You might be asking yourself why organizations are using content marketing or where this trend is coming from.

One way to understand the growth of this approach is to think about your own behavior as a consumer. Imagine you have a big decision to make — for example, if you were in the market for a financial services product of some kind, like a retirement investment or car insurance.

Now compare what you do now to what you might have done 10 years ago or to what your parents did in a previous generation when it comes to making those kinds of buying decisions.

You’ll probably notice immediately that there have been dramatic changes in consumer behavior and in the way we gather information and make purchase decisions.

If you’re like most people, what you’re going to do in that situation is go online, look for advice and make yourself as well-informed as possible before you start to engage with the actual seller of whatever product it is.

That’s different from the past when you, as a customer, didn’t have access to so much information online as you do now. Consumers have become more empowered in general, more discriminating, more resistant to advertising, less loyal and quicker to change brands.

The content marketing trend is being driven by factors you can probably recognize from the purchasing side.

The balance of power and consumers

There’s a feeling in marketing — somewhat exaggerated, I think — that consumers are in control. A more reasonable way of putting it is that some of the control has shifted to them and they are directing more of their buyer journey.

In short, you as the buyer, hold a lot more power than you would have in the same situation a generation ago. What economists call “informational asymmetry” has been rebalanced somewhat.

From the marketer’s standpoint, in the case of a potential customer for a retirement product, they don’t know the potential customer is out there swimming around in the sales funnel.

In years past, the customer’s first step might have been to open the yellow pages and find the company with the best designed ads and start calling.

yellow pages, obsolete in the era of content marketing

Whatever they did, they probably had to reveal themselves to the seller as a lead, and they would have depended on the seller for a lot of information.

Now the buyer is out on the internet self directing their own education about the issue they’re working on. So before the seller ever knows the buyer exists, the buyer is much closer to a decision.

More to the point, the seller’s competitor may never know they exist. They never even get a chance to make their case.

So now marketers have to try different things to develop their customer base, and that’s where content marketing comes in.

You and your DVR. It’s all your fault.

Another reason content marketing has become a preferred method for reaching customers is that people are becoming less trusting of sales messages in general.

Again, if you consider your own behavior as a consumer, you’ll see evidence of the overall trends.

So advertisers have to spend more and more to make the same kind of impact or to get the same lift for their brands. And any lift based on advertising alone is usually temporary, like a sugar rush. You have to keep feeding the beast.

For example, the amount of money that will be spent on political advertising in this campaign season will be double what it was four years ago in an effort to garner roughly the same number of votes overall. In dollars and cents terms, presidential campaign advertising has lost half its value in four years. Donors to the campaigns have our twice as much fuel on the fire to get the same heat.

In other sectors, the erosion in value hasn’t been as dramatic, but the trend is the same. Part of that is just because it’s noisier out there, so even if you as a consumer aren’t hostile toward or resistant to ads, it takes more of them to make an impression on you.

The playing field is somewhat more level

A third reason content marketing is growing is because of the opportunity if offers to smaller organizations and upstarts to get into the game.

Again, consider your own behavior as consumer. If you want to know about something you’re in the market for, where are you going to go?

screenshot of Google search

Google it, of course. And depending on what you search for, there’s a fair chance that the results will include some upstarts unfamiliar to you.

The growth of digital media in general means that in theory anybody can compete. You can put up a website and take your best shot at competing with the biggest brands in the world.

A list of the most successful publications today, for example, will include several that have only ever existed online and started with nothing more than a laptop and some blogging software. Meanwhile, some of the most famous names in publishing in the 20th century are out of business or reduced to irrelevance. When was the last time you visited the Life magazine website? How about Buzzfeed?

Now, it’s not as simple as that for most of us, obviously. You can’t put up a website for your craft ginger ale business and expect that tomorrow it will get the same traffic and attention as Coca-Cola’s website. But you can put up a website much like Coca-Cola can. You can start a Twitter feed just like they can. You can start a YouTube channel like anyone else. You can use all the same digital media tools as any other business in the world.

So, while the playing field isn’t exactly level, it is possible for just about anyone to lace up their cleats and step onto the pitch in ways that were impossible before the rise of digital media.

Whatever niche you are in, if you ask yourself which of the competitors is growing fastest, odds are it’s the handful that are the top of Google search results. And there are precious few industries where among those few there isn’t at least one company this is a digital native upstart.

More Davids per Goliath

David and Goliath

Osmar Schindler (1869-1927): David und Goliath, 1888

So digital media, in general, has created a David and Goliath kind of situation where startups can take their best crack at competing with the dominant powers.

Only now there is an endless supply of Davids. Anyone can sign up for an account with Amazon Web Services and other cloud-based enterprise software, fund their business month-to-month through receipts and see if they can find a foothold in the market.

When you think about it, content marketing is really the only choice if you are a small startup trying to compete for attention with a giant brand. Non-traditional methods are really going to be the only methods available.

Not only can you start a blog or start a Twitter feed or start a YouTube channel. If you don’t have the budget to buy a a Super Bowl ad, then starting a blog and a Twitter feed and a YouTube channel might be the only choice you have. It’s the only thing you can do to start to build awareness for your business.

Stop being a renter in the marketing world

Content marketing trends can be understood by larger economic, demographic and consumer trends. Brands big and small are using this method because they have to reach customers and put themselves in the path of the purchase decision. If you look at your own buyer journey, you’ll see which direction the wind is blowing. Why would you expect your customers to behave any differently than you do?

I want to leave you with one other advantage of content marketing that gets overlooked.

That’s the fact that content marketing is owned media. That’s a big upgrade versus traditional media where you rent advertising time on a tv station or space in a newspaper.

Because the newspaper owns that, you don’t have any control over what happens there. And after the ad is run, you don’t have anything to show for your expense apart from the impact it had, which is usually just a temporary lift, at best.

Even in the case of successful PR, it’s in a format that you don’t control. Most marketing professionals know the experience of working hard to pitch an article to their local newspaper and then being disappointed about how that article is presented and about the points that weren’t included.

Your blog probably has a smaller audience than your local newpaper — for now! — but publishing good information there is valuable because you own it and you can control it.

And after time has passed, it goes on providing value to you in ways that most traditional marketing methods don’t. In short, content marketing turns you from a renter of the marketing channel to a property owner.

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