Blurred Lines: The Difference Between Content and Content Marketing

Content versus Content Marketing

Content is king! Or is content marketing king? Perhaps content marketing is the king’s men who shoot arrows and run errands?

Content isn’t marketing. Right? But content marketing is marketing. What types of advertising content can truly be considered content marketing? The lines are all getting more than a little blurred, so let’s end this debate around content and content marketing once and for all. Or at least, let’s try…

Michael Brenner recently provided an analysis (and did a fine job) tackling these complicated—and overly simplified—terms and translations. Brenner contends that the answer is in the destination used to build an audience and defines content marketing as a strategic approach to attracting an audience to a brand-owned—or earned—destination or experience. We would have to agree. But now it’s time to get more granular in identifying the key differences between content and content marketing.

Defining Content

Let’s start by looking at content. (Note: We’ll focus on online content to avoid the ambiguity that surrounds the broader term.) Online content can take many forms and can be classified simply as information filling space on a page, or in a greater sense, information intended for consumption. Here are some common examples of online content:

  • Online advertising
  • Blogs
  • Articles
  • Product and services content
  • Press releases
  • Photos and Videos
  • Webinars
  • Social posts
  • PDFs
  • Email & Email Newsletters
  • Infographics
  • eBooks
  • Podcasts
  • GIFs
  • MEMES! Who doesn’t love a good meme?
  • & much, much more

As Brenner points out, content is everywhere. And according to some definitions, it’s almost every thing. Brand content is typically created to support and promote products or services, rather than deliver value to current or potential customers.

Enter: Content marketing.

Defining Content Marketing

Content marketing, at its core, is a strategic solution to a strategic problem. And that problem usually involves a consumer’s lack of valuable information—likely to no fault of their own. Instead of bombarding people with pitch-filled content, content marketing aims to deliver desired information which influences consumer knowledge, and spurs informed decisions.

We assume your target consumer has questions about your products and services. Who better than you to provide the answers? When valuable information is delivered consistently, companies can provide real value and build native brand affinity. And ultimately, influence buying behavior.

All the Marketing

To marketing legend Seth Godin, content marketing is nothing more than “all the marketing that’s left.” This sentiment accurately conveys its value. To point out further differences between content and its marketing cousin, we need a proper definition of content marketing. It certainly has its share of definitions.

We’ll start with Content Marketing Institute founder Joe Puluzzi’s definition, which appears in CMI’s biblically important article defining content marketing. It remains the core definition. Until a better definition emerges, we’re sticking to it.

“Content marketing is a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly-defined audience — and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.”

Rebecca Lieb of Conglomotron takes the Content Marketing definition even further.

“It isn’t advertising. It isn’t push marketing, in which messages are sprayed out at groups of consumers. Rather, it’s a pull strategy—it’s the marketing of attraction. It’s being there when consumers need you and seek you out with relevant, educational, helpful, compelling, engaging, and sometimes entertaining information.”

This explanation is music to the ears, especially the final point. Many marketers and content creators get caught in the habit of dishing out entertainment disguised as useful information. We are all guilty. Entertainment is an easy sell to a client. Selling it to a potential customer is a different story.

Earn the Attention, Own the Destination

content car

Content is a packed car with no owner sitting on blocks in a vacant lot. Anyone can buy space, create content, drive it somewhere, and abandon it. Content marketing is the process and strategy of how and where it’s delivered.

Content marketing is the art of communicating with people in empowering ways.  Content marketing provides an experience and owns the destination. If you’re taking a potential customer on the road, you must earn their trust with value and honesty. As their guide, it’s your job to educate them about the landscape (and your place in it) or they’ll find another ride. You must earn their attention.

Content is a pit stop. Content marketing is a journey. So make sure it’s a meaningful ride, full of valuable memories and free of traffic jams.

You’re going to need some wheels.

Changing Definitions

As you can see, content marketing is many things to many people. To us, it’s about anticipating questions and providing the right answers. Content is a thing, plain and simple. Content marketing is a strategic approach focused on creating, distributing, and promoting valuable content to attract, empower, and retain a highly targeted audience.

It’s proactive marketing intended to identify customer needs, and solve real life problems.

It’s educating before selling; sharing before telling.

And, most of all, helping before asking for something in return—if at all. It is about communicating to customers and prospects without interrupting them.

As we enter what many believe to be a post-digital world, the definitions will continue to change. And if content marketing continues to grow like we all know it will, it will be crowned king. Then, we can all go play in the moat, content and free.

On the Horizon

Technology has adapted faster than human behavior. Now, when people go to make a purchase, they rely on technology to guide them to a decision. Not only do they consult with friends; they read reviews, visit sites, and search for answers that validate their decisions.

The desire to make educated purchasing decisions has never been greater. In the broadcast era, active deception was greatly successful. It led to passive, knowledge-free purchasing. Now, in the social—or post-digital—era, education reigns supreme. Brands and marketers can no longer thrive on old world tactics.

Today, you can’t blast consumers with simple content and expect them to pay attention, let alone digest it. Truth matters. Value matters. Consumers are smarter and more skeptical than ever. This is a good thing, of course. Meaningful content, when served as part of a targeted campaign, makes all those detached and indigestible chunks of content fade to black.

And while it may ultimately guide people down the purchase path, content marketing must first educate and inform, not deceive or sell. In Brenner’s words, it’s more about “… attracting an audience to an experience (or “destination”) that you own, build, and optimize to achieve your marketing objectives.”

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