Content marketing: Cutting through the confusion to achieve contentment

Content marketing guru Justin Kirby, the force behind BOBCM, believes that to master this powerful tool, practitioners must fully understand it.

When it comes to content marketing, definitions matter – because they are the key to a crucial, yet often missing, ingredient in this rapidly evolving space: efficacy.

This critical message is at the heart of Justin Kirby’s mission to bring into focus an otherwise blurred picture of a sector responsible for a spend that PQ Media puts at a breathtaking $144bn globally.

“You can’t manage what you can’t measure – but you can’t measure what you haven’t defined or conceptualised properly, because what is it that you are then measuring?” he says.

“There is a danger that, given that all marketing is becoming increasingly based around content, simply sticking the term ‘content’ in front of ‘marketing’ becomes meaningless: how does that differentiate it from any other marketing that uses content?”

Kirby – the highly experienced VP of strategic content marketing at Tenthwave Digital, and the force behind the Best of Branded Content Marketing (BOBCM) publications and events – has given serious thought to what “content marketing” is as this space morphs and blurs.

A lecturer at the University of Arts London, he points out that terminology routinely deployed in the brand-funded content space has the potential for obstructing, rather than aiding, progress – and there may even be a case for dumping it.

“Even the specialists are in danger of becoming confused because people use terms interchangeably – branded content, content marketing, ad-funded content etc. There is a need to be clearer because it is not clear what people are exactly referring to, unlike many terms employed in more traditional disciplines like advertising, PR, direct marketing and even social media.”

To cut through the confusion, Kirby boils things down to three basic approaches in use today to shape marketing through content.

The first is what advertising award shows call the branded content and entertainment category, where advertising and entertainment collide. A second approach might better be described as “brand-publishing” because it refers to the more editorially-oriented content traditionally created by journalists, PR, or contract publishers.

“In both these spaces there’s a question mark: who is best suited to telling your story? Is it advertising agencies, which traditionally have been the experts at condensing a story into 30 seconds? In the brand publishing space, is it the people who are good at crafting stories, whether it is journalistic or more literary, or is it the people who are good at driving response?”

A third and far more nebulous approach – and one which appears increasingly innovative – refers to overall customer experience. This can embrace anything from experiential marketing to content that customers themselves share socially – taking photos of your dish at a restaurant and posting it on social media, for example. Here, brand perceptions can be shaped by many factors, not least the people a brand hires and their skill at connecting with customers.

In all three senses, Kirby says, Britain has a mixed record of achievement. “There are some interesting bits of work coming out of the UK and some of it is exceptional – but it isn’t consistently as exceptional as other countries like the US. I see some occasional examples of really great work, but often they feel like clever advertising rather than great content.”

Reasons for this include the high status retained by advertising agencies, despite the growth of digital and social – they are still considered the guardians of a brand – and the fact that the UK simply does not boast the huge global brands that can be found elsewhere.

Kirby’s conclusions lie at the heart of how he curates the BOBCM publications and events to help showcase what is going on around the world: his aim is to inspire UK content marketers.

But definitions aside, he believes that ultimately the effectiveness of content marketing will always be determined by its ability to tell a story – and offers valuable words of advice for entrepreneurs: “The starting point for companies is that they should always think about how they get their story straight: What is your story? What are you about? Why should people care?

“A mistake people often make is that they start straight at the execution level and, even if they think cleverly about how that content may resonate emotionally, test that and have some integrated thoughts about creating a kind of hero-type big-culture moment through content.

“But they need to start right at the very beginning by asking: What is the ontology and worthy existence of their organisation, and what does that mean to people who might buy from it?”