For those of us in traditional media, it’s the source of our problems, and it’s also the uncharted space of our new opportunities.
With bandwidth rising toward infinity and costs falling to near zero, it’s enabling all sorts of new content models to eat our lunch. “Free” digital bandwidth has enabled all of our disrupters, from early ones like Craigslist and Facebook to newer ones like BuzzFeed, Instagram, and SnapChat. And more will keep coming.
A disrupter that’s rising fast right now is content marketing.
That’s a broad and somewhat nebulous term, but let’s define it this way: It’s the practice of developing and distributing engaging content on behalf of a brand or a business. The object is to catch and hold a target consumer’s attention, hoping to convert him or her to a user of the brand or business.
It’s important to catch the difference here. “Advertising,” in the pre-digital era, had exactly the same purpose as “content marketing,” but it was confined to messages of tiny bandwidth.
“Advertising” was the practice of cramming a high-impact brand message into a very small print or broadcast space – business messages in haiku form. “Content marketing” is the practice of developing compelling business messages without any space limitations.
This freedom is so new that most brands and businesses haven’t yet realised it’s available. They – and we, who operate advertising-based media businesses – are still thinking in “advertising” mode.
And this freedom is so new that the forms and functions of content marketing are still being invented. Already it includes an amazingly wide array of tools. It’s not just the obvious things like articles, blog posts, videos, white papers, and e-mails. It’s also contests, polls, surveys, games, puzzles, social content, and much more.
The goals of content marketing campaigns vary widely. Some want to amaze people or make them laugh, some want to be educational, some want to be useful to people in specific situations, some want to be fun. Most are designed to be shareable, so the content spreads to larger audiences.
With all these possibilities, this is a time of crazy creativity on behalf of brands and businesses. Businesses are only now beginning to realise they can develop content and experiences that people will consume on their own free will.
Today, the leaders in content marketing are mostly national and international brands. But this is just the beginning. Content marketing will inevitably go local, because infinite bandwidth is just as much local as national or global. Local businesses will catch on as they see national players doing it.
One of the early content marketing pioneers was Australian energy drink maker Red Bull. Targeting young males, the company chose to associate the brand with intense activities and extreme sports.
Its Web site was one of the earliest examples of all-out content marketing. It was, and is, entirely focused on engaging its target audience with high-energy content and creating positive associations with the brand. The company creates and aggregates large amounts of content to entertain and amaze its customers.
More recently, BuzzFeed has been showing what’s possible when a publisher site decides to help brands and businesses do creative things with content marketing. Scan down the page looking for posts labeled “sponsored by” to see examples – some created by the brands and some created by BuzzFeed on behalf of the brands.
Just recently, Marriott International announced a big new content marketing initiative. The worldwide hotel chain has launched Marriott Traveler, a Web site designed to be a city-specific resource for travelers looking for fun and enjoyment.
In a recent report on the new venture, David Beebe, Marriott’s vice president of creative and content marketing said, “We want to provide that value first before trying to sell them something.” But clearly, selling them something is the purpose of this sizable new Marriott investment.
There’s the rub for traditional media. Many forms of content marketing are, and will be, attempts to skip around existing media and reach target customers directly. Redbull.com and Marriott Traveler aim to do just that.
But smart traditional media will realise this is actually a huge new opportunity space. Before local and regional businesses start mobilising to do content marketing, we need to step up and present them with great solutions. We can show them they don’t need to do it themselves.
A recent study reported by eMarketer.com showed that lots of brand marketers need help with content marketing. Creating the content looks to them like the hardest part, followed by lack of strategies and lack of budget.
We know how to create content, but the kind of thinking that’s needed for effective content marketing doesn’t (and shouldn’t) live in our newsrooms. We need to create separate content marketing units to figure out the creative strategies, the right content, and the best distribution channels for our local businesses.
At Morris Publishing Group, we’re moving quickly in that direction with a small skunkworks team. They’re working to figure out how we can develop a scalable solution that concentrates expertise in one place and can serve businesses across our newspaper markets.
If you’re in a traditional media company, I urge you to do the same.
Content marketing is not a fad. Advertising is now being liberated from the artificial space constraints of the pre-digital era, and it will never go back.
We need to be in the vanguard, leading local businesses in the discovery of creative new ways to engage customers in our markets.