The History of Content Marketing


Here’s the edited text of my speech to the B2B Marketing Annual Conference held at Cavendish Square in London on 7 November 2013…

To be clear, today I’m representing my views – not those of the firm that I work for. And it’s one of at least eight different views you’ll get on content marketing today.  In fact many more than eight because you get three formal breakout sessions for networking and then there’s drinks tonight.  So tens of different views on content marketing for you to choose from.  And that’s just today’s conference.

And this isn’t the only conference on content marketing you might have been to or be going to to collect views.  In November 2013 alone there are five other content marketing conferences in London currently being publicised.  Let’s say that there are eight speakers at each event – so that’s forty additional viewpoints that you could expose yourself to.

Then there’s the many views expressed on content marketing that you can find in books.  A quick glance at Amazon shows me that seventy-one books with content marketing in the title have been published in 2013 alone.

Or you could be reading one of the 34,560 links put up on Twitter on content marketing in the last twenty-four hours.

Or you could be reading one of the 969,000,000 articles on content marketing that Google can find for you right now.

Given that there are 969,034,679 views on it that you can easily access right now, the history of content marketing is rather astonishingly short.  The marketing textbooks I used when I was a groovy young marketer back in the day make no mention of content marketing at all.  Not a passing reference in Kotler, Armstrong, Saunders, and Wong’s seminal Principles of Marketing You won’t find the term in Malcolm McDonald’s Marketing Plans: How to Prepare Them, How to Use Them.  Not a peep in Wilson and Gilligan’s Strategic Marketing Management. What about something more B2B and a bit more recent?  Kotler’s 2002 tome, Marketing Professional Services maybe?  Nope. Nothing there.  The CIM‘s Marketing Professional Services by Michael Roe from 2001?  Sorry no.

The first mention of “content marketing” that I can find anywhere as a term dates back to 2007 – just six years ago – when Cleveland Ohio writer and self-styled entrepreneur Joe Pulizzi set up the Content Marketing Institute (CMI), a body that pronounces a better way for brands to market.  Joe Pulizzi has set up a CMI website, a society magazine called “Chief Content Officer”, conferences, and bespoke training.  He even awards one individual with content marketer of the year status.

So content marketing is a term that’s been invented to proliferate the views of Joe Pulizzi.  But there’s nothing wrong with inventing a new term if it adds something to the way we do marketing.  And the hype suggests that this new term really does give us something new.  Mikal E. Belicove says that “When it comes to marketing strategies, content marketing has just been crowned king, far surpassing search engine marketing, public relations and even print, television and radio advertising as the preferred marketing tool for today’s business-to-business entrepreneur.”  Wow!  And B2B Marketing magazine has got the numbers to prove it:- 51% of B2B marketers identified content marketing as being the most important tool for generating leads, outscoring brand awareness (38%), thought leadership (34%) and sales (29%).

So what does the term “content marketing” give us?  Because it’s a new term, I have to look to the internet for the definition.  Mikal E. Belicove defines it as “the creation and publication of original content — including blog posts, case studies, white papers, videos and photos — for the purpose of generating leads, enhancing a brand’s visibility, and putting the company’s subject matter expertise on display.”   But I’m not sure what this adds to any marketing debate. Is anyone really suggesting that there are messages that we send out that don’t contain “content” or that are in some way not designed to generate leads, build visibility, or show off a company’s expertise?  Surely you can’t have search engine marketing without content to draw your audience to?  You can’t have public relations or advertising without content?  The first definition of marketing was coined in 1935 and read: “Marketing is the performance of business activities that direct the flow of goods and services from the producer to the consumer.”  Now there are lots of things in that definition that we should quibble with, but it’s pretty clear that one of the critical business activities even in those days would have been to ensure you have content of some sort to deliver to the consumer.

Let’s turn then to Joe Pulizzi to define the term he claims to have coined.  Joe says that “content marketing is story-telling by brands to attract and retain customers.” Story-telling is not new though.   And nor is story-telling by brands.  The best marketers and communicators have always used storytelling to connect and inspire an audience to act. They have used traditional storytelling structures with beginnings, middles and ends: with heroes and plots and settings.  Take Apple MacIntosh’s ad from the third quarter of the 1983 Super Bowl football game directed by film story-teller Ridley Scott (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2zfqw8nhUwA).  Here an athlete representing Apple is the inspirational, creative, and free-thinking hero over-throwing IBM’s Big Brother in a well-established plot based on George Orwell’s novel. Another example?  Here’s one from a decade earlier (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HgzEBLa3PPk). The chimps are the heroes solving life’s trials with a cup of PG.   And back in the nineteenth century, Thomas J. Barratt told the story of how people got on by using Pears soap.  He added a bar of Pears soap into the foreground of John Everett Millais’s painting of well-groomed middle class children.  He established the Pears Annual in 1891 and the one-volume encyclopedia Pears Cyclopedia in 1897. He launched an annual “Miss Pears” competition in which parents entered their children into a high-profile hunt for a young brand ambassador to be used on packaging.  He recruited scientists and celebrities of the day like British music hall singer with a famous ivory complexion Lille Langtry to endorse the product.  We’re not hawking product features here, we’re telling a story.  We have an integrated marketing campaign that tells a story.  There’s nothing new here. It’s marketing, stupid.  And that’s reflected in the B2B Marketing bench-marking report on content marketing from June 2013 where 76% of marketers said that their organisation’s content marketing strategy was included as part of their overall marketing strategy.  Well, duh.  Of course it is.  Because all we really have in “content marketing” is a new term describing an old term (“marketing”).  How do you tell a story through your marketing?  You find a story that people will want to share.  And you share it.  How people share the story may have changed: on Twitter rather than over the water-cooler.  But the physical fact of sharing has not.

So if this definition of content marketing does not really work as defining something new, where do we go?  Let’s look to the way that august publication B2B Marketing magazine frames all this: “Can you hear the rumble?  That’s the sound of a million pieces of content tumbling towards your business audience, threatening to overwhelm them.  It’s the Content Avalanche.”  Okay.  So here we’re postulating that there’s more content out there than ever before creating more noise for the audience and therefore we marketers need to consider how we hone our content to get cut-through.  This is interesting.  Technology has made our target audience so much more reachable than before.  We have never been more connected with our clients, we have never before had more market information at our finger-tips, we have never before been so instantaneously able to influence our audience.  We may have always had conferences and books on hot topics like content marketing, but never before the Internet and the proliferation of noise created by social media and blogging and the means through search engines to find these quickly.

Okay – but let’s not get carried away.  Perhaps our target audience isn’t quite so overwhelmed as we think.  For now, our buyers are still fundamentally the pre-millennial audience.  One in six FTSE100 board members is aged 65 or over with an average age of 57, according to July 2013 findings from Ortus.  In May, Robert Half UK found that the average FTSE 100 CEO is aged 53.  What that means is that much of our target audience already has an automatic means of screening out most of the content delivered by new technology.  They are not exposed to it!  Social media is hardly a keen interest for the pre-millennials who sit on the Board:- an audit from global PR firm Weber Shandwick earlier this year found just 2 per cent of CEOs from the top 50 companies listed in Fortune Magazine’s 2012 Global 500 rankings have a visible presence on Twitter, and that proportion is actually declining – it was 8% three years ago!  What that means is that it’s likely you have rather more time to adapt to the content avalanche that perhaps you’ve been led to believe.  The snow is building, but it hasn’t yet got momentum.  At EY, I have found that many of our clients here today in 2013 still want to receive content in hard copy and indeed won’t read anything in any other format.  And where new technology is creeping through, it’s in the form of e-mail not social media.

And we humans are quite adaptable to new conditions anyway.  And this content avalanche is not as new a condition as all that.  As a publisher in South Africa at the dawn of the twentieth century, Gandhi would experiment with space, design, and tone in his newspaper articles to give his readers an opportunity to absorb properly the avalanche of content that they faced.  He would give very specific advice to readers, urging them to pause, to memorise, to write out passages and keep their own cuttings.  Content overload is not new and we’ve developed coping mechanisms to deal with it.  We will select content to access on the basis of what we trust and what interests us.  We will ignore most promotional advertising, throw blanket direct mail in the recycling bin, slam the phone down on cold callers.  We will even use technology as an aid to content selection with the likes of Twitter list feeds and iTunes podcast lists.  Canny marketers will therefore position themselves as information processors to aid clients.  In professional services, it is not uncommon for consultants to position themselves as the trusted human interface between information and the client.  And there’s lots of evidence to suggest clients appreciate this.  So the way to market in this world is to build trust in the eyes of your target market by proving your expertise and your usefulness.  Educate and entertain them.  Show them best practice case studies, tell them your thought leadership around what to look out for and how to achieve success, present client testimonials where you’ve helped others in the same position as them.  And be succinct, so respecting the time that your audience has to consume all this.  We need to work towards operating in a world of 140 characters of text or six seconds of film.

And perhaps we’re not being subtle enough in looking at the influence of technology on content.  Perhaps it is not so much the proliferation of content that is the new thing as the change in the nature of the content itself.  Technology enables marketers to interact with their audience like never before.  This means creating and sharing valuable, well-produced, creative content freely because if you give you will get. And it means more personalised content.  Or at least content delivered by new technology rather than old.

Perhaps. But again if there is an avalanche on its way, it’s not yet here.  In the B2B Marketing Content Bench-Marking Report, the most frequently used content type is a press release – with case studies and white papers not far behind.  None of these types are known for their interactive capabilities and none of them are new. The first press release dates back to 1906, the first case study to 1829, and the first white paper to 1922.  And as for personalised content, the B2B Marketing Content Bench-marking Report suggests that 78% of content is tailored merely to a particular industry.  In other words, bog-standard segmentation, targeting and positioning remains the order of the day.

Again when the avalanche comes, there are things to do here: your content will be less self-contained so that people want to engage with you about it and it will be written by a person with a personality that people want to engage with.  Great examples out there now come from the blogs of software company Balsamiq or of Intel’s Inside Scoop web-site.  So be ready.  But the avalanche has not landed.  We’re not yet ready to rumble.

There is mounting indirect evidence that technology is having an impact on us all through heavy stimulation and rapid shifts in attention.  This has an impact on the way we do all of our marketing including the content elements.  In a 2012 study by the Pew Research Centre, 90% of 2,462 US teachers interviewed said that technology was creating an easily distracted generation of people with short attention spans.  In interviews, teachers described what might be called a “Wikipedia problem,” in which students have grown so accustomed to getting quick answers with a few keystrokes that they are more likely to give up when an easy answer eludes them.  The Pew research found that 76 percent of teachers believed students had been conditioned by the Internet to find quick answers.  Teachers also said they were using more dynamic and flexible teaching styles.  One said: “I’m tap dancing all over the place. The more I stand in front of class, the easier it is to lose them.”  What does this mean for marketing?  It means we have to make our marketing easily accessible across the different channels that your audience is likely to use.  Recreate the Pears soap experience for a new generation.  And make your marketing big, bold, and attracting.  We need to be the flashing light-bulbs of our respective businesses.

Technology is also changing when our audiences consume our marketing.  At my previous firm, we found that tablet technology in particular was ensuring that our content was being accessed in the evenings and at weekends.  And the time of viewing was changing the type of content being viewed.  Our audiences were being less siloed in the content they looked at.  More prepared to roam across topic areas and types of content.  That means marketers need to provide broader and deeper content than before.  We are entering a world where the headline content needs to be shorter and the detail deeper.

So where are we?  “Content marketing” is a new term with no history and there’s no standardised definition behind it.  Therefore before you have any conversation with anyone about it, you need to agree a definition as a common reference point.  I have found five possible definitions.  One. If you work for the Content Marketing Institute, the term references brand story-telling, which is not a new thing.  Marketers responding to this need to tell a story that others will want to share.  Two.  For some, the term references a response to a growing proliferation of content that overwhelms the audience because of developments in technology.  There are lots of reasons why you might say that this avalanche has been called too early.  If you buy this definition though, you can use technology and the human as intermediaries to overcome it.  Three.  For some, the term references the change in content brought on by new technology.  Again, there are many reasons why you might say that we are not yet there.  But if you buy this definition, then look to engage your audience with content that your audience wants to respond to shared by personalities your audience trusts.  Four.  For some, the term references the changing way that audiences consume content.  There is a case for this and you need to make your content very accessible and attracting in response.  Five.  The term references the changing times when audiences view marketing.  There is a case for this and it requires deeper and broader content provision than in the past.

The hype around content marketing is undeserved.  There’s no revolution here.  But there are some interesting developments around technology that you need to ensure you cater for in your marketing over the next few years.

Let content be king if you want.  But don’t forget that in this country we stopped living under an absolute monarch during the civil war 350 years ago.

About DaveStevensNow

Dave is an experienced global B2B Chief Marketing Officer / Marketing Director with an established reputation for delivering commercial results in start-up, mid-tier, and blue-chip businesses across professional and financial services, telecoms, and technology sectors. Dave has worked for major brands such as Telefonica O2, EY, and Barclays and held posts from Chief Marketing Officer to Director of Online, has run his own business, and managed a P&L for a major corporate. He is a graduate of Cambridge University, a Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) Chartered Marketer and holds a MBA with Imperial College, London. Dave is a keen cyclist and adventure traveller, is married, and lives in Buckinghamshire. You can read his blogs at www.DaveStevensNow.com.
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