By Robert Rose published July 5, 2011

What Content Marketing Is Really About

Ask any good author what their story is about and you will almost certainly not get the plot (what happens in the story) but rather the themes (what the story is about).

Take, for example, the recently released hit comedy Bridesmaids.  The story is not about the raunchy shenanigans that go into planning a wedding, but it’s about how life “moves on” with or without you, and you must take charge of it.  In fact, the climactic scene for the main character is not the big wedding, but rather an argument two of the bridesmaids have that convinces Annie (one of the bridesmaids) that she has to “fight for herself.”

So What Is Our Content Marketing About?

I’ve been working with Joe Pulizzi on a number of things for Content Marketing Institute and our consulting methodology.  One of the things we continually discuss is how to simply explain content marketing.  He’s recently been using a definition I love (even if not perfect):

“Content marketing is marketers becoming publishers; owning the media instead of renting it.  Attracting and retaining customers by creating/curating valuable, compelling and relevant content to maintain or change behavior.”

After sharing this definition at a conference, one of the participants asked Joe this excellent question:

“What is the process for developing a content marketing strategy that is most likely to create that desired change in behavior?”

This question really put things into perspective for me.

Content marketing strategy is not about placing content into a channel to drive an action.  That’s the plot.  The content marketing process is really centered on marketers becoming better storytellers.  Our jobs are to create a lasting impression with our content with the goal of maintaining or changing behavior. In fact, when people now ask me what I do for a living, I respond, “I help marketers become storytellers.”

Impressed With My Impressive Impression

Do you ever repeat a word so many times it loses meaning?

That’s the case with “impression.”  For marketers, the term “impression” is so incorrectly overused that it now merely means our message “displayed” on the page – whether or not our audience saw it. It’s simply meaningless.  But, look the word up in the dictionary:

im·pres·sion [im-presh-uhn]  noun

  1. a strong effect produced on the intellect, feelings, conscience, etc.
  2. the first and immediate effect of an experience, or perception upon the mind; sensation

I want my content marketing to make that kind of impression.  So if our goal with each piece of content marketing is to make an impression, the real question becomes this:

What Are The Themes Of Our Content Marketing?

When I created a content marketing program for a software vendor I used to work for, my content consisted mostly of thought leadership white papers.  If you read the abstracts for those white papers – you’ll get the “plot” (or bits of it anyway).

For example, one might read,  “This white paper details best practices for SEO with a Web content management solution.” But all of those are “scenes” in a bigger story that I was really trying to tell, which was how my company wanted to help you to become a better digital marketer.

One of the most popular content marketing campaigns of recent times is Blendtec’s “Will It Blend” series.  That story is not about whether the blender will actually shred whatever is put in it.  That’s the plot.

The theme of the “Will It Blend” series illustrates that the company is constantly focused on creating innovative products.   They are creating the impression that Blendtec has a culture of always testing its assumptions – and ultimately telling the story that this company builds the toughest, most durable blenders on the market.

Each piece of content in your content marketing arsenal is a “scene” and should support the theme.  What’s more, the theme should become the yardstick by which you measure every piece of content you produce:

  • What is the story really about?
  • Does this content help to move that story forward?
  • What impression will this story leave the audience with?

If you answer, “I don’t know,” then you know that content still needs work.

And, as you might expect, you can take these themes to a larger level as well.  Just as in the Star Wars series — where each movie was its own story within the larger epic structure – so too can your blog or your white paper series become “episodes” within the larger epic story that you’re telling.

So, as you put together your content marketing strategy and  start to explore the story you want to tell, ask yourself these four questions to separate what happens in your story (the plot) vs. what it’s really about (the theme):

1 .What is my story?
This is what you ultimately want to say.  This puts the “marketing” in “content marketing.”   Let’s say that XYZ company has a product that makes editing online video easier.  We want to write stories that ultimately make the user feel that XYZ makes their life easier.   Whether it’s creating, editing or sharing video (even though their product only does one of those things),  our hero makes it easy.  In short, what is our story about?  XYZ makes my life easier.

2. What is my content’s purpose?
This is your content’s real purpose, and this is the impression you want to create that aligns with your business goals.   Using the example above, what you really want to do is not only change the perception that creating, editing and sharing videos online is hard, you want to encourage more people to create video and ultimately share it.

3. Where does the movement of this piece of content come from?
This is your “plot.”  For example, let’s say we’re creating video for XYZ to tell this story  We might use 5 Tips For Creating Sharable Video to move my story along.

4. What happens in this piece?
This is your plot outline or your scenes.  Using the example above, these would be the actual 5 Steps that will make up my best practices video or the 5 Posts that will make up my blog series.

If you have answered these questions in your content to your satisfaction, let it play and see if it resonated with the audience. Remember, this is but one story in your epic.   If no one fulfills on that “call to action” or on the “impression,” you’re trying to create, then you ask yourself “what can I do better?”   In other words, if you find that you’ve created Jar Jar Binks, you don’t stop making the series. You simply write that character out of your story and evolve.  There are always sequels.

I hope you’ll join me and the rest of the CMI crew at Content Marketing World in September.  I’m actually speaking on this subject. I’ll be bringing Hollywood to Cleveland  to discuss some killer storytelling techniques  and how Homer, Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter can help us be better marketers.

My hope is that it will make an… wait for it…. impression.

Author: Robert Rose

Robert Rose is the Founder and Chief Strategy Officer of The Content Advisory - the education and advisory group of The Content Marketing Institute. As a strategist, Robert has worked with more than 500 companies including global brands such as Capital One, Dell, Ernst & Young, Hewlett Packard, and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Robert is the author of three books. His latest, Killing Marketing, with co-author Joe Pulizzi has just been released. His last book, Experiences: The 7th Era of Marketing, was called a “treatise, and a call to arms for marketers to lead business innovation in the 21st century.” You can hear Robert on his weekly podcast with co-host Joe Pulizzi, "This Old Marketing”. Robert is also an early-stage investor and advisor to a number of technology startups, serving on the advisory boards for a number of companies, such as Akoonu, DivvyHQ and Tint. Follow him on Twitter @Robert_Rose.

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  • Eleanor Pierce

    This is excellent – I’m sharing this with the team for sure.

    • Robert Rose

      That’s great…. Please let me know how it resonates with your team.

  • Davy Kestens

    Will be signing up for content marketing world!

    Davy –

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Great Davy…looking forward to seeing you there.

      • Robert Rose

        Hey Joe – do I get my gold star for the day  🙂

      • Robert Rose

        Hey Joe – do I get my gold star for the day  🙂

  • Tea Silvestre

    This was a great post, thanks Robert. I’ve also been trying to help my clients become better storytellers in smaller ways…with every piece of content they put together. Helping them understand their theme (vs their plot) will be a nice way to help them focus. 

    • Robert Rose

      Excellent…. I’m so glad it resonated with you…. I’ll be very curious to hear (seriously) how it resonates with your clients… So far, with mine, it’s been pretty exciting…  

  • jeremyhead

    Hi Robert
    In summary, marketers need to become more like journalists?

    • Robert Rose


      Maybe……  So, if I put on my Inigo Montoya hat and say –  “let me explain – no too long – let me sum up” I would say that marketers need to become better storytellers… A journalist is one *type* of storytelling – but certainly not the only one….  

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