By Robert Rose published March 6, 2016

Clarifying the Noise: The Content Marketing Spectrum [Exclusive Video]


I can’t help but think about this lyric these days:

“As I walked on
Through troubled times
My spirit gets so downhearted sometimes
So where are the strong
And who are the trusted?
And where is the harmony?
Sweet harmony.

’Cause each time I feel it slippin’g away, just makes me wanna cry.
What’s so funny ’bout peace love and understanding? Ohhhh
What’s so funny ’bout peace love and understanding?”

– Nick Lowe’s (What’s So Funny A’Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding made famous by singer Elvis Costello

One of the non-harmonious things that we’re seeing a lot of these days is a separation of approaches when it comes to using content strategically for marketing purposes. Primarily, you’ve got content marketing, native advertising, and branded content. You even have terms like branded entertainment, content selling, and (I’m not even making this up) content advertising.

To be crystal clear – with the exception of this content advertising thing – all of these content-focused methods have productive uses in the business to a varying degree. But how are they related? How do you know when to use each one? Some smart people have been trying to make sense of the delineation between approaches.

Ryan Skinner, senior analyst with Forrester Research recently released a report called Don’t Confuse Media-Led and Customer-Led Content Marketing. In it, he details some of the key differences between what we would certainly call content marketing and branded content.

I’ve been talking with the wonderful Andrew Davis about this for some months, and he came up with a concept called The Content Marketing Quadrant. I think this is a really straightforward way to look at the various offshoots of content marketing. (Andrew also recorded this video to explain it.)

Davis Content Quadrangle

Andrew also recently had an interesting debate with Justin Kirby, vice president of Tenthwave and curator of Best of Branded Content Marketing, on branded content vs. content brands. Justin, who outlined his point of view and the debate here, says they both agree with the following:

(Andrew’s) not saying that content marketing is necessarily always better than other tactics, solutions, etc., only that we’re now at the stage where the term could become meaningless unless there’s an explanation about what’s different about it.

As for us at CMI, we’ve been giving the difference between these approaches some thought for a while – and communicating how they differ is a work in progress. We certainly cover these on our weekly podcast, This Old Marketing. And there is a lot of interest in this topic from our readers. Joe Pulizzi’s recent explanations (ahem, rants) about native advertising and branded content have both received a lot of traffic and interest.

The most recent iteration of this discussion is a model I call the Strategic Content Marketing Spectrum. This is a white board that resonates pretty well with our advisory clients, so I created a video to share it with you.

Instead of simply defining the often-bandied terms, I put each in the spectrum of all marketing and answer the most common questions you may grapple with such as:

Why content?

Is your content’s first purpose to bolster your brand? Or is its first purpose to deliver value, independent of your brand, to a prospect?


Click to enlarge

What is the measurable goal?

Does your content seek to generate audience and subscribers? Is it to win the business? Or is your content created to grow your customer relationships?


Click to enlarge

What approach shall you take in creating content?

This is the heart of the conversation. What’s the right approach for your business?

  • Are you building content as a product that you want to drive value and build subscribers?
  • Are you creating content to pull audience into owned media through paid promotion?
  • Are you trying to persuade your audience to make a decision?
  • Are you looking to create content that enhances the experience?


How does the creation of it differ?


Click to enlarge

There are two ends of the spectrum. Are you looking to create content as product in which the brand creates separate content brands to deliver value and ultimately build subscribers. Or, do you want to create a new product or service that expresses itself as if it were content?

What is the potential outcome for the business?


Click to enlarge

By knowing your purpose, you can better see where your content fits on the spectrum and develop the right content to help in achieving your goals and move your business forward.

While all of these questions are summarized in the graphics, you’ll find it even more helpful to take 12 minutes to watch the accompanying video where I explain as I create this spectrum and offer examples to illustrate how brands are using these terms. It’s far from perfect – but as we evolve our own understanding of how businesses can use content for business efficacy, we think the broader tent of content marketing as an approach really can cover all of these tactical uses of content. All of them have the potential to add value to the business – it’s just a matter of how.

I’d really appreciate your take on this. Does it help clarify the differences among content marketing, native advertising, and branded content? What questions do you have? Do you look at this differently?

Grow your content marketing strategic skills with the help of CMI’s Chief Strategy Officer Robert Rose. Sign up for our free weekly newsletter in which he shares his unique perspective exclusively for our subscribers.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

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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  • Jon Leland

    Fantastic! One of the best things you’ve ever done and that’s saying a lot. Thanks!

    • Robert Rose

      You’re so very kind Jon. Thank you.

  • Robert Rose

    David… thank you so much for the kind words. I truly appreciate it. And I’m so glad you’re getting something out of our shenanigans… the whiteboard app i used is called VideoScribe – for the right job it’s really a great program.

    • David DeWitt

      Thanks Robert for the info on VideoScribe. I’ll check that out today for sure. I just have to say again that you and Joe have TRANSFORMED marketing by making Content Marketing understandable and most importantly FUN for the average person like me!

      We just recently began using ScoopIt’s new Content Director platform. I’ve used ScoopIt’s Business platform for the last 2 years and it has been the driving force in helping us to get to 13K Twitter followers. Content Director utilizes the best of ScoopIt’s content curation tools and adds a robust suite of analytics. Most importantly Content Director drives content to your website as well as all of your social media platforms. It’s scheduling capabilities are good and about to get much better with Power Scheduler due out soon. We have already increased traffic by four fold in only 7 weeks!! If you and Joe want to include a review of CD in a podcast I’m happy to offer my 2 ¢.

  • Garry Mendez

    Great work, Robert. You gave me some great ammunition for describing what I do to my parents!

    I’m with a brand that publishes and I manage a site that would be plotted on the far left side of your whiteboard. We don’t do much in the other areas of content marketing, though. The measurable I’m focused on is audience but I find myself arguing that our publication needs to stay on the far left and I’m often saying no to requests to make it more promotional. I’d love to show some examples of brands who have created content across the spectrum in a cohesive way. Got any favorites you could suggest?

    • Garry Mendez

      P.S. I said that I’ve been fighting for my publication to avoid becoming too promotional or too product driven. I assumed you’d agree but tell me if you think I’m fighting the wrong fight.

      • Robert Rose

        Garry… thanks for the kind words….. The best examples I can think of across the spectrum are the ones that I use in the Video… J&J’s BabyCenter at the far left… Indium etc… And whether you’re fighting the wrong fight or not is really dependent on the goals you’ve got…

        As I said – I don’t think any of these are “Wrong” or more or less effective than the other… They just have different goals… I will say this, however, it’s VERY difficult to be successful when you change “horses” mid stream… In other words – making it MORE promotional and brand focused after it’s been less so – or making it LESS promotional or brand focused after it’s been more so is usually a quick way to ruin the experience altogether. In short – I think J&J would do themselves a disservice by NOW coming out and being over the top with the branding. And, I think Indium might have a difficult time of creating a pure content brand out of their existing blog.

  • Vanessa Vavra-Laughlin

    I disagree with the term “customer experience” for your spectrum and Davis’ quadrant. The approaches you outlined are worthy of definition and the visual is helpful, however all types of content are aspects of the customer experience, branded or unbranded, paid, earned or owned. For example, just because I haven’t driven a Lykan Hypersport does not mean I do not qualify as a customer. I have experienced the product in many ways. I only haven’t gotten where I want to be on my buying journey yet.