marketing project. You have to plan with a particular goal in mind, spend time discovering what you can do for someone else, develop that, deliver that and then measure the results.

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