By Joe Pulizzi published August 3, 2013

Is it Content Marketing or Clever Advertising?

oreo daily twist

Oreo Daily Twist

A few weeks back, I sat through a “content marketing” presentation, where the presenter showed a number of case studies and talked about how the brands were leveraging the power of content marketing to grow their businesses.

Unfortunately, none of the examples were actually content marketing.

CMI’s Chief Strategist Robert Rose calls these so-called examples “clever advertising.” In short, many still view content marketing as the Old Spice-style viral campaigns that are fueled by traditional media.

What content marketing really is

To qualify as content marketing, a program needs to:

  1. Be focused on attracting or retaining a targeted customer audience
  2. Share compelling, useful, and/or entertaining information
  3. Be consistently delivered.

If we deconstruct these three tenets just a bit, we start to see some patterns that distinguish the art and science of content marketing from other advertising and marketing efforts.

1. When we focus on attracting or retaining a targeted customer audience, some key concepts emerge:

  • Customers or prospects subscribe to our content through email, social, or print channels, allowing us to have an ongoing conversation with them.
  • This means subscription is the key weapon of choice for most content marketers.
  • We should not be trying to boil the ocean: Though we may have developed multiple buyer personas, a content marketing effort is most likely targeted to one strictly defined persona.
  • Goals revolve around demand generation, guiding the buyer through the purchasing process to the desired destination of customer retention and loyalty.

2. When we focus on developing compelling and useful content for our content marketing program, these key concepts emerge:

  • Content is most likely not about our products and services; rather, it is focused on information that addresses the pain points of buyers.
  • When possible, content should be entertaining in some way.
  • In many cases, the content helps customers or prospects accomplish a desired task (much like a traditional media company would do).

3. When we focus on consistently delivering the content, these key concepts emerge:

  • Content is not a one-time or campaign initiative (note: If you hear someone say “content marketing campaign,” it’s probably not content marketing).
  • Content is repeatedly delivered at reliable intervals, through a consistent channel (although it can be leveraged through additional channels, as well).

Let’s look at some examples. For each one, ask yourself if it’s really content marketing, or just a clever advertising campaign?

Dollar Shave Club’s viral video

With more than 10 million views on YouTube, Dollar Shave Club’s amazingly funny video has often been referred to as an example of content marketing:

Content marketing effort, or clever advertising campaign? In and of itself, this video is a clever advertising campaign. Why?

  • There’s no real subscription program (for the content, that is, not the razors).
  • It’s heavily focused on the brand’s core product.
  • It’s a one-time campaign effort.

Oreo Daily Twist

In celebration of its 100th anniversary, Oreo shared an original, Oreo-centric image each day (for 100 days) that marked that particular day in history. Examples included the Mars Rover Landing, Elvis Week, and Gay Pride Day. According to reports from Oreo, sales surged 25 percent, with most of the credit going to this campaign.

Content marketing effort, or clever advertising campaign? Again, the correct answer here is clever advertising. Why?

  • The campaign launched with a built-in stop date.
  • It’s heavily focused on the brand’s core product.

AMEX Open Forum

AMEX Open Forum is an educational resource for small businesses that provides operational, financial, and marketing advice. According to AMEX, the site has driven as many credit card inquiries as any other traditional marketing effort it has executed.

amex open forum

Content marketing effort, or clever advertising campaign? This one is true content marketing. Why?

  • Ninety-nine percent of the content created is not about AMEX.
  • The program has consistently delivered information every day since 2008.
  • It has kept its associated subscription program (membership to site) in play.

ShipServ Pages: The Movie

ShipServ is an electronic marketplace where buyers and sellers in the shipping industry can connect. Many marketing sites have cited ShipServ’s LEGO-based movie as a grand example of content marketing:

Content marketing effort or clever advertising campaign? That’s right, once again, it’s clever advertising. Why?

  • It’s a product pitch (though they do get extra points for incorporating the LEGO brand).
  • It’s a one-time initiative.
  • The content is not part of an ongoing subscription program.

That said, ShipServ produces and delivers an excellent video series that features its executives interviewing customers that is a content marketing effort.

One more thing

When marketers ask me why most content marketing programs fail, or tell me why they aren’t really doing content marketing, there is usually one reason (the biggest reason of all): They stopped. Most marketers still think of content as a one-time campaign, or short burst of speed.  This is not, and never will be, content marketing.

If you want short bursts of speed and attention, clever and paid advertising campaigns are the way to go. But if you are looking for better customers over the long term, consider investing in a scalable content process. Content marketing is a marathon, not a short sprint.

Have you seen any efforts that have made you question whether they are content marketing or not? If so, let us know in the comments, and we’d be happy to review them with you.

Joe Pulizzi’s latest book, “Epic Content Marketing,” will be released in September 2013. Preorder it now on

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.

Other posts by Joe Pulizzi

  • Bruce McDuffee

    Bravo Joe, I’m seeing more and more where the term “content marketing” is used to cover anything and everything around promotions. It is one of those terms where if you asked 20 marketers in a room to define “content marketing”, you would get nearly 20 definitions. As I read your latest B2B and B2C surveys, I was even questioning in my mind, “Did the surveyor provide a definition of content marketing when asking the audience if they included content marketing in their mix?” Of those 90% who say they are using content marketing, what activity are they doing that they deem content marketing? Would a clear definition change that 90% to a lower number?

    By the way, love the discussion and I hope to be able to attend Content Marketing World this year!!

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Thanks Bruce…yes, hope you can make it to Content Marketing World. Should be a blast.

      Yes, we provide a definition at the start, but you are right, it’s still a gray area. So much work to be done. 😉

  • Dani

    Great info
    There is great confusion between content marketing and advertising


  • mitchellbeer

    Joe, I really enjoyed this post, and appreciated the semantic difference between a content marketing *program* and an advertising *campaign*. I’ve been guilty of some of those dreaded “content marketing campaign” references, but you’ve got me thinking that that’s sloppy language on my part — if we don’t plan automatic stop dates for other kinds of conversations or relationships, and relationship-building is genuinely what we intend with content marketing, we do ourselves and our clients a disservice when we call that a campaign.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Thanks Mitchell…it’s an easy mistake to make. I still know of some content marketing “experts” out there that use “campaign” religiously. We will all get there one day ;). Thanks for the comment.

  • Elizabeth McGee

    Hi Joe,

    A post that’s much needed.

    Bloggers and businesses often confuse content marketing with sales letters or sales videos, and of course that’s not content marketing. Pitching a product or service directly no matter how much you emphasize the features and benefits is not content marketing.


  • Ryan King

    Great article! I’ve found the hardest people to draw this line with has been my sales teams. If you’re not clear on the purpose and intent of your content vs. a traditional advertising campaign, you set the wrong expectations for outcomes with your stakeholders. Thanks for sharing!


  • Nydia Danas

    Hi Joe,

    I love your article. I’m new to content marketing and what you said made great sense.

    But this just makes me think. Things that people do with advertising, aren’t they part of the whole content marketing scenario?


    • Joe Pulizzi

      Hi Nydia…content marketing and advertising can go hand in hand. It’s not one or the other. Content marketing can make your advertising work better…so to answer your question, absolutely. Both content marketing and advertising should be a core part of the marketer’s toolkit (my only goal here is to make sure people know the difference). Thanks!

      • Nydia

        Hi again! Thanks. I’m learning a lot from your articles and your site.

        Kind regards!

  • James Dietz

    Marketing has yet to emerge from its dingy past Joe. Every opportunity to engage with the customer is still viewed as an opportunity to sell, not engage and enlighten. The customers are slowly retaking the high ground though in finding both their voice and their attitude. I thought your examples were perfect demonstrations of how to do content marketing and how not to do it.

  • Katherine Kotaw

    Thanks, Joe, for making these Important — critical — distinctions here between clever advertising and content marketing. I expect that the varying shades of gray between the two will create ongoing confusion and debate.

    The effect, if not the intent of story-driven advertising sometimes meshes with content marketing.

    Some advertising campaigns last decades and engage generations of customers (the Trix cereal campaign comes to mind.) This does not make the Trix ads content marketing, but I’d argue that smart companies will find ways to make both ads and content marketing relevant to their customers. And they’ll make those who don’t look like silly rabbits.

  • julia

    Simply put – thanks now it all makes sense.

  • Beth Kereszturi

    Well said. The “sprint vs. marathon” comparison is one we share with customers almost daily. Its a long term goal and an ongoing marketing plan.

  • Tamar Weiss

    Hi Joe, thanks for educating everyone on this important point which is confusing to many businesses, especially with more experience in conventional marketing and advertising. I’d love to see a comparison of the ROI of advertising vs. content marketing with real examples.

  • kenny madden

    love it. also putting squeeze pages in front of content is not content marketing it’s lead bait

  • Adam Franklin

    Hi Joe,

    Thank you for clarifying the difference here between content marketing and clever advertising… and I’m pleased you’ve identified the Old Spice and Oreo ‘campaigns’ as exactly that. There’s no denying they were very effective, but you’re right, it’s not content marketing.

    PS. I’m trying to eradicate the word ‘campaign’ from our vernacular at Bluewire 😉

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Thanks Adam…keep fighting the good fight.

  • Stef Colca

    Thanks Joe. Great examples used here to drive your point home. What are your thoughts on what side “advertorials”, “sponsored content” and/or “native advertising” are on? Content marketing or clever advertising?

  • NenadSenic

    This is absolutely brilliant! And really really helpful. You gave me a lot of ammunition. 🙂 I have a question though. You write, “Content is most likely not about our products and services; rather, it is focused on information that addresses the pain points of buyers.” Is perhaps a better phrase than pain points. I am thinking of for example Lamborghini owners. I can’t imagine their award-winning magazine w/o Lamborghinis, texts about Lamborghinis, where it’s more about social status and pride of owning one. How to explain that. I know you used “most likely”. Thx, N.

  • Ben de Castella

    Some interesting points but this distinction feels a bit like Animals Farm’s ‘four legs good, two legs bad’ to me – I don’t think it’s a question of advertising Vs content marketing, they do different jobs.

    Some of the above content marketing initiatives are useful for a niche of customers with an above average interest in your brand or category, or those already considering your brand if it’s a high involvement category. However, the elephant in the room is that loyalty / engagement is not the most important objective for most brands.

    Contrary to popular myth, there is robust evidence that brands grow predominantly through penetration not loyalty: This is because the majority of people shop from a portfolio of brands and simply don’t care enough to develop an ‘ongoing conversation’ with them.

    This is why advertising has been historically so successful in building brands – it is a scalable way of influencing the mass of occasional buyers in a way that doesn’t demand too much of their attention. By contrast, the ‘content subscription’ model skews towards those who are already most interested in you.

    There’s nothing wrong with inbound content marketing as additional aid at the consideration stage, especially for higher involvement products like electronics, cars or B2B products where people are actively looking for information.

    However, I’ve yet to see an example of content marketing that is scalable enough to deliver the penetration gains required by most brands on its own. Like it or not, good advertising delivers this scale efficiently.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Hi Ben…thanks for the comment. This is not an advertising vs. content marketing post…it’s just important that marketers understand the difference. Advertising still works, just not as well as it used to. To survive, tomorrow’s brands need both to be successful.

      As for your last point, check out P&G’s HomeMadeSimple and…both excellent, scalable examples. Coca-Cola Journey is another one. But content marketing isn’t usually just a project, it’s an approach…instead of pitching, we are consistently educating and helping. I don’t know of a large brand out there that doesn’t think this is important, but yet is struggling with it at the same time.

  • Eduard Klein

    Hi Joe, you are 120% right. Most of the videos shared are clever advertising and product-focused. A very interesting fact is: from the moment you share this clever advertising in YOUR own channel, you can link the emotional effect of the video to your own channel brand. This means: (If the brand’s are not clever enough to do this) Act as a curator and use the emotional video effect for you own social channel. With this strategy you can get more fans and subscriber without the costs of producing expensive videos. And you are sure to have enough stuff to post, even when you have low content marketing budgets. #guerilla-content-marketing