By Doug Kessler published May 31, 2013

What’s So New About Content Marketing?

content marketingAs content marketing grows more popular than Justin Bieber, there’s one question I keep hearing from those who are innately suspicious of fads (i.e., people like me):

What’s so new about content marketing? It’s just what good marketers have always done.”

This is one of the content marketing backlash arguments that I’ve talked about here on CMI and on my company’s blog, but I think it’s worth drilling down into this one a bit further. 

Of course, the “nothing new here” brigade has a point: Content has always been an important part of many marketing plans (generally the better ones). But clearly, something unique is going on here.

Somewhere along the line, something changed to turn that “little thing we’ve always done” into this big, voracious thing that’s eating up every budget. Something had to have happened to release the beast we now know as content marketing.

So what was this catalyst? (Insert drum roll… add cymbal crash!)

The internet happened. 

And just as the internet changed old-school marketing into the data-devouring digital discipline we all practice today, it also transformed old-school content marketing into a completely new animal. And it’s this new species that everyone is getting so excited about.

What hasn’t changed 

Content marketing in the digital era still has a lot in common with “The Furrow” magazine that John Deere first published in 1895.

  • It’s still about packaging up your expertise to help your prospects do their jobs more successfully.
  • It’s still about suppressing the product-flogging urge so you can talk with prospects about things they care about.
  • Ultimately, it still puts buyers and their needs first, above the needs of the brand and its marketers.

We recognize all these traits as much in “The Furrow” of 1895 as we do in Silverpop‘s latest infographic or (shameless plug) Velocity’s own fabulous firehose of fun.

So if the internet didn’t change the fundamental aspects of content marketing, what did it change?

Pretty much everything else.

Before the internet, content was one of marketers’ sharpest arrows. Now, in the digital era (i.e., the era of the self-educating buyer), it’s got the precision and power of a nuclear weapon.

Next-generation content marketing 

Digital has changed the way we research, create, target, distribute, promote, and measure our content marketing efforts in many ways, including:

  • Research: We use search and social media to instantly research topics, as well as to survey what’s already out there.
  • Creation: Content used to be all print-based (other than what was created for in-person events). Now, most of the action is centered on digital content — like eBooks, blog posts, videos, graphics, SlideShares, Prezis, and podcasts.
  • Targeting: We use digital tools and insights to segment our messaging by categories like products, personas, buying stages, and interests — we can even narrow the audience field down to a “segment of one,” if we so choose.
  • Distribution: We’re not licking stamps anymore. Instead, we’re linking, emailing, uploading, embedding, and streaming our brand stories. And we’re no longer solely in charge of who receives our messages — or when and how they find them: Our content is being discovered via highly specific searches conducted by people we’ve never even thought about targeting. Not to mention it’s being consumed on laptops, smartphones, tablets, and even (if your last name happens to be Le Muir, Scoble, or Kawasaki) on the inside of eyeglass lenses.
  • Promotion: As marketers, we’ve gone far beyond broadcast mode: We’re sharing content on Twitter, in LinkedIn groups, in Google+ circles, and on Facebook pages. We’re using it in lead nurturing flows, drip campaigns, in triggered behavioral shots, and in dozens of other innovative ways.
  • Measurement: We immerse ourselves in the data produced in Google Analytics, marketing automation tools, and CRM dashboards. We measure everything that can be measured (and then some), and use the insight we receive to sharpen our strategies and tighten our tactics for our next efforts.

The bottom line here is that what’s being practiced today is not your grandmother’s content marketing — it’s fast, fluid, targeted, transparent, interactive, intelligent, visual, visceral, and virtual content marketing.

Before the internet:

  • Our content took months to research and produce
  • It was expensive
  • It only reached people we knew
  • It took weeks to get there
  • We never knew if it had arrived, much less got read
  • If it got shared, it was likely only among a handful of people (though we had no way of knowing that, for sure, because…)
  • We didn’t have any way to quantify what impact it made
  • Or whether it was worth the investment
  • So, content efforts were given little or no budget

Today, content marketing can be instant, low-cost, highly targeted, easily discovered, cheaply distributed, widely promoted, and tracked to within an inch of its life. We can monitor each piece from ideation all the way to revenue, and quantify the returns with a measure of certainty.

What used to seem like a pretty good idea is now being recognized as the indispensable core of most marketing programs. The internet made that happen, and now it’s up to us to keep it moving forward.

And that, my friends, is what’s so new about content marketing.

For more insight on the past, present, and future of content marketing, register to attend Content Marketing World 2013, taking place on September 9 – 11 in Cleveland, Ohio.

Cover image via Bigstock

Author: Doug Kessler

Doug Kessler is co-founder and creative director of Velocity, the London-based B2B marketing agency. He helps clients tell great stories, then drive those stories into the market using content marketing. Doug wrote Velocity's 'The B2B Content Marketing Workbook' and 'The B2B Marketing Manifesto'. Doug is also an instructor for the Content Marketing Institute Online Training and Certification program. You can follow Doug on Twitter at @dougkessler.

Other posts by Doug Kessler

  • Savvy, Inc.

    Hi Doug. Good post. I wrote something similar on my blog awhile back (http://savypr.co/12lVWPb). It’s amazing that what’s old becomes new again, with an assist from the web. http://

    • http://twitter.com/dougkessler dougkessler

      Hi Dennis. Excellent post – I wouldn’t have had to write mine if I’d read it!
      You got there before me (and nailed it).

      • Savvy, Inc.

        Ha. Great minds…..Thanks.

  • http://www.conversionation.net/ J-P De Clerck

    We’re all feeling the same frustrations. It’s also new to have to write about the fact that it’s not new, I know ;)

  • Matthew

    I think what bothers many of the “old-school” critics of content marketing, the naysayers who keep telling us that it isn’t new, is the egalitarian nature of modern content marketing. Sure we had content marketing pre-Internet. But it was controlled by a handful of companies and advertising agencies who had the resources to implement expensive marketing campaigns using traditional media. Now with the Internet, anyone can be successful at content marketing with some creativity and a bit of effort. I think that drives some of the old guard crazy. They see high schoolers having more success with their YouTube campaign then they are using traditional media.

    • http://twitter.com/dougkessler dougkessler

      Yeah, the old gatekeepers don’t like losing power. It’s fun to be a part of a revolution without the blood.

    • http://www.drdeadline.com/ Rick Clark

      High schoolers having more success on YouTube? With their campaign? Campaign for what? Their client is who again? This makes no sense at all.

  • http://tommangan.net/ Tom Mangan

    It’s important add we are only a few pages into the first chapter of the first book on how to use all this data that content generates.

    To date, data has generated the “more is better” ethos that is filling the Web with disposable, forgettable junk. We’ll know the New Era has really arrived when the big media sites start measuring something other than page views to determine their value.

    And it may be a matter of “what works” bubbling up from the marketing side to tell the content people outside of marketing how to build engaging traffic that drives revenue.

    • http://twitter.com/dougkessler dougkessler

      Good points, Tom. I explore similar ideas in a recent Slideshare called ‘Crap’.

      The Deluge is upon us.

      I hadn’t thought about marketers leading the ‘what works’ frontier. But why not? We’re the ones measuring content and its impacts in detail (or should be).

  • Julie Miller

    Great insight! You’re right, the idea of “Content Marketing” isn’t new in itself, but the process by which we develop, promote, and measure our content marketing efforts has significantly changed, and improved. Thanks for posting.

    • http://twitter.com/dougkessler dougkessler

      Thanks, Julie. Mark Twain said something like, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” I like that.

  • Susan Hopp

    Really enjoyed this post, Doug! I think what’s interesting, too, is how marketers must adapt in the “new content marketing” – like pushing the boundaries of where content shows up (and how it shows up) while having nimble control over it, like understanding the direct ROI connection between content and lead generation and leveraging content accordingly, and of course staying open to the innovation that is occurring to help…

    • http://twitter.com/dougkessler dougkessler

      Thanks, Susan. I agree: it’s way more fun to adapt to change than to come to work every day to the same old thing.

      I’ve enjoyed the last five years of my career more than any before. And look forward to the next five with the same excitement.

      • Susan Hopp

        Doug – speaking of excitement…we’d love to give you a tour of PaperShare – our platform puts content at the center of marketing and our customers tell us nobody is doing what we are doing to connect content to audience to lead gen. It would be interesting to get your take…

  • Mark H

    Good article. The only thing I take exception to is what content marketing “used to” be like before the Internet. I don’t know about you, but I was running Broadcast PR firms for eleven years. Creating content and earning editorial coverage that delivered millions of viewers with turnarounds as short as one week and ample tracking from Nielsen.

    What excites me now are webinars. Most powerful content platform ever. Check out my blog for insights at webinaroi dot com.

    • http://twitter.com/dougkessler dougkessler

      Good point, Mark. Some pre-digital content marketing may have been more agile and trackable than others. But the Internet makes it all dramatically more so.

      And the old-school Broadcast PR model relied heavily on the gatekeepers of broadcast. Today, I can get a video on YouTube in 90 seconds and it will earn the viewers it deserves: somewhere between zero and 200 million!

  • http://www.ronvanpeursem.com/ Ron VanPeursem

    Hey, Doug;
    Thanks for a very helpful article. I don’t have the “pre-internet” or “old school” experience. I’ve only been in marketing during these years when content marketing has been truly dominating the conversation out there.
    So the thing I find so helpful is that, inside of DIGITAL marketing, we’re all seeing that, like you said, what once was seen as “important” is now being clearly seen as “essential”.
    Some of us who don’t know the “old school” well enough MIGHT (at times) over-play the “kingship of content marketing”. It just feels SO DIFFERENT from the SEO-dominated discussions of a few years back, that I think we feel justified in blowing the content marketing bugle (and so, at times, give the impression that the very first content marketing efforts began in the last few years! Sorry.).
    This is why your article is helpful: you show the CONTINUITY of content marketing ever since “The Furrow”, but also the NEW THING that content marketing is becoming.
    Thanks!

    • http://twitter.com/dougkessler dougkessler

      Being an old fart myself I hadn’t even thought about how digital natives would see content marketing as new — compared with first-generation digital, SEO and social media marketing. Thanks for that, Ron.

      • http://www.ronvanpeursem.com/ Ron VanPeursem

        Doug, I’m an old guy myself; but it was a mid-life career change that got me into the game right in the middle of the (digital) content marketing surge.
        (Didn’t want you to think I was one of the new, young, sharp, hip guys out there!)

  • http://www.franchise-info.ca michael_webster

    Doug writes:

    Our content took months to research and produce

    It was expensive

    It only reached people we knew

    It took weeks to get there

    We never knew if it had arrived, much less got read

    If it got shared, it was likely only among a handful of people (though we had no way of knowing that, for sure, because…)

    We didn’t have any way to quantify what impact it made

    Or whether it was worth the investment

    So, content efforts were given little or no budget”

    Most of this is still true, whether the medium is print or digital.

    We could fool ourselves into thinking that the digital delivery of marketing messages has made a fundamental impact in the psychology of sales – but, we would be fooling ourselves.

    Ten years of a new technology is not going to alter the basic avenues/methods of persuasion built into the human psyche. (Although, we constantly hear about new revolutions in marketing -about every 7 years!)

    One difference that the web technologies residing on the interent have made is this: virtually anything written, spoken, taped, or filmed can be turned into a marketing piece.

  • Naomi Garnice

    Thanks for sharing, Doug. I think what’s really new here is the change in SEO and how people are finding the content.

  • Bob Bly

    I have been doing content marketing since 1980, only we didn’t call it content marketing; we called it “free information.” It is not new at all.

  • http://www.brittanybotti.com/ Brittany Botti

    I like your comparison between old and new forms of content marketing. It’s a tried and true method, digital just makes it more efficient, measurable, and cost effective for businesses.