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What's Content Marketing Again?

And what isn't content?

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In an article yesterday on another financing in content marketing, Re/code’s Peter Kafka raised some legitimate questions about what’s going on here, why this a real challenge for marketers, and how big the potential for the space actually is. Or, as he put it: “What is content marketing again, and why is it a thing people are fighting over?”

If Peter is asking these questions, that means there are many more folks in and around the technology industry wondering the same thing. After reading the piece I wanted to take a stab at answering some of the questions he raised. As for my credentials, my company, Percolate, is a software platform that helps brands create content, and between my co-founder, James Gross, and myself, we have spent most of our careers helping brands like GE, Red Bull and American Express find ways to take advantage of content to drive marketing.

Since Peter really asked three questions, I’m going to approach them one at a time. “What is content marketing,” why is “finding something to say to [their] followers” a challenge for marketers and is this “a market that grows beyond a certain size”?

What is content marketing?

In the article, Peter described it like this: “Content marketing supposedly fills a new need advertisers have to say … something to their constituency, by helping those companies source and choose … content.”

I would simplify things even further to say that content marketing is nothing more than brands using content to communicate with audiences. Obviously, this is a pretty broad definition, and raises the question, “what isn’t content?” To that, I’d say very little. Especially in a world where the vast majority of consumer attention is focused on social streams, content is nearly everywhere and nearly everything.

Or as Rebecca Lieb, an analyst that covers the space at Altimeter, put it recently: “Content is the atomic particle of all digital marketing. Everything. There’s no owned media without content. There’s no social media without content. And there’s no paid media without content.”

Now, I’ll admit that content marketing isn’t the best name, and comes along with some heavy baggage of boring brand blogs and black-hat SEO, but I’d argue that the shift to social (and ultimately mobile, which I’ll discuss when I get to market size), is forcing every marketer in the world to become an expert content creator who can create a wealth of interesting, relevant and on-brand content to reach consumers through their platform of choice.

Why is it hard for marketers to figure out what to say?

First off, this has always been the challenge of marketing. This is why companies employ advertising agencies and spend millions of dollars researching their customers. If understanding what to say that will a) engage a consumer and b) drive business results were easy, then building a company would be easy, and every business decision would be made purely on the quality of the product. We know that’s not the case, which, of course, is why marketing departments exist in the first place.

There is, however, more nuance to the question. While it has always been hard to figure out what to say to consumers, in the past, at least you could rely on only needing to figure out a few things to say throughout the year. That’s because all marketing was based around a campaign schedule that had the brand lighting up and powering down communication at various points along the calendar. Brands and their agencies have historically been structured to deliver communication in this manner, and have been shaken up quite a bit as the ability to publish content was handed from the media companies directly to them. At first, this transition was in the form of blogs and Web publishing, and then later in the form of social platforms. We’ve moved from saying a few things a year to a few things a minute.

This transition to a sustained communications strategy is at the heart of the challenge brands face in figuring out what to say. While it might not seem difficult to figure out if you’re an individual who covers a beat or pays attention to a specific universe of interests, if you’re an inanimate object being promoted by a company that needs to move millions of dollars of product on a daily basis, then things are a bit more complex. As you start to layer on a bevy of new targeting options, global markets and new social platforms, you can see how the scale and complexity of the challenge has increased exponentially.

On the social platforms point, if we’ve learned one thing over the last five years, it’s that social is not a zero-sum game, and that marketers are going to need to communicate across multiple channels in a style that’s appropriate for each. Ask a marketer how many platforms they’re focused on, and most will tell you a minimum of four.

The last note on the “why” question is around followers. For a while now, questions have been asked about why consumers follow brands, and what this means. Whereas at one time follower count was a meaningful metric for brands, it’s not any more. The major social platforms have a clear message to marketers: We have the scale and ad products to allow you to reach any consumer segment for a reasonable cost. The marketer’s job, then, returns to creating content that captures their attention and achieves the brand’s objectives, whatever those objectives may be.

How big is this market, anyway?

If we’re looking at the market as being about providing long-form blog content, then not very big. However, if we look at content as the atomic unit of social, and therefore social marketing, then the answer starts to expand pretty rapidly. But even this doesn’t fully capture what’s at stake. To do that, you need to turn your attention to mobile (just as Mark Zuckerberg famously did in his announcement that Facebook is now a mobile company).

What happens in mobile is that all the things that made up digital marketing over the last 15 years start to go away. That means no more flash, cookies, banners or Facebook sidebar ads. The mobile opportunity is about “native advertising,” which, in English, is just about the content and the ad being the same thing. To think about the market opportunity, then, you need to look at the market opportunity for the biggest social platforms (a.k.a. mobile media companies) in the world: Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. (I’m leaving Google off for the sake of simplicity, but I think they belong in this group, as well.)

Those three companies have a combined market cap of around $200 billion dollars wrapped up in their long-term ability to effectively deliver the best consumer targeting that brands have ever seen. If they hope to be successful, they need brands creating engaging content aimed at increasingly well-defined consumer segments that ultimately drives business results. This is a big challenge that everyone (platforms, brands and marketing technology companies) has an incentive to solve for.

I know I’ve said a lot, so let me try to sum this up as succinctly as possible with three statements I think we can all agree with:

  • Massive amounts of consumer attention are moving to mobile social platforms.
  • Those platforms are made up of streams of content, and will offer brands increasingly impressive parameters for targeting unique groups of consumers.
  • For brands to be successful in reaching consumers, they will need to create engaging and on-brand content.

It seems relatively simple, then, that content — and therefore content marketing — sits at the center of the next phase of marketing technology, and offers a massive opportunity.

Noah Brier is co-founder and CEO of Percolate, an enterprise content marketing platform. Reach him @heyitsnoah.

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