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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