Marketers now understand content-first thinking is an important alternative to advertising’s established interruptive approach.
Beginning with the cultural interests of consumers and bridging back from there to commerce is a very attractive proposition.
This explains why content continues to make the headlines. From Harper’s Bazaar featuring Samsung branded content to Martin Sorrell, Snapchat and the Mail launching digital content agency TrufflePig during Cannes, content is a term that’s here to stay.
And although YouTube’s recent tenth birthday shows how content marketing has become far more sophisticated than posting a video online and praying it goes viral, as an industry we still struggle to clearly articulate what content actually means.
Arguably, content is the most overused but misunderstood buzzword in contemporary marketing. It’s become a catch-all term that alludes to everything and nothing, and on its own is too woolly and lofty to hold all the complexities that are contained within.
It’s high time we put some solid definitions in place. After all, how can we be expected to understand content’s purpose if we can’t even explain its meaning?
I think about content by breaking it down into three parts: conversion content; campaign content and publishing content. Each playing a pivotal role in bridging from culture back to commerce.
1. Conversion content
Conversion content is often the first area of content marketing that clients are comfortable with. It’s the evergreen content that matches mind-sets at different stages of a consumer journey to help drive discovery of information about products and services, with the ultimate aim of guiding them to a sale.
And it’s attractive because it can be more tangibly measured through sales data.
But to settle for a singular conversion content approach is to ignore the fact that often brands do not feature in consumer culture until a need arises.
So how can we begin the journey to commerce by building awareness and affinity in culture?
2. Campaign content
This points to the fact that we need a second category: campaign content. The closest thing to advertising, campaign content sits squarely in culture and drives towards conversion content.
Although campaign content is limited in that it relies on creating peaks of culturally relevant content that are ultimately short-lived, these spikes can be maximized through intelligent seeding, content syndication and native placement, or even the higher risk route of spectacle (Red Bull Stratos, anyone?).
3. Publishing content
Campaign content also drives consumers to a third type of content; something I think of as publishing content.
This type places primacy on owned channels and requires marketers to think and behave like a publisher.
Often this will be called brand publishing, but it’s a misnomer. Contrary to other types of publishing, like magazine publishing, the output is merely a conduit to the end product – a product sale – and not the end product itself.
Marketers can use publishing content to build audiences around brand-relevant cultural interests that can be used as always-on consideration-driving runways into conversion content.
But when creating large swathes of this type of content, authenticity is key. As Vice’s cofounder and CEO Shane Smith says, digital natives possess "the most sophisticated bullshit detectors on earth".
I’m not suggesting that this is the only way to make sense of the content marketing landscape, but in the absence of standardised descriptors, I’ve found this three-pronged approach useful when framing discussions with clients and contemporaries alike.
There’s still an opportunity for a more standardised and helpful terminology, because it’s only once the industry has some agreed definitions that we will be better able to understand the all-encompassing term "content".
And a better understanding of this crucial marketing approach can only lead to better results.
Harvey Cossell is strategy director at Adjust Your Set