By Joe Pulizzi published December 20, 2010

Custom Publishing vs. Content Marketing

Kristina Halvorson (one of our upcoming Content Marketing World speakers) asked me the difference between custom publishing and content marketing. It’s a good question…and I soon realized that there has never been a really good post or article on it.  So, here goes.

What is Custom Publishing?

Custom publishing has been the traditional US-based term for what is now known as content marketing.

The definition, as stated by the Custom Content Council (the US association for custom publishers), custom publishing:

“… marries the marketing ambitions of a company with the information needs of its target audience. This occurs through the delivery of editorial content – via print, Internet, and other media – so intrinsically valuable that it moves the recipient’s behavior in a desired direction.”

Long-story short, custom publishing is selling your product or service by not selling, but educating or entertaining your customers through things they like or need to do.  It’s the ultimate non-sell.


John Deere’s “The Furrow” for Farmers

Custom publishing has been a viable marketing practice for centuries.  The first recognized custom publication is John Deere’s The Furrow magazine, which began in the late 1890s, helping to teach farmers better ways to be profitable.

The reason why custom publishing was adopted as the preferred term was because it was created by (wait for it), publishers. Without knowing what to call it, these (mostly magazine publishers) called it customized publishing. They needed to differentiate that business (creating assets not for the media company but for advertisers) from their core business.  From the start, custom publishing was the wrong name…because publishing is not necessarily marketing…and creating content to sell products and services is all about marketing.

Today, custom publishing is used mostly as the term and process for outsourcing the process of content marketing (see below).

“I’m hiring a custom publishing firm.”
“The agency does all my custom publishing work.”

The Move to Content Marketing

In the mid-2000s, more and more organizations started replacing the term custom publishing with the more modern term of content marketing. Why?

Simply put, many marketers were getting confused with the term “publishing” as solely print focused (not online or event driven) or even as a custom book-industry term.

Even more than that, content became a recognized marketing requirement to effectively sell goods and services. This was enabled by technology (social media, lead generation processes, search engine optimization and more). In the past, the barriers to entry to create and distribute content were high.  It was expensive to produce and distribute content (databases, as well as the print/mail process, were cost-prohibitive for most companies). Today, as we know, everyone can be a content marketer in less than five minutes. Quality of content is more important than ever.

And so, content marketing was born (personally, we started to use the term in 2001, but it really didn’t catch on until 2007).

Content marketing is a marketing technique of creating/curating and distributing relevant and valuable content to attract, acquire, and engage a clearly defined and understood target audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action.

Content marketing is now leveraged by nine out of 10 companies in North America.  Where in the past, content marketing was seen as nice to have, today it is essential (Advertising is a luxury, content is survival).

Other Variations of Content Marketing

There are a number of other terms that are used as replacements for content marketing.  Here are a few and some information on each.

  • Branded Content – very popular in the business-to-consumer side.  The problem with this phrase is that is gets confused with pure product placement.
  • Custom Media – very popular in the business-to-business side.  Many business publishers with content marketing divisions call their units “custom media” units.  So, if a media company has a content division, odds are it will be called XYC custom media.
  • Customer Media – popular term for content marketing in Holland/The Netherlands. See Customer Media Council for more.
  • Brand Journalism – also popular in The Netherlands (see comment below).
  • Customer Publishing – popular term for content marketing in the UK.  See the Association of Publishing Agencies for more.

Other names include:

Can’t We All Just Get Along

Like I’ve said from the beginning, our only goal is to bring marketers together under the same terminology – whether it’s custom publishing or content marketing. We don’t care in the long run, as long as brands start to do more of it and embrace content marketing within their organizations. Content marketing, done effectively, is a competitive advantage.

What say you?

Author: Joe Pulizzi

Joe Pulizzi is the Founder of Content Marketing Institute, a UBM company, the leading education and training organization for content marketing, which includes the largest in-person content marketing event in the world, Content Marketing World. Joe is the winner of the 2014 John Caldwell Lifetime Achievement Award from the Content Council. Joe’s the author of five books, including his latest, Killing Marketing. His third book, Epic Content Marketing was named one of “Five Must Read Business Books of 2013” by Fortune Magazine. If you ever see Joe in person, he’ll be wearing orange. Follow him on Twitter @JoePulizzi.

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  • Laura Kimball

    I come from a book publishing background, so to hear the term “custom publishing” turned into “content marketing” sounds really awkward to me. But, as you said, “custom publishing” was a term used when a company would create a custom-book for another company. It is all marketing, as any words written and shared technically are, and content marketing is a more appropriate term to describe all of the above. Nicely explained, Joe.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Thanks Laura…it used to be weird to me as well. But when marketers started to really resonate with content marketing over custom publishing…well, it was an easy decision.

      Thanks so much for your comment.

  • Louise Borglund

    Thank you for a great post Joe!

    To me, as a Swede and with a marketing background, custom publishing is an unknown term. I only know it as content marketing. When explaining it in Swedish I am actually using another term: competence marketing. Have you ever used that term?

    My experience is that people outside the marketing department find it easier to understand it in that way. Also, content marketing is hard to translate to Swedish. I either use the English term or use the Swedish words for competence marketing (kompetensmarknadsföring).

  • Wim Tjaberinga

    Hi Joe, thanks for this elucidating post. The discussion will linger on for some time, but I think you are right in stating that Content Marketing fits best the current developments in our ever developing en maturing market. At vdbj_ in the Netherlands we have come up with our own term: Brand Journalism, i.e. bonding brands and consumers/customers by means of journalistic content, irrespective of the media used. I dislike the term the often used term “customer media” because it pretends the medium is most relevant whereas I believe it is about the content. The medium is just a way to get the content accross.

    Regards, Wim

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Thanks Wim…I’m adding your brand journalism term to the above post and love your point about custom media. Absolutely.

  • simone

    Hi Joe Pulizzi. Here in Brazil, I did many searches on google to find your site with this quality of content on the theme: custom publishing. Is what we call the editorial created specifically for businesses. Around here a few years ago that this tool has to be further explored, but with the need for content sites, blogs, social networks, etc. has increased the market for journalists and professionals who provide content. Honestly, I had never heard of mkt content, but makes more sense … I’ll do a search here in Brazil, maybe I do is outdated … tks simone

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Thanks Simone…yes, content marketing is the term over here in the states now, and catching on in Europe. Keep me posted about Brazil.

  • Paul Diprizito

    I didn’t realize content marketing was so popular. Thanks for the info.